Holding Up the Universe

Almost a year ago, I read Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places and instantly became a fan of this wonderful author. This morning, I finished reading her latest book, Holding Up the Universe, and I must say that I have a lot of feelings about this book.

Like its predecessor, Holding Up the Universe was at once heart-warming and heart-breaking, and it was difficult for me to read at times, but for very different reasons than All the Bright Places. You see, one of the main characters in this book is a big girl, and, while I often appreciate seeing my own experiences reflected in the books I read, it can also be extremely painful. Does that mean I don’t like the book? Absolutely not. In fact, I find it incredibly moving and uplifting. I wish I were more like Libby Strout–even as an adult–and I can only hope to apply her attitude about life to my own.

Okay…before I get too bogged down in my own issues, let’s move on to this touching novel and the story of Libby Strout and Jack Masselin.

Libby Strout knows what it is to be the center of attention. It’s not necessarily a good thing. Several years ago, she was a media sensation because she had to be cut out of her house. She was known as “America’s Fattest Teen.” She received hate mail from people who thought they had the right to scorn her. None of these people knew what led her to this point, and none of them seemed to care. They judged her solely because of her weight.

Now, three years later, Libby is getting ready to rejoin the world. She’s lost over 300 pounds, and she can finally do a lot of the things that she couldn’t three years ago. Libby’s about to go back to school for the first time since the fifth grade. She’s still a big girl, but she’s comfortable with herself. She knows how far she’s come, and she wants to make the most of her time in high school. If only it were as easy as simply wanting something to happen…

Jack Masselin is one of the popular guys at school. He has a lot of friends, he’s good at sports, and he has a pretty (if sometimes mean) girlfriend. At first glance, he’s got it all. What no one realizes, though, is that Jack is dealing with prosopagnosia, also known as face-blindness. No matter who the person is, how long he’s known them, or even how much he loves them, everyone around him is a stranger. He’s done a decent job of compensating for his condition–generally by being a world-class jerk–but it’s getting harder and harder to cope with his messed up brain.

Libby and Jack probably could have avoided each other forever, but a horribly sadistic “game” brings them together. (FYI, Jack was being his jerky self to fit in with his friends, and Libby stood up for herself.) Now, they’re getting to know each other better in mandatory counseling and community service. Against all odds, the two are growing closer and trusting each other with their deepest secrets and most ardent dreams.

As Libby and Jack become friends (and maybe more), they encounter backlash at school. Mean guys and girls continue to focus on Libby’s weight, and they want her to feel as low as possible. No one gets why popular Jack Masselin would choose to hang out with Libby. After all, all they can see is that she’s fat. They don’t see what Jack sees. They don’t see that Libby is funny, confident, smart, beautiful, and she makes him feel less alone in the world.

As for Libby, she doesn’t understand why Jack sells himself so short. There’s more to him than popularity, or swagger, or even face-blindness. If only she could get him to see that.

With friends, societal expectations, and even their own issues working against them, is there any way that Libby and Jack can make a real relationship work? Has too much happened to make this possible? Or will each of them finally see that the love and acceptance they’re looking for is right in front of them?


I really didn’t want to get overly sappy in this post, but I think we can all agree that didn’t quite work out. Even though my own experiences in high school tell me that there is no possible way the popular guy ends up with the big girl, I really wanted it to work out for Libby and Jack in this book. In many ways, I got exactly what I wanted…and what my adolescent self needed.

I’m trying to mentally go back through this book to determine if there’s anything that makes it a no-no for middle grade collections. There’s some language, defiance, and alcohol/drug use, so keep that in mind before passing this book along to tween readers. Holding Up the Universe is a must-add to YA collections in school and public libraries. I’d have no problem recommending it to anyone in ninth grade and up. (Yes, I’m including adult readers in that “up.”)

To learn more about Holding Up the Universe and the fabulous Jennifer Niven, I encourage you to visit the author’s website. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. You may also want to take a look at the unspoilery book trailer below.

