New ALAN Picks Launches

New ALAN Picks Launches

This month marks the launch of the new review style of ALAN Picks! We’re kicking off with two amazing books –  one that is about to hit the shelves and one that recently won the National Book award – by three amazing educators. Both books are also historical fiction this month. If you are looking for Young Adult/Middle Grade book suggestions and engaging ways to use those books with students, then check out these book reviews by educators for educators! – Richetta Tooley

Submit a Review: Would you like to submit a review? Check out ALAN Picks for submission guidelines and email ALAN Picks Editor Richetta Tooley at with the book title you are interested in reviewing. Next deadline: Feb. 15

A Teen Seeks Truth, Trust and Freedom in 1989 Romania

I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys

Book Details
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publish Date: Feb. 1, 2022
Page Count: 336 pages
ISBN: 97819848363038
Genre: Historical Fiction/ Young Adult/ Thriller/ Coming of Age

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Set in communist Romania in 1989, 17-year-old Christian just wants friends, a girlfriend, and to be a free thinker like his grandfather. But informants lurk in the streets, in his school, and everywhere else, threatening not just his freedom, but potentially his life. When he can no longer trust his best friend Luca and begins informing on an American ambassador’s family, the lines of friendship and duty get blurred leaving Christian with few places to turn and few people to trust.  


Told in compact, gripping chapters with stunning syntax and relatable characters, this historical young adult novel is one that will keep readers, both young and old, on the edge of their seats. With endless twists and mounting distrust in both the communist system and the characters in the story, readers engage in a journey with Christian as he learns the truth about his country, his community, and ultimately, himself. Thematic topics such as rebellion, friendship, loyalty, and hope interweave throughout the narrative, making it both compulsively readable and relatable for both high school and upper middle grade students. Readers will find themselves immersed within the pages of this story and consider how they might have responded in similar scenarios. 

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis
Educators will want to consider using this text not only as a pathway into thematic analysis but also as a way to help students understand complex figurative language and rich characterization. Some thematic topics portrayed in this novel include:

  • Abuse of Power
  • Rebellion
  • Friendship
  • Coming of Age
  • Loyalty
  • Sacrifice
  • Individuality
  • Oppression
  • Empowerment
  • The Power of Words/Thought
  • Hope

Student Engagement Strategy: Sentence Stunners
This book is rife with rhetorical and literary devices that will captivate students with their beauty and richness. Teachers could challenge students to find one example of a stunning sentence in each chapter (there are plenty to choose from). They could write the sentences on index cards and display them on a wall inside or outside the classroom as they read. This will both serve as a reminder of craft and keep students engaged during the reading process. They will also enjoy seeing which sentences their peers chose compared to their own. The teacher could pull random sentences from the wall as bell ringers and spend a few minutes analyzing the craft as a model for students, or have students volunteer to explain why the sentence “works”.

Formative/Summative Assessment Suggestions 
Formative: Teachers can check for student understanding by having students keep a dialectical journal as they read. In a dialectical journal, students find powerful/significant sentences in the text and copy them onto the left-hand side of a page. On the right-hand side, they explain why that sentence is particularly powerful or significant. By reading through these journal entries, the teacher will be able to determine if the student is fully grasping the most important components of the novel. 
Summative: Once students finish the novel, they can participate in a class discussion. It works best to have students begin by discussing the themes in the novel and how the themes progressed, but from that discussion, students will naturally blend into discussing other components of the text such as setting, characterization, plot structure, etc. 

Reviewed by: Heather Garcia, Curriculum and Instruction Specialist for Secondary ELA and Media, Charlotte County, Florida.

Love, Identity and Self-Discovery in the McCarthy Era

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Book Details
Publisher: Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House
Publish Date: Jan. 19, 2021
ISBN: 9780525555254
Page Count: 408 pages 
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance, Coming of Age

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What began as a burning curiosity within Lily Hu after she found an advertisement for the Telegraph Club featuring a male impersonator gradually becomes a closely guarded secret as she discovers more about her own sexuality and the world outside of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The joy her identities bring are under constant fire because of the deeply ingrained paranoia and fear of McCarthy-Era America. So, Lily is forced to reconcile her responsibilities to her parents and community with her newfound love for Kathleen Miller and her friends at the Telegraph Club, or risk losing both. 


Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a story bursting with love. Malinda Lo’s writing blends realistic conflict with moments of pure joy in an honest and hopeful way that depicts all the fear and bliss of self-discovery. Lily and Kath’s journeys feel like they could take place in any time period, but the historical setting adds further depth by illustrating the intersections of Lily’s queer identity with her Chinese American identity. The effects of marginalization and oppression are compounded with each intersecting identity. It was true for Lily during the Red Scare and Lavender Scare, and it’s true now. As a queer Asian American whose extended family experienced the same grating comments about “speaking such good English” or being asked “Where are you from?”, it was both comforting and depressing to feel represented so accurately. Ultimately though, I still felt safe knowing that the story was written by an author who clearly understood and researched those experiences and the time period. Readers will see Lily go through all the awkwardness and doubt inherent to growing up and learning who she is, and feel seen themselves. Her experiences may be her own, but readers who have felt alone, unsure, or loved will be able to see parts of their lives in Last Night at the Telegraph Club. Lily, Kath, and the reader understand life isn’t without its hardships and injustices, but learning who you are brings its own satisfaction and community.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections

  • McCarthyism and the Red Scare/Lavender Scare
  • Gender and sexuality
  • Race and racism
  • Family and relationships

Essential Questions:

  • What does it mean to be proud of your identity?
  • What can be done in the face of loneliness? 
  • How do our identities form?

Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use:

  • Historical context introductions with pre-reading or anticipation guide
  • Discussion and research into LGBTQ+ history, club history, and drag history—field trip to a local one or guest speaker
  • Close reading of excerpts from Rise of the Rocket Girls (2016), Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (2005), All Out: The No-Longer Secret Stories of Queer Teens Through the Ages (2018), and other books referenced by Malinda Lo
  • Discussion about author’s intent and context behind racial themes based on practices and insights from Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” and Matthew Kay’s Not Light, but Fire

Formative and Summative Assessments:

  • Create an advertisement similar to what Lily would have found for a club or performer
  • Personal response journals relating to the conflicts Lily faces
  • Short or extended research into the historical context of the story, including McCarthyism, the Lavender Scare, and the LGBTQ+ community
  • Epilogue expansion writing: Where do Lily and other characters end up after the end? 
  • Alternate Universe/History writing: What would this story look like in a different time period/place?

Reviewed by: Daniel (Danny) Samelson, Student Teacher studying at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois.