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.



John Schu primes readers with personal reflection of the books of their heart within the first few pages of his book, The Gift of Story: Exploring the Affective Side of the Reading Life. I love the following questions that Schu uses during his school visits where he shares his love of stories.  

“Is there a book that changed your life?  

Is there a book that feels like a best friend to you?  

Is there a book that you have read so many times that most of it is tattooed to your heart?  

Is there a book that everyone in this room should know about?  

Is there a book that calms you and helps you find your way back to joy? 

Is there a book that helped you understand yourself or a classmate better?  

Is there a book you wish you could give to everyone you meet?” (Schu, 2022, p. 2) 

Book love and joy is something we must sustain and sometimes reclaim throughout the year in our reading communities. These questions are a wonderful resource to add your toolbox for supporting your readers to reflect on their own book love. Sharing “the book of your heart” is a powerful way to exchange book love between your readers. Try it tomorrow!  



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.



What I was Reading:

A middle school novel by Lawrence Hill? Yes, please! Beatrice and Croc Harry is a genuine and creative romp filled with fascinating words, a new land full of adventure, an intriguing and brave protagonist and a talking crocodile, who build a curious and complex relationship out of intellect, wit, and sincerity. “Using playful language and a comic touch, the novel explores themes of identity, the courage to confront injustice, and the possibility that perpetrators of injustice and those who have been harmed might find themselves in a place of healing and respect” (from Lawrence Hill’s website).

Moves I Noticed the Author Making:

  • Complex words in a new and complex world: Throughout the novel, Beatrice and Croc Harry share witty banter full of wild new vocabulary words that are wielded almost as weapons used to challenge and outwit. Some words will be new to readers, some are completely made up, and some are related to local/cultural dialect. It looks like this:


Croc Harry exhaled loudly. “Attitudinous brat!”

“How dare you call me attitudinous,” Beatrice said.

“Well, you are!”

“Is that even a word?”

“It’s a word in my books. It means too mouthy for your own good.”

“Well, if I’m attitudinous, it so happens that you smell like an unwashed bear. And you are positively assitudinous.”

“I bathe daily,” Croc Harry said. “And assitudinous is not a word.”

“It is in my books,” Beatrice said.

“So what’s it mean, then?” Croc Harry asked.

“Stubborn like a donkey.”

  • Create an authoritative text to make it real: The author gives a specific name to the made-up dictionary that holds many of these creative and complicated words and concepts explored by Bea and Croc Harry, which makes them seem more meaningful. As complex vocabulary is introduced, the words are often defined by one of the characters or by Beatrice’s unique dictionary. Hill names the dictionary in this story “The St. Lawrence Dictionary of Only the Best Words, Real and Concocted.”

Possibilities for Writers

  • In March 2022, the New York Times’ Learning Center encouraged teens to compete by creating new words and definitions. Check it out here: 24 New Words Invented by Teenagers – The New York Times ( See what exciting words your writers can come up with. Build a word wall to display what new words students have learned and created.
  • Challenge your writers to invent a new dictionary to hold these exciting new words. Create elaborate definitions for words and come up with a creative name for individual dictionaries. You could also make this a collaborative event in the classroom by creating a classroom dictionary of weird and wonderful words.

Cristina Furey is a UNB student who loves sharing words and stories with people of all ages. She believes there is no better feeling than recommending good books to the readers who need them most and always hopes the magic of storytelling will capture attention and foster the joy of reading in all hearts and minds.



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…



On our continuing mission to engage students with writing, what better way than to have them write about who they are and perhaps even what they like to write about, while highlighting that they are all authors. One way to do all of this is by having students write their own author bio, that they can include with any writing pieces throughout the year.

To begin the lesson, a craft study on a varied selection of author biographies would be ideal. Below are a few example mentor texts that I would select. As we move through them, I would ask students to notice what makes each one similar or different than the pervious one. In other words,  what elements do author bios require, and which ones can be included by choice?

  • Karina Yan Glaser has had many jobs, including waitressing, community organizing, and teaching literacy in family homeless shelters. She is now a full-time writer, as well as a contributing editor to Book Riot. She lives in Harlem, New York City, with her husband, two daughters, and assortment of rescue animals. On of her proudest achievements is raising two kids who can’t go anywhere without a book.
  • Alex Gino loves glitter, ice cream, gardening, awe-fun puns, and stories that reflect the diversity and complexity of being alive. They are the author of George and You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! George was a winner of the stonewall Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Children’s Choice Book Awards, among a host of others.
  • Dana Alison Levy was raised by pirates but escaped at a young age and went on to earn a degree in aeronautics and puppetry. Actually, that’s not true- she just likes to make things up. That’s why she has always wanted to write stories. Her previous books, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island, and This Would Make a Great Story Someday, have garnered starred reviews, been on multiple Best Of and state award lists, and were Junior Library Guild selections. Also, her kids like them. Dana was last seen romping with her family in New England.

Some examples of what you and your students may tease out from author bio mentor texts is that they must include third person voice, state where they are from or currently live, and that they might contain the author’s interests, pervious jobs, literary accolades, points of pride, and a note about the people they share their life with.

Next, it’s your students’ turn to write one, keeping in mind the essentials while also getting the opportunity to make it their own. Their author bios can be as factual or as imaginative as they would like, and in this way, each student may decide whether this assignment is fiction or non-fiction, or a combination of the two.

Some possible extensions to this writing opportunity might include having students to work collaboratively by interviewing each other and writing a bio for their partner. Another possible extension could be having them represent their bio by including a self-portrait and designing the interior of a book jacket, for example.

Chanelle Coates can be found at a local cafe with an iced vanilla latte in hand, reading, writing, and painting with watercolours. The rest of her time she spends thinking about skincare, re-watching Grey’s Anatomy, and FaceTiming her partner Sam.



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.




How do you pass the time on long car drives?  

My family listens to podcasts which is how we discovered APMStuidos’ Smash Boom Best. This is a debate podcast for families and kids. Each episode has guests debate two topics throughout three rounds. The judge is given points to award after each round to help decide the winner. This setup brought a lot of joy to our car ride as we paused the show to discuss and defend where our points would be given. Naturally, this discussion, opinion defense and evidence gathering led me to think about the classroom.  It would be a great resource for a grade 3 – 6 classroom.

How could this be used in the classroom? 

  • Use the scoreboard available on the Smash Boom Best website to track points and start discussions. 
  • Discuss the elements of a debate using the Listening Party Kit to see how the debaters defended their point of view.  
  • Adapt their lesson plans to have students create their own debate. 
  • Try out persuasive argument techniques with their section on how to build a strong argument.  
  • Practice creating and defending an opinion through listening to an episode, the scoreboard tracker and a verbal or written defense. 

There are so many ways to incorporate this educational and entertaining podcast into a classroom. Leave a comment if you give any a try!  



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.