Teacher Feature: Erin Kuhn

One of the most unexpected treats of starting SSR and building a community of readers around it has been getting the chance to reconnect with people from different chapters (get it?) of my life. Erin Kuhn has been one of those people, and she just happens to be this month’s…

Teacher Feature!

Erin and I went to high school together and shared lots of mutual friends, but we didn’t stay in touch very much after graduation outside of social media. When I launched the podcast last year, Erin was kind enough to be one of my biggest cheerleaders! I was reminded during that time that Erin had gone on to become a teacher, and I’ve so appreciated her feedback and book recommendations throughout this SSR journey.

With that in mind, I am SO excited to give you a glimpse of the impact that Erin is making with her elementary schoolers. Teachers, you know how I feel about you — you’re the real MVPs — and I absolutely love shining a spotlight on your work each month. (Check out the last Teacher Features here and here).

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Erin lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with her husband and her adorable cat, Fuzz Lightyear (can you even handle that name?!). She coaches Girls on the Run and has recently been working her behind off training for her first — and probably her last, she says — half marathon in Disney in November. She loves practicing yoga and spending “an unnerving amount of time” snuggling her cat and binge watching series after series. Relatable! Every year, Erin and her husband go on an Oscar-nominated movie marathon. They try to see every movie that’s been nominated for Best Picture! They also celebrate Sundae Sunday throughout the summer by going to local creameries for an ice cream date every Sunday. That’s a date night tradition I can really support.

You can follow Erin’s personal Instagram @mrseckuhn and her teacher Twitter @MrsKuhn2. Thanks so much, Erin, for giving us a glimpse of your teaching life! Keep scrolling for all the details.

Tell us more about your life as a teacher! Where do you teach? What grades/ages/subjects?

I teach at Bainbridge Elementary in the Elizabethtown Area School District. I've taught second grade for the last seven years, but my eighth year has brought on a lot of changes! I am now part of a personalized learning initiative for second and third grade students. I also have my master's degree in Language and Literacy.

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What inspired you to become a teacher?

For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to be a teacher (except for a brief period of time when I wanted to be an "Egyptologist"... is that even a thing? I was honestly just obsessed with learning about ancient Egypt and watching The Mummy). I worked with children in various ways throughout middle school, high school, and college. As I was leaving my first observation of a classroom during my freshman year in college, this *feeling* came over me. I called my mom in tears letting her know that I’d found the right job for me. I had no idea why I felt like that, but I just knew.

We were asked this question A LOT throughout my education and my answer always comes back to the passion I have for working with children. I want to be a teacher because I know how it feels to be an unsuccessful student and then one day... it clicks. I want to be that person that doesn't give up on my students like many of my teachers didn't give up on me. I want the children that I work with to feel loved and know that the relationship we share matters. I wanted to become a teacher in order to help facilitate student success.

What do you most remember about your favorite teacher from childhood?

My favorite teacher was Ms. Cortez. Ms. Cortez was my choir director and music teacher throughout middle school and high school. I love singing, but I am very well-aware that I was never the best singer in the bunch. However, I kept auditioning and Ms. Cortez kept having faith in my passion. I messed up many solo performances (darn those nerves!) and yet she continued to give me another chance. I would stay after school just to talk to her and she would actually stay to talk to me! I now understand how much she was giving up in her own life in order to help solve all the problems of my teenage world. She even invited me to visit her home over the summer and I helped clean out her cabinets while she listened to me talk. That poor woman dealt with my dramatic self for seven years and I would absolutely not be the woman I am today without her influence and guidance!

What was your favorite book when you were growing up?

The Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket

Erin is a serious Roald Dahl fan! Here she is dressed as Miss Honey from  Matilda  (and her mom is dressed as Miss Trunchbull) at a private screening of  The BFG  movie she planned for her students. Everyone dressed up as characters from Dahl books!

Erin is a serious Roald Dahl fan! Here she is dressed as Miss Honey from Matilda (and her mom is dressed as Miss Trunchbull) at a private screening of The BFG movie she planned for her students. Everyone dressed up as characters from Dahl books!

What is your favorite book to share with your students?

The BFG by Roald Dahl (I have a pretty phenomenal BFG voice — haha!)

What book do you think every teacher should be reading with their students?

Any book that leads to meaningful discussion and a better understanding of the world we live in... or a book that brings a lot of laughs like the The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak.

How do you cultivate a love of reading with your students?

I cultivate a love of reading in my classroom with honesty and exposure. It is important to know that I HATED reading as a child. I hated it because I struggled to learn how to read (which was hard for my mom to handle because she is an avid reader). The picture book Freight Train brings back so many real memories of anxiety during first grade for me. I could not read any of the train car names from that book and my teacher yelled at me for not knowing the words. I share that experience with my students because there are children in my classroom that feel the same way.

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It wasn't until I was in fifth grade that I picked up a book to read all by myself for enjoyment, and I wouldn't have done that if my teacher hadn’t read aloud the first three books of the Series of Unfortunate Events series. Don't get me wrong — that series was HARD for me to read, but I was so invested in the characters that I had to keep reading to find out what happened to them! Read aloud books are a priority in my day. I try to read two to three books a day to students in hopes that one will be "the book" that makes them want to read more.

I also think it is important for students to see me read. If there is SSR time, then I like to read my own book while they are reading their books. I think that shows students that I believe reading is meaningful and not something for them to do to fill in time throughout the day. I'm also a huge fan of costumes. Any time I can dress up as a character and read a book to my students... I'm in!

What is your favorite episode of The SSR Podcast?

Walk Two Moons (I also really liked We Are Okay!)

What is the best book you've read recently outside of the classroom?

I'm currently reading Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. So far, it has been a great reminder about how I react to student behavior and how my reaction impacts them.

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!**

An October Book Buying Ban

As I write this, we are now officially halfway through October.

