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!

The Sky Is Everywhere

I became a Jandy Nelson fan about two years ago when I read the unbelievably moving I’ll Give You the Sun. (Read it. Seriously. And have lots of tissues at the ready.) I was in a weird mood this week, so I looked to one of her other books, The Sky Is Everywhere, to get me through. It worked.

I guess I needed a good cry–without resorting to cheesy holiday Hallmark movies–and The Sky Is Everywhere definitely delivered. It explored concepts like loss, grief, love, family, hope, and the power of words and music in a way that really resonated with me. I hope it will do the same for you.

Lennie Walker is going through the worst time of her life. Following the death of her older sister, Bailey, Lennie is completely adrift. She doesn’t know which way to turn, and she doesn’t know how to go on without the most important person in her world. She’s lost interest in almost everything. Her only solace comes in the form of poems she leaves on the walls, on scrap pieces of paper, all over town.

While Lennie struggles to reconnect to her life, she looks for comfort in the arms of Toby, her sister’s boyfriend. He seems to be the only person who truly understands her grief, and maybe both of them are seeking a piece of Bailey in each other. Lennie knows it’s wrong to be so wrapped up in Toby, but she can’t seem to help herself. (To be fair, neither can he.)

When a new guy enters the picture, though, Lennie’s world is once again thrown into chaos. Joe Fontaine brings sunshine into Lennie’s life for the first time in a while, and he seems to bring her back into the world of words, music, and living. She begins playing her clarinet again, talking to friends and family, and contemplating a future of her own. It’s both exhilarating and, on some level, agonizing.

A big part of Lennie feels guilty for feeling any kind of happiness when her sister is gone, and an even bigger part of her is guilty over her continued connection with Toby when she’s falling for Joe. She knows she must end whatever is happening with Toby before it destroys her relationship with Joe…but that may not be up to her.

As her romantic life flounders, Lennie must also deal with secrets her sister was keeping, her feelings on her absent mother, how she relates to her family, and even how she views herself. Who is she without Bailey? Can she find the girl she is now before she loses Joe, the boy who may just be the love of her life? It’s time for Lennie to find out.


The band geek and word nerd in me really loved the character of Lennie (even though I wanted to shake her a few times). I have a feeling a lot of readers out there may feel the same way. If nothing else, maybe Lennie’s taste in music and literature could inspire readers to explore–or at least revisit–the classics.

While I think The Sky Is Everywhere is an excellent book for teens and adults–especially music and book lovers or those who’ve ever been in love or experienced loss (doesn’t narrow it down much, does it?)–I do think it’s geared toward more mature readers. This book doesn’t shy away from what may be deemed “salty language” or frank talk of sexuality. Yes, I know that’s reality for many tweens and teens. Some mature middle grade readers may be okay with this book, but others may not. As usual, know your readers and recommend books accordingly.

If you’d like to know more about The Sky Is Everywhere and other books by Jandy Nelson, I encourage you to visit the author’s website, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.

With that, I’m going to wrap things up…which is the only wrapping I’ve managed to do. It’s Christmas Eve, and I haven’t wrapped a single gift, so I guess I’ve got work to do. So long for now, and I’ll be back in a few days. Happy holidays to you all!

A Million Ways Home

Last night, I finished one more of the 2016-17 South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominees, A Million Ways Home by Dianna Dorisi Winget. Those who know me can take one look at the book’s cover and figure out why I was a little hesitant to read this one.

That’s right. There’s a dog on the cover.

Well, I read the book anyway, and I have to admit that I’m glad I did. Though the dog plays a part in things, he’s not the major focus of the book. That honor goes to Poppy, a girl dealing with much more than any kid should be expected to handle.


After Poppy Parker’s grandmother suffers a stroke, the girl is sent to live in the North Shore Children’s Center. Poppy hates it here (with good reason), and she’s willing to do just about anything to reunite with her grandmother…even run away.

