Friday Five–Throwback Reviews

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Here are 5 past reviews from our blog we think deserve a little more attention:

1. Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty. Gregory just nails what it is like to live in a college town in this first chapter of this phenomenal book. His prequel to We are All Completely Fine, a book titled Harrison Squared, comes out soon! We will surely review it here.

2.Jeffrey Deaver’s The Skin Collector. Here’s a review of a book that’s help you get your CSI fix.  Forensics, abduction, poison tattoos…everything you can ask for in a quick read. Reviewed by Robert, our 2016 Conference co-chair

3.Five Divergent-Inspired Pastimes.  I love this post by Allison, our Executive director, not just because it feels like it would be a cool assignment for students, but because I love all the suggested activities.

4.Teju Cole’s Open City. This review “delve[s] into philosophy, art, death, identity, politics, and life”–lots to ponder for a winter weekend. Cole should get more literary attention–starting with you!

5. Kiera Cass The Selection. Jennie, our board president reviews the first of a trilogy that she describes as “fictional/YA version of The Bachelor.” Some light reading for dark days.

Friday Five–Throwback Reviews

Up Late with Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

18140047I picked up this book at NCTE and had the author sign it–part of me wishes I’d read it beforehand so I could tell her firsthand what a phenomenal book it was. However, I’m glad I have the book and I know I will be handing this out to a few specific students at school. This book begins with an English assignment–to write a letter to a dead person. So Laurel decides to write to Kurt Cobain. She never turns in her assignment, but keeps on writing to people–Amelia Earhart, Amy Winehouse, River Phoenix, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Keats, among others. Her letters are cathartic, and we see her struggle to process her sister’s recent death.

This epistolary novel explores a young girl’s grieving process–for her parents, who have split; for her sister, who has died; and for herself, who is lost. The voice in this book is distinct and strong and compelling. I enjoyed the different tidbits of each dead person’s like she weaves in with a second person approach, that, surprisingly, worked. She addresses the dead person she writes to about their life, and her life, and about her friends’ lives. It felt like I really understood who Laurel was by the end of the book, and when the reason for all her pain is revealed at the end, it felt like a release of pent-up anger and angst that I had for the narrator. Dellaira creates a believable, yet flawed, character who I think teenagers will understand and will forgive.

I read this book all in one sitting, and I found the prose to be lovely and at points, poetic. I appreciated the inclusion of the poems by Keats and e.e.cummings and even by the narrator–what a lovely way to close the book.

As usual, here are some favorite passages:

  • “I think a lot of people want to be someone, but we are scared that if we try, we won’t be as good as everyone imagines we could be.”
  • “When we are in love, we are both completely in danger and completely safe.”
  • “The thing about traditions is that they hold up the shape of your memory.”
  • “You can be noble and brave and beautiful and still find yourself falling.”
  • “Sometimes, the smallest gestures take up the most room.”
  • “Maybe when we can tell the stories, however bad they are, we don’t belong to them anymore. They become ours.”

Posted by Kate, VP Secondary, PCTELA Board

Up Late with Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

Up Late with When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead


Just about every kid in my sixth grade class read When You Reach Me. I listened to my peers rave about it for months, but for some reason, this simple (but profound) book never reached my fingers until this weekend. At only about 200 pages, it’s the kind of book that you can (and will, I assure you) finish in one sitting.

When You Reach Me follows a 12 year old girl named Miranda. She is recently estranged from her best friend, Sal, following an incident where he is punched by a stranger on the street. As she learns to navigate her life without Sal— making new friends, working at a sandwich shop, helping her mom train for a game show— she begins to receive a series of cryptic letters from an anonymous source.

The author, Rebecca Stead, crafts Miranda’s world like a dream. She integrates bizarre occurrences into the novel so smoothly that they feel almost natural. It is only when the reader looks at the big picture that something is noticeably off. The mood is mysterious, but not flagrantly so. Sometimes, tools like suspense or Big Unanswered Questions feel like, well, tools. There’s something kind of boring about being blatantly manipulated into curiosity. However, Stead’s low-key and untheatrical manner makes every question and mystery feel genuine and important.

One of the greatest things about When You Reach Me is how the young people are portrayed as nuanced and complex characters. It’s not a mystery why, at age 12, everyone I knew was so drawn to this story. In a literary world where young people (especially preteens— and girls!) face a lot of condescension and shallow storylines, When You Reach Me does the opposite. These characters are sharp and interesting and flawed, with unpredictable motives, confused feelings and genuine humanity.