First of all, can we acknowledge how crazy that is?

I feel like it was the height of summer about thirty seconds ago — and suddenly, it’s basically the holiday season. Every time I say this, I wonder if I’m aging myself by about a decade or so, but really: why is time flying so fast?

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about what’s been going on this month…

There’s been a whole lot of work so far in October. We also had our first weekend at home in Brooklyn in about six weeks earlier this month. I’ve been reading and recording tons for the podcast, and I have so many fun things to share with you! We traveled to Bar Harbor, Maine to dance the night away at the wedding of two of our closest pals. We have another wedding coming up at the end of the month in Annapolis, and I’m stopping for a night in D.C. on the way to catch up with friends and co-work with one of my clients. Next week, we celebrate Matt’s thirtieth birthday! Oh, and we’re really in the final countdown for our trip to Thailand, which is feeling like an increasingly big deal.

In other news, as you may know if you follow me on Instagram, I have officially put myself on a…

BOOK BUYING BAN

… for the month of October.

I assume you’re a bookworm, so I assume you know that this is a challenge.

But I can also assure you that it’s necessary. And also that I have absolutely no shortage of books waiting to be read. And also that I think it’s really healthy to set these kinds of challenges for yourself now and then.

Why an October book buying ban? There are a few reasons.

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  • First of all, I just have a lot of books. It’s that simple. One of my favorite activities over the summer was wandering into bookstores (most often, Books Are Magic, of course), and it’s hard to go on that kind of a field trip without grabbing something for the road! After all, we all want to support our local indies.

  • I’m starting to lose control of my TBR again. One of my reading resolutions at the beginning of 2019 was to get a little more organized and intentional with my reading. I’m not a Goodreads gal, but back in January, I made a list of all of the unread books on my shelf and sorted my TBR list for the year based on what I already own and still need to get. Even as I’ve added titles over the last few months, the system’s been working pretty well, and while I have consistently shopped for books this year, I’ve been much less likely to go on random shopping binges. After my most recent shopping trip — I bought The Gifted School, American Royals, and The Wedding Date — I realized that I had almost every book on my list and that I was starting to build up a serious backlog. Stop the madness!

  • I’m swamped with SSR reading, anyway. I had to reschedule a few of my podcast recordings from September because of some personal things, and I already had more sessions on the calendar than usual since we’ll be away for the first half of November. This means lots of reading for the podcast. I’m trying to make it easier for myself to focus on those books by minimizing additional reading distractions.

  • I’m not bringing (many) physical books to Thailand! I’m not a huge e-reader fan, but I do think they have their place… especially for travel. We’ll be traveling in Thailand for two weeks and I’m trying to minimize the amount of stuff I have to pack, so the last thing I need is more physical books to tempt me. For the last few weeks, I’ve been keeping a list of titles I want to read but don’t necessarily feel like I need copies of in my library. Those are the books I’ll be downloading to my Kindle for our trip! I recently started using the Libby app, which will also give me the chance to support my library in the process. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think I’d bring at least one physical book to Asia, but I really am trying to streamline, and I think putting a pause on buying new books will help.

  • It’s good to cut back! It never hurts to take a look at the budget and acknowledge where you can make some (temporary) adjustments. I’m not a huge shopper and books are one of the very few things I splurge on. Also, I try to support independent bookstores as much as possible! Still, given allll of the other factors above, I know cutting back for a few weeks is a smart move.

  • I want to look forward to a cozy holiday season/winter of reading! I’m really looking forward to hunkering down this holiday season and winter with a whole lotta books. When the October ban is over, I’m going to treat myself to a few new titles to cozy up with! In the meantime, I think this little exercise is a good reminder of how to make smart, thoughtful reading and shopping decisions.

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There you have it! I’ve had to buy a few books for podcast reading (you know the library isn’t going to appreciate all that highlighting and annotating I do), but more than two weeks in, I’ve successfully avoided buying new reads. I’ll call it a win.

Do you ever put yourself on a book buying ban? Tell me more in the comments below or on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook!

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!** 

True Story: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

I’ve been slacking on the true stories over here lately, but I’m back! A book like Scary Stories to Tell in the Darkthe mere idea of which freaked me out when I was little — deserved a little extra attention, having finally been read about twenty years after I was the appropriate age for it!

These True Story posts give me the opportunity to share some additional thoughts and feelings about the books we cover on the show. Since I went into the Scary Stories episode with so many expectations of what the book would be like and was then so surprised by what it actually was, I have a lot of thoughts AND feelings. So keep scrolling to read them!

(Check out the episode here! No plot summary really necessary, since the stories are episodic and so short.)

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This book made me feel like kind of a loser when I was in elementary school.

I feel pretty lame admitting this as a twenty-nine-year-old, grown-ass woman, but it’s the truth.

We talk briefly in the episode about the fact that — in my elementary school, at least — there was a sort of in-group of cooler kids who were brave enough to see scary movies and read scary books, especially Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and the Goosebumps series (hear more about that in Episode 11!). I more or less defined myself by my love of books when I was growing up, so it was highly offensive to me that any of my peers would be beating me at my own game by reading series that I hadn’t gotten to yet… even if it was because I was steering clear of the scary stuff!

(Also, how hilarious that, as an elementary schooler, I viewed popularity through the lens of library books. Classic.)

Prepping for this episode taught me a little something about urban legends!

Truthfully, I don’t know much about urban legends, largely because — secret’s out! — I’m not really a fan of anything spooky. I didn’t expect that preparing for the Scary Stories interview would end up being so educational, but thanks to the fact that all of the stories in the books are based in urban legends and storytelling traditions from various areas and cultures, I did!

In hindsight, I feel a little guilty that I didn’t realize just how rich with research the series is. Alvin Schwartz did a ton of work to curate each title! Digging into the Scary Stories backstory gave me a chance to learn a little something about folklore and urban legends.

