and what we wish they were

Category Archives: Realistic fiction

Welcome to Common Core Monday where each week we will take a look at a work of literature found in the  Common Core Standards list of exemplar texts.  Many of the works found on the list are beloved treasures from classic literature.  Others, such as Cristina Garcia’s  Dreaming in Cuban and Sherman Alexi’s  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, raise serious questions about what kids are reading.

TITLE:  Eleven

AUTHOR:  Sandra Cisneros

GENRE: Short story

GRADE LEVEL RECOMMENDED: 6-8

Eleven is the kind of story that makes you remember exactly what it is like to be in the 5th grade – on your worst day in the 5th grade.  It’s Rachel’s birthday, but she doesn’t feel eleven.  She knows that inside she is still 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, ,3, 2, and 1… Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.

So, on her birthday when her teacher, Mrs. Price, insists that, not only does Rachel own, but that she must also wear a ratty old sweater found in the coat closet, Rachel feels 3.  And she cries in front of everyone like she is 3.  Her birthday is ruined.

That’s it really.  That is the basic plot of Eleven.  It is a very simple yet very powerful story. It is powerful because Cisneros takes her readers back in time – back to a time when being forced to wear an ugly sweater in front of your entire class was unbearably humiliating.  It is powerful because, through Mrs. Price, we see the devastating impact a seemingly meaningless and careless error can have on a child.  Eleven is powerful because through Rachel, in only three short pages,  we see that we are all eleven – at least sometimes.

My own daughters were not required to read Eleven in school, so I required it at home.  Kids need stories like this one for two reasons.  1.  It shows them that they arent’ the only ones who have felt 3 even when they were much older.  2. Eleven teaches empathy. We are allowed to glimpse inside someone else’s humiliation.  We ache for Rachel.

Sometimes now when I look back on things that mortified me in middle school, I can laugh.  The melodrama of it all is so funny. But every time I read Eleven, I cry.  I cry even though I am 44.  Because deep down I guess I’m also 43, 42, 41, 40,… well, you get the idea.

Note:  To read Eleven, simply Google a free PDF copy of the story.  You’ll be glad you did.

From the YouTube video of the story

From the YouTube video of the story

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I love it when I read a book that is engaging and thought provoking and that I can share with my kids. This is not that book. Reading Struck by Lightening was like watching The Breakfast Club, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, and a host of other 80’s movies rolled into one. -but not in a good way but in a “this has been done over and over kind of way.”

Carson who is both the protagonist(sort of) and antagonist in this novel is a smart kid. And like all smart kids in teenage angst novels, he is a misfit. His parents are a nightmare. And everyone in his small town is an idiot. What an original concept! When Carson realizes he needs to create a literary magazine to secure his chances of getting into Northwestern he decides to blackmail all of his classmates into contributing to his publication. Luckily, this is not hard to do because all the cool kids at his school (coincidently the ones who have been torturing him since grade school) have dirty little secrets.

The head cheerleader is sleeping with the football coach. The son of the town’s richest, most respected citizen is having a homosexual affair with his best buddy. The yearbook editor likes to send pornographic photos of herself to strangers over the Internet. The sexy foreign exchange student is really from San Diego. And the goth girl’s baptist parents don’t know that she worships Satan. Blackmailing these kids is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Predictably, as each of these pathetic individuals turns in a submission, Carson comes to realize that everyone has problems. They don’t all have perfect lives or hearts of stone as he had assumed.  (Think less likable version of the football player and the prom queen in The Breakfast Club.) He actually does feel some sympathy for his victims – not enough to call off his plans but enough to make him not a complete sociopath.

What is not predictable about this book is the ending. I fully expected Carson to form some sort of bond with his peers, or maybe even end up kissing a former enemy – you know, like Emillio Estevez and Ally Sheedy just before Tears for Fears starts to sing. Instead, Carson doesn’t seem to give his new revelation a whole lot of thought. After all, he’s trying to get into Northwestern. Who has time for a conscience?