When You Reach Me makes me want to observe and understand everything, to participate fully and think deeper. It’s a book that I will surely return to many times. If, like me, you missed the bandwagon in 6th grade: let me tell you. It’s not too late.

Today’s review is by Isabel Najjar, a junior at State College Area High School.


Up Late with When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Friday Five–How to get involved with PCTELA

  1. Write a book review, a reflection on teaching, or share a lesson for our blog.
 (email Kate)
  2. Follow us on twitter, tweet to us, and share with friends.
  3. Follow us on Facebook, post on our page, share with friends.
  4. Attend our conference in October. This year it will be at the Harrisburg Hilton, October 23 & 24.
  5. Submit a proposal to our conference. This year’s theme: Embracing Diversity.


Photo from 2014 conference, where students met Stephen Chbosky, author of Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Friday Five–How to get involved with PCTELA

Up Late with The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas, recommended by a friend years ago, rocked my literary world, with the prose modeled after some of my favorite texts (like Moby Dick and Brave New World). However, I didn’t love Black Swan Green (maybe the repetitive comparisons to Catcher in the Rye threw me off), so I was a little wary of Bone Clocks, but I happened upon it in the lucky day reads section of my local library, and I snatched it up right quick. I’ve read less fantasy and magical genres in my adulthood, but this book had so much verisimilitude and only a wee bit of the magic, so it satisfied my desire for reality and a little mystery.


I cannot possibly explain how much I love the multiple-narrative style, and how the heteroglossic approach David Mitchell takes with Bone Clocks works perfectly with the topic. I found myself wondering about Holly Sykes days and even weeks after reading this. We begin with Holly as a teenager, and the book passes through time and experience and leaves us with Holly Sykes as an old woman. She has a short-lived relationship in her early twenties, a longer relationship (and a child) with a journalist, and a friendship with an author in her later years. Holly progresses through all the trials and tribulations of what it is to be human, and intermingled are a few run-ins with a group of beings who want to steal youth and life from those who are strong in the third eye. There’s a group opposing the evil ones, let by Ester Little, and so Holly and her friends and family end up in the middle of a centuries-long struggle for eternal life.

Reading this book was compelling for a number of reasons–the plot drove me to turn page after page, but there were also numerous literary references–The Lord of the Flies came up numerous times, as did references to “The Second Coming.” I especially appreciated the writers in the book writing about writing and writing about writers who write about writing (so meta, as my students would say). I found myself writing down so many nuggets of wisdom and wit as I read, I filled three pages. I shall share only the most compelling (and epigrammatic) here, with you.

  • “Being born’s a hell of a lottery.”
  • “Coupling is frenzy; decoupling is farce.”
  • “Who is spared love is spared grief.”
  • “Life is a terminal illness.”
  • “You only value something if you know it’ll end.”
  • “When a parent dies, a filing cabinet full of all the fascinating stuff also ceases to exist.”
  • “However much you love them, your own children are only ever on loan.”
  • “We all have less time than we think.”
  • “Men marry women hoping they’ll never change. Women marry men hoping they will.”
  • “Adverbs are cholesterol in the veins of prose.”
  • “Normal is whatever you have come to take for granted.”
  • “We live on, as long as there are people to live on in.”

What I love best about Bone Clocks, however, can be summed up thusly: he captures what it means to be human between the pages of this book.  I can see myself returning to this book again and again to revist Holly Sykes and her family.

Posted by Kate, VP Secondary, PCTELA

Up Late with The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Beautiful Souls by Eyal Press

Sometimes a book calls to me from the shelf of the used book section. This was one of them and it seems an appropriate review for Martin Luther King Day. The title caught my eye, and the subtitle intrigued me. I was ready to read about some uplifting situations and the heroes who stood up for what they believed was right. I was in for a surprise, though. This was not a fluffy book just written to make me feel good–it was a meticulously crafted, well-researched text. I took my time with it because it was so dense, but also because I wanted to think about the the information given to me–the psychology, sociology, and science behind what makes certain people stand up for their convictions when nobody around them is doing it.

There are four main parts to this book as well as an epilogue, and each deserves an entire paragraph.

“Disobeying the Law” examines Paul Gruninger’s risk-taking at allowing fleeing Jews to take refuge in Sweden (against orders). This segment considers his past as well as the sociology of the situation. Press explains the Milgram experiments and how proximity can affect how we react to situations. There’s also examination of how governments teach soldiers to treat the enemy as “other” so it will be easier, via dehumanization, to kill them. This chapter, though, explains it was Gruninger’s belief in his country’s system that allowed him to stand in the way of the laws prohibiting refuges. He believed “he was honoring his country’s founding principles by treating them humanely.”