I really loved the way the book was put into categories.

I love things that are organized just as much as I hate things that are scary. It was so fun cracking into this little paperback and seeing that the stories themselves were divided into different sections based on theme: Aaaaaaaaaaah!; He Heard Footsteps Coming Up the Cellar Stairs; They Eat Your Eyes, They Eat Your Nose; Other Dangers; and Aaaaaaaaaaah! (again). Within each of those categories is a series of stories, each of which is — at most — two or three pages.

Overall, the format is different than anything I’ve seen in a while (and that includes other kids’ reading I’ve done for the pod), and I think it made this kind of content that much more readable and fun. I can see why the cool kids at my school breezed through them!

The illustrations are really pretty terrifying.

Obviously, one of the downsides of podcasting as a medium is that you lose the visual element. But the visual element of the Scary Stories series is part of what makes them so, well, scary! Almost every article I read in preparation for my interview with Gale referenced the original art by Stephen Gammell as a major element of the books’ success.

“This adoration [of the books] baffled my mom,” author Victor LaValle wrote in an August 2019 piece in the New York Times. “Why did I keep coming back to this horrifying book? At that age, I didn’t know how to articulate the effect it had on me. In response to her confusion, I’d open to a page, any one would do, and tap on Gammell’s drawings. That’s why.”

See? The drawings are a pretty big deal.

With that in mind — and since I couldn’t show you on the podcast — here are a few screenshots I found online:

See? Pretty freakin’ terrifying! (Apologies for keeping you up past your bedtime tonight.)

Generally speaking, I found the stories themselves kind of unsatisfying.

I really appreciated Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as a collection — especially knowing what I do now about the work that went into aggregating it — but looking at the stories individually, I was less impressed. I talk about this on the episode, but I think it bears repeating: it’s really hard to get invested in a story (no matter how intense or scary it is!) when you know so little about the characters and there’s no room to develop a backstory for the action. Because of the lack of character development, the stakes just seemed kind of low to me.

I understand that part of the beauty of these short stories is that they’re intended for kids to learn by heart and repeat back to friends (it’s literally in the title!), but I think it would have been interesting to at least have some characters in common from story to story so that readers who might be less likely to tell the stories can at least feel more invested in the reading of them.

Update: kids still do find these stories scary.

In our conversation on the ep, Gale and I wonder about whether or not kids of 2019 would still find stories like this as terrifying as kids of the eighties and nineties did. With all of the technology that makes it that much easier to bring scary things to life in TV and movies these days (LOL), can a 100-page book of short stories with black and white drawings still keep littles up at night?

Thanks to feedback from several members of the SSR community, I can report that yes, it can! A few listeners messaged me to say that their kids have read Scary Stories in recent years and that they were reasonably traumatized. Oh, and also, they loved them.

Listen to the podcast episode about Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about this book. Share them with me in the comments below.

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!** 

12 Books I'm Super Excited to Read This Fall

Happy October, everyone!

With this new month, fall is now *officially* in full swing, so I thought I’d share with you some of the books I’m most excited to read this season! I can’t say that they’re all the hippest, coolest new fall releases — just the titles that I personally am most looking forward to cozying up with, even if they were published in the spring or summer. Seriously, is there a better time of year for reading than fall?

As you’ll see while you scroll through, I’ve picked up copies of some of these titles already, while others still need to be borrowed, bought, etc. With our trip to Thailand fast approaching, I’m suddenly feeling like I need to be very strategic with my reading (I need to be prepared with A LOT of books when that time comes!), which is playing a big role in my fall TBR, too.

1. Ask Again, Yes: A Novel

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Based on the reading preferences I’ve mentioned several times on the podcast (family dramas, interpersonal stories, LOTS of character stuff), listeners have been recommending this book to me more or less since it was published in May… but I knew that Ask Again, Yes and I were that much more meant to be when I stumbled upon a nearly brand new copy propped up against a gate outside Prospect Park here in Brooklyn. Admittedly, it’s been at the top of my TBR for a few months now and keeps getting bumped, but I’m determined to finish it in the next few months. I don’t think I’ve seen a bad review yet!

2. Fleishman Is in Trouble: A Novel

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Like Ask Again, Yes, Fleishman Is in Trouble has been on my list for quite a while, but I’m ready to finally read it and become one of the cool kids. I’ve heard some of my friends talk about how it’s a tough one to read during this stage of life when so many of us are newly married, etc. — but that hasn’t stopped anyone from raving about it, so it must be pretty great. I also happen to love the cover of this one! I have it all ready on my nightstand to pick up when I next get a break in reading for the podcast.

3. Very Nice: A Novel

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Having seen Very Nice blurbed and raved about by some of my favorite bookstagrammers over the last few months, I was more than happy to pick up a copy on one of my many strolls to Books Are Magic (my local indie) this summer. This quote from The Washington Post’s review sells me all on its own: “A story of sex and intrigue set amid rich people in a beautiful house with a picturesque swimming pool... Very funny.” Count me in!

4. American Royals

As much as I’m trying to avoid bringing physical books — especially chunky hardcovers — with us to Thailand, I can definitely see myself breaking my own rule for American Royals. It sounds so fun and wonderful and also like the perfect travel read. Maybe this will be the only exception? I feel like it would be absolutely ideal for those longgggg flights!

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5. Modern Love, Revised and Updated: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption

The Modern Love column is one of my absolute favorite parts of the New York Times, and it’s my dream to have an essay published in it some day. A freelance writer’s gotta have her writing bucket list! When I heard about this collection, I knew it needed to be added to my TBR. Maybe a cozy, snuggly read for closer to the holidays?

