“Staff Picks” from Horizon Books

Between May 2011 and June 2012, Mr. VanWagner was employed at (among several other places) Horizon Books in Traverse City, Michigan. Each month, bookstore employees are encouraged to recommend books to customers; these monthly staff picks are found at the front of the store and beneath each staff member’s bio on the Horizon Books website. The following are some of the reviews that Mr. VanWagner wrote (several are, sadly, missing; these recommendations are listed at the bottom).

There is a variety of ways to assume “appropriate reading levels” for books. Since these recommendations can vary a lot between sources – Lexile‘s framework for reading is a favorite, so I’ve included those measurements – based on studies, student samples, experience, the content of each individual book, and many other factors, information provided here in these respects will be limited. Age levels provided are only suggestions; it is advised that parents and teachers research these books as they feel necessary, especially for younger readers.

(Reviews listed newest to oldest.)


by Neil Gaiman

After helping a mysterious girl named Door he finds dying in the street, Richard Mayhew’s life – and world – are turned inside-out. People like his fiancee don’t recognize, remember, or even acknowledge him. With no life to return to, Richard follows Door into the shadow world of London Below – home to a strange menagerie of inhabitants from rat-speakers and scavengers to bounty hunters – to find out who killed Door’s family and is now after her. On the journey, Richard, Door, and their companions evade the vicious Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar and uncover a deep plot with as many twists and turns as the labyrinthine tunnels of  London Below.

  • Lexile Measure: 760L
  • Recommended: 13 and up

Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots

by Debbie Dadey and Marcia Thornton Jones

Just what is it about kids’ books with strange teachers, anyway? Though they seem to come by the boatload, Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots is a cool take on the creature-teacher subgenre.

When the new teacher, Mrs. Jeepers, lands in the third grade at Bailey School, the kids begin to wonder how they’ll survive the year. A great mix of tension and humor makes Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots (and the rest of the Bailey School Kids series, too!) a wonderful pick for young readers for the Halloween Holiday!

  • Lexile Measure: 600L
  • Recommended: 7 and up

Paper Towns

by John Green

Quentin “Q” Jacobsen has harbored an unrequited love for the mysterious Margo Roth Spiegelman for as long as he can remember, but he never would’ve imagined where she might take him. Appearing late one night, Margo drags Q on an all-night adventure – and then vanishes the next day. Q soon finds that Margo has left an elaborate trail of clues for him to follow, and on the way, Q discovers  things he never knew about Margo, his friends, and the rest of world around him.
Written by blogger, pop-culture fanatic, and technocrat John Green, Paper Towns is sure to pull readers in on an exciting and memorable journey!
  • Lexile Measure: 850L
  • Recommended: 13 and up

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

by Stephen King

Love to write? Thinking of dabbling in fiction, trying your hand at horror, or even penning your own memoir? Whether you’re struggling to put ideas on the page, or want a fresh take on an older piece of work – King fan or no – On Writing will help you to develop a mastery of the craft.

On Writing‘s uniqueness is that it doesn’t read like a drawn-out instruction manual the way many “How To Write” books often will, because On Writing isn’t your traditional English or Writing book. Part autobiography – in which King reveals much about his early life and career – part anecdotal advice – complete with tips on how to start your own writing process – and all-around entertaining, On Writing will keep you turning the pages and taking notes along the way.

  • Lexile Measure: 1110L
  • Recommended: 14 and up

The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod – Book One – Eighth Grade Bites

by Heather Brewer

Another vampire book? In the midst of what seems like a recent oversaturation of “teen vampire” novels, Heather Brewer brings something new to the table by stirring up an old pot. In this first installment of the four-part Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, we’re introduced to Vlad as an Eighth-grader who just-so-happens to be a vampire. More fun and mystery than angst and heavy romance crowding this particular subgenre, The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod is a series sure to please young adult boys and girls alike.

  • Lexile Measure: 780L
  • Recommended: 9 and up

Breakfast of Champions

by Kurt Vonnegut

Breakfast of Champions is an eccentrically-twisted jaunt through the late life – and descent into madness – of Dwayne Hoover, an auto dealer plagued by the writings of Kilgore Trout (Vonnegut’s recurring alter-ego throughout many novels); as Hoover spirals toward madness, we see how oddly he interacts with those around him and affects their lives. While a strange and humorous tale unfolds on the surface, Vonnegut is (perhaps not-so-subtly) using these vibrant characters to pitch his thoughts on the American way of life, from love and sex to war and peace. Surprisingly-relatable and uncannily funny, Breakfast of Champions is a great read for both die-hard Vonnegut fans and novices to his works!

