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.


Non-Print Resource: Teen Librarian Toolbox

Resource: TLT/Teen Librarian’s Toolbox

Audience: Tween/Teen Librarians; parents

Whether you are a tweens librarian at a public library or a middle-school media specialist, chances are you never feel like there are enough hours in the day to accomplish all you have to do: attending staff meetings, developing and maintaining your collection, managing volunteers, training patrons on tech resources, fixing those resources, checking in books, checking out books, chasing after kids to return their overdue books, running reports, and oh, somewhere in between, you’re also supposed to plan and deliver library programs that support the needs of your young patrons.

Teen Librarian Toolbox is a great professional development website for tween and teen librarians who are short on time.  It was created by Karen Jensen and her team of public and school librarians, as well as subject experts who contribute posts on specific topics like manga, graphic novels, and gaming.  There are even two middle-schoolers who help review books for tweens.  Together, this team has over 50 years of library experience, and it’s very evident that they are passionate about this age group.

 As you can see the web site is quite well-organized and is divided into several sections.  I’ll show you the ones that I find most useful.

The TPiB (Teen Programs in a Box) section is probably one you’ll use most often.

    • The programs are divided by categories: book-inspired programs, craft-centered ones, interactive ones, and a section for “non-traditional” programming.
    • Note that most posts give a quick explanation of why this program was created, followed by a guide showing you how to execute the program, as well as any collection connections – the books and non-print resources that you might want to pull ahead of time and make available for the kids to check out after the program.  The page might have one central activity, or multiple activities you could choose from.  Some will have an outline of supplies needed, cost, links to external websites, and photos of the event or the craft.
    • Here’s an example:
      • This one in particular is based on 4 reality shows.  Depending on your group, you can choose one that you know will go over well (say, the fashion or craft one), or, you can even take all four ideas, and stretch this out into a 4-week program.
      • Under the TPiB tab, you’ll find many “prepackaged” programs that you can adapt easily for your library and the age group you are working with, and they range from something super simple, to more elaborate programs that require a bit more planning.

The Booklists tab, I think, is very helpful because everything that has been reviewed or book talked on the site is organized by topics here, so that if you have a middle-schooler asking for books on “body image” or “bullying” or “zombies”, all you need to do is click on the link and all the books that have to do with that topic will be displayed.  Along the same lines is the Teen Issues page, meant more for librarians, which helps us understand today’s tweens/teens, what issues they are facing, etc.  There’s a page on reluctant readers, which would be useful for both public and school library patronsThe links might be articles on certain issues, recommended book titles, or links to important resources like Kids Helpline or other support groups.

There’s a section on technology – with resources like app reviews, social media, and online gaming in the library…basically everything you’ll need to know to “geek out” your library.  The calendar is very useful too, especially when you’re planning themed programs around holidays or special events, such as Teen Read Week coming up in October.   

I also loved the Teen Services 101 page, which has a variety of articles on putting together a successful and effective tween or teen program.  There’s even a section called “Things I Never Learned in Library School”, about different surprises and challenges that might come up in a real library setting.

As you can see, there is a LOT to explore on this website and really, I’ve only touched on a fraction of what’s available here.  My hope is I’ve shown you enough to pique your interest and that you’ll check it out on your own and find something useful for your program and your patrons.

Monster: Walter Dean Myer


Author: Walter Dean Myers

Publisher: HarperCollins World

Year of Publication: 1999

Personal Comments:

  • My favorite parts of the books are Steve’s journal entries, which allow readers to depart from the formal, matter-of-fact language of the script to get a glimpse into Steve’s feelings.  The first entry of his notebook (p. 1-5) was particularly hard to read.  At sixteen, most boys feel tough and like nothing can defeat them, and are great at masking their emotions.  Steve is presumably tougher than most boys, since he’s hung out on the streets of Harlem, with some rough, shady characters.  It’s hard to imagine what kind of conditions he experienced in jail that would cause him to shed his macho exterior and reduce him to a sniffling, little boy.  It’s sad to think that even when he’s that scared, he has to figure out when’s the best time to cry, so as not to draw attention to himself.

    I like how the journal entries also reveal his struggle with identity, how a few months in jail have made him doubt who he was:

    • “When I look into the [mirror], I see a face looking back at me but I don’t recognize it.  It doesn’t look like me” (p. 1).
    • He writes in another entry, dated July 8, “I want to look like a good person.  I want to feel like I’m a good person because I believe I am.  But being in here with these guys makes it hard to think about yourself as being different” (p. 62).
    • A day later, he observes that Miss O’Brien doesn’t really see him.  “Who was Steve Harmon?” he writes.  “I wanted to open my shirt and tell her to look into my heart to see who I really was….  I know that in my heart I’m not a bad person.”
    • Even after the trial is finished and he is acquitted, he is unsure of himself.  “That is why I take the films of myself.  I want to know who I am.  I want to look at myself a thousand times to look for one true image.  What did [Miss O’Brien] see that caused her to turn away?  What did she see?” (p. 281)

    The other thing the journal entries revealed were his close relationship with his family, which humanizes him and adds to his childlike qualities.  I love the scene where he and his brother Jerry talked about being superheroes, and Jerry said Steve should be Batman, so he could be Robin (p. 58).  It’s sweet that Jerry so unabashedly looks up to his older brother, and the friendly shove from Steve only goes to show his obvious love for Jerry.  The scenes where Steve’s parents visit him in jail are almost unbearable, especially the one where Steve realizes his father might also start to doubt him and see him as a monster (p. 116).