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6. Star-Crossed: A Novel

I found myself obsessing over the summary printed on the jacket of this book when I found it at a bookstore earlier this year. Since then, I’ve been holding off on reading it, knowing that it will be absolutely ideal for our big trip to Thailand. I’m not super invested in horoscopes or astrology, but I’m definitely interested in them, and I love the idea of a romantic comedy that takes place in that world.

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7. Ohio

I hadn’t heard much about this book until one of my friends mentioned it at a recent book club meeting that she’d really enjoyed it. Given my love for stories that dive deep into characters, I’m very intrigued by the idea of a 512-page book that takes place over the course of a single evening and is told from the perspectives of four different former high school classmates. Ohio may also be joining me in Thailand.

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8. Save Me The Plums: My Gourmet Memoir

Even as a relative newbie to the world of food writing, I’m very aware of Ruth Reichl as the queen of the genre. I’ve heard such great things about her recent memoir, and I think it will be the perfect introduction to her work for me! I’m thinking this could be another one with the right vibes for a Thanksgiving read.

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9. The Idea of You: A Novel

When I recorded with Becca and Grace from Bad on Paper for Episode 54, they were raving about Robinne Lee’s The Idea of You, which was — at the time — a recent pick for their book club. I’ve been waiting for the right moment to pick it up ever since, and I think that moment might be rapidly approaching this fall.

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10. More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say)

Truthfully, I can be hot or cold when it comes to any title that might fall under the larger umbrella of “self-help,” but my mom (remember her from Episode 47?) specifically recommended this one to me, and I still try to listen to her… at least some of the time : ) I’m familiar with author Elaine Welteroth from the journalism world and I’m intrigued by the fact that Entertainment Weekly calls the book “the millennial Becoming,” so I’m that much more interested in taking my mom up on her recommendation! This might be a good one to listen to on audio, since I’ve found that I prefer to listen to books in this category.

11. The Gifted School: A Novel

Caitlin Flynn recommended The Gifted School to me back when we recorded Episode 55, and her description of it has been stuck in my head ever since! Caitlin and I tend to have similar taste in books and she really knew how to pitch this story to me! I finally picked up a copy a few weeks ago… and I might be a little tempted to break my no-physical-books-in-Thailand rule for this one, too.

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12. The Wedding Date

I’m embarrassed to admit that this will be my first-ever Jasmine Guillory… but it will be my first-ever Jasmine Guillory. I’ll try to forget the embarrassment and just be excited, since all of my favorite readers absolutely rave about this author. My book club chose this title for our October meeting!

What are you most excited to read this fall? Tell me in the comments below or on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook!

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!** 

Teacher Feature: Jessica Schnebelt

When I first launched the blog earlier this summer, I put out a call within the SSR community for top-notch teacher nominations. I wanted to learn more about teachers working hard in all kinds of schools and classrooms to cultivate a love of learning — and, of course, reading! — among their students. The nominations came rollllllling in, and I had the chance to read stories about so many fabulous educators who are out there doing the most important job I can think of. I can’t wait to continue profiling these teachers on the blog!

One teacher, in particular, received a whole bunch of nominations, both from people who know her IRL and from people who follow her on bookstagram (@onlaughterandliteracy). It’s my honor to introduce you to Jessica Schnebelt as the subject of this month’s…

Teacher Feature!

(Check out the last two features here and here.)

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Jessica is married to one of her high school best friends. They are proud parents to two kitties and love to travel the world! Her favorite thing is to experience and learn new things through traveling and books.

You’ll learn more about Jessica’s amazingly creative approach to teaching kids to love reading as you scroll (a book tasting? yes, please!), but in the meantime, I want to thank her for taking the time out of her busy back-to-school season to share her story with me. THANK YOU!

Tell us more about your life as a teacher! Where do you teach? What grades/ages/subjects?

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I teach seventh grade writing and eighth grade reading in Phoenix, Arizona. I am lucky enough that I've had the opportunity to loop with my students — so my sixth graders two years ago were my seventh graders last year and my eighth graders this year!

What inspired you to become a teacher?

My mom. My mom was a middle school teacher. She was so good at what she did, and I admired her so much, so I think it became a natural path for me. When it came down to it, it truly was the only path I knew I would follow.

What do you most remember about your favorite teacher from childhood?

I have been so lucky to have so many great teachers, it's hard to choose just one! The one memory that always sticks out to me, though, was of my fourth grade teacher. She had just donated her lung to her daughter who had cystic fibrosis. The transplant didn't take, and her daughter, sadly, passed away. When my teacher returned, she had to use a microphone because the transplant had made it difficult for her to breathe and speak loudly. She read The BFG to us and it was one of the most engaging read-alouds I've ever experienced. Her willingness to still engage with us after a time of tragedy really stuck with me, as did everything by Roald Dahl.

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What was your favorite book when you were growing up?

Everything by Roald Dahl. The BFG started my love, but I think James and the Giant Peach was truly my favorite. I loved being transported to different worlds. Once Harry Potter was released, that quickly became my favorite!

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What is your favorite book to share with your students?

There are SO many! My favorites to teach are Number the Stars and The Giver. My favorite format to share with students is verse. I love being able to introduce new styles of writing they might not already be familiar with.

What book do you think every teacher should be reading with their students?

Refugee. Not only is it relevant, it also teaches so many important life lessons — acceptance, resiliency, empathy, and humility. Not to mention the fact that it is PERFECT for teaching the elements of plot and the way Gratz ties together three storylines....just perfection.

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How do you cultivate a love of reading with your students?

I get to know my students as individuals. In order for them to love reading, they need to know that I care about them and KNOW them well enough to recommend the right book. I believe that every student needs to be seen and my way of doing that is through book recommendations. I also talk about books lovingly, make students personalized bookmarks, and take time in class to share the LOVE of books. This might look like a book tasting, creating a TBR list, reading the first chapter of a new book out loud, or simply sharing with them what I'm currently reading. We take time every single day to read for pleasure and we set personal reading goals that we celebrate each quarter. I want students to become lifelong readers as opposed to lifelong test takers, so I value and put in the time to allow students to enjoy the act of reading.

