Twerp by Mark Goldblatt

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt


Another young adult novel! I’m on a roll over the long, rainy Labor Day weekend here in Chengdu.

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt is the perfect companion novel to yesterday’s Sure Signs of Crazy  by Karen Harrington. Although they are not the same story, there are some great comparison points, and each reach towards a different middle school audience, while not being exclusive in their readability.

Goldblatt’s book focuses on Julian, a sixth grade boy who is writing as a requirement for his English teacher after being suspended from school for a week because of his involvement in a bullying incident. The book starts in a rather rambling sense, as Julian is just doing the assignment because he feels forced to do it, but as the novel progresses, Julian comes into his own as a writer, seeing it as a way to explore ideas and feelings that he’s not ready to share with the world.

One reason that Julian begins to love the assigned writing project is that his teachers lets him off the hook for a report on Julius Caesar and since Julian hates Shakespeare, he is happy to continue to write his own narrative. But, as literary tradition would have it, he soon discovers parallels between his life and that of Caesar, which draws him back into the very assignment he hoped to escape.

There were a couple of interesting plot points that stood out to me as I read Twerp. First of all, I found the whole thing reminiscent of The Outsiders. The story takes place in the 60s, is a writing assignment for a young man who has been in trouble and draws on literary references in a way that makes them accessible to middle school readers. Also, I liked that the protagonist was just a regular kid from a “regular” family. There were no horrible, dark secrets in his past that made him make the bad decision that lead to the writing of his story, but rather just a poor choice made on the spur of the moment with friends. I like the conversations that this could lead to in a classroom- about how each choice we make has consequences, even if we don’t intend them to. And, of course, the English teacher in me isn’t going to complain about the Shakespeare quotes and references sprinkled throughout the novel.

Mark Goldblatt’s Twerp is a great read for middle school boys. (Not that girls wouldn’t also enjoy it, but the protagonist deals with some very middle school-boy issues that are probably more relatable by the male population than the female.) It has action, it has friendship, it has competition and even a bit of love thrown in, making it a well-rounded, great read for the start of a new school year, earning it:

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Blogging for Bucks

A zoo without zebras…

Idaho without potatoes…

Waffles without syrup…

An English teacher without students…

All are hopelessly adrift in a sea of slight melancholy. Until, that is, they find their missing piece. Luckily, I’ve found mine! (My “piece “might disagree with the “lucky” part though.)

Last Thursday, when I got the email from our fabulous mail clerk saying, “Today there is a little mail,” I, like many others in the consulate, locked up shop and headed out back to the mailroom in hopes that a bit of that “little mail” would be addressed to me. Surprisingly, the sun was out, forcing me to dig through my purse to find my seldom used sunglasses for the short walk around the building. But, the search of shades and the short walk were worth my effort- mail in the Ross bin! I had two Netflix movies, a bill from my dermatologist (you know, the one I pay a lot of money to hack off my fingernails, reducing my weekly manicure time by 30%) and a hand addressed envelope. Exciting!

After checking to see what movies I had for the weekend and making a mental note to send off a check to the doctor, I sliced open the edge of the mystery envelope. Inside, I found a letter from my niece, who is going into the 7th grade in just a few short weeks. She’s a budding biologist, hoping to be a veterinarian in the future. To that end, she is going to Florida next summer with her science class, on a five-day visit to wildlife parks, swamps and the ocean. But, as with most great experiences, there is the little issue of the almighty dollar. The fieldtrip costs a lot. She is thirteen. Those two things don’t go together so well.

Hence, the plea for help.

I’m not about to send the child cash, just for the heck of it, but, I will gladly put her to work! Not being there to employ her as a backyard pooper scooper or knick-knack duster, and feeling the tug of the classroom as my Facebook feed blows up with my teacher friends bemoaning the end of summer, I came up with a better plan: I would pay her to write!

In the last six months, she has started two blogs, both of which never really got off the ground. This was the perfect chance to support her fundraising efforts and encourage her to spend time writing. The English teacher in me could hardly contain myself!

