ALAN Picks (November 2023)

ALAN Picks: ALAN Picks Celebrates Its First Teen Reviewer

This month’s ALAN Picks features our first student written book review! Check out what Las Vegas high school student Ayla Williams thought of A Sitting in Saint James by Rita Williams-Garcia. If you know students who are interested in writing book reviews of recently published young adult and middle grade books, let them know they can write for ALAN Picks too! 

We are also featuring a review of Beneath the Wide Silk Sky by Emily Inouye Huey, and if you are interested in learning more about how to teach this historical fiction novel, check out the reviewer’s ALAN sponsored session at the NCTE convention this month. (See the review for details.) In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we are featuring reviews of books by Indigenous authors that include A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger and Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley. If you are looking for a middle grade novel, check out the review of the novel-in-verse set during WWII, Enemies in the Orchard by Dana VanderLugt.

ALAN Picks Update: ALAN Picks is now accepting reviews of books published as far back as spring 2020. This gives ALAN members who are interested in reviewing books more great titles to choose from, as well as accommodate some great books released during the beginning of the pandemic that deserve highlighting. If you have some books in mind that you would like to review, please reach out to me!

If you read an ALAN Picks review and end up using the book with your students, let us know! We want to hear all of your great stories and engaging ways you are using young adult and middle grades literature in your classrooms. Remember, ALAN Picks are book reviews by educators for educators! Click on the archives to see previous editions.

–  Richetta Tooley, ALAN Picks Editor

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. Rolling deadline.

Student Book Review

A Sitting In Saint James by Rita Williams-Garcia

Book Details
Publisher: Quill Tree Books
Publish Date: May 25, 2021
Page Count: 480
ISBN: 978-0062367297
Genre: Historical Fiction
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A Sitting In Saint James, from Coretta Scott King award-winner, Rita Williams-Garcia, reads like a moving picture, as it vibrantly portrays pre-antebellum Louisiana and the lives of the residents of the plantation, Le Petit Cottage. A delectable mixing pot of French and American culture, its disputes and regional biases, are vividly described, while the separate accounts and narratives intertwine to form a complex depiction of the times.

The use of “Sitting” in the title introduces the main conflict: stagnancy, where the protagonist, Madame Sylvie, holds onto the old ways: sitting for a painting when there are photographs, rejecting her Black granddaughter and refusing to integrate her into the plantation. This stubbornness is manifested throughout the story, despite how detrimental it can be. It begins to ruin her relationships with other characters, like her son and her once beloved cook. Madame Sylvie’s personal slave, Thisbe is told to be quiet, and reprimanded if she is not, but remains observant of everything around her. Madame’s dependency and relationship with Thisbe become more complex as the years pass and traditional roles begin to shift, while Madame’s ideals do not.  

Throughout the story the author advises Thisbe and the reader to have patience. This “patience” is  where the hope from both the reader and Thisbe originates from, because although Thisbe doesn’t know how or when her life will get better, she is told to press on; that it will. All in all, A Sitting in Saint James provides a meaningful account of how intra-connected our stories are, despite vast differences and backgrounds. It encourages young adults to have hope in something bigger than them, whether it is divinity or destiny- to help them discover solutions rather than problems. Educators in the future can use this book with the intention to give hope that things, no matter how abominable, will not be the same forever.

Review written by Ayla Williams, student at a Las Vegas high school.

Capturing Hope in the Shadows of Discrimination

Beneath the Wide Silk Sky by Emily Inouye Huey

Book Details
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publish Date: October 18, 2022
Page Count: 336
ISBN: 1338789945
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
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Synopsis: This compelling coming-of-age novel centers around Japanese-American protagonist, Sam Sakamoto, as she grapples with the complex interplay of familial obligations, grief, and a clandestine passion for photography. Against the backdrop of the devastating December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Sam’s world is upended, unveiling the stark reality of discrimination, racism, and violence endured by Japanese-Americans. Through her lens, the profound impact of societal prejudice is revealed, guiding Sam on a transformative path where she discovers the power of protest as a means to honor her identity, culture, and patriotism.