What is the best book you've read recently outside of the classroom?

A student and I buddy read the young readers’ edition of Notorious RBG and LOVED it.

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!**

5 YA Tropes That I'm *So* Over

When you’ve read as many YA and middle grade books as an adult as I have over the last year, you begin to pick up on some patterns. And when many of those books were written decades ago, some of those patterns begin to feel especially outdated, problematic, and, well, annoying.

A lot of those patterns make me feel like doing this…

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Here are five tropes in middle grade and YA that I find especially worthy of an eye roll.

1. Nice girls being mean to the mean girls and that somehow being okay.

(Because it’s not.)

I picked up on this trope almost immediately when I started the podcast. In the very first episode of SSR about Harriet the Spy, you’ll hear me and my guest Brittney get extremely fired up about how mean main character Harriet is to her classmates. Yes, we know that we’re supposed to think that those classmates are snobby and stuck-up and annoying… but did that really give Harriet and her friends the right to say and write horribly damaging things about them?

I saw a similar dynamic emerge in title after title — The Princess Diaries, Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock, and Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, to name a few. I’m all for putting an end to bullying and I know how sweet revenge can be, but I just don’t think that modeling this kind of you-were-mean-to-me-so-I’ll-be-mean-to-you behavior for kid readers is such a great idea. You just end up with a lot of mean kids and very few likable characters.

2. Girls “surprising” people by succeeding at certain things.

If I had a nickel for every time I read a line in one of these older kid lit titles about how a girl character can do something “just as well as the boys,” I would own a thousand books and Irving would have a thousand bones.

I don’t have much else to say about this. I know it’s most often reflective of the time period in which these books were written, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it!

3. Kids hating school.

Maybe I only say this because I was once a teacher’s pet and couldn’t imagine what it would be like to wake up every day and hate going to school, but can’t we make more kid characters enjoy going to school… or at least feel neutral about it? I understand that there are unique circumstances that make a classroom setting especially challenging for certain students — learning disabilities, classroom bullies, challenging situations at home — but I do find that all too often, hating school is the baseline state for characters in middle grade and YA books. I’d love for it to be the exception and not the rule!

I also get frustrated when I see kid lit portraying school in a scary way for kids. Matilda is a great example of this. Ultimately, of course, Matilda is a character who loves to learn, but Roald Dahl sets up her school as such a terrifying place that I can’t help but wonder if it made certain young readers worried about what their own school experience would be like. We talk about this a bit on Episode 3!

4. Girls needing to be rescued by dudes.

Twilight is the first book that comes to mind with this one! Not only did Bella need to be rescued from her whole lackluster existence by Edward, but she also needed to be rescued from her own clumsiness time and again throughout the story. Come on, Stephenie Meyer — let the girl have a few of her own wins! (You can hear more of my thoughts on Bella, Edward, and Jacob on Episode 17).

We see this trope popping up in all kinds of ways in other kid lit titles. In the first book in the Boxcar Children series, Violet and Jessie seem to require their brother Benny and Henry to do most of the heavy lifting if they’re to survive after losing their parents. Little Women — which is, admittedly, one of my all-time faves — contains all kinds of mixed messages about what women can and can’t accomplish without the help of a man. Book One in the Sweet Valley High series has Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield requiring male rescuing in all kinds of situations (which is really only the tip of the iceberg of issues we talk about in Episode 54).

The good news is that I think this one is definitely losing steam in more recent YA and middle grade books! I can’t remember flagging it in any of the titles I read for last year’s New Reads November. My fingers are crossed it doesn’t come up in this year’s round of newer titles, either!

5. Any and all plotlines that harp on weight and body image.

I wouldn’t consider this an unnecessary trope in any book in which weight, body image, or eating disorders are the central issue. While I haven’t read it myself, I would call Dumplin’ a good example of this. In Speak (which we talk about on Episode 39), Melinda’s struggles with her body are symptomatic of the trauma she’s dealing with in the months after a sexual assault — again, I wouldn’t call it an unnecessary trope here, either.

What does bother me is stories in which the author seems to have tossed in body image issues or relentless dieting as a generally arbitrary part of a character’s, well, character. I noted this in Go Ask Alice, Sweet Valley High: Double Love, and The Face on the Milk Carton, to name a few.

Part of my sensitivity to this is, of course, my own personal experience with disordered eating and body dysmorphia, but I also hate the fact that pop culture of all kinds has a tendency to suggest that dieting constantly and/or feeling bad about your body just comes with the territory of being a teenager (especially a teen girl).

Are there any kid lit tropes that bother you, either from your own reading experience or from what I talk about on the podcast? Tell me in the comments below or on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook!

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!** 

True Story: Hatchet

Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet was one of the books I was most excited to cover on the podcast. When I started making a list of all of the titles from my own childhood that I would want to cover once the show got up and running (well over a year ago!), I’m pretty sure this one was near the top. I have such vivid memories of reading it for the first time as an elementary schooler, and of thinking that it was so much different than any other book I’d read before. I couldn’t wait to see how I would experience it as an adult!

As you already know if you’ve tuned in to Episode 61, rereading Hatchet pretty much met my high expectations. The things I liked best about it now are different than the things I liked best about it when I was a kid, but I guess that’s the way it should be… and overall, I’d say that the two experiences balanced out so that I enjoyed the book equally both times. My guest on this episode was soon-to-be debut author Sara Faring, and we spent a lot of time writer-to-writer gushing about how beautiful Paulsen’s writing is. But, seriously. It’s very beautiful.

I had a lottttt of notes on Hatchet, and since we didn’t get to chat about them all in what essentially became a Gary Paulsen Fan Club meeting, I’m sharing the True Story below!