So, I sent her a proposal. I would pay her a set amount for each blog entry she posted, but they had to follow a few simple guidelines. (For example, they had to be well-organized, not just a single, gigantic paragraph.) Within those basic parameters, she is free to write about whatever she would like- school, dance, family, her summer adventures, etc.

I am super excited for her to start writing and posting on her blog and I am more than happy to throw down a bit of cash as an encouragement. (Now, if only I could get someone to pay me to write!) Her first post went up today at and is a fun look at the day she spent at Idaho’s first aquarium.

I may not have a classroom full of 8th graders to pester about reading and writing, but with middle school aged nieces/nephews, I’ll work my magic anyhow.

The Ugly One by Leanne Statland Ellis

The Ugly One by Leanne Statland Ellis

the ugly one

The young adult book genre has expanded rapidly over the last decade, creating reading niches for a variety of teenage interests, from the currently ubiquitous choices that include vampires and werewolves to the popular dystopian series. But, one of my favorite growing topics in the world of YA literature is cultural/travel fiction. I think it is outstanding when kids sitting in their suburban American homes can open and book and be suddenly transported to Southeast Asia, South Africa or South America. Leanne Statland Ellis’ soon-to-be-released book does just that- taking readers on a journey to Peru and the thriving Incan civilization.

Names are an important part of this tale, with the narrator going by several different ones, depending on who is addressing her. (Tale is a fitting label for this book, as it reads like a mystical tale from the ancient oral traditions, tying the reader up in the story as pages fly by.) She is called by her given name, Micay, by her loving older sister, but mocked as The Ugly One by a young bully in her village. As her story progresses, she gains other monikers, more fitting to her changing situation, but at heart, she remains the same strong young woman.

Micay’s name isn’t the only morphing element of the book, as her role within her small mountainous village is challenged and set on a new path by a stranger from the jungles below. While she initially doesn’t believe she is destined for great things, those around her see a potential that, with the right help, she is capable of achieving.

A great middle-level book is one that not only entertains, but draws on universal themes that open larger dialogs, which is an area this book excels. From the tale of the bully and his painful words to the difficult decision of when it is right to put one’s personal desires before those of the community, The Ugly One provides a great deal of fodder for thought and discussion.

The reading level of The Ugly One is not particularly difficult, making the book easily accessible to a wide range of middle school readers, although some might struggle with the occasional unfamiliar Incan word. Luckily, there is a great glossary at the back of the book, which not only helps the reader follow the narrative, but as a teacher, I love having yet another chance to introduce students to references sections in different types of literature.

The one place I felt letdown by this book was at the very ending. As the narrative is wrapping up and the reader gets a glimpse into what the future holds for the main characters, I felt that one young man who played a critical role in the story is left out of the story. I was really hoping to get at least a hint as to whether sharing a moment of understanding with Micay is enough to change this boy’s outlook or if his attitude is too deeply engrained to transform into something more positive.

Overall, Leanne Statland Ellis’  The Ugly One is a great read for students, drawing them out of themselves and into another time and another culture, earning the book:

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A Book Club for Two, Please

Curled up on top of the floor heat vent, under a comforter, on a chilly Christmas afternoon with my brand new hardback copy of Matilda.

Flipping through the pages of a history book that my sister and I dug out of a dumpster at the high school where my dad taught, writing in the answers to the end-of-section review questions after reading each chapter.

Proudly clamping my brand new lamp to the edge of my frilly, white and pink daybed, knowing that now I could stay up way later than my prescribed bedtime to read just one or two (or three, or maybe four) chapters in the lives of the Holt family, from the American Dynasty series, in which I was totally entrenched.

Wandering down not-so-well-lit alleys with a backpack on my back, in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, (the list goes on…) in search of a used bookstore where I could buy a novel or two to tide me over until the next hostel with a “take-one, leave-one” lending library policy. (I must confess my thievery here. At these hostels, I took *WAY* more books that I left. It was out of desperation. Really.)

