Margin Notes

YOU’LL BE THE DEATH OF ME BY KAREN MCMANUS 

Mar
15

“We all make mistakes, right? And almost never see the fallout coming.” 

If you enjoyed her books One of Us is Lying or The Cousins, you will be happy to pick up You’ll be the Death of Me. I enjoy a mystery and, even more than that, I appreciate how McManus captures the complexities of relationships in high school. Students gather together in one spot each day yet their experiences inside and outside that building are vastly different. This story centers around Ivy, a rich blonde who feels unseen under the comparison to her brother; Mateo, a mysterious student who is working multiple jobs to support his mother while also protecting his cousin; and Cal, an artist who romanticizes a middle school adventure as he experiences the life of an outcast in high school. 

The unlikely friendship that connects these three begins with the desperate need to escape their current situations. The trio once happened to experience “The Greatest Day Ever” in the 8th grade and circumstances have brought them together to try to recreate this before graduation. The fantasy of this adventurous escape, paired with the deep nostalgia of good times passed, is one with which teenagers can relate. Unfortunately for them, “The Greatest Day Ever” sequel starts with the discovery of a dead classmate and a witness describing one of them as the murderer.  

McManus’ writing is fast paced with vivid description casting a movie in your mind. Her depiction of the complicated nuances of relationships with friends, parents, siblings and partners creates a connection between the reader and characters. The book is another title to add to your mystery collection.  

 

GUEST WRITER SARA BAMFORD RECOMMENDS BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL

Mar
01

Ruta Sepetys celebrated the 10th year anniversary of Between Shades of Gray by adapting the story into a graphic novel- and it does not disappoint. The graphic novel was adapted by Andrew Donkin with art by Dave Kopka and colour by Brann Livesay who worked brilliantly together to provide the readers with an emotional connection to this historical depiction through images.

Between Shades of Gray is an important read. Considered historical fiction, Sepetys provides readers with a perspective that, to most, was overshadowed by the many horrific events of World War II. The story follows the deportation of Lithuanian citizens to the bleak back world of Siberia under Stalinism. Thousands were herded like cattle into boxcars and blindly shipped across the continent, only to endure inhumane conditions. The story is told through the eyes of a young girl, Lina, whose family is deemed as criminals by Stalin, and are subjected to deportation. Lina’s artistic talent lies within a pencil on paper- she uses this talent to record the horrific conditions and treatment, along with mapping their travels to Siberia in hopes of connecting with her father again. This is a story of power in love and hope- to be able to return with her family to Lithuania someday.

This was an illuminating read for me- to learn of the enslavement of Lithuanians by the Soviet Union and the continued discrimination years after the war. Sepetys provides historical context at the end of the graphic novel to inform readers that these stories are not as prevalent because for years after the war, Lithuanians were treated as criminals and forced to keep their experience quiet through harsh surveillance by the government. Sepetys also reveals that although the characters are created based off of many stories heard from survivors, one character, Dr.Samodurov is real.

This graphic novel adaptation literally illustrates the haunting horrors of WWII Soviet prisoner camps. Kopka and Livesay vividly capture the bleakest moments of the story in colour choices and words that leave the reader simply staring at the page to capture each emotion.

Sara Bamford is a high school English teacher who escapes her busy mom-life by digging into good books and journaling. Her passion is to find her students the novel that makes them want to read another novel to ignite the passion of getting lost in a good book.

HOW TO WRITE SHORT BY ROY PETER CLARK

Feb
22

In How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times Roy Peter Clark advises “if you want to write long, begin by writing short.” This really sparked my thinking on short writing mentor texts that can be used in the service of writing both short and long.

According to Clark: “If your goal is to write short and well, you must begin by reading the best short writing you can find. Start by keeping a ‘commonplace book,’ a notebook that contains treasured short passages from your favorite authors next to bits and pieces of your own writing.”

Christopher Johnson, author of Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little, recognizes that short writing reflects its own conventions—the strategies that make very short messages effective, interesting, and memorable. He explains that “if extended prose writing is like a painting or illustration, microstyle is like graphic design. It employs a subset of techniques used in more detailed arts, and because it serves different ends, it involves techniques and conventions of its own.”

Spending time close reading short writing is time well-spent for writers. Reading short writing through this lens reveals what Roy Peter Clark describes as “the most strategic moves practiced by the best writers.” We grow in our craft (both short and long) when we study the writing of others, name the moves we notice, imitate them, and adapt them to make them our own. Samples of short writing can do a lot of heavy lifting as mentor texts. Students can explore several examples in a short period of time and focus on a specific craft move or element. Their noticings can then be applied to their own short writing or incorporated as a component of a longer piece.

