Divergent/Insurgent/Allegiant by Veronica Roth


I am waaayyyyy late to this party, I know. I’ve had Divergent on my bookshelf since it came out and I finally read it, and then immediately read Insurgent and Allegiant over the last 5 days. (I also have a copy of Four, but I left it at school, so I’ll start that up when we get back.)  My students will be so happy that I got caught up on this over our Thanksgiving break!  Why did it take me so long to read? I’m not sure.

I was an early reader of The Hunger Games. I think I resisted Divergent because I was being loyal to Katniss. When I started reading Divergent, my thoughts, were “Yeah, yeah, yeah, dystopia, got it” and then as Tris made her decision on Choosing Day and THEN the implications of choosing Dauntless were revealed, I was hooked.

Okay this only makes sense to people who have read the books, so let me back up. In a future Chicago, society is divided into factions based on personality temperaments. There are the Erudite, who value learning and logic, the Amity, who value peace and relationships, the Abnegation, who value selflessness and modesty, and the Dauntless, who value courage and bravery. When you turn 16, you get the option of leaving your family faction behind and reassigning yourself to something new. This is partly led by a test that is supposed to show a particular aptitude for one faction or another. Some people show an affinity for more than one faction though, and those people are the Divergent. Divergent people are considered dangerous, so that attribute must be kept hidden. Beatrice, or Tris, is Divergent. She joins Dauntless in the hopes of finding a place for herself because she doesn’t quite fit in with her own family or any of the other groups. She meets a boy named Four, and she trains really hard and she becomes all kinds of cool.

There is more to this society than meets the eye though, and over the three books we discover that all of these people are part of something even bigger, and everyone is being manipulated through generations of beliefs that are not quite accurate. There is a war on the horizon, but this has all happened before. Attempts to control it had mixed results. And it turns out the Divergent folks are the ones with just the right combo of smarts, bravery, sacrifice, and solidarity to begin a revolution. No wonder they are considered dangerous when they are perfectly suited to challenge the status quo (the way things are and have always been, so “they” say.)

Tris is an awesome character, though I question her ability to be thrust into so many new situations and handle them all so calmly and rationally when she is only 16 years old. She always managed to see through people and figure out the right thing to do, even when she had to go against Four and work behind his back. However, this did not bother me at all when I read the books because I was fully involved in her point of view. Maybe I ended up feeling this way because the last book uses alternating viewpoints between Tris and Four, which allowed me to take a step back from the action. (I did not care for this narration technique because they “sounded” so much alike. Sometimes I had to double-check to see whose chapter I was reading.)

So, let’s get to the ending. I already knew what was going to happen at the end. Shortly after Allegiant came out, I was ambushed by a bunch of hysterical sixth graders who were devastated (devastated!) by the ending. Perhaps that is another reason I put off reading the books. However, I will say that I think that what happened HAD TO happen to be true to the character. Had to. So I did not mind this at all, and would still say yes, read these books.

Interestingly as I was finishing Insurgent, I went to see The Giver at the movies, and I was struck by a lot of the similarities, starting with the choosing ceremony (or assignment ceremony in The Giver), and that made me think again of The Hunger Games and also the Matched series, where the government suppresses the people and controls every aspect of their lives. It was cool to think about how these big dystopian ideas all connect. So if you liked those books, or movies, you should definitely check out the Divergent series. It will make you think big ideas, just like Tris. (And Katniss, and Jonas, and Cassia…)

Divergent has an AR level of 4.8 and is worth 16 points; Insurgent is level 5.0 and is worth 16 points; Allegiant is level 5.7 and is worth 17 points.


Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

endangeredThe Democratic Republic of Congo is a country in Africa. (Remember Africa is not just one giant country; it is a continent made of many countries.) Congo is a very unstable country, with almost constant warring between different political groups. It is a country of great mineral wealth, though the people are poor. Most children do not attend school because they must work to support their families. Some children end up as soldiers. Congo also has bonobos, endangered members of the great ape family. This is the real setting where the fictional story, Endangered, takes place.

Our main character is Sophie, who lives with her father in the US during the school year, and in Congo with her mother in the summer. Sophie’s mom runs a sanctuary for the bonobo apes, raising and protecting them so they can eventually be released into the wild on a reserve that is protected from hunters. On her way into town, Sophie sees a man on the street, dragging around a baby bonobo. She buys the ape from the man, trying to save the poor creature from being sold for food. Her mother is furious, and the reason why becomes clear very quickly. This one simple decision creates a bigger dilemma, and as a result, Sophie is tasked with taking care of her new bonobo, now named Otto, for the summer. Sophie’s mom must leave on a trip, but shortly afterward, a rebellion breaks out. The story follows Sophie and Otto as they must flee the sanctuary and trek through the war-torn countryside, facing real threats to their survival. Some scary stuff happens along the way. It is an interesting comparison between apes and their social structure to humans and our societies, when we are so closely related by genetics. What makes them so different, yet so relatable? Other questions come up as well, concerning animal welfare v. human welfare issues. Here is a clip from the author, Eliot Schrefer:

This book made me think and I learned a lot. Sophie is smart and calm under pressure when faced with difficult situations.  Who is more endangered in this story, the girl or the bonobos?  Or is it all of Congo? Would you be able to survive?

If you read The One and Only Ivan, this book would be the next step up. It is more scientific in how it presents information, and it is definitely written at a higher level, both in language and content. 

Endangered has an AR level of 6.2 and is worth 12 points. The author plans to write a book for each of the great apes; the second one is called Threatened and is about chimpanzees, and book three will be about orangutans. Also, Mr. Schrefer is writing a book in the Spirit Animals series, which were very popular in my classroom this past year, so now we have more things to add to our TBR (to-be-read) lists!

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

esperanzaMy teaching partner and I decided to squeeze one more book into our lessons this year and we picked Esperanza Rising, knowing that it was both old enough that our students had never read it before, but recent enough to not be outdated. Our district’s reading list needs a serious overhaul, so this book, published in 2002, seemed like a great choice. Out of my 29 sixth graders, only one had read it before, so our instinct was spot-on!

The book starts in 1924, in Mexico, where Esperanza’s father is the owner of a large ranch.  They live in a large house with servants, the family employs many workers, they are well-regarded in the community, and Esperanza is a spoiled only child. She is not a very likable character at the beginning of the story and my students had a hard time relating to her life. A tragedy occurs that rocks Esperanza and her mother’s world, and after some relatives threaten blackmail, they decide to leave Mexico in the hopes of a better life in America. They join a migrant farming camp where they are faced with having to do manual labor for the first time in their lives. Esperanza doesn’t even know how to use a broom to sweep! Life is very hard for Esperanza and she is quickly humbled by her new circumstances.  When her mother becomes ill, she must learn to step up and take care of business. A terrible plot twist left my students gasping out loud as they came across the gut-dropping moment themselves.

I took an informal poll of the kids after we finished up.  Girls liked this book more than boys, hands down. This is probably because it was written from a girl’s perspective and had so much to do with the mother/daughter relationship. One boy said it was “more boring than interesting” and another noted that there were “some places that didn’t have a lot of action.” One boy wished for “a chase scene” and a different ending! Many said that they thought it started out slowly and then got a little better. Reviews from the girls tended to have way more exclamation points, indicating that they were feeling strongly about the book. One of the girls wrote:

I think that the story “Esperanza Rising” was a great, amazing story. It gives you the history of how Hispanics work to get a little money to survive. People that are Mexicans come as immigrants to California to get a better life. That’s how Esperanza came with her mother to the immigrant camp because she didn’t have any papers. The story really got me because that’s how my grandparents came and I’m proud of it.”

We had looked at a legal case earlier this year that took place in our very own school district, called Mendez v. Westminster, which was an early school segregation ruling, and we looked at some of the laws and social rules that enforced discrimination in the pre-civil rights time. Esperanza Rising allowed us a look at the farm workers’ union and the impact of Cesar Chavez, and like the student above, gave some understanding as to why people take such risks to cross the border into the US.  Even though not all of the students loved the book, it provided them with a background on some of the parts of California history that is not covered in the fourth grade curriculum, and so I think it was a worthwhile read for my future social activists. When these topics come up again in their studies, they will be able to reflect back to this book and make connections to what they read and the images they saw this year.

Esperanza Rising was especially loved by my students who enjoy the historical fiction series, Dear America, which has a whopping 42 books to choose from, all in diary form. Boys who enjoy this type of story will also probably like the I Survived series. Esperanza Rising has an AR level of 5.3 and is worth 6 points.

Throwback Thursday (and a book pairing bonus!)

My goodness, I’ve been away for too long!  This is due to two things:

1.  I took 43 sixth graders to camp for a week.  A loooong week.  Totally worth it, by the way.

2.  I’ve been in a serious reading slump lately.  Everyone once in a while it happens.  I get distracted and have trouble settling in for reading.  I got stuck in a book that I was not really enjoying, but I really wanted to like it and thought I should like it, so I was too stubborn to just quit.  Then I had an assignment for a friend’s site that also involved my reading another book I did not care for at all and then figuring out how to write about it.  (That was really tricky, but I did it!)

One of the side effects of a reading slump is that I tend to bounce around between different reading materials, so suddenly I found myself finishing several things at once.  That’s good for this blog, so I’ll try to post a few more things in the next week or so.

Today I have two titles to present.  One is a throwback, since Throwback Thursday is such a big “thing” right now, and the other is a comparatively newer book. We are looking at 1987 and 2006, so I guess those are both technically throwbacks.  At any rate, the first is a classic and the second was new to me, and they both go together quite nicely.


My students just finished reading Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.  This is the story of a boy named Brian who is dealing with his parents’ fresh divorce.  He is off to visit his father for the summer, traveling in a small plane to Canada, by himself.  The pilot is friendly and lets Brian try flying the plane for a few minutes.  Not too far into the flight, the pilot suffers a fatal heart attack and Brian has to take over the controls.  He crash lands into a lake, but manages to drag himself ashore.  When he wakes up, his situation is dire.  It is just Brian, and the hatchet he wears on his belt, against the wilderness.  The story is full of triumphs and disasters as Brian has to figure out basic survival skills like acquiring food, constructing a shelter, and making fire.  He struggles and we hold our breath to see what might happen to him next.  Will he get rescued? What will happen when the weather changes? Are people even still looking for him???  Phew!

My students BEGGED me to keep reading and were sad when we would have to stop each day and switch subjects.  That is the sign of a high interest, captivating book! Hatchet has an AR level of 5.7 and is worth 7 points.  There is a movie as well, but it is called A Cry in the Wild.  (Beware of the horror movie series called “Hatchet.”  It’s definitely not the same thing!)

alabama moonNow, while we were reading Hatchet as a class, I was also reading a book called Alabama Moon for silent reading time.  Alabama Moon was written by Watt Key, and also has a movie to match. Moon is a boy who has been raised to live off the grid since he was a baby.  The mother passed away when Moon was very young, so his father raised him in the woods.  Moon is an experienced survivalist, and his father has made sure to teach him how to read and write as well.  When Moon’s father breaks his leg, he refuses outside help and he dies, leaving 10-year old Moon all alone.  Moon is turned in to the authorities and spends some time in a juvenile detention center, where he makes his first friends ever.  After a daring escape, Moon goes on the run with an angry and bumbling sheriff on his tail.  This book was a great to read along with Hatchet and I found myself marking passages to read aloud and share with my class.  Brian was completely clueless and had to learn how to survive, where Moon was the exact opposite.  There is a part where he kills a deer and manages to use every part for something, right down to the eyeballs.  It was fascinating! It’s not hard to imagine being Brian once you read about Moon’s level of experience and reinforces Brian’s struggle.  (I would definitely be Brian in a survival scenario, how about you?)  Alabama Moon has an AR level of 4.1 and is worth 11 points.

Read either, or both, of these books if you love a great adventure story!  Don’t be tricked into thinking that these are “boy books” even though the main characters are boys.  Personally I love Hatchet because of its simplicity and how gripping it is, even though it has virtually no dialogue since Brian is by himself most of the time.  Alabama Moon, on the other hand, was much more about friendship and connecting with others.  These two make great companion titles, and each author has additional books to check out, too.  Read on!

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

scorpionTwo posts on the same day! Go me!

Here’s a book that I just finished.  Like, 15 minutes ago just finished, and I though I’d better blog it right NOW while I’m already here!

The House of the Scorpion is a dystopian future-style book, though you don’t get the full impact of how strange the world has become until late in the book.  You get to go through the plot alongside the main character, learning as he learns, which led me to gasp out loud and make I’m sure what were ridiculous faces as I read this in class.  (My students think it’s funny when I read because I cannot keep my reactions to myself.)

This is a very twisty sci-fi novel about..well, it’s about a lot of things.  It’s about a boy, Matt, who is the clone of a man called El Patron, a terrible and powerful drug dealer in a country called Opium that runs along the border of the US and Mexico.  Matt has been grown in order to be spare parts for El Patron as he ages and become sickly.  Matt is actually the 9th clone in a long line of clones, and his time is running short.  Clones are considered no more than livestock, so he is treated poorly and has few rights.  Luckily El Patron favors him, so he is allowed an education and other privileges.  There is a dark undercurrent to this book, which made it super intriguing to read.  I knew things had taken a turn when Matt found himself in an “orphanage” where one of the mottos was “work is freedom” which sent chills down my spine.  “Work is freedom’ is a saying posted at many of the Nazi concentration camps during WWII and I remembered it immediately from going to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. last year.  There is a sequel to this book that I now *must* read.  I’m curious to know if Matt can overcome his own DNA or if he will give in to a history that is his by default.  Will he become what he must be destined for, or will he rise above his fate?  An interesting note from the author at the end expresses some of the moral issues that the book touches on, too. So good.

The House of the Scorpion has an AR level of 5.1, though I think it reads higher due to its science fiction characteristics, where you just have to press forward and trust that what you need to know will be explained to you in time.  Because it is complex, it is worth 15 AR points, an indication that you’re looking at a heavy plot.  Read this if you are a fan of other dystopian series like The Hunger Games, Divergent, or The Giver.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

code-name-verityHappy new year! Did you meet your reading goal for 2013? Did you set a new goal to challenge yourself in 2014?  I missed my goal by just 3 books, but will challenge myself to fit in 5 extra books this year.  I use the website Shelfari.com to track the books that I read, and it’s pretty neat because it shows all of your reading statistics for each year.  For example I can see that my numbers were lower when I was back in school, that they went up sharply after graduation, and that I fell short last year.  It also helps me keep track of the books that I plan to read, and planning to read is almost as fun as the actual reading!

At the very, very end of 2013 I discovered my Book of the Year.  This book is a little higher than a “middle reader” book, though it is considered a level 6.5 in AR.  I would say this is more of a “young adult” book, towards the 8th grade and up end of things, but I wanted to note it here because it is so amazing.  Add it to your own TBR (to be read) list for when you have learned more about World War II.

Code Name Verity is a story of two girls who become friends while they are both working for Britain’s Royal Air Force.  One is a pilot and one is a radio/communication specialist and both are more than they seem.  The book is told by both characters after the girls are separated during a mission they undertake together.  Their story is complicated, sometimes graphic, and definitely surprising.  It’s a spy thriller, a mystery, an action/adventure book, and a book of deep love and friendship.  I can’t tell much more than this for fear of spoiling anything.  There is some technical information about various types of airplanes of the era that I found interesting, but I know others found dry and difficult.  When you get deeper into the story, you understand better why those details were included, but you don’t need to let them drag you down.  Just keep reading!

I read this book in 2 days over winter break, opting to stay in my pajamas ALL day because I was so involved in the story.  It was that good and I didn’t want to stop reading just to get dressed so I could continue reading.  That didn’t make sense to me!  Teachers like to enjoy their vacations, too, so I made sure that I got one full and complete day that was just for me.

Code Name Verity has an AR level of 6.5 and is worth 15 points.  The point value gives an indication that this book will have a complicated plot, and it does require some basic knowledge about WWII, though it will also explain some things along the way.  It is very dense reading, and not a book that you will be able to read casually, so be prepared to dedicate the necessary time and care to this title.  It does have a sequel, Rose Under Fire, that came out in 2013, but I haven’t read that one…yet.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Wanna see something cool?  Watch this.

Think about social studies.  What is the number one thing people need to live?  Stable food supply, right. And what is the number one thing they need to establish that stable food supply? Water.  It’s kind of a big deal. Did you know that the Earth is over 70% water, but less than 1% of that is available to us as drinking water?  Most of us have it pretty easy in that we can turn on our sinks and get water like it’s magic.  Or we can go to the store and just buy a bottle of water, no problem.  We are very lucky.  The video above is just one example of how people struggle to collect water, each and every day.  The book I just read, A Long Walk to Water, is another example of what life is like in another country.

a long walkA Long Walk to Water tells the stories of two children from Sudan: Salva, whose story starts in 1985, and Nya, who is a child in 2008.  The book goes back and forth between their stories, but it is not confusing to read.  Nya spends her days walking to and from the pond to collect fresh water for her family.  It takes two hours to get there, and longer to get back because she must carry the heavy water back to her home. She does this twice a day, every day.  She cannot attend school and her family depends on her to complete this task.  Salva’s family is fairly well-off in their village, compared to others, and he does get to attend school.  However, Sudan is in the middle of a civil war* and one afternoon the fighting comes to Salva’s village.  The teacher tells all of the boys to start running, just start running away so they don’t get caught up in the crossfire.  Salva is separated from his family and joins a large group of people who set out walking towards a refugee camp that will hopefully take them all in.  It is very dangerous to walk across the desert, having to face lions and crocodiles, not to mention the threat of soldiers at any time. The adults in the group are reluctant to help Salva because it is not safe to invest energy and resources into someone who could hold them back.  

*A civil war is when a country is fighting with itself, and the people are divided against each other.  Here in America, we often refer to The Civil War, which took place in the 1860s between the northern and southern states.

Meanwhile, Nya notices some activity going on her village.  Strangers have appeared and they seem very busy.  They bring in a large drill and say they will find water and build a well, but the people of the village do not understand how this is possible.  They are very skeptical about this new situation, and life continues on as usual, with Nya making the long walk to water every day.  In his sections of the book, Salva continues to face many challenges.  He becomes a leader of a group of boys, who became known as The Lost Boys of Sudan.  They walk and walk and walk.  For years.  YEARS.

Eventually the two timelines catch up to each other, and you will be truly humbled by these stories.  Salva’s story is true; Nya’s character is fictional, but based in fact.  She is what we call an amalgam, or a combination character based on many different sources.  I remembered the story of The Lost Boys of Sudan from the news, so I sort of knew how this story would end, and it still moved me to tears.  The book tells a tale of a life that we can barely imagine from the comfort of our homes where water flows freely, our toilets flush, and our refrigerators are stocked with fresh food.  This is why we read, and this is why we travel– to open our eyes to different possibilities, to be thankful for what we have, and to help those in need when we can.

Salva is now an adult, and here is a link to his project if you’d like to know more about what he has accomplished: http://www.waterforsouthsudan.org/

A Long Walk to Water has an AR level of 5.0 and is worth 3 points.