“The Christmas Visitor” by Anneliese Lussert

2511129-_uy431_ss431_Title: The Christmas Visitor

Author: Anneliese Lussert

Illustrator: Loek Koopmans

Summary: When a man dressed in rags shows up at Simon’s door, Simon looks down on him and turns him away.  His ailing wife, Sarah, takes pity on the man and offers him what little she haa in hopes it would be of comfort to him.  In return, the strange visitor performs a miracle that heals Sarah.  Astounded, Simon realizes he might have missed out on something bigger and more important than himself.  Despite his discomfort, he follows the stranger on a journey and finds a treasure that transforms him forever.

Discussion Questions:2dfe5aeb4edc75940eab249e9abcd49c

  • Who is the visitor that shows up at Simon’s door?  Why does Simon turn him away?
  • Whose footprints/voice is Simon following?  Why does Simon decide to follow?
  • What does Simon have to give up in order to help the people he meets on his journey?  Do you think it is difficult for him to help others?
  • How does Simon’s character change from the beginning to the end of the story?  What lessons does he learn on his journey?
  • What connections can you draw in this story about you and and your relationship with Jesus/God?
  • Have you ever felt God calling you to do something or help someone?  Is it always easy to hear God and what he wants you to do?
  • Discuss a time when you heard God calling on you to do something or help.  How did you know God was talking to you?  Did the task require you to sacrifice something?  Did you follow his voice/footsteps and obey, even though it might’ve been difficult to do or required some sacrifices on your part?
  • What are some examples of sacrifices you might have to give in order to help others as God asks?  Why do you think God makes it hard sometimes for you to help others or do his will?
  • If doing God’s will is sometimes difficult, why do you think we should still do it?  What are some benefits of following God’s will, helping others, etc?

Booktalk: Level Up by Gene Luen Yang

bookcover  geneyanglevelup dream in pixelseat bitterness

Level Up

Author: Gene Luen Yang

Art by: Thiem Pham

Awards/Best Books/Honors:

Cybil Award, 2011 Finalist Graphic Novel (Young Adult) United States
Choices, 2012 ; Cooperative Children’s Book Center
New York Times Notable Children’s Books , 2011 ; The New York Times
YALSA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, 2012 ; American Library Association

Target Audience: Grades 9 and up


What are you passionate about?

What do you dream of doing with your life?
What if this dream clashes with everything that you’ve been brought up to be or do?

What if following the dream means derailing from a path that others have planned for you?

Ever since Dennis saw his first arcade video game, his dream has been to become a professional gamer.  His friend calls him the Good Will Hunting of video games, as if his brain were made by Nintendo.  Imagine playing and testing video games during the week and competing in tournaments on weekends, getting paid big bucks and meeting beautiful groupies while doing so.  Life doesn’t get much better than that!

Unfortunately, Dennis’ parents have an entirely different idea for his life.  Having sacrificed everything when they immigrated to America, they wanted Dennis to learn how to “eat bitterness”.  To them, he has only one path: get straight A’s in high school, go to a great college, study medicine, and become a gastroenterologist.  Nothing that even comes close Dennis’ idea of a happy life.

Which road will Dennis choose?  Will he be the “good son” and follow his parents’ wishes, or will he define his own happiness?

Find out in Gene Yang’s Level Up.

Homeless Bird: Gloria Whelan

Homeless Bird

Author: Gloria Whelan

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication Year: 2000


Imagine marrying a person you’ve never met.

Imagine finding out that your new husband is very sick.

Imagine that when he dies, just a few weeks after your wedding day, you become a nobody… someone who is considered unlucky, someone that no one would ever dare to love again.

Imagine being abandoned in a strange city, with a …imagine having to survive on the streets, with just a sleeping roll and $1 – just one dollar! – in your hand.

Now imagine that all of this happens before your 14th birthday.

Set in India, Gloria Whelan’s Homeless Bird tells the story of Koli, a girl whose family considered her a burden.  At 13, she is married off to Hari in an arranged marriage.  Only after the wedding did she find out that the groom – a boy about her age – is dying, and that her in-laws wanted her only for what little dowry she could bring.  They use the money to travel to the holy waters of the Ganges, which they believe would miraculously heal Hari.