Christopher Johnson captures this practice in his mantra: “Pay attention to the language around you in the spirit of appreciation and curiosity.”

Here are some excellent examples of short writing I’ve discovered (or rediscovered) recently that invite writers to reflect on the craft moves that get, in Johnson’s words, “a lot of idea out of a little message.” I’ve captured many examples from these texts in my own writers notebooks to use as micro-mentors.

 

WE ARE FAMILY BY LEBRON JAMES AND ANDREA WILLIAMS

Feb
15

LeBron James and Andrea William’s newest release We Are Family is the story of five middle school students with different struggles and circumstance bound together by their love of basketball. Jayden Carr is a talented player with dreams of basketball scholarships, but also of pulling his family out of poverty. Tamika Beck is a young female player determined to show Hoop Group how archaic their gender rules are while finally getting the respect she deserves from her father. Anthony Pierson needs this group to keep him out of the trouble that is fueled by his family situation. Dexter Dingal needs a place he finally belongs. And Chris King thinks he needs Hoop Group so he can finally be named captain, but actually needs something much different.

Grade 7 is the year that the middle school basketball players have been waiting for – it’s the year they can finally join Hoop Group – the group that can open all the doors they hope to walk through in the future. But the coach is sick, and Hoop Group is in trouble, and the young basketball players are feeling defeated. With equal doses of hope and commitment, these young ballers come together to try to do the impossible, and end of learning about much more than just the game of basketball.

Although a story about basketball, it is also a story of hope. LeBron James says in his letter to readers that he wrote this story because he hopes everyone who reads it “…knows that nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it”. This is a great story for any middle school reader who needs some hope in their lives.

FIREKEEPER’S DAUGHTER BY ANGELINE BOULLEY

Feb
08

I am a frozen statue of a girl in the woods. Only my eyes move, darting from the gun to their startled expression.

Gun. Shock. Gun. Disbelief. Gun. Fear.

THA-THUM-THA-THUM-THA-THUM.

The snub-nosed revolver shakes with tiny tremors from the jittery hand aiming at my face.

                I’m gonna die.

                My nose twitches at a greasy sweetness. Familiar. Vanilla and mineral oil. WD-40. Someone used it to clean the gun. More scents: pine, damp moss, skunky sweat, and cat pee.

                THA-THUM-THA-THUM-THA-THUM.

                The jittery hand makes a hacking motion with the gun, as if wielding a machete instead. Each diagonal slice toward the ground gives me hope. Better a random target than me.

                But then terror grips my heart again. The gun. Back at my face.

                Mom. She won’t survive my death. One bullet will kill us both.

                A brave hand reaches for the gun. Fingers outstretched.

Demanding. Give it. Now.

                THA-THUM-THA-

                I am thinking of my mother when the blast changes everything.”

Angeline Boulley’s debut novel Firekeeper’s Daughter shares the story of Daunis Fontaine, the daughter of a local Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) hockey hero and a rich girl from the right side of the river. Daunis has had difficulty her entire life fitting in and feeling accepted by both communities she ferries between.  As I settled into this novel, I was convinced I was reading a coming-of-age story about how Daunis will find her place within her two families and succeed in her desire to become a doctor. I could not have been more wrong! While Daunis does endeavor to discover who she is, this book becomes so much more…a murder mystery entangled in organized crime, a love story, and at the same time, a beautiful reflection of indigenous teachings.

Boulley crafts her text with carefully layered hints that have the reader speculating who is behind the murders and distribution of crystal meth at the centre of the community’s heartache. She develops characters that are strong, loyal, and mysterious.  Daunis finds herself embroiled in the mystery and using both her traditional indigenous teachings and her uncle’s scientific method to find the killers.  Will she succeed?

Due to mature language and themes this book is matched best to older readers. I highly recommend Firekeeper’s Daughter for grade 11 or 12 classroom libraries.

To learn more about Angeline Boulley and Firekeeper’s Daughter click here.

DRESS CODED BY CARRIE FIRESTONE

Feb
01

In her debut middle grade novel, Dress Coded, Carrie Firestone pens a story all middle level classrooms need to have in their library. Molly Frost is an

eighth-grade student who has spent the last three years of her life terrified of being dress coded by “Fingertip” the school’s dress code enforcer.  Her female classmates have all suffered the same fate and when one friend, Olivia, is singled out, painfully embarrassed, and blamed for the senior class camping trip being cancelled, Molly has had enough.

