Margin Notes



Orphan.jpgAfter her mother gets shot and killed at a checkpoint, Sarah finds herself isolated and running for her life. Being a Jewish 15-year-old in Germany in 1939 tends not to grant you many allies, and Sarah soon finds herself desperately trying just to survive. But a chance encounter with a mysterious man gives her a completely new objective. This man of mystery needs Sarah to infiltrate a Nazi boarding school and become friends with the daughter of one of the top Nazi scientists, all to halt the production of a bomb the likes of which the world has never seen before.

Matt Killeen’s Orphan Monster Spy is a thrilling story of overcoming seemingly impossible adversity and staying true to yourself and your ideals. The story has both scenes of thrilling espionage and quieter scenes of contemplation, and neither ever seem out of place or forced. Orphan Monster Spy captures Sarah’s flaws and strengths in stride, taking the time to examine each one while still keeping the story alive and well-paced. Whether you enjoy grounded, bleak realism and historical fiction or brilliant and cunning spies, Orphan Monster Spy is the right book to read.

Zander Strickland is a student who enjoys reading, writing, and cracking jokes about his unparalleled egocentricity. Or, at least people think he’s joking.



Bea.jpgMiddle schoolers have one thing in common: they all want to belong and find their “people.” Who doesn’t? I think it’s safe to say adults also crave this security.

The Way to Bea is a fiction novel that explores important themes, such as belonging, self-confidence, and acceptance. Beatrix Lee is questioning who her true friends are when she returns to school after summer break and is devastated that her best friend isn’t speaking to her.

Bea has a passion for poetry and this passion is woven throughout the story. She writes poems in invisible ink and leaves them in a special portal in the woods, hoping to get a response. Despite the snickers from others, poetry is Bea’s one true thing. She can count on it to bring her joy.

Throughout the story, Bea spends much of her time waiting for others to bring her happiness. She eventually finds her own way and realizes that she is the author of her own happiness. By helping a new friend out of a “dead end”, Bea discovers her true self. The author, Kat Yeh, captures the beautiful “give and take” of friendships.

Bea’s journey will speak to many middle school students about true friendship. She reminds us to be true to ourselves. I hope our students set off on a journey of self- discovery and feel proud of who they are after reading this book.

Sara BeLong teaches grade six at George Street Middle School. Her favourite genres are memoirs and realistic fiction.



One trend we have noticed, and also fallen in love with, over the last few years are novels written in free verse. Students are devouring them, and we are too! This is what Pernille Ripp has to say about novels in free verse in her classroom:

“These brilliant books with their impactful, but shorter, text is one of the biggest tools I have in getting students reconnected with reading.  There are a few reasons for this; students who are building up stamina in their reading concentration can stay focused with a faster-paced story, students where “regular” books intimidate them do not feel as overwhelmed due to less text on the page, and finally; the stories are enchanting.”

We are often asked for a list of our favourite novels in verse, so we decided to compile them here for you! As always, you know your readers best, so reading brief summaries of each title will guide you to know which titles to recommend to your readers.

Happy Reading!



York.jpgAs proclaimed by the book’s opening line, “the true story of any city is never a single tale; it’s a vast collection of stories with many different heroes.” The city in question for Laura Ruby’s York is New York City (hence the title), though not the one you may be familiar with. This version of The Big Apple is now overflowing with new technological wonders powered by solar energy and Lion batteries, thanks to the elusive and genius twins that had helped shaped the city many years ago: the Morningstarrs. But incredible technology wasn’t the only thing the Morningstarrs left behind; they also forged the Old York Cipher, an elaborate puzzle spanning the entirety of the shining city they helped to create. A treasure beyond all imagination lies in wait for any who can solve it.

Twins Tess and Theo Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in one of the few remaining Morningstarr apartment buildings – that is, until a powerful real estate developer buys it. With the building due to be demolished and no relief in sight, the trio decide that to save their home they’ll need to prove the Old York Cipher is real. And to do that, of course, they’re going to have to solve it.

I could tell you about York‘s intriguing plot, its sense of humour, or the clever puzzles it deploys, but those qualities pale in comparison to its sheer amount of personality. Each chapter follows a different character than the last, which in itself isn’t an uncommon practice. But where York differs is the stark contrast between each of its characters’ different viewpoints. Everything from the word choice and terminology to the overall mood of the chapter to the humour varies significantly depending upon who’s currently telling the story, making each character’s thoughts and desires seem all the more real and tangible.

For all of the reasons detailed above and many, many more, York will make an excellent addition to your classroom’s library.

Zander Strickland is a legend in the making, due to his dashing appearance, his constant attention to detail, and his unrelenting egotism. He was born in New York and now resides in New Brunswick.



“If learning, particularly that which takes place in a classroom, floats on a sea of talk, what kind of talk? And, what kind of learning?” ~ Simpson and Mercer

Bigger IdeasIn Building Bigger Ideas Maria Nichols defines talk as purposeful when it honors constructive intent, harnesses the power of varied perspectives, and engages participants over expanded time and space. Purposeful talk thrives in a dialogic space, “the shared dynamic space of meaning that opens up between or among participants in a dialogue. It forms as we immerse fully with thoughts that compel us, wrestle with the tug of varied perspectives, and construct unexpected new ideas with others.”

According to Nichols, two critical conditions for cultivating dialogic spaces are supporting children as they engage with each other and supporting children as they engage with ideas. In this context, “learning communities put talk to work, and the work of talk creates social bonds that continually strengthen the community.”

We can teach purposeful talk by teaching about talk as our students make meaning through talk. Building Bigger Ideas offers a responsive three-step framework:

  • focus children on aspects of purposeful talk behaviors,
  • facilitate as children engage with ideas and each other, and
  • offer feedback that links purposeful talk behaviors to the process of constructing meaning.

Using this framework, we can teach students to hear all voices, grow ideas, and negotiate meaning. The goal is to establish an environment where students use talk with independence to collaborate and build community. Purposeful talk, in the words of IDEO’s David Kelley, helps “you get to a place you just can’t get to in one mind.”

Building Bigger Ideas may be targeted to Kindergarten to Grade 5, but it will support teachers of all grades and levels in establishing purposeful talk in the classroom. This resource is a terrific complement to professional resource libraries that include Teaching Talk by Kara Pranikoff and Choice Words by Peter Johnston.



Field Guide.jpgIn his debut novel, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, Ben Philippe’s influences and inspirations are front and center. While he shares the Haitian-Canadian (je m’excuse, Quebecois) immigrant heritage with his protagonist Norris Kaplan, Philippe also directly references the 2004 high school dramedy Mean Girls, and the themes of this movie echo throughout the book.

As the new kid in school, after being dragged by his mom from Montreal to Austin, Texas, the socially selective (meaning slightly snobby and slightly awkward) Norris finds himself in a completely new setting: it’s hot, constantly hot, he’s the only French speaking student in the school, the only Canadian, and one of the only ones with a brown complexion. He is utterly prepared to hate his new life and carries the appropriate chip on his shoulder to school with him.

What unfolds is a story of, yes, discovery, but also an exploration and subversion of modern prejudice – the ones Kaplan fears, and the ones he realizes he holds.

This book should quench the thirst of most readers as it’s very relatable and cultural references are there for context and flavour. The quality of Philippe’s story and his writing style are impressive, but it should be noted that it does include mature content.

Will Milner is an English & Outdoor Pursuits teacher at Fredericton High School, where he also coaches soccer and track & field. When not teaching, or coaching, he can be found with his wife Jen outside with their dogs and playing with their daughter Olivia.



Girl Made of Stars CoverHow could something so heartbreaking be so full of hope? This question remained in the back of my mind as I read Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake.

As twins, Mara and Owen share an unbelievable bond. Ironically, it is this bond that threatens to tear them apart. When Owen is accused of rape, and the victim is Mara’s best friend, Hannah, Mara’s world begins to spiral. Her family expects she will support her twin, Owen, citing that this is all a “misunderstanding”. Mara’s bond with both the accuser and the victim makes it hard for her to make sense of the situation: “I need Owen to explain this. Because, yes, I do know Owen would never do that, but I also know Hannah would never lie about something like that.”

Challenged to find truth, Mara reveals a long buried trauma of her own, and begins her own journey of healing and hope.

In Girl Made of Stars, Ashley Herring Blake tackles many tough issues: rape, sexuality, anxiety, and gender identity. From the ripple down effects that sexual assaults create on the lives of the victims and those close to them, to the struggle with one’s inner conflict, this young adult novel tackles tough issues. With well-developed, diverse, and complex characters, who are both very likeable and very flawed at the same time, Girl Made of Stars makes for a powerful read.

With Girl Made of Stars, Ashley Herring Blake facilitates conversations about so much more than the literature and writing style. This novel sets the stage for discussions about consent, anxiety, victim blaming, and other important questions that teens may be facing.

Erma Appleby is an English Language Arts teacher at Oromocto High School, in Oromocto, New Brunswick.  She enjoys the discussion that literature can ignite and the role that it plays in our lives.