Ms. Niven is also the founder of Germ Magazine, an online literary/lifestyle magazine for teens and beyond. I’ve only glanced at it so far, but it looks pretty cool.

Happy reading to you all. Be safe out there.

An Ember in the Ashes

Brutal. That word sums up Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes better than a long blog post ever could. Is that going to stop me from giving you more words? No, but be prepared. This book is no happy-go-lucky stroll through a meadow. It’s dark, savage, and, at times, difficult to read.

An Ember in the Ashes–the first book in the series–is loosely based on ancient Rome, but it’s also extremely relevant to the sometimes terrifying world we live in today. When you read it, I’m confident you’ll see the parallels.

Laia lives under the thumb of the Martial Empire. Born a Scholar, Laia and her family are treated as less than human. They live in constant fear of the Masks, deadly soldiers who seek out and eliminate those who would defy the Empire.

One night, the Empire’s minions come for Laia’s brother. A vicious Mask kills Laia’s grandparents and takes her brother prisoner. Laia’s only salvation is running and hiding in the city’s catacombs. It is here that she meets up with the Resistance.

These rebels seek to end the Empire’s reign of terror, and Laia hopes that they will help to free her brother. They agree, but Laia must do something for them first–something that could put her life in more peril than ever. She must become a spy and live as the Commandant’s slave at the Blackcliff Academy, the training ground for Masks.

Elias is in his final year of Mask training. He is one step away from becoming one of the Empire’s most savage weapons…and he wants no part of it. He can’t stand everything he’s forced to do, and he hates the brutality that surrounds him. Elias has plans to desert, but those plans are put on hold when he learns that he’s meant to go along a different path, one that could lead to the freedom he’s wanted for so long. Freedom from both the Empire and his mother, the cruel Commandant of Blackcliff.

As Laia looks for a way to save her brother, Elias is attempting to find his own way to escape his destiny. The two young people meet and are immediately drawn to each other, even though they appear to be at odds. They may seem to be working at cross-purposes, but they do not yet realize just how similar their goals are.

Both Laia and Elias, in their own way, seek to thwart the Empire, and, in the end, they may just have to join forces to realize their desires…and save their own lives.


There is nothing light-hearted about An Ember in the Ashes, but I loved it just the same. It is an uncomfortable, nightmarish read, but it definitely makes a reader think. It made me reflect on the rise and fall of empires throughout history, rebellions in both reality and fiction, and what it takes to overthrow what seems to be an all-powerful regime. (Pretty easy to see how this connects to what’s happening right now, yes?)

I would recommend An Ember in the Ashes to young adult and adult audiences. In my opinion, some of the imagery is simply too brutal for younger readers. The somewhat lackadaisical reactions to rape and torture, for example, make this book (and probably the others in the series) more suited to mature readers.

Speaking of the rest of the series, book two, A Torch Against the Night, is already out. From what I understand, there will be a third book and maybe a fourth book, but I don’t know titles or release dates yet.

To learn more about An Ember in the Ashes and Sabaa Tahir, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. You may also want to take a look at the completely unspoilery book trailer below.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Volume 1: Squirrel Power

If you’ve never heard of Squirrel Girl, I strongly urge you to remedy that situation immediately! Until this weekend, I didn’t know much about this unbelievably wonderful superhero, and I’m so glad that I decided to learn more.

In Squirrel Power, the first volume of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Doreen Green, aka Squirrel Girl, is off to college. She’s attending Empire State University as a computer science major, but her crime-fighting is getting in the way of the whole college experience. What’s a girl to do, though, when robbers and assorted super villains attack her fair city? She simply has to act, and she does so with humor, wit, and, of course, squirrels.