Beneath the Wide Silk Sky is a poignant novel that captures the shadows in America’s landscape in a way that adds depth and introduces readers to bearing witness as a means of civic action. Emily Inouye Huey tells the compelling historical narrative in a way that serves as an homage to her own family’s history and that of many Japanese-Americans in the wake of World War II. She intricately honors and recognizes the adolescent experience of self-discovery alongside the raw reality of racism using evocative and aesthetically captivating descriptions. It is obvious that this is a story told from generations of healing and heartbreak, an experience relatable to adolescents. Ultimately, this novel makes a great critique of the abuse experienced by Japanese Americans by relying on truth rather than sensationalism rooted in shock value and would serve students by unveiling the unfair treatment that often goes unrecognized in discussions regarding World War II.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Connections:
Through Sam and her experiences, the novel explores themes such as:

  • Historical backdrop
  • Self-discovery
  • Adolescent development
  • Apathy and indifference
  • Bi-cultural identity
  • Familial relationships
  • Protest as a form of patriotism
  • Discrimination and prejudice

Essential Questions:

  • How do our families and cultural backgrounds impact how we see ourselves? 
  • What challenges exist when our identities are in conflict with one another?
  • How does the text serve as inspiration to engage in acts of witnessing and remembrance to foster social justice advocacy?
  • What are the consequences of indifference?
  • In what ways does protest serve as an expression of patriotism?

Teaching Strategies and Activities to Use:

  • Completing an identity wheel of both Sam and themselves
  • Literature circles with complementary texts to discuss the meaning of belonging,  patriotism, and indifference

Complementary Texts:

  • Poem: “Legacy” by Ruth Awad (2021)
  • Text Excerpt: “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness” by Simon Wiesenthal (expanded edition, 2020)
  • Speech: “The Perils of Indifference” by Elie Wiesel (1999)

Formative and Summative Assessment Suggestions:

Formative: Students complete a photography project to present their understanding of social advocacy by capturing a photo that acts as a voice. Students would be asked to research and analyze real-life examples of social injustice and/or indifference throughout history, especially focusing on instances of prejudice, human rights violations, and atrocities. They could also explore how indifference continues to impact society today, including issues related to diversity, inclusion, and human rights. This photography project aims to deepen their empathy, critical thinking, and cultural awareness by examining historical and contemporary instances of social advocacy from a broader global perspective.

Summative: After completing the reading, students would, in their chosen format (video, poem, collage or essay), explore the concept of protest as an act of patriotism and its potential to bring about meaningful change in society. They would be encouraged to use historical and contemporary examples to support their arguments and showcase their creative expression.

a) Video: Students create a short video (3 to 5 minutes) that combines visuals, narration, and/or dialogue to convey their perspective on protest, patriotism, and change. The video should include original artwork, animation, or footage to enhance their message.

b) Poem: Students write a powerful and thought-provoking poem that captures the essence of protest as an expression of patriotism. They should use poetic devices such as imagery, metaphor, and symbolism to convey their ideas effectively.

c) Collage: Students create a visually compelling collage that embodies the theme of protest as an act of patriotism and its potential for bringing about significant societal change. They will use a combination of images, texts, and symbols to express their perspective creatively.c) Essay: Students compose a well-structured essay (800 to 1000 words) that presents a comprehensive analysis of the relationship between protest, patriotism, and social change.

Reviewed by: Amber L. Moore, doctoral student in Literacy and English Language Arts Education at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina.

Learn More at the NCTE Convention: Check out this reviewer’s session! It is a part of the ALAN-sponsored NCTE roundtable session on Friday, November 17, 2:00-3:15 pm: Connecting Around Young Adult Lit (YAL): Current Conversations About YAL in the Classroom

Description: The roundtable discussion is centered on Emily Inouye Huey’s compelling YA historical fiction novel, “Beneath the Wide Silk Sky.” During this roundtable, we’ll explore the potency of young adult literature in bearing witness to history. Our presentation will include questions like, “What does it mean to bear witness?” and “How do we contextualize historical fiction so that it serves as civic engagement?” We’ll also delve into the responsibilities of teachers and students when confronting historical trauma, such as Japanese-American wrongful incarceration. 

