Archive | May, 2013

Review: Wintergirls

31 May

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson.  Speak (2009), Viking (2009) Scholastic (2011)

  • ISBN-13: 978-0-14-241557-3
  • ISBN-10: 0-14-241557-X
  • YA fiction

“I     won’t     pollute      my       insides     with    Bluberridazzlepops or muffins or scritchscratchy shards of toast, either.  Yesterday’s dirt and mistakes have moved through me.  I am shiny and pink inside, clean.  Empty is good.  Empty is strong.”

Wintergirls, chapter 003.00

The Plot:

Eighteen year old Lia suddenly learns that her former best friend, Cassie, died alone in a motel room.  Cassie and Lia used to be inseperable, united in their life-threatening quest to both be size oo.  Haunted by the fact she didn’t answer Cassie’s calls on the night she died, Lia struggles to hide her deadly secret…her promise.  Lia is still determined to be the skinniest girl in school.

Book Snitch’s thoughts:

Narrated by Lia throughout, this novel squeezes your insides with horror from the opening chapter.  Anderson’s narrative style is constructed so that we see the frightening pathology of anorexia nervosa right from the second chapter where Lia makes excuses for not having any breakfast:

Beacuse I can’t let myself want them because I don’t need a muffin (410), I don’t want an orange (75) or toast (87), and waffles (180) make me gag.”

The power of the novel is delivered through Anderson’s vivid symbolism, which conveys the impact that anorexia has on Lia and her family.  Lia’s grossly distorted perceptions of herself are conveyed through her unforgiving stream of consiousness, and the chilling coldness motif  which shows her physical and emotional deterioration.  Anderson portrays Lia’s obsessions with weight in obvious and subtle ways, including writing the chapter numbers as though they are on a scale, and in Lia’s careful lists of food (with the calorie count always added in parentheses).

Who should read Wintergirls?

Book Snitch recommends this novel for mature YA readers.

Notes for educators

This novel doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of anorexia. The narrative is intense in several places, containing descriptions of death, physical and emotional self-harm and the supernatural.

This novel would work well as supplimentary independent reading in a unit based on the theme of identity.  Book Snitch would recommend responding to the text through activities related to imagery and symbolism in Wintergirls.

One possibility is to have students create their own book trailers using Creative Commons licensed images would be a great way to see if they have understood Anderson’s use of symbolism.  Alternatively, students could create their own films promoting awareness of anorexia, particularly the emotional impact it has on the sufferer and their friends and family.

More information about using iMovie and Creative Commons licensed images with your students is available on Resources and Teaching ideas page.


Masterpiece Monday: Far From The Madding Crowd

27 May

Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy.  First published as twelve installements in Cornhill Magazine, 1874

  • ISBN-13: 9780141393384
  • ISBN-10: 0141393386

    Image by cdrummbks via Flickr CC BY 2.0 license

Key information

  • Time period: 19th Century (Victorian era)
  • Setting:  England, set in the fictional southern country of Wessex (the common setting for many of Hardy’s novels)
  • Themes:
    • Danger & destruction inherent in romantic love
    • Importance of man’s connection to the natural world
    • The connection between chance and moral responsibility
  • Structure:
    • 57 chapters
    • Omniscient narrator
    • Hardy uses his narrator in a manner similar to a chorus in an ancient Greek tragedy, by providing a commentary on the actions and intentions of the characters
  • Culture: Victorian era; agricultural England; constrasting gender roles

The plot

Bathsheba Everdene, a headstrong, confident young woman inherits a farm from her uncle.  She is determined to be successful despite the challenge of being the only female farmer in the male-dominated world of Wessex.  Bathsheba becomes the object of desire for three constrasting male suitors: the gentle shepherd, Gabriel Oak, and the sedate but successful Boldwood, an older farmer.  Bathsheba is amused and flattered by their attention, until Sergeant Troy arrives; a devillishly handsome smooth-talking soldier.  As Bathsheba recklessly seeks romance and love, she finds that she faces losing everything as she becomes caught up in the destructive wake of Sergeant Troy’s seductive power.

Why is it a masterpiece?

Set against the backdrop of rural English landscape with an entourage of memorable characers who make up the society of Wessex, Hardy gives readers a fascinating and psychological view on the ideals and realities of love for a woman in the nineteenth century.  Far From The Madding Crowd offers students an insight into a world which was changing.  Hardy raises questions about fate and chance, and emphasises the importance of man’s connection to nature in the face of the Industrial Revolution.  Hardy’s prose is rich with religious old testament allusions that bring the sphere of moral responsibility into focus, adding to the Greek tragedy structure of the novel which intensifies the transformation that Bathsheba undergoes.

Recommended age of student readers

Book Snitch recommends this novel for students aged sixteen to eighteen.  It may be suitable for some students in younger years only if they are strong readers.  Hardy’s lyrical language and allusions make this a text more suitable for an AP class or IB Diploma higher level students.


