“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: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Fear Factor: Coraline’s chills tap primal emotions in all its audiences

Neil Gaiman. Coraline. New York, NY: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2002.

“The day after they moved in, Coraline went exploring.”

Alice in Wonderland. Peter Pan. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Every so often, stories are written that relate so well with its audience thematically, emotionally, and personally in such fantastic ways that they become timeless tales that will resonate with their readers, young and old, for years to follow.

Add Coraline to that list of stories.

Neil Gaiman creatively crafted his 2002 Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker Award-winning novella, Coraline, with this in mind. Told through the eyes of its titular heroine, Gaiman treats readers to whimsical overtones that breathe a strange but appropriately-satirical life into the story, with a sort of naïveté familiar to young readers and nostalgic to his older audiences, but entirely signature of his books, ranging from other child-oriented stories like 2009 Newbery Award-winning novel, The Graveyard Book, to stories spun for older readers, including Neverwhere and the equally-decorated Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker Award-winning American Gods.

“I’m an explorer,” says Coraline, a curious eleven-year-old girl whose family moves into a boring old flat in a boring old house with some strange old neighbors. As a self-proclaimed explorer, Coraline’s wonderment, curiosity, caution, and skepticism resound throughout Gaiman’s thrilling narrative. Readers of all ages may find themselves nervous and uneasy with chills as they are engaged in Coraline’s fantastical adventure – from young adolescents and pre-adolescents who wonder about the world in the mist or the other side of the mirror, and to adults who remember longing to be somewhere over the rainbow. Gaiman’s straightforward but evocative style keeps its readers engaged and excited throughout, satisfying that desire to take a trip there and back again.

Coraline saves herself, her parents, and friends from the evils of another world that readers explorers along with Coraline, who learns through the story to be brave and how to conquer her fears and “beat the dragons”. Gaiman’s imaginative and mysterious, dangerous, and tempting world beyond the door-to-nowhere invokes readers to enter the world with its plucky protagonist (even if we should know better) because – like Coraline – readers will want to know more about what’s on the other side. Discovering the story’s vivid setting and diverse cast of characters provokes a sense of urgency to unravel the story’s mystery that will keep the pages turning from the first page to the last.

Coraline’s fairly simple language both makes it a very understandable and quick read with little ambiguity as to its meaning. This at once makes Coraline a fairly straightforward fantasy-horror novel while giving enough leeway to analytical readers for interpreting some of the potential social and cultural contexts beyond the story’s surface.

Recommendations for Teachers

Coraline is said to be for readers from ages 9 to 12, however some of the things that Coraline encounters in the “other” flat could be potentially frightening to readers at the lower end of that age range, and would be more appropriate for ages 11 and up. Though Coraline is most often shelved under juvenile literature, older students and even adults would enjoy it as well.

There are several themes and ideas in Coraline that would lend themselves to good discussion in the classroom. For example, Coraline says that “when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave” (59). A teacher might ask, “Do you agree with Coraline’s definition of bravery?” Or, “What do you think it means to be brave?” Another interesting discussion could center around names. Many of the adults Coraline talks to confuse her name, calling her “Caroline” instead. The cat she meets has no name and insists that cats do not need names: “You people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names” (37). Links to further discussion questions can be found under “Additional Resources” on this page.

A movie version of Coraline was released recently which follows the storyline of the book quite well; it is rated PG and so would be appropriate in any classroom. Viewing the movie in class (or possibly just watching a few clips, in the interest of time) could add to the discussion. Students could be asked to compare scenes from the book with those in the movie and answer questions such as “Why do you think they portrayed the scene that way?” Or, “Do you think changing this scene made it better?Coraline Graphic Novel by P. Craig Russell

One way to integrate Coraline into a somewhat more general Language Arts curriculum is to explore different methods of telling the story. For example, the teacher might mention or show the 2008 graphic novel in class. This idea can be adapted to a number of activities including dramatic interpretation and writing.

With writing as an example, students might be given a few pages out of the graphic novel adaptation and asked to rewrite the scene in narrative prose or a play script. Alternatively, scenes in the book and graphic novel could be compared and contrasted to show similarities and differences to promote class discussion and share thoughts as to why differences might exist and how a scene could otherwise have been interpreted. This could be done in reverse, as well, having students act out scenes, themselves, based on what they know about characters and how they would react to certain situations, or with pictures; and with the 2009 movie adaptation of Coraline, this type of exercise could also be done with scenes from the film.

About Neil Gaiman

Born in West Sussex, England in 1960, Neil Gaiman had been a ravenous reader at an early age, enjoying the works of such classic authors as C .S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Ursula LeGuin – influences which would stay with him throughout his later writing career. After graduating from school (he attended several, including Ardingly College and Whitgift School), he began a career in journalism, specializing in book reviews, with a hope to learn more about successful authors so that he might one day publish his own book.