  • Lexile Measure: 930L
  • Recommended: 17 and up

The Graveyard Book

by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s unique, charming style (equal parts eerie and captivating, with a dash of goofiness) carries readers through his creative re-imagining of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. A dark fantasy that’s more than simply any old retelling of another oldie-but-goodie classic, The Graveyard Book weaves the tale of young Bod, a boy who escapes the murder of his family and is raised by a host of ghosts and ghouls in a graveyard. Brought up living in a spooky landscape among the dead, Bod becomes ever more curious about the world of the living, wanting to venture out from the strange land of his childhood.

A wonderful read for children, teens, and – yes – even older folks, The Graveyard Book is a great October read that breathes fresh life (or unlife, as it were) into an old coming-of-age tale.

  • Lexile Measure: 820L
  • Recommended: 10 and up

Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History

by Bryn Barnard

Is this a kids’ book? Don’t be fooled by its size and cover – Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History is a great read for young scientists and older science buffs alike! This mini-volume of pop-science introduces microbes and the effects that they can have on humans, and chronicles the social and scientific effects of several plagues – including the Black Death, smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis, and influenza – throughout history, and explanations of how citizens and scientists still struggle with diseases today. Complete with beautiful and wonderfully-detailed pictures and paintings, Outbreak shows readers big science in a small binding!

  • Lexile Measure: 1080L
  • Recommended: 11 and up

by George R. R. Martin

George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series begins with A Game of Thrones, a gripping amalgam of intricate medieval-esque political drama between rival houses and gritty, darker fantasy. Fans of traditional, high-fantasy fare (from The Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time, and others) will note A Game of Thrones‘ departure from elements like elves and wanton wizardry, in favor of its aim towards an older readership and focus on characters and action over ambiance and setting, as we are introduced chapter-by-chapter to a diverse cast of characters with unique perspectives.

For a refreshing departure from formulaic sword-and-sorcery that is prominent in many familiar fantasy series, check out A Game of Thrones, then dive in to the rest of the series: A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and the latest installment, A Dance With Dragons!

  • Lexile Measure: (N/A)
  • Recommended: 18 and up

Other past monthly picks:


YA Book Review: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Discovering Personal Legends

“No,” he heard a voice on the wind say. “If I had told you, you wouldn’t have seen the Pyramids. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

The Alchemist tells the coming-of-age story of a shepherd boy named Santiago who spends his days leading his flock of sheep through the Spanish countryside. We later find that his parents wanted him to become a priest, for which he had even prepared himself. He instead decides that he wants to be a shepherd, and upon telling this to his parents that he wanted instead to become a shepherd, he is given their blessing and buys a flock of sheep, feeling that he has all he has ever wanted in life; soon after his introduction, however, he decides it may be time to marry, and falls in love with a wool merchant’s daughter. When he begins to have recurring dreams of hidden treasure near the Pyramids of Egypt, he cautiously begins to pursue it, coinciding with his dreams of one day traveling to far off lands and having exotic adventures. He hopes that his dream will come true one day, but does not view it as plausible or realistic. He understands that there is a purpose for everything and a reason behind the need to make decisions. Santiago’s strong belief that one should follow their heart is later reinforced throughout the story when he begins to forge his own “Personal Legend”. He values friendship and the prospects of a better life, learning to accept things that may come to pass.

Santiago’s world gets turned upside-down one day when a psychic tells him he must go to the Egyptian Pyramids to find a treasure. An eccentric old man claiming to be a king advises Santiago to take this journey to fulfill his “personal legend,” or destiny. Santiago’s journey to the pyramids spans the next few years, growing spiritually as he travels, learning from mistakes, while learning valuable lessons about the world, survival, and the lives and cultures of other people.

He encounters many characters on his journey towards fulfilling his Personal Legend, like the crystal merchant whom he asks for a job cleaning crystal – whom, at first, pays no mind. Santiago cleans the crystal anyway, asking only to be fed – an obligation the merchant fulfills and explains that it is one of five obligations of the Koran given to his people by the Prophet. The others are to believe in one God, pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, and to visit the holy city of Mecca; however, in spite of his desire to travel, the merchant believed that it was too late in his life for the pilgrimage, explaining that he was destined only to dream of visiting Mecca. Santiago later understands this in speaking with the alchemist, when it is explained to him that when a person goes for a long time without listening to their heart’s desires, their heart no longer desires things, and the man would instead be destined to dream of what could have been.