  • provides a contextual overview of Hardy’s life including links to major themes and settings in his works
  • eNotes has a teaching & resources unit for Far From The Madding Crowd, available to download indivudually for $29.99.  Alternatively, you might want to consider an annual subscription for $4.16 per month.  Resources for all eNotes teaching packs include chapter by chapter questions and summaries, quizzes and extended answer questions.
  • LitLovers has a bookclub page dedicated to Far From The Madding Crowd with some interesting discussion questions
  • The Thomas Hardy Society website offers background information about the author, information about his published works, resources and more

Try a tech tool

Book Snitch recommends Popplet , an educational tool where students can create online mind maps for a range of topics such as characters, themes, symbols or Hardy’s background.

  • The beauty of Popplet is that you can add text, videos and images to your Popplet, making the mind map a tool which uses multiliteracies and allows students to investigate their topic in more breadth
  • With a novel like Far From the Madding Crowd, where the narration works on several levels and is constructed using detailed symbolism, mind maps can help readers to organise their thoughts about the work into manageable chunks
  • You can invite collaborators on Popplet simply by adding their email address
  • You can ask your students invite you to be a collaborator so that you can see their final product
  • Popplet also gives you an embed code if you want to post it onto a blog or website for future reference
  • You can download your Popplet as a PDF document

Subscription details:

    • Minimum Age: 13 to sign up for your own account
    • Cost: free sign up and you get 5 Popplets for free (but you can be invited as a collaborator on an unlimited number)
    • Benefits with or without an account: Schools can buy an account

Masterpiece Monday

26 May

Battling for a balanced approach to books?

Are our students surprised by the texts we choose? Image via Flickr user D Services under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

‘Balanced’ is one of the key characteristics that describes a well designed reading curriculum.  As an IB educator, I often have the discussion with my students about why being balanced is one of the most awesome Learner Profile traits.  My students often make the point that being balanced seems to contradict being a risk-taker. I tell them that, actually, being balanced can be a risk of sorts.  This is especially true when it comes to creating an interesting, balanced and stimulating curriculum as an English teacher.

The practical side of creating a balanced programme

It can be a big gamble picking out texts that create balance, and you have to juggle a number of factors to truly create a varied programme: different genres, varied themes, a mix of styles, a range of cultures, diverse countries and contrasting time periods.  There are other considerations too, such as:

  • Creating cross-curricular links
  • Matching the timing of your units with other departments if you want to create an interdisciplinary unit
  • Ensuring variety in the assessments and learning activities
  • What are your students going to be interested in reading?  Can you get them to be open-minded about reading a ‘classic’ text set in a completely different place and time?

When it comes to picking the reading for an English curriculum, it can often be tempting to stick to the same tried and tested texts because you have the resources and you know the books.  One of my aims with Book Snitch is to support other educators in teaching, suggesting new reads for their students and being mindful of the need for balance in education.

Masterpiece Monday  

I’ve decided to write a regular post called Masterpiece Monday.  In the interest of Book Snith balancing reviews, information and teaching ideas relating to current (published in the last decade) books, Masterpiece Monday will be focused on suggesting (my personal choice of) fabulous pre- 21st century classic literature for your students.  I’ll include links to useful resources, some of my own ideas for teaching these masterpieces using inquiry-based learning, plus some lesson ideas using great Edtech tools.  I hope you enjoy this feature!

Book Snitch

IB Diploma recommended read – Half Of A Yellow Sun

15 May

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Achidie.  Knopf (US)/Fourth Estate (UK), 2006

  • ISBN-10: 1400095204
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400095209
  • Historical fiction; war; family; cultural conflict; colonialism; race and enthnicity

The plot:

Set in Nigeria, spanning the decade of the 1960s, Half of a Yellow Sun (named so after the symbol of the Biafran flag) is the story of the emergence, rise and crushing fall of Biafra; a country created by civil war which struggled and failed to maintain indepedence from Nigeria.  The plot follows the lives of three characters whose lives become entangled.  The first, Ugwu, is a poor hourseboy. The second, Olanna, is a young Igbo woman from the priveleged Nigerian elite in Lagos. The third, Richard, is an Englishman who falls in love with Nigiria and Olanna’s twin sister.  Adichie takes the reader on a journey following the lives of these characters, who offer three very different perspectives on the terrible events which unfolded during this time period.  Rich in characterization, the novel humanizes the events leading up to and during the Biafran war.  Adichie’s interweaving of personal and political events, and use of time shift within the novel’s four parts creates a memorable reading experience.

Book Snitch’s thoughts for using this book in the IB English A Diploma course:

Half of a Yellow Sun is a superb novel for either the English A Literature course, or the English A Literature and Language course for higher level students.  It could be used in either parts two, three or four of the course, as it offers many opportunties for detailed close analysis (suitable for the Individual Oral Commentary), a critical analysis (written assignment 2), or an analytical essay (paper II exam based on part 3).

This novel allows the opportunity to engage with literature in a specific context, which has become a key emphasis in the new Language and Literature course.  The novel contains a wealth of material which can be used in an essay in response to one the paper II prescribed questions. Adichie’s clever use of symbolism is one of the array of literary techniques which contribute to the tangible descriptions that bring the novel to life for student readers.