  • Monster was actually the first book I read this term, a couple of weeks before classes started.  One scene stopped my reading right on the tracks, kept me awake for a couple of nights, and still haunts me two months later.  As powerful as this book is, this scene defined the entire story for me.  On page 73:

    CUT TO: Weird shot of INTERIOR: DEATH ROW.  STEVE is seen walking down the hallway between two guards.  He is brought into the death chamber.  The guards are pale, almost greenish.  They lay STEVE on the table for the lethal injection and strap him down.

    CU of STEVE’s face.  He is terrified.

                VO (as camera focuses on STEVE’s face)

    Open your legs; we have to plug up your butt so you don’t mess yourself as you die.

    STEVE’s face grimaces with pain as they put in the plug.

    I can hardly type this scene without tearing up.  In one sentence (the voiceover), Steve is completely dehumanized.  I think about the sheer terror…what if he were my child…that he is someone’s child…that someone’s child/brother is put to death like this, reduced to nothing but something that could mess up the cot and cause extra clean-up…a nuisance.  And yet, this is a life.  I was never one to take a stance for or against capital punishment – I’ve always just thought it’s not up to me to decide about someone’s life – but this one sentence really rattled me.  I don’t know if I’d want even the worst criminals to face what Steve faces….

    The book also reminds me of the unfair treatment of black youths and racial profiling…as Steve wrote in his notes at one point, “What did I do?  What did I do?  Anybody can walk into a drugstore and look around.  Is that what I’m on trial for?  I didn’t do nothing!  I didn’t do nothing!” (p. 115)  It’s painful to think about the vicious cycle inner-city kids are stuck in.

  • This book will most likely appeal to teenage boys exclusively, particularly those who are interested in crime/murder fiction, even though the book is about much more than that.  It makes a powerful read for both African-American and non-African-American students, and offers an insightful look into our judicial system, our own prejudices, and the fragility of self-identity.  Because the book is written in script form as well as journal entries and lower reading level, it can be read quickly and  appeal to reluctant/struggling readers.  Though the courtroom scenes are matter-of-fact, some of Steve’s descriptions of life in jail might be too upsetting for younger readers.  For that reason, I would recommend this book for older middle-schoolers and up.

Awards, Honors, Prizes, Best Lists:

Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature, 1999 Honor Book Fiction United States
Coretta Scott King Book Award, 2000 Honor Book Author United States
Edgar Allan Poe Award, 2000 Nominee Best Young Adult Novel United States
Isinglass Teen Read Award, 2003 Winner New Hampshire
Kentucky Bluegrass Award, 2002 Winner Grades 9-12 Kentucky
Los Angeles Times Book Prize, 1999 Finalist Young Adult Fiction United States
Michael L. Printz Award, 2000 Winner United States
Adventuring with Books: A Booklist for PreK-Grade 6, 13th Edition, 2002 ; National Council of Teachers of English
Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2000 ; Bank Street College of Education
Booklist Editors’ Choice: Books for Youth, 1999 ; American Library Association
Books for You: An Annotated Booklist for Senior High, Fourteenth Edition, 2001 ; National Council of Teachers of English
Books in the Middle: Outstanding Books, 1999 ; Voice of Youth Advocates
Bulletin Blue Ribbons, 1999 ; Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
Capitol Choices, 1999 ; The Capitol Choices Committee
Children’s Literature Choice List, 2000 ; Children’s Literature
Horn Book Fanfare, 1999 ; Horn Book
Lasting Connections, 1999 ; American Library Association
Lasting Connections, 1999 ; Book Links
Middle And Junior High School Library Catalog, Eighth Edition, 2000 ; H.W. Wilson
Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Ninth Edition, 2005 ; H.W. Wilson
Not Just for Children Anymore!, 2000 ; Children’s Book Council
Parent’s Guide to Children’s Media, 1999 ; Parent’s Guide to Children’s Media, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Book Review Stars, April 1999 ; Cahners
Recommended Literature: Kindergarten through Grade Twelve, 2002 ; California Department of Education
Senior High Core Collection, Seventeenth Edition, 2007 ; The H. W. Wilson Co.
Senior High School Library Catalog, Supplement to the Fifteenth Edition, 2000 ; H.W. Wilson
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2000 ; American Library Association
YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2000 ; American Library Association

Accessed at: Personal Library

Hush: Eishes Chayil (aka Judy Brown)


Author: Eishes Chayil (also known as Judy Brown)

Publisher: New York : Walker

Publication Year: 2010

Brief Summary: Haunted by memories of her childhood friend’s rape and suicide, Gittel begins to question the close-knit religious community she has grown up in and overcomes her own guilt and fears by finally breaking her silence.  Based on true events and Brown’s own experience of growing up in the Chassidic sect.