Poppy tries to make her way to the hospital to see Grandma Beth, but things quickly turn south. After a brief stop at a convenience store, Poppy becomes the sole witness to a horrible crime, an armed robbery and murder. The suspect knows her face and her name, so Poppy is placed under police protection, specifically in the home of Detective Trey Brannigan and his mother, Marti.

It doesn’t take long for Poppy to feel safe in this temporary home. She likes her caregivers, and she enjoys helping Marti at the animal shelter. She even manages to make a couple of friends–one human and one canine. Lizzie, the human, is a girl with troubles of her own. Gunner, the canine, is a beautiful German Shepherd who isn’t all that different from Lizzie. Both of them need someone to love them and be patient with them, and that person is Poppy.

Even with all these positives, though, Poppy longs for things to go back to the way they used to be. She wants her grandmother to get better. She wants to go back to their apartment and not have all these worries weighing on her. Surely, life can one day be normal again for Poppy and and her grandmother.

Unfortunately, things aren’t so simple. There’s still the matter of a dangerous criminal on the loose and looking for Poppy. Also, Grandma Beth isn’t recovering like Poppy hoped she would. Things are looking bleak, and Poppy doesn’t know what to do.

Will Poppy ever be able to return home? Will her grandmother get better? Will the police ever catch the guy putting Poppy in danger? And what will happen with Lizzie and Gunner?

Learn how Poppy navigates through the waters of uncertainty, friendship, grief, and love to find her way home when you read A Million Ways Home by Dianna Dorisi Winget.


A Million Ways Home is a quick, moving, and entertaining read that is sure to appeal to upper elementary and middle grade readers. Readers will empathize with Poppy and wonder what they would do if placed in similar situations.

If I had one complaint about the book, it would be that it is too “busy.” There’s already a lot going on in this book–Poppy’s reluctance to go back to the children’s center, her encounter with a criminal, Grandma Beth’s illness, Gunner’s fate, Lizzie’s problems, etc. Adding revelations about Poppy’s parents, Trey’s regrets, and even Lizzie’s issues with her dad, in my opinion, muddy the waters a bit and make the narrative confusing at times. I understand why the author included these details, but I didn’t feel like they contributed a great deal to the story as a whole. Just my two cents.

My issues aside, I do think my students will enjoy A Million Ways Home, and I’m happy it’s on next year’s SCCBA list. Now, I get to figure out how to sum up this book in a minute-long book trailer to help me with promoting it! (Check my library’s YouTube channel later to see what I come up with.)

For more information on A Million Ways Home and other books by Dianna Dorisi Winget, visit the author’s website.

Happy reading!

The Last Time We Say Goodbye

On Monday, the latest nominees for the South Carolina Book Award program were announced. For the first time in probably ten years, I had not read any of the books listed in the Young Adult category. (I may work in an elementary school now, but I still love YA literature…as you may have noticed.)

Anyway, I knew I needed to correct that situation immediately, so I asked a friend which of the YA nominees I should read first. Her recommendation was Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. Unfortunately, that book was unavailable through Overdrive, so I had to move on to another one. (Luckily for me, Red Queen became available fairly quickly, so that’s my next SCYABA read.) Since I couldn’t immediately dive into Red Queen, I chose to read The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand. I’d read her Unearthly trilogy (Unearthly, Hallowed, and Boundless) and enjoyed it, so I trusted that I would like this book as well. I was right…again.

The Last Time We Say Goodbye is not what I would call an “easy” read. The subject matter–suicide and those left behind–is tough to read about. It’s even tougher if one’s life has been touched by suicide. That being said, I feel this is an important book for allowing readers to explore a tough topic…and to know that they are not alone.

Lex thought she knew the path her life was on. She was happy, excelling in school, and hoping to get into MIT. She had good friends and a great boyfriend who really understood her. Sure, things were tense at home since her dad left, but she, her mom, and her brother would get through that eventually. Things were okay.

And then everything changed. From one moment to the next, Lex’s entire world was turned upside down.

When her brother Ty ended his life, Lex didn’t know what to do with herself. How could she ever be happy again when her brother would never be able to? How could she look forward to her future when Ty wouldn’t have one?