Whether she’s going head-to-head with Kraven the Hunter, Galactus, or Whiplash, Squirrel Girl approaches each super villain with the expectation that she–and her squirrel sidekick, Tippy-Toe–will emerge victorious. Does that always involve some epic battle? Not exactly. Sometimes it simply means convincing the bad guy to use a bit of common sense or directing him to a different, less destructive goal. Sometimes, however, it means using all of the squirrel power at her disposal–and maybe some “borrowed” technology from a certain man of iron–to show her nemesis the error of his ways.

Whatever happens, the planet can count on Squirrel Girl when bad stuff goes down. Now, if only she can find some way to balance being a superhero with being a freshman in college!


I cannot say enough good things about this first volume of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. The art is lively, colorful, engaging, and fun. The writing is brilliant, witty, and totally captures the essence of this vibrant character. (Make sure to look for even more hilarity at the bottom of each page!) And I really, really hope Marvel eventually produces the “Deadpool’s Guide to Super Villains” cards that Squirrel Girl uses for reference. I would totally buy those.

Props to writer Ryan North, artist Erica Henderson, and everyone at Marvel for not making Squirrel Girl some unrealistic bombshell. We see enough of those. Squirrel Girl is athletic, muscled, and curvy, and I think someone with her build is much more likely to defeat a beefed up bad guy than a 100-pound woman with all of her business hanging out.

If you’re wondering whether or not to purchase this volume of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl for your library, I would have to give you an emphatic YES! This book/character has wide appeal and is sure to be a hit with comic book readers of all ages. I’m putting a copy in my elementary library, and I would do the same if I were in a middle school, high school, or public library. Having read and reread this first volume, I don’t think there’s anything remotely objectionable about it, and I feel confident recommending it to my students. I think you’ll feel the same.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is a serial comic book. This volume, Squirrel Power, combines books 1-4 (plus Marvel Super-Heroes 8) into one graphic novel. I recommend purchasing this volume–and any others you decide to buy–for a library or classroom because the individual comic books aren’t exactly durable and aren’t produced for multiple users.

If you decide that The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is perfect for your personal, classroom, school, or public library, there are more volumes already out and one coming soon:

  • Volume 2: Squirrel You Know It’s True
  • Volume 3: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now
  • Volume 4: I Kissed a Squirrel and I Liked It
  • Volume 5: Like I’m the Only Squirrel in the World (published April 4th)

Will all of these volumes be suitable for elementary or middle grades? I can’t say that for sure, but I will definitely be reading them to find out.

There’s also a middle-grade novel about Squirrel Girl coming soon. Shannon and Dean Hale have teamed up to write The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World, and it comes out on February 7th. I have a galley copy of this book that I’ll be posting on here soon. Stay tuned!

For more Squirrel Girl goodness, check out the Squirrel Girl Tumblr site. Enjoy!

Two Summers

I love it when I come across a book that’s different from anything I’ve read before. That’s what I got in Two Summers by Aimee Friedman.

At first glance, this book is simple contemporary YA fiction, but it’s more than that. Without getting too technical, Two Summers explores the possibility of parallel universes and how simple decisions can take us on very different paths. Could those diverging paths lead us to the same place? I guess that depends on the situation, but I enjoyed how things played out in this book, which was essentially two stories–or two summers–in one.

This is going to be a summer to remember…in more ways than one. Summer Everett, a girl for whom very little ever changes, is planning to spend the summer in France with her father. She’s both nervous and excited about this trip. As she’s about to board her flight, Summer’s phone rings, and she has to decide whether or not to answer this call.

Summer ignores her phone.

Soon she’s soaring over the Atlantic, about to spend the summer in Provence, France. She’ll get to spend some time with her father, a painter, and explore the French countryside. What could be more idyllic? Well, for starters, her father could be at the airport to pick her up. He’s not, and Summer soon learns that he’s the one who was trying to call her earlier. He’s in Berlin, and Summer is now virtually on her own in an unfamiliar country.

