Coffee For The Brain Book Tournament – Book Review and Discussion Points

Title: the Report Card
Author: Andrew Clements
Pages: 173

The Report Card
Cover illustration by Brian Selznick
Published, 2004, Simon and Schuster.
ISBN 0689845154 (hc)
Nora Rowley is a genius. The thing is, nobody but Nora knows that. Being so smart, Nora noticed early on, makes you stand out, and standing out was not something she wanted. Instead, Nora always tried to be exactly average. But now Nora has a new plan, and when she comes home with a bad report card, her parents and the school launch a massive effort to find out what’s wrong. But that is exactly what Nora wants. All the attention is the perfect chance to prove how arbitrary grades are and that they don’t matter nearly as much as everyone at Philbrook Elementary thinks.

I read this book to help cover for a judge that dropped out. I will admit that I was not too excited to read this book. There are far too many other great books in the tournament and being released each week that I need to read. However, I sucked it up, placed my frustrations aside and read this book.

I was pleasantly surprised. I really liked this book. Actually, it was thought provoking to me on several parts in the story. Not because it is high  level reading, but because I am teacher who deals with some of the issues mentioned.

I read this book in about an hour or so. It is a fast paced read. It is a light read for me as it is geared for upper elementary.

Yes, I recommend this book to elementary students. I enjoyed it and found it to be an engaging read for this level.

Now I will read the other book for the tournament to see which I like better.

This book raises many great points about the education. I earmarked a few passages so let me reflect upon these. Yes, these are my opinions and not of the place where I work.

“Most kids never talk about it, but a lot of the time bad grades make them feel dumb, and almost all the time it’s not true. And good grades can make other kids think that they’re better, and that’s not true either. And then all the kids start competing and comparing. the smart kids feel smarter and better and get all stuck-up, and the regular kids feel stupid and like there’s no way to ever catch up.”

I think this is a problem. We are in a society where everyone strives for perfection. Parents expect their kids to earn A’s in all subjects. The problem is that scoring an A has become too easy. The curriculum has been dummy downed so bad that there is no excuse to not earn an A and at the same time the grades have lost their value. I am not saying we should increase homework because I don’t really like that idea either, but our expectations for grades need to change. We need to get back to the place where an C means average and not stupid and an A truly represents mastery of the content and not just a hard worker or a nice kid.

There was a reference to the Oak Elementary test where teachers were given a random list of students who were considered “bloomers” and since the expectations were raised, so did the performance of the kids. You can read more about it here

I bring this point up because I know that I work in a district with teachers who are awesome and have high expectations for all students. What is needed more than ever are more parents and the community who works with kids to raise their expectations. There are many, many fantastic families out there, but there are others who need to help push the expectations for their children.

The last one. “I see what you mean, and it’s true that these tests all require students to memorize a lot of information. But knowing basic information is important. It’s like the foundation.”

This is an interesting point. You have to have the basics before you dig deep. The problem is that we as teachers have so much “basic” information to get in that it is tough to always dig deep. I am lucky that I get to dig deep with great kids every single day of my job. That is what I do daily. This is almost impossible to do when you have class sizes of 30 with a range of intelligence from high school to 2nd grade in a 6th grade classroom.

I post these all to get your thoughts. What do you think? Education is always a sensitive topic, but one that needs to continue to be talked about.

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Coffee For The Brain Book Tournament Book Review: Side Effects by Amy Goldman Koss

Title: Side Effects
Author: Amy Goldman Koss
Pages: 135(paperback)
Author Website
Young Adult

Overview from her site

As if it doesn’t suck enough to have cancer, practically every time you pick up books or see movies where characters get sick, you know they’ll be dead by the last scene.
In reality, kids get all kinds of cancers, go through unspeakable torture and painful treatments, but walk away fine in the end.

From the acclaimed author of The Girls and Poison Ivy, Side Effects is about the pain, fear, and unlikely comedy of 15-year-old Izzy’s journey, told in her own powerful and authentic voice. It is Izzy’s story — screams and all.

American Library Association 2006 BBYA (Best Books For Young Adults)
New York Public Library Recommended List for Young Adults
Junior Library Guild Premier Selection Pick
Kirkus — Best Books of the Year
St. Louis Missouri Read It Forward 2008
Nominated for Rhode Island YA Book of the Year Award 2008
Nominated for the Georgia Peach Book of the Year Award 2008

My Thoughts

This was not part of my books that I am to be reading as a judge(I was nominated to read Runaway and Matched), but I am making it a goal to read all the books in this tournament. After all, it is my tournament so I should read them all, right?