As the weeks and months pass, Lex searches for her new normal. She’s forgotten what it feels like to be happy. She’s lost touch with her friends and ended things with her boyfriend. Her grades are beginning to slip. She worries about her mother, and she can’t even deal with her father. Moving on from this tragedy doesn’t seem to be an option.

Lex reluctantly talks to her therapist who suggests she keep a journal. Through writing, Lex begins to explore her relationship with her brother, what may have led to his decision, and her own guilt over not being there when Ty needed her. Could she have done something to stop him? Lex doesn’t know, but the guilt–and the feeling that Ty is still around somehow–are driving her crazy.

If Lex has any hope of moving on and being happy again–whatever that looks like–she knows she must face everything that happened the night Ty died, all of the events that may have led up to it, and the horrible fallout. She has to confront her parents about their actions as well as come to terms with her own. It’s the only way she can possibly have any real peace.

Will Lex’s efforts be enough, or will she forever be haunted by the ghost of her brother? Find out when you read The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand.


The Last Time We Say Goodbye is sure to be popular with fans of Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, The Fall by James Preller, or I Was Here by Gayle Forman. It’s a great book dealing with a difficult subject, and it may be just what someone needs to get through a tough time.

I don’t know that I would recommend The Last Time We Say Goodbye to all middle grade readers, but some may be able to handle it. Use your best judgement when putting this book in young hands, but keep in mind that kids–yes, even those in middle school–have been touched by suicide. A book like this one may be what they need. Trust me on this.

For more information on The Last Time We Say Goodbye, check out author Cynthia Hand’s website. You can also connect with the author on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Finally, if you or anyone you know is contemplating suicide, please get help. Talk to someone–a parent, a friend, a guidance counselor, a librarian, a religious leader, someone. Go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or It Get’s Better. You’re not alone.

Angels Twice Descending

If you are not totally caught up with all things Shadowhunter, go no further. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, that should tell you something. Stop right now, go to your nearest library or bookstore, and read everything Cassandra Clare has ever written. Start with City of Bones.)

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s proceed, shall we?

Last night, I read Angels Twice Descending, the tenth and final installment in Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy, a collection of short stories centered on Simon Lewis, his struggle to restore his memories, and his journey toward becoming a Shadowhunter. This last novella focuses on Simon’s Ascension, and, while I was expecting something big to happen, I wasn’t totally prepared for how hard it would hit me. (After reading so many of these stories, one would think I’d know better. One would be wrong.)

Simon and his fellow Academy students are getting ready to finally enter the world of the Nephilim. For mundanes like Simon, this means going through the Ascension ceremony and drinking from the Mortal Cup. After two years of grueling work, it should be a no-brainer on whether or not to go through with this final step…except for the whole “drinking from the cup could kill you” thing.

After one of the mundane students decides not to Ascend, Simon is forced to reflect on his own feelings. Does he truly want to become a Shadowhunter? Who is he doing all this for? Will he get his memories back once he Ascends? If he does, what could that mean for the person he is now? How will he deal with never seeing his mom or sister again? And what if the worst happens? What if he doesn’t have what it takes to be a Shadowhunter and drinking from the Mortal Cup destroys him?

In the end, Simon follows his heart and decides to become a Shadowhunter. But the Ascension ceremony is not without its heartbreak. One of the Academy students does not survive the process, and Simon is once again faced with the question, “Is it worth it?”

_______________

I can’t go any further here without some major spoilers. (I already feel like I’ve written too much.) It’s enough to say that I cried…a lot.

Now that we have all ten of the Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy stories, we also have the full picture formed by the covers. Check it out:

shadowhunter academy

As for when the entire volume of stories will be released in print, I’m not sure. From what I’ve heard, it will be sometime in 2016.

So, where do we go from here?

The next Shadowhunter story is the full-length novel Lady Midnight, due out on March 8th. This begins the Dark Artifices storyline and centers on Julian Blackthorn and Emma Carstairs at the Los Angeles Institute. We also have the new TV series to look forward to, and that starts on Freeform (aka ABC Family) on January 12th.