Summer eventually finds her way to her father’s home, and she’s met by Vivienne, a friend of her father’s, and Eloise, a girl close to Summer’s age who seems to hate her on sight. Things aren’t off to a good start, and they don’t get much better until Summer has a chance encounter with Jacques. Maybe France won’t be so bad after all.

Summer answers her phone.

Her dad wants her to postpone her trip…as she’s about to board the plane. He’s in Berlin, so what’s really the point of going to France if he won’t be there? Summer turns around and makes her way back to boring Hudsonville, New York, for the same old summer she’s always had. That’s not exactly how things work out, though.

Summer’s best friend, Ruby, is drifting away. She’s hanging out with the popular crowd and seems to resent that Summer did not leave for France. What’s Summer to do? Well, for starters, she’s taking a photography class taught by her Aunt Lydia. In this class, she’s exploring her own artistic abilities and getting to know Wren, an eccentric girl from school, and Hugh Tyson, Summer’s long-time crush. Maybe staying home this summer won’t be so bad after all.

Two Summers collide.

In both worlds, Summer is experiencing the first stirrings of love and becoming more comfortable in her own skin. What will happen, though, when a scandalous secret throws her entire life into turmoil? The people who claim to love her the most have been keeping something huge from her, something that changes everything. How can she possibly trust anyone after all is revealed? How can she move on from something so earth-shattering?

Whether in New York or France, this summer will be one that forces Summer Everett to examine her life–her relationships with family and friends, her own abilities, and what’s holding her back from grabbing what she wants. How will these two summers take her where she needs to go? Read this imaginative novel by Aimee Friedman to find out!


I fully enjoyed the concept of Two Summers. Like I said at the beginning of this post, it’s quite unlike anything I’ve read previously, and that, in and of itself, is reason enough for my enjoyment. (A lot of the time, I feel like I’m reading the same story over and over again. I didn’t get that with this book.) Throw in a bit of quantum physics and philosophy, and I’m sold. (Shout out to my book club buddy, Corey, for giving me this book. You did well!)

Two Summers, in my opinion, is a great pick for middle and high school readers. Maybe it will encourage readers of all ages to explore the world around them (and beyond) through photography and examine how the choices they make could lead them on different paths.

To learn more about Two Summers and other books by Aimee Friedman, visit the author’s website. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

The Siren

The Siren, a stand-alone novel by Kiera Cass, has been on my to-read pile for almost a year. I don’t know why I put it off for so long–especially considering how much I enjoyed Cass’ Selection series and how beautiful the cover is–but I finally made time for it over my holiday break. I intended to finish it before school started back up, but that didn’t work out. And starting back to school was so exhausting that I didn’t have the energy to do much more than fall on my face until this weekend. But I did manage to finish The Siren last night, and, while it didn’t grip me quite as much as The Selection, it was an intriguing book that took a new look at an enthralling mythical creature.

Eighty years ago, the Ocean saved Kahlen from certain death. In return, Kahlen agreed to serve the Ocean as a Siren for the next one hundred years. Along with her sisters, Kahlen used her Siren song to ensnare unsuspecting seafarers, dragging them to their deaths, feeding the Ocean the souls She needed to survive. Though Kahlen was troubled by what she had to do, she knew that she was helping the Ocean, the only mother figure she could really remember.

Now, with twenty years left in service to the Ocean, Kahlen wonders if a “normal” life is possible for her, especially when she meets Akinli, a guy that enchants her from their first encounter. Even though she can’t speak to him, they still manage to communicate and form a special friendship, one that even distance cannot dull.

Kahlen knows that holding onto Akinli is unwise–even dangerous–but she can’t let go of him. After a particularly troubling “assignment” from the Ocean, Kahlen seeks refuge with Akinli and discovers that spending every day with someone she loves is her idea of paradise. Could they possibly make a real relationship work, even with Kahlen’s commitment to the Ocean? Or will circumstances drive them apart once again? (If you answered “yes” to that last question, you were spot on.)

