I’ve dabbled in Genius Hour as part of my Language Arts class for a few years now. It always looks a little different each year, but one thing that remains the same is that I always do a Genius Hour project along with my students each time. Why ask them to pursue independent learning if I’m not willing or able to do it myself?
For third quarter my project was catching up on my knowledge of current Young Adult literature. I know classics and the stuff that was being published when I was teen, but anything that came out after the early 2000’s is out of my wheelhouse. So over the past six weeks, I dove into the YA world. I collected recommendations from family, friends, and students, and then sent a whole bunch of requests to the library to see what came up. I managed to read nine books total as part of my project (mostly via audiobooks, but not all).
My major take-away is that there have been some amazing YA books published in the past 15 years! I tried to pull from a wide range of genres and target demographics, so while not everything I read fit my personal preference, every one of them was quality writing with engaging story lines. My favorites were The Winter King by Christine Cohen and Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, with A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielsen as a close runner up – very different stories, but each have strong, well-written characters and powerful messages about life. However, there was something to enjoy in all the drinks!
Without further ado – the results of my 3rd Quarter Genius Hour project:
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser
I picked this book from a list of recommended YA books in my reading journal. It’s a cute, contemporary story about a large family living in a Harlem brownstone, faced with the prospect of eviction by a cantankerous landlord. The kids have fun, unique personalities and, despite their differences, share a strong bond with one another. Themes of the power of kindness, seeing past the surface, and communication shine through. While not an earth-shattering page-turner, it was an enjoyable read.
A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielsen
The Lost Prince series by Jennifer Nielsen was one of my favorite reads in 2021, so when I started this project, I knew I wanted to read another one by her. A Night Divided is historical fiction, a story about a young girl’s efforts to reunite her family after they were separated by the Berlin Wall. The protagonist is a strong female lead, and in true Jennifer Neilsen fashion, the writing is poignant, suspenseful, not too predictable, and lends itself to notable quotes about the human condition and freedom.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
I read this one in a day. Jason Reynolds came as a highly recommended author from a teacher-friend who happens to be an absolute YA expert (check her out at Mrs. Frank Reads), and Long Way Down had also been recommended by other teacher-friends, too, so this was the time for me to finally pick it up. Readers should be aware that Jason Reynolds tends to take on hard topics, and this is no exception. It’s a fascinating look inside the mind of a 15 yr old boy who just lost his brother to gun violence. Reynolds crafts a riveting, compelling narrative that creates empathy for those living in a violent world while simultaneously challenging “the rules” that govern them. Reynolds is an absolute wordsmith, and listening to it in audio format added a whole other dimension to the quality of his work. If the premise doesn’t scare you off, this is worth a read.
Schooled by Gordon Korman
Gordon Korman also came highly recommended by Mrs. Frank. Schooled was the first book of his that came available from the library, so that’s what I read. It is the story of a teenage boy (Cap) raised in an isolated compound. He only interacts with his grandmother most of his childhood. At the beginning of the book, his grandmother is injured and he must enroll in public school for the first time. The story follows Cap as he naively navigates the intricacies of the high school social world. It’s an engaging story with lively, fun characters (if a bit stereotypical at times). The adult characters are sometimes less believable (and more frustrating) than the teenage characters – which almost made me stop reading at one point. I got past it and the rest of the story more than made up for it, so overall, it was an enjoyable read.
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo
This was a recommendation from a 5th grade student. In some ways, I loved it. The nonfiction stories are short, written in a simple “Once upon a time…” style. It covers women from ancient history to modern times, in a wide range of ethnicities, cultures, professions, and accomplishments. The feel is very “Girl Power!”, empowering, and fun. HOWEVER, while most of it is neutral enough, a handful of stories are written from a clear liberal perspective. Of particular note are the stories about Hilary Clinton and one chapter about a transgender girl. Political bias is worth noting in any situation, and the 5th grader who recommended the book to me shared some good thoughts about reading with discretion as we talked about it.
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
I read this one because we have a class set, so I figured I should know what was in it. It’s a good story with a perceptive (horse) narrator and loveable, interesting cast of characters (both horse and human) around him. It follows the story of WW1 from the horse’s perspective. He changes owners several times, giving the reader multiple vantage points on the war. We see both the British and German armies, the impact on civilians caught in the crossfire, and of course, the bleakness of trench warfare. The author’s points about war are poignant, if a bit predictable, and it is definitely interesting read from a historical perspective. With all the attention that WW2 gets in literature, this book was a refreshing chance to personalize WW1 a bit.
Brian’s Winter by Gary Paulsen
I am getting ready to teach Hatchet to my 6th graders, and I saw this mixed in with class set in the Language Arts closet, so I grabbed it as part of my project. The premise of Brian’s Winter is a continuation of Hatchet, imagining what would have happened to the protagonist if he’d had to survive a winter in the wilderness. It wouldn’t make sense to anyone who hadn’t read Hatchet first, but it holds up to the original story well for those who have. I appreciate that Paulsen gives Brian a different mental/psychological journey along with the physical adventures and challenges he faces as he learns to hunt and survive in a freezing cold winter.
The Winter King by Christine Cohen
This is the story of a young girl whose family has been stricken with poverty, living in a wintery village ruled by a tyrannical god-king. Mysterious white wolves and zombie-like drauger haunt the woods surrounding the village, while the girl struggles to reconcile the realities of her hard life with the rigid religious structure that controls the community. When a sickness sweeps through the community and threatens to wipe out those she loves, she will stop at nothing to find the truth.
This book was recommended on a Lutheran Educators Facebook group, and as much as I enjoyed it (and I did!), I had a hard time separating my nerdy English teacher tendencies out of my reading on this one. Other teachers in the group compared it to Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis (a book I know inside and out – and yes, there’s a similar structure and even some directly pulled lines). I also noticed strong parallels to the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades. However, my nerdy background knowledge IS NOT necessary to enjoy the book! On the contrary, I wish I’d been able to separate out the literary analysis side of myself and just enjoy the story for what it was, because it is really good on its own.
Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George
My sister-in-law recommended this author to me. I read the author’s other book Tuesdays at the Castle earlier this year, and I really enjoyed it, so I thought I’d give this one a chance, too. Dragon Slippers is a fun, creative adventure story with one of the strongest female protagonists I’ve seen in a long time. The story begins with Creel standing in front of a dragon’s cave because her aunt thought it’d be a good idea to have Creel be “taken” by a dragon so a hero would rescue and marry her. Creel has her own ideas about her future, however, and doesn’t play the part of the damsel in distress. When she meets the dragon, she effectively “rescues” herself, and then leaves to travel to the capital city and make her own way in the world – but not before setting in motion events that will change the fate of dragons forever. The take on dragons was creative, different from the other dragon lore that seems so popular in YA literature, which I enjoyed. The beginning was a little slow – I actually let this go back to the library midway through reading and then picked up again later. I’m glad I did, because the second half was fantastic! I especially appreciated the non-traditional take on the happy ending.