Someone I Used to KnowThe novel Someone I Used to Know by Patty Blount is about not only the survivor of rape and her interactions with others, but also the aftermath for her family and friends. It is this side of the story that I enjoyed the most, as emotional as it may have been. I also appreciated the strong male character presence in this book, and I feel that makes it a good read for a wide range of readers.

The book does not go into all the gritty details of the actual rape, but it certainly deals with Ashley’s thoughts and flashbacks about it and the triggers she faces on a daily basis. Someone I Used to Know is, from my perspective, a clear window and definitely an eye-opener into the effects of rape on not only the victim but also everyone she is connected with. The chapters alternate between Ashley and her brother Derek, so we get both of their perspectives on how they are each feeling and also how they assume the other is feeling. I think this is the way with many difficult family situations, where we find it easier not to mention the “incident” and think we know what is happening with each other when, in fact, we are wrong. This leads to misunderstandings and hurt feelings when discussing the issue head-on might be more beneficial for everyone involved.

The book is emotionally-driven and shows us how the relationships within the novel are affected by this traumatic event. We see how athletes and society revere their skill and entertainment value over the lives of “regular” people. We see how the victim suffers long after everyone assumes “they should be over it by now” and continues to suffer even after the rapist has served his time. We see how family dynamics change during a crisis and who is willing to stand up for what is right…even when it might not be the popular thing to do, and we are reminded that support comes from many different places, sometimes from where you least expect, but you have to be open to it.

I feel this book could be a beneficial read for survivors of sexual assault and their supporters. The daily decisions we take for granted continue to cause trauma and stress for these victims, and this book is able to educate us in an emotionally powerful way.

Paula Richards is a fairly new teacher to English Language Arts. She loves to read and has recently been surprised by a variety of new genres. She has three children who she tries to share her love of reading with through many library visits and too much money spent on book orders!



DryScience fiction is always at its best when it reflects our societal or cultural anxieties. Great sci-fi leaves readers pondering the what-ifs of our own world and, more importantly, how we may respond to such events. This is the reason that this genre has always appealed to me, and Dry, by Neal and Jarrod Shusterman, is no exception. This novel focuses on how society would respond to a major drought brought on by the effects of climate change. Spoiler: It is absolutely terrifying.

Set in southern California in the midst of a major draught referred to as The Tap-Out, Dry centers around Alyssa, a 16-year-old, and her family as they navigate their way through an unravelling society. Things go from bad to catastrophic as Alyssa’s parents go missing while trying to acquire water from government operated desalination machines. Now Alyssa is faced with decisions that could mean the difference between life and death for her friends and remaining loved ones.

Like all good science fiction, Dry will make readers begin to view the world differently. I found myself questioning what I would do in an event such as The Tap-Out and that idea alone can open up some undeniably great classroom discussions or writing prompts if the book was used as a read aloud. It should be noted that parts of Dry could be upsetting to some students. The novel doesn’t shy away from how animalistic humans could indeed get in such dire circumstances. With that said, I guarantee that this novel will leave you on the edge of your seat and unable to put the book down. The novel would be fantastic as a read aloud, as the story starts from the get-go and never really lets up. High school students will find a lot to connect with but even grade 8s who see stories of climate change on the news all the time will take something away from Dry. I would be hesitant to read this aloud to classes younger than 8th grade though, simply due to the intensity of some scenes and the mild language.

Overall, I can’t recommend this novel enough. Just make sure you have a bottle of water close by as you read it. You’ll thank me later…

Devin McLaughlin is a middle school teacher at Harold Peterson Middle School and teaches grade 7 and 8 Language Arts and Social Studies.



Shoe DogAs I was reading this book for Margin Notes, a student in my grade 8 class was sharing the book with me, as he couldn’t wait for me to finish it to begin his reading. I found a note he had scribbled on a post-it and left within the pages. It said: “This feels like my grandfather is telling me a story.” I think this sums up Shoe Dog very succinctly and clearly. This book chronicles Phil Knight’s adventures, successes and near catastrophic decisions as he chases his “crazy” dream of creating and selling shoes. And it really does read as if someone close to you is telling you a story.

This isn’t just a book for the sports enthusiasts in your classroom. Yes, this is the story of a runner who sees value in creating shoes that improve speed and endurance. But this is also the story of an entrepreneur. The book is replete with business jargon with discussions of equity, loans, and the fight for the title of sole distributer, but it is also a story of relationships and how we treat people “on our team”.

I am excited about having this “window” book that explores the initial resistance of banks/society to take running shoes seriously, but who are forced to, because Phil Knight’s ability to “dream crazy” is something nobody can contend with.

Megan Young Jones is a guest blogger for Margin Notes. She teaches Grade 8 Language Arts at Nashwaaksis Middle School in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Her favorite genres to read are historical fiction and true crime.