Although she knows she’s doing what she must, Kahlen is tortured by her separation from Akinli. With every passing day, she grows weaker, and no one, including the Ocean, seems to know why. As a Siren, Kahlen should be totally indestructable, so what could possibly be wrong with her?

Her sisters search the world over for an answer to Kahlen’s mysterious illness, but the truth could lie with the one being who claims to love Kahlen more than anything. What is the Ocean hiding, and can Kahlen convince Her to let go before it’s too late–for both Kahlen and the boy she loves?


The Siren is a somewhat convoluted love story, especially when you throw the whole my-voice-can-kill-you thing on top of it. I didn’t totally buy how quickly Kahlen and Akinli fell for each other, but that could just be my issue.

And another thing–the Ocean seemed to be the very definition of an abusive jerk, in my opinion. I’m only threatening to kill you and destroy everything you care about because I love you. Ugh. And the Sirens are still devoted to Her. I get that they didn’t have much choice–and they did call Her on her crap eventually–but really?

Aside from those issues, I did find The Siren to be an enjoyable, if sometimes aggravating, read. I would recommend it for middle grade and YA collections.

For more information on The Siren or other books by Kiera Cass, visit the author’s website, Twitter, or Facebook. You may also want to take a look at the official book trailer for The Siren below.

The Warden’s Daughter

Yesterday, Jerry Spinelli’s newest book, The Warden’s Daughter, was released. I started reading it a bit earlier (thanks to NetGalley), but I didn’t manage to finish it until last night. It took a little while for me to gain traction with this book, but I flew through the latter half after school yesterday. As I got closer to the end, I was reading through a veil of tears. I needed a good cry, and this book delivered.

Cammie O’Reilly doesn’t exactly have a normal home. She is the warden’s daughter, and she and her father live in a little apartment attached to the Hancock County Prison. A prison trustee, Eloda Pupko, takes care of Cammie, and Cammie is friendly with many of the female inmates. As much as she wishes differently, though, none of them can really take the place of the mother who died when Cammie was just a baby. Or can they?

During the summer of 1959, Cammie does whatever she can to get someone, preferably Eloda, to mother her. It doesn’t seem to be working out for her, and this just adds to Cammie’s general sense of unhappiness. Sure, she has things she enjoys–talking about American Bandstand with her friend Reggie, playing baseball, eating junk food until she’s sick, and talking to Boo Boo, one of Hancock’s most colorful prisoners–but Cammie is not really happy.

This summer, big changes are in store for Cammie, and it’s not just turning the big 1-3. A new, controversial prisoner enters Hancock’s gates. Reggie, Cammie’s best friend, becomes obsessed with fame. Cammie finds friends–and an odd sense of family–in an unlikely situation. And Cammie’s entire world is rocked by a loss that no one could have anticipated.

Cammie struggles to cope with everything happening around her, and she lashes out at those close to her. Her anger and sorrow make her reckless, and she begins doing things she never thought she would. Her life seems to be spiraling out of control, and she doesn’t know how to get back on track.

What will it take for Cammie to become truly happy? Perhaps someone who’s been looking out for her–loving her–all along will give her just the push she needs…


The Warden’s Daughter is a great piece of historical fiction that is ideal for middle grade collections. Would I place it in an elementary library? Probably not. I’m not sure that my students are developmentally ready to tackle the question of capital punishment–an issue that is addressed in this book. There are also a few other situations in the book (suicide, rebellion, smoking, etc.) that, in my humble opinion, make it more suited to a middle grade audience.

I do think that this book could start some interesting discussions on how people in prison are treated. Cammie’s father, the warden, doesn’t treat his inmates as if they are subhuman. He treats them, even those who’ve committed the most heinous crimes, with respect. That’s something very different than what I’ve seen portrayed on the news and in various other forms of media. It might be worthwhile to have readers examine Callie’s father’s mindset with how today’s prisons are run or how they are portrayed in the media. Which way is better, and how can prisons be reformed? It’s thought-provoking to say the least.

