Margin Notes



Anna Hunt’s family has moved from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin and when Anna begins eighth grade at East Middle School, her Social Issues class is assigned an un-essay—a semester long project instead of an exam—on a social topic of their choosing.

At first, Anna struggles to come up with a topic for her project. But as she watches Rachel Riley being ostracized by their entire grade, she spends some time on Rachel’s social media and discovers that the year before Rachel had many friends in their class. Anna decides to take a deeper dive into what happened. She turns her un-essay into an investigation and presents her findings in a podcast series.

As Anna compiles evidence for her un-essay, she uncovers many challenging truths about bullying, toxic masculinity, and the disconnect that sometimes exists between our words and our actions. As she explains in a letter to her teacher:

Enclosed you will find the results of my research. In addition to my notebook, you will also find one pair of swim trunks, an old iPhone with recorded interviews, a gift certificate for Lee’s dairy Emporium, a purple lighter, a stapled packet of text message transcripts, and a pack of hallway passes. The passes were stolen from Mr. Corey’s desk in the art room—you can return them if you want.

I hope you learn, from everything in this box, how Rachel Riley went from the most popular girl in school to a Complete Social Outcast of the First Degree. I hope you learn that when asking a complicated question, you should prepare for that question to shake and quake into a thousand more. Because people, like fires, can surprise you. And lies, like flames, can spread faster than we can put them out.

Told through prose, letters, emails, texts, and audio transcripts, What Happened to Rachel Riley? is a fantastic read-alike for readers who enjoyed Dress Coded by Carrie Firestone and Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee.



There are four stories woven into the Schusterman’s brilliantly conceived novel, Roxy. Brother and sister, Isaac and Ivy Ramey, are accompanied as narrators by two anthropomorphized drugs: Roxy (OxyContin) and Addison (Adderall). The siblings recount their experiences with prescription drugs while Roxy and Addison unfold the tales of themselves and their party-going friends who frequent an exclusive club that pits them in a competition to get their ‘plus-one’ into the VIP Lounge.

I very much loved this book, and contend that it is essential reading for teens. North Americans are in the torment of an opioid crisis. Among people aged 12 or older in 2020, 3.3 percent (or 9.3 million people) misused prescription opioids in the past year and opioids were involved in 68,630 overdose deaths in 2020 (74.8% of all drug overdose deaths).1 Until recently, the term “drug use” typically referred to illegal substances like cocaine, heroin or crystal meth. Today’s teens are more likely to get hooked on prescription medication, especially painkillers. Most often teens receive opioid prescriptions after dental procedures and sports injuries. Similarly, adolescent abuse of Ritalin and Adderall is largely driven by the belief that these drugs can improve academic performance. This is more urban myth than reality; it is true that stimulants will heighten energy and focus in the short-term, but after the brain adjusts to the presence of such drugs, these effects are weakened and become more elusive.2

This pervasive problem is addressed in both the dedication: “For those in the throes of addiction, may you find the strength to fight off the demons who pose as gods“; and in the authors’ opening note that reads in part: “It is our hope that everyone who reads Roxy will leave the story with a clearer understanding of how insidious, seductive, and dangerous these drugs can be.”

Isaac and Ivy have relatable teen lives and plausible experiences that lead them to be prescribed opioids. Isaac receives Roxy (OxyContin) after a painful soccer injury, and Ivy takes Addison (Adderall) to help her focus on increasing her failing grades so she can graduate on time. With a popular post-modern nod, we begin at the end: “They tag your toe with the last name on your ID, and your first initial: Ramey, I.”(4) and then flash back through time unravelling how this pivotal moment came to be. Who dies: Isaac or Ivy?

Roxy introduces herself with confident self awareness : “I am so hot right now. And everyone knows it. It’s like I own the world. It has no choice but to yield to my gravity” (16). You enter the party with her, where: “Al greets [you] at the door, a glass of champagne in each hand… Al’s older than the rest of us,” Roxy amiably explains, “been around longer, but he carries his age well” (16). At the bar, you can catch a glimpse of Addison: “He’s dressed in a conspicuous style, like he belongs to a yacht club that his father owns. All prestige and privilege” (17). Also spotted: Molly, Mary Jane, Rita, and the Coke brothers, Charlie and Dusty. Each of them act predictably, like the drugs to which their names nod, and readers get a multi-sensory tour of how they work. For example,  we find Addison sitting at a piano recital with his older sister, Rita, comparatively ordinary next to their cousins: Crys, and the twins, in their “white silk suits and flashy jewelry, lounging in a private booth like they own the world, making the party come to them” (33) they instead, calm kids, help them focus– play the piano flawlessly, or as Rita points to her own ward in the audience, sit still through a performance.