Adichie anticipates that not all readers will know the political and historical background, and so includes intermittent excerpts from a novel describing the history of Nigeria written by one of the characters within the narrative to give readers the political and social context for the Nigerian-Biafran war.

Written in four parts, the narrative shifts in time between the early sities and the late sixties (parts one and three being set in the early sixties, and parts two and four focusing on the late sixties) with different narrative perspectives.  This distortion in chronology is suspenseful, with elements of the plot being resolved for the reader as through shifting time and perspective.  Adichie uses several narrative perspectives in her novel, which gives student readers the opportunity to consider a situation from contrasting cultural viewpoints.

Adichie is listed on the Precribed List of Authors (PLA) for 20th century African prose.  Book Snitch highly recommends this novel as a refreshing alternative to other commonly used African 20th century prose.

Useful Links:

Review – The Skin I’m In

10 May

The Skin I’m In by Sharon G Flake, Hyperion 2007

  • ISBN-13: 978-1423103851
  • YA fiction; diversity; teenage conflict; discrimination

The Plot

Thirteen year old Maleeka Madison describes herself as “the darkest, worst-dressed thing in school”. Maleeka lives in a world where discrimination is an everyday occurance, and the way you look determines whether you fit in or not at McClenton Middle School.  When Ms. Saunders, the new English teacher with the unusual face, arrives at McClenton, Maleeka senses trouble ahead.  Ms. Saunders seems determined to challenge Maleeka’s low self-esteem and judgemental ways, but Maleeka has enough trouble to deal with: borrowing clothes to hide her own home-made ones, doing homework for other people, and ignoring the taunts from her peers about how dark she is.  The last thing Maleeka needs is a freaky teacher on a mission to teach her how to like herself, but Ms. Saunders is determined to get help Maleeka learn to live with the skin she’s in.

Book Snitch comments

The Skin I’m In is a story with universal messages that both young and adult readers can relate to. Sharon G. Flake offers the reader a realistic insight into the world of teenage politics and loyalties which conflict with being principled.  Maleeka’s struggle with her identity consumes young readers and has them eagerly turning the pages to discover the outcomes of the Maleeka’s tactics to survive; like creating an alliance with Charlese Jones, the toughest bully at McClenton.  Narrated through Maleeka’s eyes, readers are privy to Maleeka’s thoughts and feelings which reveal the psychological side of growing up and learning about who you are.  Maleeka’s sassy attitude will also make you smile, as she shares vivid descriptions of the host of characters at McClenton Middle School.  Flake also uses epistolary elements within the narrative through Maleeka’s diary entries where she imagines life for a fourteen year old slave girl in the seventeenth century, creating parallels to compliment the modern setting and encourage student inquiry into the history of discrimination.

Who should read this?

The Skin I’m In is a novel aimed at Middle Graders. Book Snitch recommends this novel for readers aged twelve upwards.  Contains themes of racism and diversity.

Note for educators

The Skin I’m In is a fantastic text which students wil enjoy reading.  It could be used in a transdisciplinary unit between English and Humanities and/or Homeroom focusing on topics such as discrimination, conflict or growing up.  There are a lot of rich opportunities for writing assignments based on the plot.  For example, Maleeka is given the assignment to write the diary of a slave girl for her English class which offers the opportunity to look at the history of slavery and oppression of African Americans.  Other writing ideas could include:

  • Writing sections of the story from an alternative character’s perspective
  • Newspaper reports promoting tolerance and respect in a student body
  • Developing the story of Akeelma (Maleeka’s character in her slave diary entries)
  • Writing Caleb’s love poems

See the Resources and ideas page for a lesson idea based on advisory writing to Maleeka.

4 stars

Review – Wonder

6 May

Wonder by R.J. Palacio.  Knopf, 2012

  • ISBN-13: 978-0375869020
  • Family drama; coming-of-age fiction; YA fiction

The plot:

August Pullman is not an average kid.  He’s ten years old and he was born with a severe facial deformity.  August’s family has always been very protective over him, but that didn’t prevent him from seeing the horrified looks people gave him when they caught sight of his face.  August has always been home-schooled, but now that he’s the right age to enter the fifth grade, his parents encourage him to go to Beecher Prep Middle School.  Everyone knows that the fifth grade is a tough year for anyone, but especially for August who must learn how to fit in, when he has always stuck out.

Book Snitch comments:

This is a novel which will appeal to readers of all ages.  The novel starts with August telling the story, and he wins you over immediately with his perceptive honesty and often witty narration.  Told from several different viewpoints, Palacio takes you on a memorable coming-of-age journey with August.  This is August’s story but there is are many moments that will resound with  the reader.  You’ll find yourself smiling, laughing, frowning, and tearing up as you share in August’s experiences.  Palacio creates a unique protagonist in a common situation, making Wonder an important and truly enjoyable read.

Who should read this?

Wonder is the perfect novel for readers aged nine and upwards.

Note for educators:

Wonder contains many school-related themes including: citizenship; health; bullying; family and education.  The language is suitable for a variety of reading levels, making Wonder an excellent class reader as part of a unit relating to one of the mentioned themes.  It could also be used as a way to promote awareness of equal opportunities and inclusion amongst your student body.

5 stars