The next chapter, “Defying the Group,” takes the reader to Serbia, where we meet Aleksander Jevtic, a Serb who was instructed to pick the Serbs out of a crowd and also selected Croats–saving between 150-200 lives of people destined for execution. Press again tries to find a reason setting Jevtic above others–why defy the orders of men with guns? One reason Jevtic offers is how he was raised–his parents taught him “to love people. They taught me to respect others and myself.” Press realizes Jevtic’s wife is also a Croat, and perhaps that offers a reason why this mild-mannered father rescued people in such a dangerous situation. He also points out how Jevtic doesn’t care what others think of him, making him a man who doesn’t fear not belonging to the group, an interesting sociological perspective on why atrocities occur.

The third chapter, “The Rules of Conscience,” begins with Thoreau and his decision not to pay taxes, but then takes us to Israel where we meet Avner Wishnitzer, a young man who decides he will not longer persecute Palestinians. This chapter shifts the examination to people who change–not situations that change, explaining: “the fiercest conflicts take place inside a person’s mind and heart as commitments that once went unquestioned come to be reexamined and, at a certain point, betrayed.” There was a large group of men, “refuseniks” who decided the military campaign they were supposed to support was unjust, and they would rather go to prison than execute orders against what they viewed as just. In his own way, he was still serving his society, a society he believed in, but felt was making a mistake.

The fourth chapter “The Price of Raising One’s Voice,” shifts to the US, and to the business world. Here we see the impact of Leyla Wydler, who works at the Stanford group in 2000, a broker-dealer that seems to be making money that doesn’t match with actual records of income. When Leyla becomes a whistleblower, we see the intricacies of how money can sway people and how sometimes it takes a few Davids to stand up to Goliath corporations and take them down. This chapter explained how Hollywood makes us think these situations always turn out well (see Erin Brokovich) but the reality is that for most whistleblowers, the companies have money and power and can easily shut down people who fight for people losing money to a large corporation.

The Epilogue of the book takes us to Pennsylvania, where Press speaks to a prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay. This meeting with Darrel Vandeveld offers a way to tie all these stories together. He explains the “Beautiful Souls” in the book were people who did not “airily dismiss the values and ideas of the society they lived in or the organizations they belonged to, but that they regarded them as inviolable.” They were so committed to their beliefs and the structures they worked within that they fought for the ideals and principles which drew them to these societies/organizations in the first place.

I found this book fascinating, and I earmarked a number of pages where I could refer to it whether I was teaching Elie Weisel’s Night or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Adam Smith was referenced more than a few times, and Henry David Thoreau was heavily featured in the latter portion of the book. While this text is probably too complex to teach in high school, I found it an excellent resource for myself, and I feel as if I’m better equipped to discuss the sociology of evil and the psychology of those who refuse to buckle in trying times.


Posted by Kate, VP Secondary, PCTELA Board

Beautiful Souls by Eyal Press

Friday Five: Reasons to use The Chronicles of Harris Burdick in class


1. It works at any level. Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick was first published in 1984. My first exposure to it was my sixth grade teacher’s assignment. “Here is a book with pictures, titles, and the first line of a story. You now have to write the story.” I loved this idea so much, I remember writing more than one story for multiple pictures. The book stayed with me, and when I was teaching a summer writing course early in my career, I went and found the book and gave my students the same assignment.

2. You can use it for short stories as well as for writing assignments. Fast forward to 2011, when Lemony Snicket introduces this new book–with tales by 14 prominent authors who’d done just what I (and thousands of students) had done–they wrote stories based on the pictures and sentences. This collection includes stories from Sherman Alexie, Job Scieszka, Cory Doctorow, Stephen King, Lois Lowry and eight others. The topics range from spelling caterpillars, ghostly captains, and bewitched books. This delightful collection of short stories would work with all age groups–from young readers to adults, and the stories captivate and surprise the reader.


3. There are some quotable moments: “Books have always been among my most trusted of friends. The best of them allow the mind to wanter wherever the author’s musings lead.” “Books have the ability to take the mind to strange places and in strange ways.”

4.You could examine the images as text. I am currently imagining using this with my students and assigning them to write an analysis of one of the images without reading the story–talking about tone and mood–and then discussing how visual images can be analyzed.

5. So many assignment options. I’m also considering having students take a picture and then offer the class collection of pictures to students, who will then write stories based on someone else’s students. Lots of angles for collaboration and community building. Plus, these stories and pictures are striking!


Posted by Kate, VP Secondary, PCTELA Board

Friday Five: Reasons to use The Chronicles of Harris Burdick in class