When Hari and his dad die, and his younger sister is married herself, her mother-in-law does what is many do with “unlucky” widows – she abandons Koli in a city called Vrindavan, where thousands of widows like her (young or old) live out the remainder of their lives on the streets, struggling to survive.

Whelan’s story paints a vivid, and oftentimes heartbreaking, story of Koli’s short-lived marriage, her friendships with the most unlikeliest people, her strained relationship with her mother-in-law, her despair after becoming homeless, and her will to survive.  What do you guys think you would do, if you were in her shoes?  What do you think happens to her?  Find out, when you take home Gloria Whelan’s Homeless Bird.

Awards, Honors and Prizes:

Ideas for using this book in classroom or library; brief notes on curriculum connections/content learning standards/Common Core/etc.

  • Discussions on India: geography, history, culture/customs, etc.  What are some problems it is facing today?  What are some of its accomplishments?  Discuss the caste system in Inida — what does it mean?  how does it work?  How might the caste system dictate how people’s lives turn out?
  • Discuss child marriages in India (as well as other countries such as Ethiopia) and its implications (girls who are forced into child marriages often lose their chance to become educated, etc.)  What are some ways you, as a student in America, can bring about positive changes for girls in a different country?  Older students can explore different ways to get involved in advocacy — through literature, visual arts, music, film, photography, drama, etc.
  • We might not have “child marriages” in the US, but what are some ways that prevent children in getting an education here?
  • Watch clips from the film “Girl Rising” and discuss.  (Another clip about child marriages/education — this one about a girl in Ethiopia — can be seen here.)  What is it like for girls in some of the countries in the film?  How are their lives different from those of girls in America?  (Some scenes/content can be disturbing…use clips according to the school’s guidelines/rules.)
  • What were some things Koli did in order to survive?  How did she use her skills/resources to build a life for herself?
  • Link to discussion guide.  
  • Recommended for readers 10 and up.  Will primarily appeal to girls, students interested in India, and reluctant/struggling readers.  Would work well as a class read-aloud as a way of introducing a different culture, world issues such as poverty, women’s right to education, women’s equality movement, etc.  Could be an inspiration for kids who want to change the world.

Accessed at: Personal Library

Booktalk: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi


Title: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Author: Marjane Satrapi
Publication Information: New York: Pantheon Books, 2003.
Age group: Upper grades, high school and up
Topics: Iran, Iran-Iraq War (or First Persian Gulf War), Middle East history, Islamic Revolution, cultural revolution


  • Persepolis was the 2004 winner of YALSA’s Alex Awards, given to books written for and marketed to adults that have special appeal to young adults 12-18.

  • Earlier this year, there was talk that Persepolis might become banned from the Chicago Public School system for content that might be “age-inappropriate” for kids younger than 7th grade (graphic scenes of people being tortures/killed; explicit language; sexual references; defiance of authority; etc.).  ALA promptly filed a letter of concern.

  • Students who liked the book may want to watch the 2007 animated movie adaptation directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi herself.  The movie was nominated for numerous awards (including an Oscar) and won several (20).  Curiously, even though the film is filled with violence, sexual references, and language, it was rated PG-13.

Summary: In Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, she describes what it is like to grow up in Iran from ages of six to fourteen.  Daughter of outspoken Marxists and descendant of one of Iran’s emperors, Marji witnesses gross human injustices, her people’s struggle to overthrow an oppressive government, and many senseless deaths.  When she becomes rebellious herself, her family sends her to Vienna to keep her safe.  In writing Persepolis, Satrapi wishes to dispel the stereotypical images that Westerners ascribe to Iranians based on “the wrongdoings of a few extremists” (Introduction to Persepolis).


What does freedom mean to you?  Does it mean being able to eat whatever you want, dress however you like, stay out however late with whoever you want?  To some of you, it might mean being able to wear makeup, drive yourself to places, go to parties, listen to punk rock, dye your hair blue, get a tattoo or pierce your ears (or bellybutton, or tongue, or eyebrows), right?

Well, freedom means something entirely different to Marji and her family in Iran.  They want a bit of what you want too, but they also desire something that you and I sometimes take for granted here in the United States — the freedom to speak, the freedom to think for themselves, and the freedom to question their government.