We do see some change in Carson when he finds out his drunk, depressed mother has thrown away his acceptance letter, and he’ll have to stay in his hometown and go to community college with all the other losers. At first he is devastated that all of his hard, dirty work was for nothing, but eventually decides that he will rise above his circumstances and make the best of things. He’s not going to let these idiots get the better of him. Just when we see a glimmer of hope for our young, errrr ummm, hero, he gets struck by lightening as he’s leaving the high school and dies.  I’m serious. That’s how it ends. I think Colfer was trying to be funny and ironic. Or maybe he just ran out of snarky things for his main character to say. Either way, I was both annoyed and relieved.

All and all I thought Struck by Lightening was a horrible book. But I’m not gonna lie. I laughed out loud more than once. Colfer did manage a few observations about teenage life that were spot on, and the homecoming float scene in which Phillip and his sidekick dress up as a notebook and pencil is particularly hilarious.  I thought it was funny, but my kids will not be reading it.

LANGUAGE
YES! All the really bad ones.

VIOLENCE
No.

SEXUAL CONTENT
Yep. What’s a good blackmail plan without the sex to back it up.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS
None.  These people are entirely Godless.

FUNNY/INSIGHTFUL QUOTES

“Can I please just say that it has been scientifically proven that teenagers learn and test better when they go to school later in the day?  Which I suppose would be taken into consideration if school wasn’t really just a government-funded day care meant to keep kids occupied.  (I don’t know about you, but I’m most prone to committing crimes between the hours of 6:00 am and 3:00 pm).  Thumbs up!”

“She struggles with concentration, metabolism, and plagiarism…but who’s perfect.?”

“What grinds me the most is that we are sending kids out into the world who don’t know how to balance a checkbook, don’t know how to apply for a loan, don’t even know how to properly fill out a job application, but because they know the quadratic formula we consider them prepared for the world.”

“I wonder how much I could get done if I wasn’t in the way.”


Debbie from Yulpa Reads has reviewed The Fault in Our Stars for us.  As a cancer survivor herself, she shares a unique perspective.

The Fault in Our Stars

Sixteen year old Hazel Grace Lancaster has terminal cancer, but because of a “Cancer Miracle,” has purchased for herself an unknown bit of time. She wishes to minimize the damage her death will cause by staying close to home, spending her time taking classes at the junior college, reading, and watching reality TV.  To please her parents, who are, as she says, the only ones in a worse position than she is, she attends a Cancer Kids Support Group.  There she meets Augustus Waters who had “a little touch of osteosarcoma a year and a half ago…but is on a roller coaster that only goes up”.  As their relationship slowly develops, Hazel shares her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, with Augustus.  The author, Peter Van Houten, is the only person Hazel has come across who seems to understand what it was like to be dying but not have died.  An Imperial Affliction ends in mid-sentence. Hazel accepts that the main character, Anna, has died but wants to know what happens to everyone else in the novel.  She has written to the author many times without an answer.  Augustus makes it possible for the two of them (and Hazel’s mother) to go to Amsterdam to meet the reclusive author.
Does this sound like a book that is sweet, funny and life affirming?  Well, it is. The dialogue is witty and intelligent.  It is wonderful to watch these two young people fall in love despite their circumstances.  And it is particularly delightful to watch Hazel bloom and become stronger in spite of her frail body.
Violence
Very mild violence that involves the smashing of Augustus’ baseball trophies (with his permission) by their friend Isaac when he finds out his “forever” girlfriend dumped him because he was going to be blind.
Language
I remember a few mild appropriately descriptive words.
Sexual Content
Normally, I’d be disturbed about a sexual encounter between sixteen and seventeen year old kids, but in this case it felt life affirming. Others may disagree. Most of the explicit language was about her oxygen and his artificial leg.
Supernatural Elements