The book is awash in delightful craft moves. There are six character-titled “interludes”, each matched with their molecular formulas (you can Google them– they are hyper-linked in this post for your convenience) and explore further the chemical literature of the National Library of Medicine‘s entries for each compound: Mary Jane (C21H30O2); Dusty & Charlie (C17H21NO4); Lucy (C20H25N3O); Phineas (C17H19NO3); Vic (C18H21NO3) and Hyde (CH2O). On their own, they provide poignant personified snapshots of marijuana and it’s legalization and medical use; cocaine, who boasts of his long historical significance, including once being the key ingredient in Coca-Cola (until replaced by caffeine); the powerful taunting of an acid trip; morphine as the Prince of Palliative Care, vicodin (Roxy’s brother) and even formaldehyde, the final drug used, when the character is embalmed for their funeral.

Michelle Wuest is and English teacher & SPR at Leo Hayes High School with over 20 years helping students find the right book. When not teaching or reading you’ll find her tap dancing, practicing yoga, walking her Doodle, seeing live music with her husband, or listening to her son rattle of random NFL stats for the eleventy-billionth time.



The Pigeon and I go way back. All the way back to the early 2000’s. My oldest child started kindergarten in 2004 and I discovered this hilarious book called Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! that we read over and over. By the time my youngest child came along, there were even more books in the series to read and love. All of them continue to be family favourites. If you asked my (now) teenage children if they remembered The Pigeon, you would probably get a chuckle and a nod.

It is because of my fondness for all things Pigeon, that I was so excited when I was gifted the book Be the Bus: The Lost and Profound Wisdom of The Pigeon as told to Mo Willems.

This book is hilarious. Written for a more mature audience (making it a fun read-aloud for high school students!) this book is full of fun and delight. For example, “Like Plato already said, “Never trust a quotation.” and “I regret nothing…except that last half hotdog”.

If you are a fan of Mo Willems or have students who remember The Pigeon from their younger days, this is a book you will want to read and share. 

Mo was interviewed about the 20th anniversary of The Pigeon and his new book Be the Bus. He has some great advice to share for adults in this video.  

My advice to you? Be the Bus…



From Tommy Greenwald, the author of Game Changer, comes another high-stakes, youth sport story that takes us through the risk and reward of contact sports, using a plethora of different multimedia to tell a relevant and compelling story. Dinged is a story about Caleb Springer a high-school freshman who has just made the starting quarterback position at his school. Caleb lives and breathes football, but when Caleb’s dad, an ex-NFL star, starts to act differently and begins to forget things, Caleb begins to worry that the game he loves so much could come at a great risk. Soon Caleb realizes he will have to make a choice, football, or his life. Dinged approaches the complex issue of CTE and the dangers of contact sport in a way that helps us understand Caleb’s struggle with playing the game he loves and understanding the risks involved.

One thing I have loved about Tommy Greenwald’s writing, is the way he uses multiple forms of media to tell his stories. Dinged follows the same script, as Greenwald tells Caleb’s story through text messages, school newspaper clippings, sports announcements, and radio shows. This format allows readers to get a clear insight into Caleb’s life, and the pressure he is feeling from all angles. It also gives some insight into his motivations as a character, while giving the thoughts of the people surrounding him. While reading you can start to understand Caleb’s insecurities, motivations, and understand that he is a very self-aware character trying to make a seemingly impossible choice. This format is very student-friendly, especially for readers who enjoy breaks from all-prose text. It would be a great novel to use as a craft study on different text formats, such as using text messages to convey dialogue between characters. It would also be an engaging read aloud that would encourage some thoughtful group discussions about character motivations and the influences we feel from the people we surround ourselves with, as well as the culture surrounding sports today that is just accepted as part of the game.

This book would be a great addition to classroom libraries middle school and up. Students who enjoy sports, especially football, will love the football commentary throughout the book, and will be invested in Caleb’s freshman season. However, this is not simply just a book for sports fans. I would recommend this to adults and youths alike. It has such a powerful message, told in a way that doesn’t just provide criticism but also allows for compassion. Greenwald uses his authors note to convey that that he doesn’t want to tell you want to think, he just wants to encourage you to think about the subject.

Lauren Sieben is a Grade 8 ELA teacher at Perth-Andover Middle School. Her favourite activity is reading books. Her second favourite activity is talking about them.