Words and stories and books have always played a huge role in my life. From my earliest memories of reading the comics in the morning newspaper as I ate my bowl of Lucky Charms to my current, late-night book buying binges on, books are always there.

Last night, as I was putting off doing anything constructive, like folding laundry or cleaning up the dinner dishes, I was randomly surfing the internet when I heard the lovely little electronic chirp meaning I had a new Google message from someone.  Toggling over to my open Gmail account, I saw that it was my 6th grade niece, Kelsey, who was just starting her day in Idaho. She must have been ready for school a few minutes early, as she was online and we had a chance to chat for a bit. After talking about how school was going and what her crazy siblings were up to, she asked if I wanted to pick a book to read together and then talk about.


Of course I want to read a book together and then talk about it. It will be like our own mini-book club!

I was so excited that she thought of this idea and I was on board before she could change her middle school mind. Thinking she might have an in on what was popular right now, I asked what she wanted to read (it isn’t always easy to keep up with young adult trends from the other side of the world), but she deferred to my English teacher-ness and said to pick.

As Kels headed off to her day filled with math and science and orchestra and dance, I spent the rest of the evening bouncing between and, looking for the latest and greatest novels to read together, thinking if I narrowed the choices down, she could make the final selection.

Because of this nearly manic need to have something to read in front of me at all times (cereal boxes, owner’s manuals, advertisements around the edges of a map…), our new reading adventure just gives me another outlet for my bookworm DNA.  I’m so excited (and I just can’t hide it!) to get reading together.

Book recommendations have been submitted to my co-reader and I await her proclamation. Next step? An awesome name for our two-person reading group.


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Negotiating the Fate of Hello Kitty

The Foreign Service lifestyle offers an array of benefits: my housing is paid for (and if I could just sell that lovely Victorian home that sits on a water fountain bearing cul-de-sac in south Nampa, I’d be debt-free), I get to travel to Bangkok in October for training (and I thought it was awesome when Marsing sent me to Baltimore for teacher training), and I can afford a housekeeper to come in twice  a week to make quick work of the floors, bathrooms and kitchen (personally, it is not having to do dishes that makes me the most happy; for Thad, I think it is not having to clean toilets.)

These fabulous perks all do come at a cost though- the separation from friends and family. A trip from the home we own in Nampa, Idaho (again, it is lovely and for sale!) to Chengdu would look something like this:

*30 minute- drive to Boise Airport

* 4 hours- Boise Airport to San Francisco Airport (as direct flights are nearly impossible, plan to be routed through Seattle or Salt Lake or Denver)

*14 hours- San Francisco Airport to Beijing Airport

*3 hours- Beijing Airport to Chengdu Airport

So, not factoring in layovers, to get from our home in America to our home in China, we are looking at a minimum of 21 ½ hours.

Luckily, the wonderful World Wide Web has made the globe just a tad smaller. In mere seconds, I can connect via Skype with my parents and friends, through Facetime with my brother and on Facebook with my sister and former students. This easy (and fairly reliable) connection to home makes communication much more comfortable, as we can talk whenever we feel like it or can match up schedules, giving it an ease that the rare long-distance call of not-so-long ago didn’t have. (I remember when my brother was serving his mission in Argentina and we got to talk to him on the phone twice a year- Christmas and Mother’s Day. Because the occasions were so rare and the time so limited, it was almost as if there was a checklist of what we wanted to tell him about from home and questions we had about his home. The calls were imbued with a certain amount of pressure to “get it all in,” because once the receiver was back on the cradle, there wouldn’t be another conversation for months to come. That stress has disappeared, knowing that I can talk to my mom for twenty minutes today, but when she forgets to tell me the story about the squirrel scrapping his road kill buddy squirrel off the road outside Idaho City, she can call back tomorrow and give me the gory, and yet hilarious, play-by-play of that lovely sight.)

One great part of this easy access to family and friends is the ability we have to keep in touch with our ever-growing number of nieces and nephews. With eleven in total (but with no guarantees it is a final number), there is always someone with a birthday or a dance recital or a new school year staring. It has been nice to be able to be a vicarious part of those events through laptops and iPads.