If you, like me, still want more Shadowhunter goodness, click here for the official TV series website and here for the novels’ website.

Enjoy!

Summer of the Gypsy Moths

My latest read, Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker, is another nominee for the 2014-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t all that enthused about reading this book. I didn’t want to read one more book where kids take on too much responsibility because the adults in their lives have–in one way or another–abandoned them. (I kind of got my fill of that when I read Keeping Safe the Stars, another SCCBA nominee.) But, since I do promote all twenty SCCBA nominees, I plowed through, and, while Summer of the Gypsy Moths is not exactly my favorite book on the nominee list, I can say it was a good book, and I know many young readers will enjoy it.

While Stella’s flighty mother is drifting from one town to the next, Stella is sent to live with her Great Aunt Louise on Cape Cod. Even though Louise is kind of grumpy sometimes, Stella likes living with her. Louise keeps things nice, neat, and orderly, something Stella’s mom never did. Stella has high hopes that her mom will eventually settle in Cape Cod with her and Louise, and they’ll be a happy family.

One obstacle to that “happy family” scenario–along with Stella’s mom’s lack of reliability–may be Angel, a foster kid who’s also living with Louise. Angel and Stella are like oil and water, and they seem to work best when they stay far away from each other. Fate, however, seems to have other ideas.

When the girls discover that Louise has suddenly passed away, they must work together to decide what to do. Neither girl wants to go into group homes or anything like that, so they do the only thing they can think of. They keep Louise’s death a secret. They make up plausible excuses for Louise’s absence. They take care of the vacation cottages that Louise was responsible for. Stella takes comfort in cleaning, gardening, and keeping Louise’s prize blueberries alive. Both girls do what they must to survive as long as they can. It’s not easy, but Stella and Angel think they have no other choice. They must learn to rely on each other.

Both Stella and Angel have taken on more than any two kids should, but their predicament is bringing them closer together. They’re communicating, working together, and learning more about each other. They each have their own ways of coping with this horrible situation, and they’re doing the best they can.

But what happens when the secrecy finally becomes too much? When the truth is revealed, what will it mean for Stella, Angel, and their future? Will they find the sense of family and home they so desperately need? Will someone finally take care of them? Find out when you read Summer of the Gypsy Moths, a 14-15 South Carolina Book Award nominee by Sara Pennypacker!

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I think many of my students will draw parallels between Summer of the Gypsy Moths and Keeping Safe the Stars, and that’s a good thing. The two books have different settings and circumstances, but the struggles that the characters experience in each book are very similar. In both books, young children take on way too much in order to avoid being taken away from their homes. I look forward to conversations about the similarities and differences in how each character handles certain situations and what young readers may have done differently.

That being said…

*Spoilers ahead!*

One big issue I had with this book was the neatness of the ending–and how long the main characters got away with deceiving everyone around them. I mean, two girls hide a dead body, bury it in the backyard, and live on their own for nearly two months, and everything essentially works out fine for them! I know it’s fiction, and one can expect a fairly happy ending in a book written for upper elementary and middle grade readers, but this seemed very unrealistic to me. Like many other books I’ve read this summer, the responsible adult in me (don’t laugh) cringes at the entire premise of this book. I’m sure many of my students will be intrigued by the plot–and I know they are the target audience–but Summer of the Gypsy Moths just wasn’t for me.

If you’d like more information about this book and acclaimed author Sara Pennypacker, visit her website. And let me know if you have a different take on Summer of the Gypsy Moths. Maybe you’re seeing something that I missed!

Torn Away

Sometimes books (and movies, TV shows, songs, commercials, etc.) make me emotional. I can usually shed a few tears and move on with my life. There are a few books, however, that turn me into someone even I don’t recognize. I cry so hard that I can’t catch my breath, I get so angry that I want to hit things, and I’m so exhausted by the whole experience that I have to take a very long nap to recuperate. I read one of those books this weekend. It was Torn Away by Jennifer Brown. This book put me through the wringer, and, despite today’s three-hour nap, I’m still emotionally exhausted from the experience.