Awards, Honors and Prizes:

Personal Comments:  The beginning chapters — filled with Yiddish vocabulary and detailed explanation of the religion and its history — might be hard for some readers to get through.  Those who persevere are rewarded with a powerful and well-written story about child abuse, religious fanaticism, fear and intolerance, friendship, and human courage.  Parents with young children might find this book especially difficult to read — Brown does not soften the harsh realities brought on by sexual molestation, the suffering and shame of victims, the frustrations, the desperation, helplessness, and anger they feel, etc.  Readers are forced to examine ourselves — because at the end of the day, this is not just a story about one specific community or religion, but one that can be told about any community we might find ourselves in and about any issue that we might be denial about, be it sexual abuse, eating disorders, bullying, etc.  Are we doing enough to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves?  Are we willing to shine a light on darkness even if it means going out of our comfort zone or going against what our family or friends expect of us?  Are we going to choose silence or follow blindly out of fear, or stand up and advocate for others with “valor”?  (Eishes Chayil means woman of valor.)

Near the end of the book, Gittel has just started her fight against the religious leaders of her community (as well as her family) in an effort to bring awareness to the problem of sexual abuse.  Her sister calls to scream at her.  How dare she speak against the rabbis?  How dare she speak about something that happened ten years ago and people have forgotten about?  How dare she put her family to shame and destroy all of their reputations by breaking her silence?  The sister forbids Gittel to go near her children with “that garbage mouth of [hers]”.  There are many great lines and passages in Hush (including Gittel’s letter to Devory that she sends in to the community paper); this was the one that opened the floodgate of tears.  After Gittel’s sister slams the phone down, Gittel begins to weep.  Yankel, her newlywed husband — whom she’d only met for 20 minutes before becoming engaged to him, at the age of 18, whom grew up in the same community where no one questions the rabbis or the religious teachings — comforts Gittel by saying this:

You are the Eishes Chayil…  You are the real one.  You are the only one protecting the children, and that is what a real mother does.

Audience: Due to the disturbing/graphic nature of this book, I would recommend this book to mature readers high school and older.  High school English classes might consider doing this as a class read-aloud or book project.

Helpful Links:

  • Eishes Chayil’s Huffington Post article on Orthodox Jewish child abuse
  • Author’s note about the writing of Hush (the same that was included at the end of the book)
  • Article from the Jewish Week about sexual abuse in the Orthodox community
  • Review in Jewish Action (Magazine of the Orthodox Union)
  • Hush pathfinder, developed by Sarah Hannah Gomez at Simmons College

Other notes:

  • The only thing I didn’t particularly like about Hush is the appearance of Devory’s “ghost” as she haunts Gittel and finally implores her into revealing the truth.  This is probably because I have just recently read Wintergirls by Lori Halse Anderson, a book also featuring two best friends separated by death and ghostly visits.  I feel Brown could have easily relayed the idea of Gittel’s guilt and anguish without these almost cliched hauntings.

Excerpts from Professional Reviews…

The story and the writing bring light to the nuances of the issues with insight and sensitivity. The development of the main character, the sense of place of the Chassidic community, and the ending, which brings closure without being unrealistically happy or trite, are all handled well. While intrinsically Jewish, this book could just have easily been written about another insular group or the Catholic priest scandal. Hush is highly recommended for mature teen readers. (Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter)

Family and social life within today’s Chassidic community are portrayed with affection for the warmth and the enduring values but with a clear eye for the vulnerability of the young and the hurt. When Gittel finally does try to tell her friend’s story, she comes up against the powerful men of the community. It is fitting that it is through the written word that both Gittel and the author are able to speak for the Devorys of the world. (School Library Journal)

Gripping, fascinating and poignant, the book is bravely written. …An extremely well-crafted story that keeps you turning pages. (

It is not always a pleasant or easy read, but it is a powerful, gripping young adult novel that demonstrates that sexual abuse can happen anywhere, even in an insular, devoutly religious community. (Children’s Literature)

For the reader who is willing to stick with this complex novel, it will strike a deep emotional chord. (VOYA)

Accessed at: Personal Library » How One Unkind Moment Gave Way To ‘Wonder’

I love the line “When given a choice to be right or kind, choose kind.”  What an important lesson for not only our children, but ourselves as well!  Here’s more from NPR’s interview with R. J. Palacio, author of Wonder.

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