art for NightschoolChmakova, Svetlana. (2009). Nightschool: The Weirn Books Vol 1. New York, NY: Yen Press

Chmakova, Svetlana. (2009). Nightschool: The Weirn Books Vol 2. New York, NY: Yen Press

Chmakova, Svetlana. (2010). Nightschool: The Weirn Books Vol 3. New York, NY: Yen Press

Chmakova, Svetlana. (2010). Nightschool: The Weirn Books Vol 4. New York, NY: Yen Press

Plot Summary:

Alex Trevaney is a witch, and cursed besides.  Her only friends are Sarah, her older sister and guardian, and a cookie stealing astral.  So when Sarah doesn’t come home one morning, Alex has no one she can turn to for help.  All Alex knows is that the last time she saw Sarah, she was headed for her shift as the new Night Guardian at the Nightschool for supernatural beings.  Now it’s up to Alex to save her sister by doing the one thing she’s managed to avoid all these years: enroll in school.

Critical Evaluation:

Nightschool does not, unfortunately, always manage to stay on the useful side of the confusing vs. mysterious divide.  It is, however, a fun and fast-paced read with a rich backdrop and cast of characters that will leave teens wanting more.  Chmakova’s artwork is almost uniformly readable and more than occasionally elegant.  As will surprise no one that has read Dramacon!, Chmakova is capable of conveying a remarkable complexity and depth of feeling with just a few words and glances; she is also particularly adept at balancing this out with humor and magical explosions.

Reader’s Annotation:

Alex Trevaney has survived curses, unruly astrals, and living with her sister.  But now she might just have to face the one thing she’s avoided for so long: school.

Author Information:

Chmakova has several sites, but she does not seem to update any of them regularly.



Graphic Novel

Booktalking Ideas:

What would you do to save your only sister?  Would you face demons and witches?  Battle creatures you’ve never even heard of before?  Would you brave the halls of…high school?

Reading Level/Target Age:

4th grade/ages 12 -16

Potential Controversy:

As teen manga goes, this is an incredibly innocuous series.  There is magic and a small amount of gore and, being manga, finding all of it it is as easy as flipping the pages.  However, this shouldn’t bother anyone who isn’t already protesting Harry Potter.  As long as the titles remain properly filed in the teen section, it’s highly unlikely that this will prompt any kind of objections.

Reasons for Choosing This Title:

I am a huge Dramacon! fan and was quite eager to see if Nightschool was just as good.


Looking for Alaska

cover image for Looking for AlaskaGreen, John. (2005). Looking for Alaska. New York, NY: speak.

Plot Summary:

Miles Halter is in search of “a Great Perhaps” – his phrase, taken from the last words of the poet Francois Rabelais, for the that indefinable, pregnant possibility that adolescence so often thrives on.  He isn’t going to find it in an ordinary public school in Florida, so he convinces his parents to let him go to Culver Creek Boarding school in Alabama.  There he meets Chip, Lara, and Takumi…but most of all Alaska Young.  In which he finds his “Great Perhaps” but not in quite the way that he expected to.

Looking for Alaska is very much a deconstruction of romantic myths, but it is one that is not disdainful of hope and love.  Miles, having fallen for Alaska, keeps looking for hints that he has become as central to Alaska’s world as she has become to his.  In doing so, he overlooks much of what makes the real Alaska tick, a contradiction that Alaska herself is quick to point out.  When tragedy strikes, Miles’ grief pushes him to refocus his efforts rather than step back and examine them critically, a mistake that threatens to tear apart the friendships he has come to value.

Critical Evaluation:

Green’s (and Miles’) clever, snarky, and yet somehow mellow voice is an essential part of this book’s charm.  It is also how Green is able to make readers sympathetic to Miles’ antics while still shaking our heads at his obsession; a more reverent or less erudite approach would have made the tale overly sappy or shallow by turns, rather than acting as a counterpoint to Miles puppy dog love.  Instead, Green is able to invite us to dwell on Alaska’s many charms along with Miles, while still allowing a multi-faceted character to filter in around Miles’ rose colored viewpoint.  All of which becomes incredibly essential when Miles is finally forced to find a truthful and moral balance between his feelings and the needs of those he cares about.