Molly begins a podcast called “Dress Coded” to call out this unfair treatment and the inconsistent application of the school dress code policy by the administration.  As Molly convinces friends to share their stories, her following grows, including former students now in high school, who share their experiences of body shaming.  When one girl is coded for having hair styled “too high”, Molly decides they need to go to the school board.  This leads to her school’s first “camp in”.

Dress Coded sheds light on a practice that shames girls during a vulnerable time in their lives and pokes holes in the argument that dress codes are necessary to prevent boys from being “distracted”. I loved how Molly found her voice and stood up for her beliefs and overcame her own person struggles. Her strength, resilience and perseverance are to be admired.

GUEST WRITER KATIE PRESCOTT RECOMMENDS BORDERS BY THOMAS KING AND NATASHA DONOVAN

Feb
01

Borders, a graphic novel illustrated by Natasha Donovan and written by Thomas King, tells the story of a mother’s pride in her identity and will to not back down when it is threatened to be taken from her.

Laetitia leaves the home she shared with her mother and younger brother to cross the border to America. Leaving without her mother’s blessing, Laetitia craves independence and adventure while her mom is nervous to let her daughter go. After many postcards and requests from Letitia, her mom finally decides to accept the invitation.

Nearing the border, the young boy notices a shift in his mother’s excitement. She begins to drive slowly, and he can feel her hesitation and alertness. Arriving at the border, they are asked the typical border questions, and when she is asked what her citizenship is, she responds, “Blackfoot” (p. 43). Even amidst pressure and manipulation, she is unwilling to respond differently: she is Blackfoot. This mode of identification leads them into four days of being stuck between the Canadian and American border, between Coutts and Sweetgrass, denied entry to both countries. On the fourth day, only after reporters and television crews arrive to film the scene and conduct interviews, are the mother and son permitted to enter America to visit Laetitia.

The unwavering love and sheer force of will this mother holds is powerful and inspiring. She lives unapologetically proud of her identity and the value and worth of being Blackfoot, despite what the systems attempting to control her declare as true and necessary. This story is a strong opening to conversations about Indigenous rights to belonging and identity.

I cannot end this review without highlighting the words Thomas King and Natasha Donovan write in the opening of the book. King challenges the oppressive systems in his dedication by writing, “For the Blackfoot, who understand that the border is the figment of someone else’s imagination.” Donovan dedicates her work to three generations of mothers who provided her “with strength of every journey.” Their talents shine through their work, and I am so thankful for their passion in writing and telling this story.

This graphic novel is a gem in my classroom library, already having been signed out by all my avid graphic novel readers, and others who wanted to read it too. The worker at the duty-free shop between the borders, Mel, is right: justice is a damn hard thing to get, but we shouldn’t give up. Our students need to know this truth, and see what this struggle looks like in the books they read, to better prepare them to face injustices head-on in their own lives.

 

Katie Prescott is a grade nine teacher at FHS who loves reading and learning about the world with her students. When not at school, she can often be found snuggled up by the fire with a cozy blanket reading to many of her own children at home.

THE PASSING PLAYBOOK BY ISAAC FITZSIMONS 

Jan
25

This book is everything. The cover quote from Kacen Callender calls the novel “a simultaneous warm hug and a lightning strike of courage” and I couldn’t agree more. I was so invested in the lives of the main characters, Spencer and Justice, that I read the entire book in one sitting. To be transparent, I love a good romance; whether the romance is the main plotline or a subtle background story, I am hooked. And there is so much love in this book. There is love between friends, parents, siblings, support systems, coaches and, of course, romantic love.  

The synopsis of the book highlights the conflict Spencer confronts playing as a transgender athlete on the boys’ team. For his own safety, Spencer transfers to a new school where he believes it is safe to be queer but is hesitant to be out as trans. This repeated message is an important reality that safety comes first, with no one pressuring Spencer to risk that by coming out as transgender. This emphasizes the fact that maintaining your own safety does not mean you are living a lie. 

Although these events do take place in the story, it is not what makes up the bulk of the narrative. 

The Passing Playbook takes the reader to a new school with Spencer where he experiences acceptance by his peers, teachers and coach; support in a GSA and success playing soccer. It also parallels this experience with that of Justice, Spencer’s crush and teammate, who has the same acceptance at school, but is not open at home. Their relationship is the sweet and romantic love that was a delight to read. 

Alongside the budding romance, this book deals with trans rights at school and in sports. It gives a positive example of what an accepting team can look like without a grand coming out, but also what the support of a team looks like when faced with adversity. Spencer fits in easily as a queer player and that comradery never waivers as the eventual conflict of playing as a trans athlete is realized.  