If The Warden’s Daughter sounds like your cup of tea, I encourage you to give it a read. Given that I’m not normally drawn to historical fiction, I liked it a lot. I hope you will, too.

To learn more about this book and others by Jerry Spinelli, visit the author’s website. Enjoy!

2016: Knight Reader’s Year in Review

2016_newyear_picI don’t know about you, but I’m glad 2016 is over. Sure, there were some good moments, but it felt like the universe kept delivering hit after hit. I have no idea if 2017 will be any better (probably not considering the state of American politics), but I’m going to do my part to make sure it’s not worse. For me, that includes practicing self-care, spending time with my friends and family, making a few changes for my own health and peace of mind, and sharing even more books–books that encourage readers to think beyond their own experiences–with my students and everyone who visits this blog.

I read 278 books this year, exceeding my goal of 275 books. I featured 85 books–mostly YA and middle grade novels–on this blog. Many of the books I read were children’s books–some featured on Knight Reader Junior–and others were romance novels, which I used as brain candy. In 2017, I’m planning to read at least 250 books, and I’m going to try to post on at least 100 of them here. We’ll see how that goes.

Before I get to the business of 2017, let’s take a quick look back at Knight Reader in 2016. This little blog, which is almost nine years old, had over 10,000 visitors in 2016. I wrote 86 blog posts, and my most popular post was on I Wish My Teacher Knew.

Several books stand out as my top reads this year. They’re listed below–in order of date read–with author, publication date, and genre:

If I had to pick a favorite from all of these, I’d probably go with The Serpent King. (Those of you expecting me to choose Lady Midnight, I get it. I’m actually shocked myself.)

As I examine all of the posts I wrote here in 2016, one thing really jumps out at me–the lack of diversity in my reading. In the coming year, I plan to change that. If I want my students to expand their thinking, appreciate diversity, and practice empathy and acceptance, I need to do the same.


Let’s now look to 2017. I know lots of books will come to my attention throughout the course of the year, but there are already a few books that I’m looking forward to. Here are a few due out this year (publication dates tentative):

  • Dark Side of the Rainbow (Dorothy Must Die, #0.8) by Danielle Paige – January 31st
  • King’s Cage (Red Queen, #3) by Victoria Aveyard – February 7th
  • The Last of August (Charlotte Holmes, #2) by Brittany Cavallaro – February 14th
  • Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner – March 7th
  • The End of Oz (Dorothy Must Die, #4) by Danielle Paige – March 14th
  • The Queen of Oz (Dorothy Must Die, #0.9) by Danielle Paige – March 14th
  • Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor – March 28th
  • Always and Forever, Lara Jean (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, #3) by Jenny Han – May 2nd
  • The Dark Prophecy (The Trials of Apollo, #2) by Rick Riordan – May 2nd
  • Lord of Shadows (The Dark Artifices, #2) by Cassandra Clare – May 23rd
  • Now I Rise (The Conqueror’s Saga, #2) by Kiersten White – June 27th
  • Because You Love to Hate Me: 13 Tales of Villainy by multiple authors – July 11th
  • Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo – August 29th
  • The Ship of the Dead (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, #3) by Rick Riordan – October 3rd

In addition to these new releases, I also plan to put a dent in my towering TBR pile–which includes many books that have been out for years.


Now, it’s time for me to get on with my new year. I have a family dinner in a couple of hours, the premiere of Sherlock season 4 tonight (!!!!!), and I’m back to work tomorrow. (I’m really hoping my pyromaniac neighbors cool it with the fireworks this evening. I’m a tad grumpy if I don’t get enough sleep.)

Anyhoo, thanks for visiting my little blog this year. Here’s hoping that 2017 brings us a great year in reading. Happy New Year!