Zachariah Junior, ZJ to his friends, is an 11-year-old boy who seems to have it all: three great friends, a superstar father football player who adores him, a doting and caring mom, and a passion for writing songs. Told in the voice of ZJ, the story is narrated between the past of remembering the glory days of his father’s famous football career: riding high on his shoulders, the loyal fans, the Super Bowl ring, and the many conversations they had over stats, to the present reality of watching his father suffer from the injuries he sustained during his football career. What remains constant is the love between ZJ and his superstar dad, Zachariah 44. Readers will enjoy the playful teasing, and back and forth conversations shared, along with the tight- knit father -and-son bond. ZJ is affectionally know to his dad as “little man.” This proves to be important throughout the story. ZJ knows his dad is having a good day when he calls him by this name. At times, his dad struggles to remember.

Each chapter is a memory, or a present-day reality, all lovingly told from ZJ’s perspective.  Throughout the novel we are carried through good times of remembering the Before and there are too many great memories to count, to the Ever After, the hardship as ZJ and his mom worry about his father’s increasing headaches, memory loss and change in personality, all the while feeling very frustrated at the doctors’ inability to come up with a solution.  All mother and son hope for is a diagnosis to explain why he is in so much pain. Any reader who has longed for the way something used to be, will feel ZJ’s sadness as he remembers and wishes for his old dad back. The love and loyalty of his three friends: Ollie, Darry, Daniel, help ZJ to navigate his emotions during this hard time and to be there for their friend.

Jacqueline Woodson’s historical novel, Before the Ever After, is perfectly suited for pre-teens and teens as there is much to gain from reading this novel in verse. She draws the reader in by the flow of her writing, each page a delight to read. Themes of family, friendship, dealing with adversity and staying positive when times are tough, will give each reader something to think about while reading.

For teachers, this novel is full of mentor -text opportunities and invitations to show students how to write well: figurative language, strong voice, and lessons on descriptive word choice are definite mini lessons in any ELA classroom. More importantly, read this book out loud- you will not be disappointed.

Tina Kelly teaches language arts at George Street Middle School. She has over 25 years of experience with middle schoolers and loves nothing more than recommending and sharing great literature. Inspired by Nancie Atwell, she believes in the philosophy of the Readers Workshop and the importance of giving students the choice to read what they want.



If you are familiar with the Teach Living Poets website or the #TeachLivingPoets community on Twitter, you will want to get your hands on this professional resource. If you aren’t already acquainted with the work of Teach Living Poets, be sure to spend some time with it this month!

Lindsay Illich and Melissa Alter Smith have created a professional resource that celebrates the work of contemporary poets and the incredible thinking students will do when we put compelling poetry in their hands and create the conditions for them to grow their understanding about it together. As they write in the introduction:

To quote Kevin Akbar, we are living in “a golden age of poetry” (“The Rumpus”). We hope this book helps us open up the world of contemporary poetry and renews your passion for language and literature, which is so vital to engaged teaching. Indeed, in our own writing and teaching lives, reading and engaging in this world has opened us to a flood of generosity from writers and other educators, invaluable gifts that led us to write this book. We hope it will lead you to your own projects that will be gifts to others.

Teach Living Poets is overflowing with ideas for bringing contemporary poetry (and poets) into the classroom. It features lessons and resources that you can implement right away as well as examples of student responses and written work. I especially appreciate the way the classroom snapshots highlight many teacher voices by incorporating activities shared by contributors to the website. Each chapter includes dozens of recommended poems—so be warned it can be a slow read if you, like me, stop and google every title and poet, but I promise it will be totally worth it.

If you are looking for ways to incorporate contemporary poetry into your reading and writing workshop, I highly recommend adding Teach Living Poets to your professional resource library.



Hands, written by Torrey Maldonado, is a story that every teacher must read and have in their classroom library. When my colleague returned from NCTE with a signed copy, I was elated. I placed it on my book stack with the promise to get to it right away. But life happened and obligatory reads took over. My advance reader copy got buried in my stack waiting for me to find the time it deserved. On this languid Sunday afternoon, my advance reader copy, no longer advanced, found its way into my hands and it did not leave them until I finished this story written from the heart.

Trevor’s experience with his family and friends and finding himself through that turmoil will speak to every student in every classroom. Hands sheds light on the quiet strength of the student falling asleep during class who feels like they are in an impossible situation and doing their best to hold it all together. Trevor Junior’s current reality is a mirror for students that need hope that they too can respond to their challenges in ways that empowers them. His experience speaks to the capacity of human connection and that we can seek advice and help from those in our lives who will help us make the right choices, from our “F.R.I.E.N.D.S” as described by the acronym in the author’s note:

“Fight for me

Respect me

Involve me

Encourage me

Nourish me

Develop me

Stand by me.”

I love how Maldonado ingeniously threads how hands can be used to in many ways throughout each chapter: to express ourselves, to interact with the world around us, to create, to care for others, to communicate our love for others, to fight, to hurt and harm others. This aligns beautifully with Maldonado’s exploration of the different implications of the word promise throughout the story and how it too can be used to give hope but also make us feel hopeless. How fitting is it that Maldonado’s inscription on the inside cover is a promise of the impact of educators, “Our world is in your hands.” I hope you get your hands on a copy today!