Another important storyline is the juxtaposition of parenting between the families of Spencer and Justice. On one side the reader sees parents who are desperate to do the right thing, attend support groups and bond with their child. On the other side are parents who are homophobic leaving a child who is scared. Spencer’s story has a happy ending. While the book ends with Justice being safe and loved, I can’t say his ending is a happy one. Fitzsimons does an excellent job highlighting the positives and showing strong Allyship without ignoring the hard realities being faced in the LBGTQ2AS+ community.  

Although left with a heart-warming feeling, this book does not shy away from hard topics. Readers will see characters faced with homophobia, transphobia, religious bigotry, misgendering and references to school violence. This is Isaac Fitzsimons’ first novel. He captures the characters so realistically with a pace that feels natural and I can’t wait to read more from this author. 

 

“I think that the more people who are out and visible, the safer it is for everyone. BUT, and this is a big but, you need to make sure that you’re safe first. Physically safe, yes but also emotionally and psychologically.” 

“Whether you come out tomorrow or in five years, or thirty years, I guarantee that the fight will still be going on in some form or another. And I promise that when you join us, we’ll welcome you with open arms.” 

ALONE BY CHRISTOPHE CHABOUTE

Jan
18

Christophe Chabouté is a renowned author in France, known for his detailed black and white illustrations and storytelling style. Originally published in French, most of his books have now been translated into English.

His graphic novel Alone is one of my all time favourite books. It tells the story of a man who was born on an rocky island with a lighthouse and has never left its confines. He has spent most of his life alone. All he has to entertain himself is a goldfish, a dictionary and his imagination. As the tale unfolds, he receives a gift that opens up his world in unexpected ways.

Told through mostly illustrations. this book is one that will linger in your thoughts long after you finish reading it. I just “happened” upon this book by accident and decided to order it based completely on the cover art. I am so glad I did!

Add this to your TBR list! It would also make a great addition to your classroom library.

GUEST WRITER LAURA NOBLE RECOMMENDS All THE YOUNG MEN: A MEMOIR OF LOVE, AIDS, AND CHOSEN FAMILY IN THE AMERICAN SOUTH BY RUTH COKER BURKS WITH KEVIN CARR O’LEARY

Jan
11

I get a lot of book recommendations, all of which I write down and tuck away in my many hiding spots. The list gets longer, and the stack of books on the nightstand gets taller. I slowly work my way through books that are “for me”, books “for my students”, and professional development books for work. I tend to try to go through them in the order I buy them, because that’s just how my brain works.

This book, however, did not work its way to the top of the pile easily – it landed in my hands with a thud. From the front cover, I knew this book was going to be an emotional teardown. I knew it would rip me apart at the seams, but I was not expecting it to stitched me back together again with new knowledge, new insight, and new respect for allies and their efforts.

One of my most trusted friends dropped this book in my hand with a warning that sounded something along the lines of “I promise you’ll cry, but I also promise you’ll laugh,” and boy, was she right. Ruth Coker Burks’ memoir is a time-traveling machine, hauling its audience back into the 1980’s when the AIDS crisis was still known as GRID – Gay Related Immune Deficiency. Burk offers a new perspective as she was the main caretaker for the men whose families had given up on them. Not to mention, she was also a single mom with a young daughter. Ruth found herself in a position where she was one of the only allies for the gay community during a time of crisis, and she knew it was her calling as soon as she watched her first patient die.

Although she had no formal medical training, All the Young Men follows Burks into hospitals where she acts as the parent, friend, and partner that many gay men needed. She remembers the parents of young men she called, refusing to be by their child’s deathbed because of their sexuality. She recalls burying dozens of friends and acquaintances on her own property, turning her plot of land into a graveyard for the men who were shunned by their religion, their society and even worse, their own families.

I was hesitant going into this memoir, worried it would be another story of an ally (someone who doesn’t fall under the LGBTQ+ umbrella) who saved the day – this trope is ubiquitous, exhausting, and unhelpful. However, this book does the exact opposite. Burks shows the importance of allyship and what true, real support looks like. Allyship looks like having difficult conversations with people you love, reaching out for help when it’s needed, and taking time to understand the systemic issues that inhibit people from getting the care, support, and love they need to flourish.

The highlight of this book is Burk’s best friend, Billy, a no-nonsense drag queen (before it was cool!) and the true star of the show. Ruth & Billy’s friendship is pure gold, and reading their story unfold is nothing short of beautiful.

This book is exactly what I needed – a historical memoir that sets the stage for just how far LGBTQ+ rights have come, and just how much is still needing to be done. It tells its audience the true power of change, love, and fighting for those who cannot.

Laura Noble is an English teacher at Leo Hayes High School. She is an avid reader of true crime, feminist literature, and realistic fiction.