In 1984, Gaiman published his first book, Ghastly Beyond Belief, and has been a prolific writer even since. He also writes novels for adults, such as American Gods, as well as for children, like The Graveyard Book. Gaiman also writes comic books and graphic nove ls, like The Sandman. He has also written numerous works of short fiction, a number of screenplays, non-fiction, and has collaborated with other authors on various projects.

Gaiman likes to stay connected to his fan base by going on tour after each new book release. He updates his online journal at neilgaiman.com almost daily and frequently “tweets” on his Twitter.

Gaiman currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota and is engaged to musician Amanda Palmer.

Neil Gaiman’s Awards

Hugo Award:

  • 2002 – American Gods
  • 2003 – Coraline
  • 2004 – A Study in Emerald
  • 2009 – The Graveyard Book

Nebula Award:

  • 2002 – American Gods
  • 2003 – Coraline

World Fantasy Award:

  • 2009 – The Graveyard Book
  • 2009 – Odd and the Frost Giants
  • 2003 – Coraline
  • 2003 – October in the Chair
  • 2002 – American Gods
  • 1999 – Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar
  • 1994 – Troll Bridge
  • 1994 – Angels and Visitations
  • 1991 – Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett)
  • 1991 – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with Charles Vess)

Bram Stoker Award:

  • 1993 – The Sandman
  • 1998 – Smoke and Mirrors
  • 1999 – The Sandman: The Dream Hunters
  • 2001 – American Gods
  • 2002 – Coraline
  • 2002 – Coraline
  • 2003 – The Wolves in the Walls
  • 2003 – The Sandman: Endless Nights

Locus Award:

  • 2002 – American Gods
  • 2003 – October in the Chair
  • 2003 – Coraline
  • 2004 – The Sandman: Endless Nights
  • 2004 – Closing Time
  • 2004 – A Study in Emerald
  • 2005 – Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire
  • 2006 – Anansi Boys
  • 2007 – Fragile Things
  • 2007 – How to Talk to Girls at Parties
  • 2008 – The Witch’s Headstone
  • 2009 – Coraline (Graphic Novel Adaptation)
  • 2009 – The Graveyard Book

British Science Fiction Award:

  • 2003 – Coraline
  • 2004 – The Wolves in the Walls
  • British Fantasy Award:
  • 2005 – The Problem of Susan
  • 2006 – Anansi Boys
  • 2007 – Fragile Things


  • 2000 – Stardust
  • 2003 – American Gods
  • 2004 – Smoke and Mirrors
  • 2006 – Anansi Boys

International Horror Award:

  • 1994 – Angels and Visitations


Dreamworks animation studio released a 2009 film adaptation of Coraline, directed by Henry Selick (who also directed Tim Burton’s James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas). The film, though not entirely faithful to the book – with the introduction of new characters (such as Wybie), and much creative license taken – had very good critical reception and grossed over $121 million at the box office.

New York’s MCC Theatre has created a musical adaptation of Coraline, with music written and performed by Stephin Merritt. All of the music is played on piano, but in a unique form called a piano orchestra, which uses a few different kinds of pianos. This includes one known as a prepared piano: “a piano that has had its sound altered by attaching objects – such as tinfoil, rubber bands and playing cards”. The show ran a limited engagement until July 5th, 2009.

Interview with Neil Gaiman about his inspiration for Coraline and more.

Recommended Reads

  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

Additional Resources and Further Reading

HarperCollins – Publishers Website – Publishers website on Coraline complete with discussion questions, brief introduction, biography on the author and illustrator. Contains links to various downloads and extras. Book Talk Guildlines/Review – Complete with summary, book talk, and recommendations for books like Coraline. If you click on “Guidelines”, it has an outline to a book discussion.
Official Movie Website – Interactive official movie website complete with trailer, map of the house, and information on the DVD, author, cast, and more! Neil Gaiman Interview on Coraline movie – Exclusive interview with Neil Gaiman on his take of the film. It has links to excerpts of the book, story of Coraline and the creation of her character.
Neil Gaiman’s Twitter – Find out what Neil Gaiman’s up to! Critics Statements and Author Awards – Shows awards that were won for the Coraline novel, and also some statements from Critics on the Coraline novel.
Coraline book reviews – Links to published book reviews by journalists. Neil Gaiman’s website – The author’s official website, complete with information about himself, Coraline, and his other works.
Wikipedia – Coraline – Gives the book’s plot and and descriptions of the main characters. Jezebel – Coraline’s Neil Gaiman Is “Nobody’s Bitch”
Coraline at the Internet Movie Database Dreamworks animation studio
Amanda Palmer’s website American Library Association’s 2009 Newbery Awards website
Horror Writers Association – Bram Stoker Awards The Nebula Awards
The Hugo Awards Music samples from the stage adaptation
MCC Theatre in New York City

Compiled by Grand Valley State University students Erin Riedel, Joe VanWagner, Leah Austin, Colleen Duffy, Janna Rozenkranz for YAReviews Wiki and Teaching Literature to Adolescents with Robert Rozema, February 2010