(Check out the episode here! Plot summary of Hatchet here!)

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I don’t think I actually knew what a hatchet was when I read this the first time…

I think I established prettttty clearly in the episode that I was firmly an indoor cat when I was growing up. And in my defense, what does a ten-year-old girl living in suburban Pennsylvania ever really need to do with a hatchet? In my experience, the answer to that question is nothing. She never really needs to do anything with a hatchet.

What is kind of embarrassing, though, is that I probably didn’t ever ask anyone to help me figure out what a hatchet was until the book was over. When I was little, I really didn’t like feeling stupid or needing to ask a lot of questions. I was told on more than one occasion that I was a bit of a know-it-all!

I’m sure I got the general sense of what a hatchet was based on the way Paulsen describes it in the book, but I definitely didn’t get a clear picture until way after the fact. If I had to guess, I would say that I probably learned the definition years later and had a moment of, “Ohhhhhhh, so that’s what that book was about!”

Brian had a shockingly mature handle on the legal nuances of his parent’s divorce.

I talk in the episode about the fact that — as a child of divorce myself — I often found myself drawn to book characters whose parents were also no longer together. When you’re a kid that spends a lot of time making plans based on whose house you’re going to be staying at on a given weekend, you can’t help but cling to that “divorced kid” identity! (For what it’s worth, I’m glad to say that I’ve moved on from that.) I think that Brian’s reflections on his parent’s divorce early in the book are probably what drew me in when I read it for the first time… because I can tell you right now that it wouldn’t have been the harrowing crash landing or the wilderness survival portions.

What is surprising about Brian’s relationship with his parents’ divorce is the extent to which he seems to understand the legal proceedings that are going on around him. He seems to know a whole lot about lawyers and how they can affect his life! My parents got divorced when I was so little that I have absolutely no memory of the legalities of all of it, so it was interesting to think about just how much a teenager might be able to pick up on in the same situation.

The heart attack scene in the beginning of the book was really hard for me to read.

Shortly after Brian boards the small plane in New York so he can fly to visit his dad, the pilot has a sudden heart attack. Brian is the only passenger, and at thirteen, he’s pretty ill-equipped to handle what’s going on!

When I read this book for the first time, I probably would have told you that some of the more survivalist scenes were hardest for me to read — eating the turtle eggs, hunting, dismantling dead animals to eat — but as an adult, it was that heart attack scene that really got me. It’s a danger that hits much closer to home!

My dad had a very sudden heart attack last summer. Thankfully, he’s okay now, but it was hard for me to read Paulsen’s graphic description of one of these episodes and to think that it could have mirrored at all what my dad went through.

The perspective shift I got with Brian’s age was particularly crazy with this book.

This is hardly the first time that I’ve reread a book for the podcast and LOL-ed about the fact that I once considered its main character a mature grown-up when they were really a teen — but it really got me with Hatchet! When I read it as a kid, Brian seemed so incredibly old to me. Maybe it was because I was in elementary school or was especially unfamiliar with teenage boys. Or maybe it was just because Brian did such an impressive job of taking care of himself for all of those days he was alone! No matter the reason, he basically felt like an elder to me. See? LOL.

Coming back to the book now having actually been thirteen myself, I couldn’t believe that Brian was going through all of this when he was so young. He was basically a baby left alone in the Canadian wilderness! Where I once felt impressed and intimidated by him, I now felt an almost maternal instinct to protect him. It was a wild perspective shift!

I’m still not sure what to make of the fact that he didn’t take the rifle…

In the final chapters of the book, Brian manages to get to a survival pack that’s been hidden in the back of the sunken plane. He takes most of the items in it, but he leaves the rifle behind. Sara and I didn’t get a chance to have a conversation about this, which is a shame, because I think that decision probably has a lot to say about the way he develops as a character over the course of the story. It’s also a really interesting moral discussion.

I’m not sure what I think Paulsen was trying to show us by having Brian leave the gun behind. Given the current conversation around guns in this country, I must say that I was happy that he did, though. Maybe he felt so lucky to have overcome all of the circumstances that easily could have killed him that he couldn’t bring himself to end someone else’s life? Maybe he realized he could fend for himself and didn’t need that kind of weapon to survive? Maybe he was scared of it? Whatever his reasons, I found that Brian’s choice made me like him that much more.

Listen to the podcast episode about Hatchet here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about this book. Share them with me in the comments below.

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!** 

Happy Back to School! 7 School Stories I Love for BTS

Over the last year and a half, I’ve read almost 70 books featuring tweens and teens as the main characters.

(I guess if you’re here reading the blog, you probably already knew that, though.)

Some ill-advised back-to-school fashion from my own elementary school days. Check out those jellies!

Some ill-advised back-to-school fashion from my own elementary school days. Check out those jellies!

As you might expect, this means that I’ve spent a lot of time getting reacquainted with the experience of being back in school — winding my way through crowded hallways between classes, trying to find the perfect seat in the cafeteria, and hoping to find the right friend group. It really is amazing how much life is lived in these school buildings, and the books I’ve read for the podcast have been a reminder of that for me!

With that in mind — and knowing how many students, parents, and teachers are smack in the middle of back to school season as I write this — I thought it would be fun to compile a few of the school stories that I’ve loved most in coming back to them for SSR! The titles below feature great teachers or school friends… or even just a generally awesome school vibe. I was always a big fan of school myself, so it’s really satisfying to see authors reflect that experience right back to me all these years later.

1. The Princess Diaries

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When I went to see the movie adaptation of The Princess Diaries when I was 11 (before I found my way to the book), I felt like I had never related to a character the way I related to Mia Thermopolis. Yes, she was a few years older than I was and yes, she lived with her mom in a funky converted fire station in San Francisco, but other than that, we were living the same life. Like Mia — and so many other girls in that age group — I felt uncomfortable in my own skin and unsure of how I was supposed to fit in at my school. While I don’t remember my first time reading the book quite as clearly as my first time seeing the movie, I can only imagine that it was a similar experience.