Reader’s Annotation:

Love,  rivalries, and boarding school pranks -what could possibly go wrong?

Author Information:

I’m not sure it’s possible for an author to have a larger web presence than John Green and still be only a minor celebrity.  In addition the usual Twitter and Facebook accounts, Green – along with his brother Hank Green – not only have a regular vlog on YouTube, but have created an entire website/forum/movement they affectionately call Nerdfighters (nerds who fight world suck using their nerd powers, not people who fight nerds).


Award Winners

Booktalking Ideas:

“Welcome to Culver Creek, Mr. Halter.  You’re given a large measure of freedom here.  If you abuse it, you’ll regret it.  I’d hate to have to bid you farewell.”  Miles Halter is pretty that pranks and sneaking out for smokes are not on the dean of students list of approved activities, but he didn’t beg his parents to let him go away to boarding school so that he could spend all his time sitting in his room!

Reading Level/Target Age:

7th grade/ages 15-19

Potential Controversy:

The teens in this book swear get into all kinds of stuff – including drinking – and not all of not all of it comes with negative consequences and none of it comes off as an After School Special kind of lesson.  While this is essential to the book’s strength and appeal, it might also make some adults nervous.  Focusing on this title’s award status as well as it’s nuanced and hardly immoral look at teenage pranks, relationships, and rule breaking should help alleviate most concerns.

Reasons for Choosing This Title:

Having enjoyed An Abundance of Katherines, I was curious to see what made Looking for Alaska even more widely praised.  Green is also one of those authors with a large and devoted enough fan base that I feel I should be familiar with all or most of his works, not simply a single one or two titles.


cover image for LiarLarbalestier, Justine. (2009). Liar. NewYork: Bloomsbury.

Plot Summary/Critical Evaluation:

Everybody lies.  We say that we adore gifts that we hate, profess delight in meals that are lacking, and assure our parents that yes, our homework is all done.  For most of us, the lying ends there.  Not for Micah though, she doesn’t just tell the occasional white lie, she’s a compulsive liar.  “But [she’s] going to stop.”  She has to.  So pay attention, because she’s going to tell you the truth and she’s “going to tell it straight.  No lies, no omissions.”

Layer by layer, Larbalestier peels back Micah’s deceptions to expose the truth and banish the lies, but they are rarely what you’d expected.  Micah doesn’t pretend to know bands that she has never heard of, claim to own trophies that she never earned, or fake an illness to get out of class.  Rather, she decides to wear a Venetian mask to school – and forges a doctor’s note to justify it.

There is a peculiar and unexpected honesty in Micah’s fibs.  False as they are, they also let her push against the edges of conformity and let Micah be herself without forcing her to claim to know who she is when she doesn’t yet.   At the same time, they also act as role to play and hide behind – even from herself.

When her friend Zach disappears, however, Micah discovers that her lies might finally cost her more than just the goodwill of her peers.  No longer simply a cathartic confession of past sins, Liar quickly becomes an especially twisted kind of mystery, with Micah’s admissions of falsehood and guilt taking on the urgency of someone both digging for the truth and fighting for survival.

The twists and turns that Micah’s story takes also do more than keep readers on their toes. Because of the way that the story is structured, the lies rely as much on our assumptions of what constitutes normalcy as they do on Micah’s audacity. It’s beyond brilliant, exceptionally appropriate in a novel for young adults, and Larbalestier deserves nothing but praise for pulling it off.

This is a novel that, like Micah, refuses to be boxed in.  It’s not simply that it flirts with genres the same way that Micah plays with her identity.  Rather, like Micah herself, how you classify it and how much you enjoy it will greatly depend on which parts of her story you choose to believe.