Hazel and Augustus and Hazel and her Dad have some discussions about what they think happens after death. And the Dutch Tulip Man, a character in Imperial Affliction, is a metaphor for God.
Personal Reflections
As a cancer survivor, I identified with Hazel. There is not even a hint of sentimentality in the book, no brave sacrifice, no heroic messages, just reality. Her story felt true, so I was not surprised to find at the end of the book an acknowledgement to Esther Grace Earl and her family.
Even a successful fight against cancer involves loss. Hazel’s lungs can no longer do their job alone and their friend, Isaac, must pay a price for survival that would horrify most of us, the loss of his eyes. Even without such side effects, the body that you are left with is not the same one you had before. John Green respects his readers enough to tell them the truth and believes they can handle it.
Hazel loved An Imperial Affliction because it was her story and an honest story. She wanted to know what happened to the other characters because if they were doing well, maybe her parents would be OK, too. I love The Fault In Our Stars because it is an authentic story of hope and the daring to risk love in the face of death.
To find out more about the foundation created in Esther Earl’s honor go to tswgo.org .
Unlike Peter van Houten, John Green answers questions about his books. You can read some of them at johngreenbooks.com

End note from Laura Catherine – I LOVED the book.  It was funny and clever and profound.  But I have to give my “mom of two young girls” disclaimer.  The sexual encounter between Augustus and Hazel is not graphic or steamy, but it would be the thing that would prevent me from recommending this for middle schoolers and younger teens.  


Theodore Boone is a typical 13 year old boy – well, except for the fact that he is a mini-expert in criminal and civil law. Because both his parents are attorneys, Theo is also a regular at the courthouse, where he’s friendly with everyone from bailiffs to important judges. All of this comes in very handy when his classmates have trouble with impounded dogs, delinquent brothers, and bankrupt parents. Theo is even able to use his connections to get his government class balcony seats at the biggest trial to hit their hometown of Strattenburg in decades – a murder trial.

However, Theo’s reputation as a “kid lawyer” gets him into a bit of a tight spot when a witness to the murder comes to Theo for advice. The witness is Bobby, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, who doesn’t want to go to the police for fear of being deported. To complicate things, Theo, like any good lawyer, promises not to reveal Bobby’s identity to anyone. Fortunately for Theo, he has two smart, honest parents and even a disbarred, mildly alcholic, albeit kindly, uncle he can turn to for help. In the end, Theo is able to do the right thing for Bobby and see to it that justice is served.

So, everything turns out okay….or does it? Like every book I’ve read recently, this one builds up a story that leads us straight to the sequel. Ugh! What’s up with that? The whole purpose of this blog is to help me (and other parents) streamline the process of finding out about the books our kids are reading. Who has time for sequels? It’s my policy not to make sequels a priority. Once I’ve read a book, I feel like I know the general direction of the storyline and the tendency of the author to use (or not use) questionable content. I figure it’s at least enough information to know whether or not I want to let my kids get started on a particular series.

With Theodore Boone, however, I might have to make an exception to my sequel rule. For starters, I’m a big John Grisham fan, so I’m always up for one of his books. On the other hand, as much as I love his books, I’ve gotta say, this wasn’t my favorite. It was well-written and it kept me engaged, but nothing really happened. I kept waiting for some drama – a kidnapping, a threat, a frantic dash to escape a white collar criminal’s seedy thugs. A lot of things were hinted at. A lot of things almost happened. But there was never a big tense moment when our hero was in peril. Sure he’s a 13 year old boy, but I was expecting something a little peril at least. But in the end, I felt like the whole book was one big set up for the sequels. Still, given John Grisham’s reputation, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the sequels are better than the first Theodore Boone.

LANGUAGE

None! Even the bad guys don’t swear.

VIOLENCE

Nope. Even the murder was fairly calm – as murders go.

SEXUAL CONTENT

Well, there is the mention of a crush on a secretary at the courthouse. And Theo is somewhat smitten with a pretty classmate who needs his assistance to rescue her dog from the pound. Other than that, there’s not time for romance for Theodore Boone.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

None.

FOR DISCUSSION

What is Theo’s relationship like with his parents? Is it a typical parent/child relationship?

Does Theo use good judgement?

Does his book have a satisfactory ending? Why or why not?

AN INTERESTING NOTE…

Some parents of advanced readers might hesitate to encourage their kids to read Theodore Boone. It might seem a bit juvenile. This was the concern of the librarian where I teach high school when I recommended this book to a tenth grade student. Turns out the lexile level, or reading level, of Theodore Boone is higher than that of some of John Grisham’s other books for adults.

For more information on this book or the other books in the series, go to www.theodoreboone.com