While I wasn’t crazy about Mia’s attitude toward some of her classmates when I reread The Princess Diaries for an early episode of the podcast, I did appreciate the way that author Meg Cabot described the ins and out of high school society. She does such an amazing job in this book of expressing the emotional highs and lows of being a teen, and she also drives home the importance of being able to set all of those distractions aside so you can focus on the people who really love you the most.

LISTEN: Episode 02

2. Matilda

Has there ever been a book that does more to put a love of reading and learning center stage? Personally, I can’t think of one!

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Weirdly, this was not a book that I was crazy about when I was a kid, but in coming back to it as an adult, I realized how cool it is that Roald Dahl made Matilda’s thirst for knowledge her primary — and perhaps most endearing — quality. Although Matilda’s parents try to conceal her smarts, they can’t hold her back! Her school is objectively terrible, but the special relationship that she builds with Miss Honey is proof that sometimes, all it takes to make a difference is one teacher!

LISTEN: Episode 03

3. Ella Enchanted

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Ella’s time at finishing school is actually a pretttttty small fraction of Ella Enchanted as a whole, but I can’t help but give a shoutout to any book that features a magical school setting like the one we see in this book. I always think it’s so interesting how teen and middle grade authors find unique ways to ground their characters in a fantasy world by plopping them into what may seem to many kid readers like the most mundane place in the world… school! Seeing the ways in which different fantasy authors imagine those schools is a super fun element of world-building.

LISTEN: Episode 12

4. Stargirl

So many YA books are about characters trying to find their way into the “norm” of high school culture. Stargirl is different. In the end, it’s about the title character’s journey to find her way out of that norm.

In order to get there, Stargirl does have to dabble with her fair share of conformity, but her grand entrance at the prom in the book’s final chapters is a reminder that she can never fully fit in with her classmates. And why would she want to? Stargirl is one of my favorite characters across all of my SSR reading. I’m so glad she found a way to be herself, and I like the way that author Jerry Spinelli shows her navigating that tension throughout the book.

LISTEN: Episode 26

5. Anastasia Krupnik

The vast majority of the first book in the Anastasia series takes place at home, but what strikes me most about the main character’s experience with school in this title is the way that her relationship with her teacher evolves over time and ultimately teaches her an important lesson about the value of staying open and giving people the benefit of the doubt. For much of the story, Anastasia is at odds with her teacher, largely because she doesn’t feel like her creativity is appreciated in the classroom (which I totally get!). At the end of the book, though, her teacher calls her house to check in after she finds out that Anastasia’s grandmother has passed away. Our main character realizes that she doesn’t actually hate her teacher, after all.

There’s also a fun scene in this book where Anastasia gets to go to class with her father, who is a college professor. I think it’s a fun little peek into higher education for younger readers!

LISTEN: Episode 46

6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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Although the main character in The Perks of Being a Wallflower is dealing with several challenging, unusual experiences, much of the high school society in which he finds himself is reminiscent of quintessential teen-dom. You’ve got the football games and the cool seniors and the parties and the quirky social norms and the crushes and the drama and so much more. You’ve also got a really impactful teacher who helps the main character navigate the tougher moments in and out of the classroom.

While I personally couldn’t relate to a lot of Charlie’s specific circumstances, I heard the echoes of my own high school experience in suburban Pennsylvania throughout this story. High nostalgia factor on this one!

LISTEN: Episode 55

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7. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Has there ever been a school more fun to read about than Hogwarts? I’ll wait…

I already mentioned above my fascination with school settings in fantasy worlds, and J.K. Rowling is (clearly) a master of it.

LISTEN: Episode 60

What is your favorite school story from your childhood? Tell me in the comments below or on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook!

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!** 

Teacher Feature: Kate Czyzewski

It’s back-to-school week for so many teachers and students around the country, and I can’t think of a better time to roll out our second-ever…

Teacher Feature!

(Check out the last one here).

Our August spotlight teacher Kate Czyzewski — who you may know better from bookstagram as @thesaltybookworm — was nominated by multiple people! In addition to our love of books, Kate and I have bonded throughout the last year over a shared love of the Jersey shore, so I was thrilled to see her name pop up when I put out the call for nominations last month.

You’ll learn more about Kate’s life in the classroom as you scroll, but you should also know that she’s on a mission with her bookstagram pal Nikki (AKA @saturday_nite_reader) to spread a love of reading throughout the Garden State! “I feel so strongly that books are making a comeback in a big way, especially with how many first-time authors are being published,” Kate says. “It’s a great year for reading!”

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A few years ago, Kate got news of an untimely diagnosis, and since then, she’s been embracing and making time for what brings her joy: all things books! She spends the summers at the Jersey Shore (a girl after my own heart!), where she loves to visit the Little Free Libraries that tend to be quieter in the off-season. If you happen upon one of those Little Free Libraries and see a children’s classic there, it might just be from Kate!

I love being along for the bookstagram ride as Kate spreads her love of reading, and it’s my honor to take a moment to celebrate that and all of the amazing things she does for her students in this Teacher Feature. Thanks for all of your hard work, Kate!

Tell us more about your life as a teacher! Where do you teach? What grades/ages/subjects?

I teach at Livingston Public Schools in Livingston, New Jersey. I teach seventh grade Special Education and Language Arts. I am a resource room and in-class support teacher.

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What inspired you to become a teacher?

My grandmother! She was a kindergarten teacher for almost forty years. She was the epitome of a great teacher through and through. She “played school” with me and my brother before we actually went to school! Not only has she inspired my calling as a teacher, she has helped make me a lifelong reader. As each new school year begins, I think of her fondly and hope that I am making her proud.