Under the rule of the fundamental right, ordinary citizens — even young girls and boys like Marji and her friends — are often chastised for the the slightest offenses — like not wearing their veils or speaking against authority or daring to attend or organize demonstrations.   Punishments can range from a scolding, a slap across the face, detention — if they are lucky — or, for those less fortunate, arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution.

What do you think it’d be like to live in a world like that?  Hard to imagine, right?  And yet, for young Marji, this is her reality and her norm.  In our country, we often discuss the Middle East in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism, but Marji wants us to know about the Iranians she knows and loves: those who were tortured or killed in defense of freedom, and those who had to leave their families behind in order to escape wrongful imprisonment and prosecution.

To read more about Marji’s childhood in Iran and how she grew up under the blood and terrors of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, pick up Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.  It will open your eyes to this very important part of the world and change the way you think about the people of the Middle East.

Personal Comments: I read Persepolis earlier this year, the first graphic novel I had read.  It is safe to say that it has forever changed the way I view graphic novels.  I was shocked how the format, art, and the text worked together to make a topic that I had absolutely no previous interest in so fascinating and so emotionally-wrenching.  I think that’s what a great book can do — to dispel previous prejudices about something — graphic novels, Middle Eastern culture/people — or at least open up our eyes to see something from another point of view.  Though Persepolis contains mature themes that might be disturbing to readers, it is a worthwhile read.  Students who enjoy this book can read the sequel, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, chronicling Marji’s life in Vienna, her return to Iran, and her search for her identity.  Students can also read Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale, a biographical graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about surviving Hitler and the Holocaust during WWII.  For a more light-hearted fare, read Gene Leun Yang’s American Born Chinese, also an autobiographical graphic novel.

Booktalk: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Title: Between Shades of Gray
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publication Information: New York: Philomel Books, 2011.
Age group: Middleschool and up
Topics: labor camps, World War II, holocaust, survival


Summary: On the evening of June 14, 1941, Soviet secret police tears through the door of the home of  fifteen-year-old Lina and promptly arrests the family without reason.  Separated from her father, Lina and her mother and younger brother are shoved onto a truck, and later, a train car marked “Thieves and Prostitutes”. They make their way to a Siberian labor camp, witnessing death and NKVD’s constant attempts to squash the prisoners’ spirits and forced to live under harsh, inhumane conditions.  Lina, an aspiring artist, fights for survival and vows to document the injustice that her countrymen is subjected to and the strength and hope they display.


Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth?

How much would you give to spare your son, daughter, wife, husband, brother, sister, or parent from certain death?

Fifteen-year-old Lina is just a regular girl — a lot like you and your friends — who is ready for the summer to start.  She can’t wait to put on pretty dresses, makeup, and go on her first date, and is applying to art school to become an artist.

Lina is just a regular girl, but all that is about to change.  World War II has just started.

Here’s an excerpt on the night her entire world collapses:

(Read from Chapter 7)

They were taking Jonas.  My beautiful, sweet brother who shooed bugs out of the house instead of stepping on them, who gave his little ruler to splint a crotchety old man’s leg.

“Mama!  Lina!” he cried, flailing his arms.

“Stop!” I screamed, tearing after them.  Mother grabbed the officer and began speaking in Russian — pure, fluent Russian.  He stopped and listened.  She lowered her voice and spoke calmly.  I couldn’t understand a word.  The officer jerked Jonas toward him.  I grabbed on to his other arm.  His body began to vibrate as sobs wracked his shoulders.  A big wet spot appeared on the front of his trousers.  He hung his head and cried.  

Mother pulled a bundle of rubles from her pocket and exposed it slightly to the officer.  He reached for it and then said something to Mother, motioning with his head.  Her hand flew up and ripped the amber pendant right from her neck and pressed it into NKVD’s hand.  He didn’t seem to be satisfied.  Mother continued to speak in Russian and pulled a pocket watch from her coat.  I knew that watch.  It was her father’s and had his name engraved in the soft gold on the back.  The office snatched the watch, let go of Jonas, and started yelling at the people next to us.

Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth?  That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.

Lina and her family get to stay together…for now.  Read Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys to see how they manage to keep faith in the travesty that is committed towards them and their people.