I picked this book up to read next because I loved the cover. It grabbed me. It pulled me towards it to read.

I fell in love with Izzy from start. Her sarcastic tone and her little comments cracked me up. She instantly reminded me of a daughter of someone I know and in many ways myself(her sarcasm). When the cancer hits Izzy must deal with the treatment process of lymphoma. I have never gone through cancer treatment myself, but know of many people who have and this book seemed like it was a pretty realistic portrayal of the process. What I liked about Izzy was that she was not “Oh, poor me.” Rather she tried to be headstrong and mask her feelings which is how I think most teens would act.

The novel brings out the other aspects of life that a teen would have to deal with like missing school, crushes, how “friends” treat you, dealing with family, etc. I felt like she was dead on with the issues.

The novel is a quick read. It does not drag on and on like some novels in this type of novel can do. Rather she tells the story, hits the key points, and moves on.

For once, there is happiness at the end. I liked this. Everyone who reads my posts know I love death and destruction in my books. This book I was glad to have the opposite. Cancer is not always death. Cancer is a battle and it can be overcome with patient, strength, stamina, and a strong support from family and friends.

A good book to check out if needing something short, quick, funny, and powerful.

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Coffee For The Brain Book Tournament Book Review: Matched by Ally Condie

Title: Matched
Author: Ally Condie
Pages: 366
Author Website:

Inside Book Jacket

In the Society, Officials decide. Who you love. Where you work. When you die.

Cassia has always trusted their choices. It’s barely any price to pay for a long life, the perfect job, the ideal mate. So when her best friend appears on the Matching screen, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is the one . . . until she sees another face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black. Now Cassia is faced with impossible choices: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she’s known and a path no one else has ever dared follow—between perfection and passion.

Matched is a story for right now and storytelling with the resonance of a classic.

My Thoughts

I remember seeing this book nominated on the book nomination list for this tournament and was very excited because it was a new book and something that I knew nobody on the judging panel had already read. I also loved the cover. It was simple, but yet portrayed the idea of a girl trying to find a way to break loose.

I began to read this book and right from the start I loved it. I knew that unless the author went super crazy on me that this would be one of my favorite reads of the year. 

I don’t like romance stories. I am a guy who lives for action, adventure, dystopia, creature laden books. The back of this book has little blurbs from authors about the romance is so great. I read some online review that just adored the love in this book. This had me scared because the romance was not really present in the beginning. 

After reading the last page I never felt the romance killed the story. There is a love triangle(which book doesn’t?), but it was done perfectly. The emotions and actions were expressed, but it was not dragged out for pages and pages like Twilight(barf).

The whole concept that the government controls everything i.e. what you eat, when you eat, what you do(pretty much everyone sorts), when you die, curfew, nobody allowed in your house, who you marry, etc. is what separates this novel. I kept reading being blown away that nobody argued the actions of the government. The government has such mind control. People are happy with the system after people of the past(I would assume that would be us) had too many choices, too much technology, too many this or that that lead to a bad way of life.

Being a love story I really liked every character. There was not one character that bothered me. Ky and Xander and very cool and likable male characters. Cassia is the perfect main character. She really is set up with the qualities needed to pull this book off. She is not too dramatic on the love scene, she is smart, but does not have some irrational decision making attitude. Everything is at the right balance.

I had to read this novel slow. One reason is that I did not find it to be a fast read. I really wanted this book to not end. I looked for passages that stuck with me. I kept thinking how much it would suck to only have 100 songs to hear or 100 poems. The loss of freedom really struck a chord with me.

I remember on page 29 when the grandfather was discussing the committees that created the 100 lists and destroying everything else how angry that made me.

I remember on page 51 when Cassia mentioned that nobody wears a watch because time is kept for all of them how much I thought that would not be a great way of life. I also thought about all the kids that can no longer read a regular clock that is not digital(not sure where that came from).

I remember on page 65 loving little lines in the book that just stuck with me like, “Every minute you spend with someone gives them a part of your life and takes part of theirs.” Powerful stuff.

I remember finishing this book and being so glad to have read this and being bummed out that I have to wait another year for the sequel.