What do you most remember about your favorite teacher from childhood?

Some of my favorite teachers are those from my elementary school days. My second and third grade teachers — Mrs. Schefter and Mrs. Machesca — were inspiring. I remember them always being so ecstatic about whatever it was we were learning for the day. They were also structured and ran well-organized classrooms. As a teacher now, I admire their balance of fun with what were also very formative years of learning critical skills.

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What was your favorite book when you were growing up?

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. It's probably one of the more simplistic children's books written, but it is one that is always a go-to for me. It reminds me to enjoy the small moments in life. Something as simple as a snowy day can have a lasting memory!

What is your favorite book to share with your students? What book do you think every teacher should be reading with their students?

My favorite is The Outsiders, which we study every fall with my students. This is a book that makes some of my non-readers into readers. I get so excited to share the friendship of Ponyboy and Johnny with them. They are always impressed to know that S.E. Hinton was only in high school when her publishing deal came through!

FUn fact: Kate’s dog is named Boo Radley!

FUn fact: Kate’s dog is named Boo Radley!

I have two answers to this question about books that other teachers should be sharing with their students. For elementary teachers, I suggest Charlotte's Web. This book teaches us that friendship can be found in the most unlikely of places. It also cultivates a love for animals. For the older students, I believe every student should read To Kill a Mockingbird. I know it tends to be a go-to classic for many, but the themes discussed in this book still hold true today. A must-read!

How do you cultivate a love of reading with your students?

This is a constant work in progress for me as a teacher, especially in special education. I work with some students who struggle with reading, so reading is something that, at times, gives them anxiety. In the past few years, since starting @thesaltybookworm and @gardenstatebookswap, I've used the idea of social media to cultivate an excitement about reading. I believe that reading doesn't have to be an "alone" activity. When the students see me getting excited about a new book release or an author visit at school, they get excited, too. Readalouds are so important and underrated. When we begin our first novel unit each year, I take my students to my reading corner and read aloud the entire first chapter with them. Like any book that any of us read, it has to engage us from Chapter 1!

What is your favorite episode of The SSR Podcast?

The Face on the Milk Carton and The Outsiders episodes

What is the best book you've read recently outside of the classroom?

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!** 

True Story: Ender's Game

One of the things that I love most about SSR is that it gives me the chance to read books that I missed as a kid or teen and probably would have learned nothing about if I wasn’t hosting this kind of podcast. Ender’s Game is surely one of those books. It wasn’t on my radar when I was growing up, and since I’m not a big science fiction reader as an adult, I wouldn’t really have a reason to give it a shot for purely personal reasons in my grown-up life. Still, I knew that the book was a pretty big deal within its genre.

What I didn’t know until I was preparing to interview my guest Katy Rose Pool for this episode was that the author Orson Scott Card — though once technically a big deal within the genre, as well — has since become a very problematic, polarizing figure. It’s amazing what you discover!

Even with the author’s controversial viewpoints in mind, I’m glad I got the chance to read Ender’s Game, if for no other reason than I know it’s played an important role in the lives of many science fiction fans. I’m also glad that I had the chance to learn more about why Orson Scott Card has lost the respect and support (and rightfully so, in my opinion) of so many people in the years since the book made him famous. As far as I’m concerned, these facts don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

In reviewing my notes from the book and thinking about my discussion with Katy on the podcast, I honestly feel like we covered a lot of my questions and opinions in the scope of our conversation… so this is going to be a pretty short edition of True Story.

Still, there are a few thoughts I didn’t share in the episode. Here’s the (brief) True Story behind Episode 59.

(Check out the episode here and get a refresher on the plot of Ender’s Game here!)

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I did find that the book was a little long, on the whole.

I’m not one to shy away from long books, but I think that Ender’s Game probably could have been about 100 pages shorter. I could have done without a few of the battles that we witness in Battle School, and I didn’t need to see Ender be bopped around to quite so many armies as he was trying to find his place in the school’s social hierarchy. I understand that these kinds of details probably appeal to a certain kind of reader, but it went on long for me!

I would encourage you to check out the timeline around the brewing controversy with Orson Scott Card.

Katy and I spend quite a bit of time at the top of the episode talking about Orson Scott Card’s problematic politics. For the most part, we speak broadly about them, acknowledging how they are at odds with the seemingly inclusive, loving messages of the book and talking about how hard it can be when you discover that a piece of work that’s important to you comes from a damaging source.

If you’re interested in getting more into the specifics of Orson Scott Card’s hateful viewpoints, I would suggest you take a look at this timeline. It lays out all of the events that have built up our new (negative) perspective about this author so that you can make your own judgements!

I enjoyed a lot of the kid characters.

As much as Ender struggled to bond with his peers at Battle School, when he finally did make friends, he definitely found his way to the right people. I really loved the kids that he bonded with!

Bean and Petra, in particular, were extremely endearing. Katy shared with me in our conversation that some of the author’s additional books are actually written from Bean and Petra’s perspectives. In all honesty, I’m not sure that I feel motivated to read any of those other titles, but it does make me happy to realize that other people were interested enough in these characters that they ultimately merited their own books, too. It sounds like they may have some cool back stories!

The twist at the end really is one of the best I’ve ever read.

When I discovered that Ender wasn’t actually participating in war simulations, but was actively invading the Bugger home planet and was unknowingly responsible for an unprovoked genocide, I was genuinely shocked. Of all of the twists and surprises that Orson Scott Card could have added into the last few chapters of the book, I definitely did not see this one coming. In hindsight, I’ve gotta say — it’s pretttttty twisted. It’s crazy to think that the author likely had that twist in mind throughout the process of writing the rest of the book, and it’s interesting to consider how the rest of the plot leads up to it.

Listen to the podcast episode about Ender’s Game here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about this book. Share them with me in the comments below.

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!**