Another character, the Englishman, appears rude at first, to ignoring Santiago. He begins to speak to Santiago when he is surprised to discover that the boy possesses Urim and Thummim, the white and black rock crystals given to Santiago by the King of Salem. By coincidence, the Englishman shows Santiago that he, too, possesses the same stones, hinting at the idea that they may both be on the path to fulfilling their own Personal Legends. The Englishman allows Santiago to read his books on Alchemy, explaining the reason for alchemy and his interest in it as the key to discovering a “universal language” that all things could understand. Santiago also learns the importance of pursuing his dream from the Englishman when they reach the oasis and finally meet the alchemist who possesses the Philosopher’s Stone and Elixir of Life. Santiago is told to try what he always has, and to search for the answers where he had once failed. He accepts this and continues to practice alchemy.

When Santiago is caught by a scout in the desert, he uses his knowledge of alchemy and the alchemist’s wisdom to become the wind. This fulfillment of one’s personal legend recurs throughout the book as Santiago and others consider what do and would complete their lives – though in ways one might not expect. For Santiago, this becomes a quest for identity and self-realization, which leads him to find the greatest treasure of all.

“What a lovely story,” the alchemist thought.

Recommendations for Teachers

There are many themes in The Alchemist which can generate productive classroom discussion.

For one, many people have said that reading the Alchemist has changed their lives. But in the novel, the Alchemist says, “There is only one way to learn . . . it’s through action. Everything you need to know you have learned through your journey,” (125). Students could discuss whether or not this means those people have missed the point of the book. This is a great way to get students to think critically about the best ways to foster their own learning. They can also discuss whether reading a book can be part of a Personal Legend and how reading influences people.

This lesson plan (Mrs. Koplik’s Alchemist Lesson Plan) from Ontario, Canada, has some wonderful post-reading activities such as “Write Santiago’s “How-To Find Your Treasure” Handbook, or “Personal Legends for Dummies” and “Make a Scrapbook (with explanatory notes) of Santiago’s travels—feature pictures and items which Santiago accumulates as he learns about life.” Koplik includes open-ended discussion questions such as, “Coelho states that ‘simple things are the most valuable and only wise people appreciate them.’ Produce a written or artistic response (or bring something to class) which depicts something that is ‘simple’ yet valuable to you. Be prepared to explain specifically why/ how the item is valuable.” Also included are many vocabulary words related to geography, religion, and other themes from the novel. Understanding these new words will help students better understand the story.

The Narcissus story in the prologue and the fable of the king, Melchizedek, relates to Santiago on pages 30-32 provide the opportunity to discuss the fables and legends. A teacher could introduce a class to the genres of fables and legends and discuss with the class how they influence the book.

NOTE: The book contains unconventional ideas concerning religion and how religion should be interpreted. Teachers should tread carefully when teaching in a religiously conservative area and explain that everyone is entitled to his or her own views regarding religion.

“The story has the comic charm, dramatic tension, and psychological intensity of a fairy tale, but it’s full of specific wisdom as well…A sweetly exotic tale for young and old alike.” – Publishers Weekly

About Paulo Coelho

Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian native currently living in Rio de Janiero.

Throughout his life, Coelho had long-standing dreams of one day becoming a writer, but struggled for years working through jobs he found unfulfilling. He felt that his own personal legend (to use his book’s terminology) was to write.

Coelho briefly attended law school, but later decided against it as a career choice, choosing instead to travel across much of South and Central America, Europe, and Africa. After returning home, he spent two years as a popular songwriter.

According to Coelho, one of his life’s most defining moments was during his walk on the Road of Santiago de Compostela – spanning over five-hundred miles across northwestern Spain – he felt that he attained a spiritual awakening, or self-awareness, that he called “The Pilgrimage, a topic revisited in The Alchemist.

He is a firm believer in following one’s dreams, and that no matter what hardships a person might be confronted with, people will reach their goals if they believe in themselves. He published The Alchemist in Portuguese in 1988, and it has since sold over twenty million copies worldwide and has been translated into sixty-seven different languages. Paulo Coelho has won a number of awards for his books, and was awarded a Crystal Award for Artistic Achievement at the Davos Economic Forum Conference.


Coelho talks about connecting with literature during an interview at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre. He reminds readers that books don’t change people’s lives—people change their own lives.

A fan-made trailer for The Alchemist.

Additional Resources