Torn Away tells the story of Jersey Cameron. Jersey is finishing up her junior year in high school in Elizabeth, Missouri, and, like many teen girls, she’s focused on her own life. She rolls her eyes when her mom tells her to do chores, and she doesn’t want to be bothered by her little sister, Marin. All she wants is to be left alone.

When the tornado sirens sound one evening, Jersey is home alone waiting for her mom and sister to return from dance class. At first, she’s sure that things aren’t that bad outside. They’ve heard the sirens before, and nothing has happened. Unfortunately, that is not the case on this fateful night. A massive tornado is heading right for Jersey’s town, and it won’t just rip buildings to shreds. No, it will destroy Jersey’s entire world. Jersey wanted to be left alone before. Now, she has no choice.

The disaster that leveled Jersey’s home also took her mother and sister, and her stepfather can’t deal with Jersey’s pain on top of his own. He sends Jersey to live with her father and paternal grandparents, people she’s never met, and her already tragic situation is made even worse. Jersey lives in a constant state of fear, she has no one to lean on, and the people who should be there for her want nothing to do with her. In fact, they make it known that she’s not welcome, and they’re only taking her in because they think they have to.

Jersey can’t take living with her father and his loathsome family, so she does the only thing she can think of. She runs away. Jersey hopes that she’ll be able to stay with friends or even her stepfather back in Elizabeth, but, yet again, she’s sent to live with more relatives she’s never met. This time, she’s staying with her maternal grandparents, the same people who disowned her mother so many years ago.

Jersey’s existence with her mom’s parents is much more comfortable than it was with her father’s family, but Jersey is still holding onto so much anger, fear, and sadness that she can’t let anyone in, especially the people her mother taught her to despise. But did Jersey really get the whole story from her mother? What led to the separation between daughter and parents, and did either party ever try to bridge that gap? Should Jersey be the one to make things better? Is that even an option when her grief is eating her alive?

As Jersey spends more time with her grandparents and learns more about her mother’s life (and secrets), she realizes that maybe there are people in the world who still love her. People who, like her mother, will do everything in their power to make her feel happy and safe. People who share in her grief and want to help her heal. People who can return a sense of family to her life. All Jersey has to do is let them in. Will she? Or will she let the tornado that took her mother and sister tear away her future as well?

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This post hasn’t even come close to describing the intense, heart-wrenching journey that is Torn Away. I cried so much that I had to read most of the book with my glasses off. I kept Kleenex beside me the whole time. This wasn’t one of those books that elicits tears just at the end. No, like The Fault in Our Stars, Torn Away had me sobbing from beginning to end…and some of those tears were shed in anger.

I’m pretty sure I did serious damage to my Darth Vader pillow when I got angry at some of the people in Jersey’s life (which is kind of funny when you think about it). I got mad at her stepdad because he either couldn’t or wouldn’t see the damage he was inflicting on Jersey, but most of my anger was reserved for Jersey’s biological father and his family. Her father’s family was seriously horrible. All of them–with the minor exception of her aunt–were rude, insensitive, callous, and malicious people who didn’t try to sympathize with Jersey and even took delight in her pain. (I don’t think it’s a stretch to call them white trash. If anyone is offended by that, I’m sorry. Read the book. I’m sure you’ll agree with me.) I had to put the book down on a couple of occasions because I was so mad. I may have actually applauded Jersey when she finally escaped this situation.

I do think anyone who’s ever experienced loss will identify with the character of Jersey. I know I did. I felt her pain, her anger, her hopelessness. I imagined what I would do in a similar situation, and let me tell you…I wouldn’t have fared nearly as well as Jersey did. Jersey is a strong, sympathetic character who did her best to survive when it would have been all too easy to give up. Did she always to the right thing? Of course not, but she survived and held on to the memories of her family while working to make a life for herself in a world without them.

If you’d like to read Torn Away, pick up a box of Kleenex first and then head to your local library or bookstore. (I read a copy via NetGalley, but the book is already available to the masses.)

To learn more about Jennifer Brown and her other books–like Hate List–visit her website or Twitter.