Larbalestier’s clear understanding of the fandom traditions of genre fiction bleed onto the page, demanding that the conversation expand beyond the reading of the book itself.  Liar is a novel that is meant to be talked about, it’s value and interest is fundamentally tied to comparing notes and possibilities afterwards.  The obvious conundrum is that spoilers for a book such as this – even mild ones – would also impose points of view that would limit the discussions afterwards.

So when I tell you that you must read it – and now – know that I say this not because it is lacking flaws, but because I am eager to hear what you thought of it.

Reader’s Annotation:

Everybody lies – sometimes.  Micah lies all the time.  She’s going to tell you the truth though, so listen up.

Author Information:



Science Fiction (but that is my opinion.  I assure you that you may have a completely different one)

Booktalking Ideas:

This is actually a very difficult book to talk up, for the reasons already mentioned in the review.  Most shorter book talks can simply focus on the idea of the unreliable narrator.  Longer ones will have to try to bring in mild spoilers from the first few pages – Zach’s disappearance being on of the major ones.

Reading Level/Target Age:

5th grade/14-18

Potential Controversy:

Micah is bisexual, lies to her parents (duh), sneaks around with her boyfriend, and, well, let’s just say there is a decent amount of violence.  I wouldn’t really expect many challenges, however, because I can’t see many people talking about this book with people that have not already read it.    Challenges that do come up can be responded to with the fact that the book is meant to be, in part, an exploration of the rationalizations we make for less than moral choices; Micah’s more dubious actions are not condoned by the text.

Reasons for Choosing This Title:

I honestly wasn’t terribly intrigued by the idea of a “psychological thriller” about a teen girl who lies.  I have a lot of respect for Larbalestier herself though, based on her posts and tweets, and the book was recommended by a friend.  I am very glad I decided to finally read it.


cover image for DragonbreathVernon, U. (2009) Dragonbreath. New York, NY: Dial Books.




Danny Dragonbreath may be a dragon, but he can’t breathe fire.  Yet.  At the moment, though, he has bigger problems, like the F his teacher gave him on his report on the ocean.  Apparently it’s not acceptable to turn in an essay on the fictional Snorklebats and pretend it’s a scientific research paper.  Now Danny has just one day to make up his missed assignment or his mom’s going to kill him.  So he drags his best friend Wendell to the pier to visit his Uncle Edward, a sea serpent.  Perhaps Danny should be more worried about something other than his mom wanting him dead?


With Vernon as the author, a big part of Dragonbreath’s appeal is, of course, the illustrations, which are sprinkled throughout the book.  Some appearing where they would in more classic children’s novels, others going on for pages and including comic style speech bubbles.  That’s not all this book has to recommend it though, the story was entertaining, the humor spot on, and the characters likable.  Personally, I also loved the science information Vernon seamlessly added into her story.  You wouldn’t think that a humorous tale about a dragon, an iguana, and a sea serpent would try to include educational, scientific information, but Vernon has a keen understanding of what younger tweens know to be fantasy and a respect for their ability to separate likely fact from clear fiction.

Best for ages 6-10


Author website:

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

cover image for Percy Jackson 1Riordan, R. (2005)  Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.  New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children.



Percy Jackson is one of those kids that can’t seem to do anything right, but even he thinks it’s weird when he appears to to have obliterated his math teacher.  (He didn’t mean to!)  Things get even more odd when he comes home after having been kicked out of school (that part isn’t weird) and monsters start coming after him.  There’s a reasonable explanation for all this strangeness, though.  Percy is the son of a God, and Zeus (not his father) thinks he’s stolen something from him.  So all Percy has to do is find Zeus’ most powerful weapon, return it to him, and everything will be fine.   That’s it!  Easy, right?