I must admit, as a middle school teacher, I was hesitant to read this title out loud, however this cheeky title is a great read. Readers will love how the author, Huda Fahmy, writes about growing up and moving to a small town in Dearborn Michigan. As a Muslim teen, Huda knew exactly who she was in her old town, but in her new town, she feels lost. Huda is trying to figure out what every teen is essentially trying to figure out: their identity. With essential themes of micro aggressions and stereotypes, family and friendships, Huda retells her high school experience.

The story centers around her upbringing in a family of five girls and two loving parents who have high expectations of her. Huda finds every moment to make us all laugh at her awkward high school moments. Students will be able to relate to the idea that fitting in is hard and knowing who your true friends are is not always easy to figure out. Along the way she tries a variety of friend groups to see where she belongs. It takes an incident in the Principal’s office with her mother to make her come to terms with who she wants to be. I enjoyed this graphic novel in one sitting, and I highly recommend it for your classroom library.

Tina Kelly teaches language arts at George Street Middle School. She has over 25 years of experience with middle schoolers and loves nothing more than recommending and sharing great literature. Inspired by Nancie Atwell, she believes in the philosophy of the Readers Workshop and the importance of giving students the choice to read what they want.




Part ghost story part epic adventure novel The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home will haunt you & have you in stitches. Not because she put wax on your stairs while you were sleeping Edward, but for other. more novel appropriate, reasons.

I’m not going to lie to you, it’s gnarly. There are a lot of animal guts – more than you’d expect from an old lady but that’s the thing with our antagonist (and she certainly does antagonize), she’s unexpected. How did this old woman get into your home? Why is she still here? How does she watch you (and she certainly does watch you) without eyes? To find out this & more you’ve got to read the book.

The novel is written entirely from the perspective of The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home & details her childhood and unrelentingly long life. It’s got everything: doomed young love, doomed middle aged love, doomed old woman love. It’s got people using their trauma to propel them forward and it’s got people letting their trauma propel them to revenge! It’s equal parts vicious & voracious. It is not a novel for the weak of heart (because of the animal guts.) but it is a brilliant and well-crafted piece of literature for anyone looking for something a touch macabre.

Esther Soucoup is a BEd Student at the University of New Brunswick. They’ve been involved in several local theater productions, most recently being Ask You Like it produced by Bard in the Barracks. Esther has become friends with her Faceless old Woman because she talks to her cat at 4am while they’re sleeping, which stops the cat from destroying everything they own. It doesn’t stop the old lady… but baby steps. Baby steps…



Salahudin and Noor are teenagers growing up in the desert town of Juniper, California, who dream of escaping their working-class lives. Salahudin’s parents immigrated from Pakistan before he was born, purchasing a run-down motel with the hope of a fresh start. Noor immigrates from Pakistan after an earthquake kills her parents, where she and Salahudin become best friends, both labelled outsiders by their young classmates. As they grow up, their bond intensifies until unrequited love causes the friendship to dissolve, just as Salahudin’s family life, and Noor’s academic future, fall apart. A sequence of tragedies, followed by bad decisions, forces Salahudin and Noor to face each other and learn to define themselves in an unfair world. Through the themes of love, family and forgiveness, and the use of alternating perspectives, Salahudin and Noor in the present and Salahudin’s mother in the past, Sabaa Tahir showcases that fear and love connect us all.

Tahir highlights the injustices faced by people of colour, in addition to the everyday struggles they face. Her writing makes the reader rage along with Salahudin and Noor as they face racism and injustices no one should have to endure. You will want to reach into this book and comfort the characters; make them feel safe. Not only does Tahir capture the effects of generational trauma on young people, but she also captures the intricacies of family. Sometimes those who care for us the most have no blood relation, and who you consider family is for the individual to decide.

This book should be in every High School English classroom, and I would even go as far as to suggest its use for book clubs. Its target audience is mature students, grade eleven or twelve, as it deals with physical and sexual abuse, trauma, addiction, Islamophobia, and parental death. Students will see themselves in Salahudin and Noor, regardless of their skin colour, religion, or family dynamic. Fears associated with an unknown future, and disappointing those closest to you, are familiar to us all, regardless of background. I would not hesitate to give this book to any student who enjoyed The Hate U Give or They Both Die at the End.

Tanya Senechal is a Pre-Service Teacher completing her Education degree at the University of New Brunswick. She is an avid reader of YA fiction and YA fantasy who sometimes reads passages aloud for her cat, Nebula.