Personal Comments: Students who are interested in WWII, labor/prison camps, and the holocaust can read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2007), about a young girl living outside Munich during WWII and how she manages to learn to read and share stolen books with her neighbors.  Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps by Andrea Warren  (2002) describes the Holocaust from the point of view of a boy survivor…might be interesting to note differences between a) boys and girls during WWII, b) Holocaust vs. labor camp experiences, etc.  Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust by Allan Zullo (2005) is a non-fiction title consisting of a collection of true survivor stories.  Due to the subject matter, all of these titles are suggested for middle-schoolers and up.

Booktalk: Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwar Wolff

Audio Version: http://sisdrupal.cci.utk.edu/jlin21/sites/sisdrupal.cci.utk.edu.jlin21/files/booktalk_makelemonade.mp3

Title: Make Lemonade

Author: Virginia Euwer Wolff
Publication Information: New York – Henry Holt & Company, 1993
Age group: Ages 10 and up according to publisher, but I would recommend this for middle-schoolers and up
Topics: teen pregnancy, teenage mothers, single parent famillies, inner city poverty

Notes: Novel in verse form might appeal to reluctant readers; stream-of-consciousness style also makes text easy to read.  On several Best Books lists (YALSA, Kirkus, ALA, etc.) and winner of the Golden Kite Award, 1994.

Summary: Fourteen-year-old LaVaughn’s goal is to be the first person in her 64-apartment building to go to college.  She sets out to save for college and applies for a job babysitting for Jolly, a seventeen-year-old high school dropout with two kids by two different fathers.  When she sees the broken-down building (even worse than her own) and the disorderly and stinky apartment, LaVaughn is unsure how much she can help.  She takes the job anyway, and the two girls work alongside each other to reach their separate goals and build their own futures.

Booktalk (print version):

What do you do when life gives you lemons?  Make lemonade…right?  But what if your life is so bad you don’t even get lemons…in fact, what if you are handed only a few lemon seeds, and no matter how much you water them, talk to them, and give them sunlight, nothing grows?

Jolly’s life is bad like that.  In fact, she lives in a broken-down, smelly apartment, crawling with roaches and covered in grime and dirt, rotting banana goo and dried up creamed spinach.  She is sexually harassed at work and gets fired for it, so now she doesn’t even have money for the basics, like heat, electricity, food, and toilet paper.  Oh, and get this — Jolly’s only 17 and has two babies by two different fathers, both gone, and no, she can’t afford any diapers either.

This is how she describes her life (read from pages 107-108):

You know how the astronaut up there in space

he might have to go outside the rocket he’s in?

Like to make repairs or something?

Like they radio him up there

from down in Florida, they say he’s gotta go outside

and fix something?

Well, he’s hooked by his cord,

Like a big belly-button cord.


Well, spose the hatch closes while he’s out there.

By an accident.

It cuts his cord.  Slices it right off.  He floats away.

See?  He floats out there.  Just out there.  You know?

Just out there, on and on.

See, even if they wanted to send somebody after him, they wouldn’t know

where to look.

He ain’t connected.  See?

Sounds pretty desperate, doesn’t it?  And it is, until Jolly meets LaVaughn, a fourteen-year-old girl who dreams of being the first person in her whole 64-apartment building to go to college.  She answers Jolly’s babysitting ad so she can save up for school, but what do you think she does when she shows up and meets Jolly and her sticky, screaming kids?  Will Jolly’s mess derail LaVaughn from her plans for the future?  Or will the two of them somehow get those lemon seeds to sprout?   You’ll have to pick up this book — Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff — and find out for yourself.

Personal Comments: Make Lemonade is the first book of a trilogy, followed by award-winning True Believer (2001) and This Full House (2009).  Readers who enjoyed the first will want to read the rest of the trilogy to see what happens to LaVaughn.  Another book about teen mothers and poverty — Janet McDonald’s Coretta Scott King Award for New Talent winner Chill Wind (2002) — tells the story of 19-year-old Aisha, a high school dropout with two kids, find her way to support her family in New York City.  McDonald also wrote Spellbound (2001), which tells the story Raven, a teen mother living in the housing project, studying for a spelling bee that could lead to a four-year college scholarship.