In the first of what looks to be an incredibly entertaining series, Riordan creates a world that manages to blend Greek myths and modern life.  Percy is a great tween hero, he’s neither perfect nor overly reluctant.  While he felt like a failure before his adventure, readers know him to be a champion long before his identity is revealed.  His companions, Annabeth Chase and Grover Underwood, are a great match for Percy and his quest.  I look forward to reading the rest of series, and tweens will too.


Best for ages 10-15


Author website:

Miley Cyrus

cover image for Can't Be TamedCyrus, M., Armato, A., James, T., & Karaoglu, D. (2010) Who Own My Heart [Recorded by Miley Cyrus].  On Can’t Be Tamed [mp3].  Hollywood, CA: Hollywood Records.

Cyrus, M., Armato, A., James, T., Neumann, P., & Pompetzki, M.  (2010) Can’t Be Tamed [Recorded by Miley Cyrus].  On Can’t Be Tamed [mp3].  Hollywood, CA: Hollywood Records.

Cyrus, M. & Shanks, J.  (2010) Stay [Recorded by Miley Cyrus].  On Can’t Be Tamed [mp3].  Hollywood, CA: Hollywood Records.

[I wish I could just send you to this post at Tiger Beatdown in lieu of an actual review, as theirs will always be the much better review to read, but I can’t really turn in someone else’s blog post for my homework.  So here goes…]

After trashing the last couple of musicians, I’m now going to have to admit that I actually enjoyed Cyrus’ songs.   They still feel very extra shiny polished in a way that smells of lots and lots people working on Miley Cyrus, The Star.*  But.  They are actually interesting and, despite the being more mature songs, are also the kinds of things I’d like tween girls to be thinking about.

Yeah, I know, that’s not exactly an uncontroversial statement.  Now, I’m not really talking younger tweens here, and it’s clear that Miley has become more of a teen artist than a tween artist as she has moved into adulthood herself.


Granted, Stay is a pretty typical love ballad, but it’s also more musically sophisticated than, for example, Everclear’s offerings.  Who Owns My Heart had mine from the first though – talking about the difference between desire and love?  In a ways that also suggests she’s pondering if any love would ever be worth living up her artistic passions?  The lyrics are definitely more mature (although, when is rock not about sex?) but the questions are ones I want (older) tweens asking themselves.

And then there’s Can’t be Tamed.  Of course there’s going to be adults that are made uneasy by adolescents declaring their independence.  Especially when you throw “girls” and “sex” into the mix. I’m not really all that thrilled about tween girls thinking they need to be sexy, sexy to rebel myself.  At the same time, the fact that we seem to continually try to control girls’ sexuality rather than guide them is part of what led to this song and video, as is the idea that for girls, “sexually available” = “adult.”  So it seems to me that it’s very appropriate for older tweens to be listening to Miley – and for the adults in their lives to be engaging in conversations with them about why they think Miley is rebelling the way that she is.

Best for ages 13-16

Artist website:



*right, so, probably shouldn’t have reread Sady and Amanda’s post right before writing this.

The Phantom Tollbooth

cover image for The Phantom TollboothJuster, N.  (1961)  The Phantom Tollbooth.  New York, NY: Random House Children’s Books.


Nothing interests Milo.  Everyday is just another repetition of the same old humdrum that filled the day before.  Until a mysterious package arrives that sends Milo off to a strange world where watchdogs keep time, sounds are kept locked in vaults, and colors are created by an orchestra.  In no time at all, Milo is off on a quest to rescue not one princess, but two – Rhyme and Reason.  Will Milo manage to complete his quest?  Will he be able to find his way home afterwards?  And if he gets back, will Milo still think the world holds nothing but boredom.


Norton Juster’s classic has delighted tweens for decades, long before the term was even coined, and will continue to do so for decades to come.   The Phantom Tollbooth will especially delight younger tweens who are ready to graduate from Kat Kong and Dogzilla to more sophisticated word play, and yet still enjoy a day spend imagining themselves in places of their own creation.



Best for ages 8-12

Previous Older Entries