Educators will leave with access to a resource folder, equipping them with valuable materials including historical artifacts that teachers can use for gallery walks or presentations to aid in incorporating these concepts into their classrooms, enriching their students’ understanding of history, civic engagement, and the power of literature.

A Middle Grade Verse Novel That Explores Tragedy and Friendship

Enemies in the Orchard by Dana VanderLugt

Book Details
Publisher: ‎Zonderkidz
Publish Date: September 12, 2023
Page Count: 288
ISBN: 0310155770
Genre: Historical Fiction based on true events
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Synopsis: Based on true events and set in the apple orchard in Western Michigan where the author grew up, this novel explores tragedy, friendship, and how places shape us. Written in verse, the reader gains the perspective of Claire, a 14-year-old girl caught between her desire to become a nurse and helping her family at home while her older brother is overseas fighting in World War II. This perspective contrasts that of Karl, a German Prisoner of War brought to pick apples in the orchard, who must confront the difference between what he was told and what he now sees. Despite being enemies, Claire and Karl forge an unlikely bond and teach readers about the power of human connection in tumultuous times.


This beautifully written, fast-paced novel explores the tensions that exist within our world, especially in times of crisis. Can someone be both an enemy and a friend? Can a young girl value both her education and helping her family? Can the things we thought were true be different from what we see? This story unfolds smoothly and progresses quickly as the reader watches the friendship between Claire and Karl unfold. Written with middle-grade readers in mind, it is the perfect avenue for exploring deeper themes of loss, human connection, and hope. Despite the tragic themes and events within the novel, the author ultimately leaves the reader with the promise of hope. Life can bear fruit even in the hardest of times.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis:

  • Grief and Loss 
  • Devastation of war 
  • Who is an enemy
  • Growth  
  • Unlikely friendship

Possible Essential Questions:

  • How does hope bloom in tragic times? 
  • How do people form human connections? 
  • What makes someone an enemy and how should they be treated?

Teaching Engagement Strategies/Activities:

  • Disciplinary literacy- the line between fact and fiction, historical and factual 
  • Family lines and history 
  • Misinformation 
  • The Danger of a Single Story 
  • Write a book review

Formative and Summative Assessments:

  • Formative: 
    • Write an “I am From” poem modeled after the ones written about Claire and Karl 
    • Write a story from multiple perspectives 
    • Journal entries in response to the themes and events within the novel 
    • Use primary sources from World War II to gain a holistic perspective of the time period. 
  • Summative: 
    • Have students interview family members and create a project relating to their family history
    • Write a book review or letter to the author using details from the text 

Complementary Texts

  • Use Holes by Louis Sachar to explore multi-generations of family and unlikely friendship.  
  • Pair this book with They Called Us Enemy by George Takei to explore multiple perspectives on World War II. 
  • Compare and contrast this novel with other World War II sources

Reviewed by: Brooke Carbaugh teaches sixth-grade English Language Arts at Kane Area School District in Kane, Pennsylvania. She recently graduated from Hope College in Western Michigan where the novel takes place.

Through Traditional Lipian Storytelling, an Exploration of Love and Respect for our Planet

A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger

Book Details
Publisher: Levine Querido
Publish Date: Nov. 9, 2021
Page Count: 352
ISBN: 9781432896768
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis: In a brilliant union of contemporary young adult literature and traditional Lipan storytelling, Darcie Little Badger weaves a narrative of magic hidden all around us, appreciation and respect for Earth, and friendships worth fighting for. With a diverse cast of characters, Little Badger explores the strength of love for the planet we call home and those residing on it. When Nina, a human from out world, crosses paths with Oli, a cottonmouth snake person brought to Earth on a quest to save his friend, she must decide if she is willing to open her eyes to new possibilities – and how much she is willing to risk to protect those she cares about.