There is one niece in particular with whom I have been having an on-going discussion. Keira is the youngest of my older sister’s three kids. She turned four this last spring and has what is bordering on a clinical obsession with Hello Kitty. (The fascination goes to the point of there being a bit of a blurred line between her own existence and that of the furry white cat. I think she may, at times, think she actually *is* a bow-wearing, mouth-less cartoon creation.)

Now, keep in mind, I live in the land of Hello Kitty. (Okay, Japan probably out-kitties us, but we are a close #2, with Hello Kitty adorning everything from entirely pink and white cars to cakes in the bakery and clothes on grown women.) Because we live in the Shangri-la of a four-year old with a personality more dramatic than that of a Hollywood soap opera star,  Thad and I have decided to use this opportunity to create a little ruckus on the other side of the world.

This all started with a box of Hello Kitty cookies that Thad found at the little grocery store outside our back gate. We came home and took pictures of us noshing on these lovely little strawberry icing filled treats and emailed them to Keira’s mother in hopes of stirring the pot a bit.

Boy, did we stir!

Apparently, the photographs were greeted with great exasperation, some full-body couch collapsing and a bit of anger that we would dare eat Hello Kitty.

Of course, I couldn’t let such a budding star wither, so a few days later, I found a rather large Hello Kitty shaped marshmallow, stuck on a stick, much like a lollipop would be. This small purchase again came home for photographs of its demise to be taken and sent through cyberspace to Keira.  Again, these pictures met with extreme levels of consternation and anger.

But, at this point, with her little four-year old brain reeling, Keira came up with a plan. She may not be able to physically stop the torture of her favorite fictional character, but she could undertake negotiations for the cruelty to come to an end.

Knowing that I lived in a Hello Kitty laden world, dictating to her mother, we embarked upon a serious business negotiation as to how she could get some of the pink and white swag swiftly out of China and safely into her home. Facebook’s chat box facilitated this every-so-serious deal as we went through what she was offering and what she could get in return.

While the haggling had to be paused several times as she scurried off to her room to dig through her toy chest in search of possible offerings, in the end we had a deal. I am currently awaiting a package from Idaho that must include a Keira-colored picture of Hello Kitty riding a dolphin (this was a sticking point, as she was initially unsure of her blue crayon status), a Madagascar movie giraffe toy from her McDonald’s Happy Meal, and a half-used Hello Kitty pencil she got as a Valentine’s Day gift. In return, I would put together a Hello Kitty care package of treats from my end of the world.

These negotiations took place about two weeks ago, but between work and visitors, today was the first chance I had to actually go out and do the shopping to uphold my end of the bargain. (You may be asking yourself, how today, a Wednesday, did I have time to go wander the streets, looking for the fluff-filled shops that would be necessary to meet my obligations? The answer is: fire. The consulate here in Chengdu had a small fire in the basement last night. There were no injuries, but we were all given the day off as smoke was cleared out of the building and clean-up was completed. It was like having a snow-day in August!)

I have been told that Keira’s side of the deal was posted late last week and is en route, so it is time to get mine on the way as well.

Not working today ended up costing me a lot of money, as I found a variety of cool things I wanted to send home to the young, dramatic one. (Of course, it would be the horror of horrors if I sent a package to her without including goodies for her two older siblings, so the shopping had to branch beyond Hello Kitty and in to things that her brother and sister would also like.) For the most part, I got the Kitty swag at a local department store, but my downfall came when we went to a book store. I was having a hard time coming up with gift ideas for Kelsey, a newly minted middle schooler. Everything I found just seemed to “cutesy” for someone wanting to be a little older and tougher. Thad suggested Chinese school supplies, which is perfect! What 6th grader wouldn’t want to sport a notebook covered in Chinglish verse? Awesome!

Today’s big lesson: I have no self-control in bookstores, regardless of whether or not I am literate in the language of their goods. I went in to the store planning to get a couple of notebooks and maybe a pencil case. I came out with a bag filled with ten books, a whole pile of notebooks and a few pencil cases to boot. And that haul is what I ended up with after forcing myself to walk away from the piles of beautiful picture books, translated American classics and brightly colored board books for babies. I could easily have spent twice as much money, but at one point Thad gently pointed out that it was hot on the second floor and maybe it was time to make an exit and get some fresh air. (This was a subtle hint to step away from the books!)

After checking out with what had to be the world’s angriest cashier, (seriously, she dumped my basket upside down and then proceeded to scan and chuck each item in Thad’s general direction!) I schlepped my Harris Teeter canvas bag, filled with Hello Kitty paraphernalia and Middle Kingdom school supplies, back, block after block, to our apartment. Thad offered to carry it for me several times, but the straps digging in to my shoulder served as penance for the damage I did to our bank account. (It couldn’t be helped! There were awesome books in that store that *needed* to have new homes with our family in the States.)

So, to make a long story short, because Thad and I decided to harass a four-year old over her current cartoon fascination, I now have a box of Chinese goodies ready to mail to Idaho tomorrow and I can’t wait for my shrewdly negotiated care package to arrive in its place.

She might be fruffy and fluffy and dress like a ballerina that got mugged by a clown, but Keira has a bright future ahead of herself in the business world. It’s kitty-eat-kitty out there, but she can hold her own!

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Jake and Lily by Jerry Spinelli

Jake and Lily by Jerry Spinelli

Twins. It is not a new topic for fiction, especially not  for young adult fiction, so Jerry Spinelli breaks no ground with his newly released novel, and yet,  even knowing that the same-birthday sibling world has been explored numerous times, if you are going to go there again as an author, you need to create something new. Spinelli attempts to make his mark in the twins-literature world by having pre-teen, differing-sex, opposite ends of the personality-spectrum kids tell their story in a first-person point of view through alternating chapters.

It’s a shtick.

A shtick I could get behind in other circumstances, if it was done well. (My going-into-sixth-grade niece was working on a book this summer and she was considering narrating the story from two points of view-one human and one animal-in an alternating chapter format. She was on to something. She’s also eleven years old.) But really, the format isn’t the problem as much as the stereotypical portrayal of twins.

I’ve known twins, not ever been super close friends with any, but I’ve been around them growing up and through my adult life. I realize they have a special connection, but the story told by Jake and Lily is one made for Maury Povich! They can read each other’s minds, they sleepwalk to the same destinations and they can never, ever play a game of hide-and-go-seek.

Outside of its stereotypical twin-ness, the tale is a great one that will be relatable for many middle school kids. Jake and Lily are siblings, and also best friends, but as they get older, their interests differ and they begin to grow apart, which Jake is fine with, but the transition becomes a painful one for Lily, who feels deserted and left behind. This type of relationship transition is as common as pimples amongst the middle-school demographic. As kids expand beyond the world of elementary school, their personalities evolve and old friendships don’t quite fit like gloves anymore.  The twin-part is irrelevant.

On top of the expansion and evolution of friendships, Spinelli digs into the ever-more-talked-about world of bullying. His presentation of the bullies is one that rings true. The boys don’t start out trying to be mean, but a small comment from one, which garners a laugh from the others, grows into ever bigger words and actions that quickly become hurtful to others. The group of boys being bullies didn’t start out with that as their intention, but though a single leader, with a strong personality, the boys all soon fall into his patterns, accepting his actions until property destruction brings their behavior into a new light.

Jake and Lily is a great young adult novel that explores themes near and dear to the hearts of those entering the scary world of middle school. Most kids pushing the boundaries of adolescence will feel the pain of changing friendships, will experience the sting of bullying (on one or, more likely, both ends) and will be forced to expand their own horizons. Jerry Spinelli does a great job of illuminating what could be considered rather mundane, day-to-day growing pains, giving them the spotlight to shine in the eyes of the readers.

If only he would do it without the twin-gimmick…

Jerry Spinelli’s newest publication, Jake and Lily earns: