Booktalk: Popular: A Memoir by Maya Van Wagenen

Popular cover

Since most of the YA books I read are fiction and many of those are dark and depressing, I’m always on the lookout for nonfiction titles and for books that are sweet and uplifting at their core.  Popular: A Memoir by Maya Van Wagenen succeeds on both counts!


This is the true story of a girl who tried to do something brave.  She tried to come out of her shell and become popular.  In order to transform herself, she used a book called Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide.  Betty Cornell wrote that book in 1951, and Maya’s father had bought a copy of that book at a thrift store before Maya was born.

Maya decided to see if advice that was over 60 years old would still work today, and if it could help her transform into something she definitely wasn’t.  Because up until now Maya had been quiet and shy, she only had a few friends, and she hated talking to strangers.  But when she was in 8th grade Maya used this book to learn how to use Vaseline instead of makeup on her eyes, how to brush her hair 100 times before she went to sleep at night, how to close her pores with ice cubes, how to wear pearls, how to stand tall, how to talk to strangers, and how to transform herself into a whole new person.





Booktalk: How They Croaked by Georgia Bragg

How They Croaked cover

How They Croaked by Georgia Bragg combines two of my favorite qualities.  It’s a collective biography, which has added appeal for readers who are intimidated by the idea of reading “a whole book,” PLUS it has plenty of gross-out appeal!  Frankly, any day that I can ominously ask a group of kids if they’ve had lunch yet is a good day for me.

Collective biographies also have an extra plus in the booktalking department, which is that if you lose your place and forget someone, it’s okay.  I’ve shortened this booktalk since I first wrote it — I also talked about Cleopatra and Mozart in earlier versions of this booktalk, but those were the people most likely to leave my head so they didn’t make the final cut.

While this has been one of the more entertaining books I’ve shared during class visits recently (it’s been circulating more than most of the fiction books I’ve shared!) it’s also been one of the more frustrating ones.  That’s because I’ve had to do lots of stopping and starting as students interrupt me to ask the meanings of words — “guillotine” and “croaked” have been recent stumpers.  And talking about this book has led to more follow-up questions from students and teachers alike who want to know about how other famous people died.  So I’ve definitely learned that this booktalk might take longer than I expect!


How They Croaked is a nonfiction book, which means that all of the stories in here are absolutely true.  And MOST of the stories are pretty gross.  In fact, the introduction to this book begins with a warning that says If you don’t have the guts for gore, don’t read this book!  

Uh … you guys haven’t had lunch yet, right?

Okay, so let me tell you about some of the people you can read about in this book.  Some famous deaths happened from a very direct cause.  For example, Julius Caesar died because he was stabbed dozens of times by the Roman senators.  Marie Antoinette died because her head was cut off with a guillotine during the French Revolution.  Those deaths were pretty straightforward.

Then there were the deaths that could have been prevented if people knew then what we know now.  For example, Galileo used to drink wine instead of water because hundreds of years ago water could be very dangerous to drink.  But it turns out that the wine he was drinking was stored in casks made with lead, so he died of lead poisoning.  Marie Curie was a famous scientist who studied radioactive material, and she died from radiation poisoning.

But one of the WORST examples of a death that could have been prevented was president James Garfield.  He’s one of our least famous presidents, because he was only president for four months before someone shot him in the back while he was standing in a train station.  The first doctor who arrived on the scene tried to find the bullet inside Garfield’s body by sticking his finger into the bullet hole.  Soon, more doctors arrived, and each one poked their fingers into the hole to try to find the bullet, but none of them could find it.

I should probably mention at this point that none of them wore gloves and none of them washed their hands!

Garfield wasn’t expected to live for another day, but in fact he lived for another 80 days, with infection spreading through his body and making him sicker and sicker.  It wasn’t until he died and an autopsy was performed that doctors could see that the bullet wasn’t anywhere near the bullet hole, but it also wasn’t near any vital organs.  So it wasn’t the bullet that killed him — it was infection that did.

If you’d like to learn more about different famous people throughout history — how they lived, how they died, and what happened to their bodies after they were dead, then you should DEFINITELY read —

How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg

Booktalk: Dear Marcus: A Letter to the Man Who Shot Me by Jerry McGill

Dear Marcus cover

I first checked out Dear Marcus by Jerry McGill because I’d heard it referred to as “the #1 book in juvie,” and I wondered what kind of book could entice kids in juvenile detention centers. As soon as I started reading it, I was swept up in the universal questions that it raised about forgiveness, about anger and grief, and about how often each of us look back on our lives and wonder “what if?”

Many library systems including mine have this book shelved in their adult collections.  That’s understandable because it’s written from an adult perspective, but it’s also understandable that it would have lots of crossover teen appeal because so much of it focuses on the author’s youth.  This would make a great book to share with older teens who are fans of real-life survivor stories, and it would also make a great topic for a book discussion.


Jerry McGill was 13 years old when he was shot in the back by a stranger.  He had been a smart kid with a promising future.  He was great at sports, he could dance, and he was popular.  But then one bullet changed everything.

Jerry spent a lot of time thinking about the “what ifs.”  What if he hadn’t been out on the street that night?  What if he and his friends hadn’t stopped to play video games on the way home?  What if they had walked home a different way?  Jerry and Eric had been walking next to each other — what if the man had decided to shoot Eric instead?

What if, what if, what if?

But all the what ifs in the world don’t matter, because Jerry was shot and his life changed forever.  When he wasn’t thinking about the what ifs, he was thinking about the person who did this to him.  Was it a boy or was it a man?  Why did he shoot him?  Was it accidentally or on purpose?  Was he proud afterwards, or did he regret it?  Is he still alive, or is he dead?  Is he in prison, or is he free?

Jerry has no idea, because they never caught the person who did this to him.  But he can imagine that person.  He imagines that the person who shot him is named Marcus, and that whether he was a boy or a man on the day he pulled the trigger, he’s definitely a man by now.  This book is a letter from Jerry to Marcus, filled with all the things he wants to say to the man who ruined and transformed his life.

On Rebuilding, and Books With Booktalk Potential

Kidney Hypothetical coverSweet Madness coverThe Last Good Day of the Year cover

We’re back!!!

On today’s episode I talk about the past and future of Be a Better Booktalker, and I also share several books that I think have booktalk potential:

The Kidney Hypothetical, Or How to Ruin Your Life in Seven Days by Lisa Yee

Sweet Madness by Trisha Leaver and Lindsay Currie

The Last Good Day of the Year by Jessica Warman

Booktalk: Nil by Lynne Matson

Nil cover

Nil by Lynne Matson is a suspenseful book that blends adventure, romance, and the challenge of survival.  I’m a big fan of books that open with someone being dropped into a strange environment and being forced to adapt to this strange new place and learn its rules in order to survive.  That’s why I would recommend this book to any readers who enjoyed House of Stairs by William Sleator or The Maze Runner by James Dashner.


Charley went to Target to return a couple of skirts she’d bought the day before.  She parked her car in the lot, got out, and started walking towards the store.  But then she suddenly saw the air start shimmering in front of her.  It was like a wall of wavy glass, and that shimmering wall was moving towards her. Suddenly Charley felt a blinding, burning heat all over her body.  She tried to scream, but it was so hot that she couldn’t get enough air into her lungs.  Within seconds, she felt hot, and then she felt cold, and then she felt nothing.

Charley woke up somewhere, but she had no idea where she was.  She was lying in a huge field that was filled with red rocks as far as she could see.  The sun was shining down overhead, strong and hot.  Target was gone, the parking lot was gone, her car was gone … and her clothes were gone.  Charley was naked and alone, and she had no idea where she was or how she got there.

Charley is going to learn that she’s on an island called Nil, and it’s a place that doesn’t appear on normal maps.  She’s going to learn that there’s food and water on the island, so she’s not going to die … at least, not right away.  She’s going to learn that she’s not alone on the island, but that being around other people won’t always mean she’s safe.  She’s also going to learn that there are rules on this island, and one of those rules is that she has 365 days to escape, or else she’ll die.

The clock has already started ticking … but Charley just can’t hear it yet.

Booktalk: Crazy by Linda Vigen Phillips

Crazy cover

Crazy by Linda Vigen Phillips was one of my favorite teen books of 2014, and there are several facets of this book that make it unique.  It’s a poem-format novel, it’s historical fiction, and it tackles family problems in general and mental illness specifically.  Laura is a great protagonist, and readers will feel for her as she tries to deal with the normal hurdles of her teenage life while wondering if the mental illness in her family will prove to be the biggest hurdle of all.


The year is 1963.  My name is Laura, I’m 15 years old, and I’m an artist like my mother.

My world is filled with plenty of good things, like my friends, Mrs. Grant my art teacher, Dennis Martin with his deep blue eyes and his gorgeous smile, American Bandstand on TV, and my Beach Boys records.

Unfortunately, my world is filled with lousy things, too.  Like how whenever I get embarrassed I get these big red splotches all over my neck and I can’t stop sweating.  Like the way I thought that Dennis Martin was going to ask me to take a ride in his new car, except he didn’t and now my friends think I’m a lost cause.  Like the way I think I might be going crazy.

I told you that I’m an artist like my mother.  That’s only partially true … or maybe it’s not true at all.  You see, my mother used to be a painter back when she was my age.  But then she stopped.  I still look at her paintings on the walls sometimes, and I wonder why she doesn’t do it anymore.  I wonder if the part of her brain that made the paintings is the same part that doesn’t always work the right way … and which seems to be getting worse.  I wonder if creating those paintings was a symptom of what was going wrong inside her head.  And I wonder if me being an artist like my mother means that I’ll go crazy, too.


OMG. Be a Better Booktalker is BACK!

Thanks to the valiant efforts of Christopher, Travis, and the admins in the GoDaddy hosting department, the last bits of malicious code that had been cleverly hiding in my website’s files have been eliminated and Be a Better Booktalker is back up and running!


Anyway, didn’t I say something about onwards and upwards?  Okay, so, first I’ll be uploading two new episodes which are, technically, old episodes.  After I dialed back my website when it first was hacked, two episodes that had been previously published (Crazy by Linda Vigen Phillips and Nil by Lynne Matson) vanished from the site.  So I’m going to be putting those two back up this week.

After that I’ll put up … let me check my long-neglected booktalk file … oh, good.  I have some that I wrote but never recorded.  Okay, so over the next few weeks I’ll be posting booktalks for Dear Marcus: A Letter to the Man Who Shot Me by Jerry McGill, Popular: A Memoir by Maya Van Wagenen, and How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg.

And then I’m gonna have to go through my pile of “hey, this would probably make a good booktalk” books and actually write some more stuff!

Anyway, thank you all for your patience, and I look forward to dusting off my microphone and posting regular episodes again!

Like a Butterfly From its Chrysalis, I Emerge From My Technical Hiatus. Maybe.

Hi Again!

Well, my plan was to get Be a Better Booktalker back up and running before the new school year started.  Which is happening … um … next week.  Unfortunately, there’s a technical issue on the GoDaddy / Managed WordPress end, so the resolution that my new tech ally thinks might work can’t be tested yet.

So here’s the plan.  I’m going to upload a picture of Exploding Kittens in this post.  By which I mean the card game, not actual exploding kittens!  If he’s able to fix the problem, then you will see the picture of the game.  If not, then I will be rebuilding the site from scratch.

Exploding Kittens

And so … onward and upward!

Rebuilding the Site, and Getting Back to Normal

Hi again, everyone!

Thank you so much for your patience while I’ve been figuring out what to do next with this site.  Since Be a Better Booktalker was hacked several months ago, I had to take some time to figure out if I was going to rebuild this site from scratch, and if so, how.

The site is going to start looking different over the next few days and weeks.  I’m basically going to be copying / tweaking / fixing several years’ worth of content, so pages might be disappearing and reappearing while I work on them.  My plan is to use the month of August (minus my vacation when I’ll be out of town) to work on this, so that by the time we’re officially in back-to-school mode the site will start looking and feeling “normal” again.

In the meantime, I’m still podcasting with Dan, Kevin, and Hawk over at the Temple of Bad podcast.  Yeah, I know that listening to me talk about bad movies isn’t QUITE the same as listening to me talk about good books, but it’s entertaining in a different way!  We came back from our hiatus to discuss Invasion of the Star Creatures, and we’re going to be recording a discussion of Journey to the Seventh Planet next week.

I’ll also give a plug for the “Manga 101” article I wrote this summer for School Library Journal.  I’ve been reviewing books and apps for them for years, but this was my first article so it was a personal milestone for me.

Okay, that’s all for now.  Thanks for listening, thanks for reading, and stay tuned for the new and improved site!

New Year’s Reading Resolutions

treeReading Bingo

I’ve never actually made a reading resolution before, but I had so much reading to do for YA book committees this year I thought I’d try it to make my workload easier in years to come.  In this episode, I discuss my own resolutions and discuss different reading challenges that you can follow and share with others.

Happy New Year, and happy reading!

%d bloggers like this:
website security