A Snake Falls to Earth is told in a voice reminiscent of Aesop’s fables or other folklore, so fantasy lovers will feel right at home reading Darcie Little Badger’s story. Perfect for middle grade or young high schoolers, this narrative serves as an excellent vehicle for an introduction to Indigenous storytelling. Readers can expect an engaging and exciting story full of heart, but unafraid to confront difficult issues such as humanity’s responsibility in regards to the environment. Little Badger handles mature issues in such a way that they are comprehensible to younger audiences, all while keeping up an adventurous narrative sure to keep readers’ interests.

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Teaching Strategies: An overview of Lipan tradition, culture, and storytelling could help readers enter into A Snake Falls to Earth with some pre-established literacy.

Class Discussion: The teacher could list and define certain themes present in the text, and ask students to share places in the text the themes are explored. Some examples of themes present in A Snake Falls to Earth are:

  • Family
  • The environment
  • Sacrifice
  • Ties to land
  • Friendship

Formative Assessment: Students will keep a “quote journal,” where they will choose one quote from each chapter to copy down. In a few sentences, they will explain the context of their quote, as well as why they chose it.

Summative Assessment: Students will be separated into several groups, with each group focusing on a specific theme present in the text. Each group will prepare a presentation, art piece, podcast, or other creative project to share what they learned about the topic by reading A Snake Falls to Earth.

Reviewed by: Hannah Hampton, English Literature student at Purdue University

A YA Thriller About A Native Teen Trying to Rid Her Community of Corruption

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Bouley

Book Details
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Publish Date: March 16, 2021
Page Count: 496
ISBN: 978-1250766564
Genre: YA fiction, Thriller, Mystery
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Synopsis: After two sudden deaths in her community, Daunis Firekeeper, a determined 18-year-old, becomes the confidential informant for two FBI agents. As Daunis seeks to uncover the truth about the events in her community, she comes up against betrayals and roadblocks. At the same time, Daunis seeks to uncover the truth about herself. She struggles to reconcile the two cultures that make up her identity (her mother is French, while her father was Anishinaabe). The book contains a lot of dark and graphic content. The book contains murder, suicide, sexual assault, drug abuse, racism, the death of a loved one, and kidnapping.


Firekeeper’s Daughter is an entertaining and suspenseful read. The writing is beautiful and poetic. Bouley stunningly describes Anishinaabe culture and traditions. Daunis is a brave, intelligent, and strong female protagonist. The first 100 pages of the book are slow paced, but once you get past this, it is hard to put down. You’ll want to figure out the mystery. The characters are dynamic and have multifaceted personalities. If you’re looking for a book with great friendships (and romance), this is the book for you!

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use


  • Culture and family
  • Identity
  • Trust
  • Grief and Acceptance 

Essential Questions:

  • What is the true meaning of family?
  • How do you fit into society when viewed as “an outsider”?
  • How are the plot and characters affected by culture and family traditions?
  • How do you balance your needs and wants with those you care about?

Teaching Strategies:

  1. Body Biography Activity: In groups of 3-4, students will create body biographies for important characters from Firekeeper’s Daughter. They will be given a worksheet with the outline of a person. Students will fill in the outline with information about the character.
  2. Discussion about identity and culture: As a class, students will discuss the conflicts Daunis experiences while existing between two cultures (Anishinaabe and French/white).

Formative and Summative Assessments:

Formative: Students will write a 1-2 page journal entry from the perspective of a character other than Daunis in Firekepper’s Daughter. Students can choose to write about a character’s feelings, thoughts, and/or future plans. The purpose of this assessment is to have students be creative and practice making inferences about characters.

Summative: Students will write a 5-paragraph essay responding to the following prompt: How are the plot and characters affected by culture and family traditions? The essay should be formatted in MLA format.

Reviewed by: Gillian Archer, English Education Student, Purdue University, and Madison Mariga, English Literature Student, Purdue University.