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Coffee For The Brain Book Tournament Book Review: Runaway by Wendelin Van Drannen

Title: Runaway
Author: Wendalin Van Draanen

From her website

“It’s a cold, hard, cruel fact that my mother loved heroin more than she loved me.”
Holly is in her fifth foster home in two years and she’s had enough. She’s run away before and always been caught quickly. But she’s older and wiser now–she’s twelve–and this time she gets away clean.
Through tough and tender and angry and funny journal entries, Holly spills out her story. We travel with her across the country–hopping trains, scamming food, sleeping in parks or homeless encampments. And we also travel with her across the gaping holes in her heart–as she finally comes to terms with her mother’s addiction and death.

Runaway is a remarkably uplifting portrait of a girl still young and stubborn and naive enough to hold out hope for finding a better place in the world, and within herself, to be.

My Thoughts
This review is going to be an ongoing review. I am starting this review early. Despite the fact that I am only 20+ pages into the book as of right now I need to start to describe this book. This girl is angry. She has had a rough life. Nobody believes anything she has to say. She has been homeless. Her mother was a druggie and now lives in a foster home where the parents are very mean to her, but act perfect in the public eye. It makes me angry to even read about it.

I also had to stop and think about the kids we teach and see each day. So many of them we don’t always get the full picture of what they are dealing with on a daily basis. This girl in the story does not do her homework, but would you if you were stowed away in a freezing cold laundry room and not fed? It makes me stop and remember to really think about the 1000+ kids in our building and all the baggage some of them bring to school everyday.

14 Hours Later…..
I finished the book. I read this book in one day. I could not put it down. I have read other novels by this author(Swear to Howdy being one of my all time favorites) and this book did not disappoint. In many ways I liked it more than her other novels. It seemed more real, more edgier, but at the same time perfect for middle school kids to read. She presented life on the street as being very hard and dangerous, but never brought in any details to heed caution to who should read the book.

The journal structure of the novel was perfect. This is the ideal way to present the ideas of Holly. She is one mad girl just trying to find some guidance and trust in the world. She has runaway from her problems and this time is successful.

The novel stuck a nerve with me and no in a bad way. I kept picturing this girl going through all of this feeling bad for her and it made more realistic for me as I kept thinking of some of my students and one in particular who shared something so devastating to me that it has not left my mind. It reminded me once again that we teach students who deal with things that are so difficult that I can see what school is the last thing on their mind.

What I really enjoyed most about this book is such a small feature, but something so clever in my eyes. Sammy from the Sammy Keyes series makes an appearance which corresponds to the first novel in the series where Holly was a small character in that book. How the author kept things within the same world, but creating a whole new tone to the story was a creative masterpiece. I am blown away by authors and how they can create these wonderful stories time after time.

This is going to be a tough decision on my part and for my partner on choosing which book makes it to the next round in the tournament. I have to read Matched by Ally Condie next and then begin to deliberate which one is better. Starting with Runaway was a great start to the tournament and a book that I would recommend to many students in my school. This one is a keeper. Check it out.

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Coffee For The Brain Book Tournament Receives First Book Review

Last night we had our meeting with all the judges. It was a quick and swift meeting where we talked about the tournament bracket and how things would work. I strongly encouraged the judges to please write a book review for each book they read and I would post them here on the blog. I also STRONGLY encouraged them to also write up an explanation of the book they have chosen to move on to the next round. I think it is important for all of us to know their thoughts and reasons because it opens up a dialogue about what we take away from each book. Additionally, it is very important for students to learn how to write and express their ideas.

This morning I was checking my email and already a review was in my inbox. AMAZING! Talk about motivated judges. The criteria for the reviews were quite simple – write about your thoughts, what you liked, disliked, setting, characters, mass appeal, etc. Essentially, you make the review out to be however you want it to be. I did not want to force people to write if they did not want to and therefore kept everything quite open.

Here is the review from a 6th grade guest book reviewer(there was no indication to provide a name so I am leaving it out)

Title: Where the Red Fern Grows
Author: Wilson Rawls


Where the Red Fern Grows is a somewhat small novel about a boy and his two dogs. Many hear that it is sad and dismiss it, but I loved it and it doesn’t fall under my favorite genre. Wilson Rawls writes amazing story about how a boy raises two very special dogs into the perfect hunting team. I had second thoughts about reading because I heard it was very sad. It wasn’t nearly as sad as I thought and I regret ever doubting the book.
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