Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Freak the Mighty, by Rodman Philbrick

Title:  Freak the Mighty
Author:  Rodman Philbrick
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  2001
Pages:  192
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Disabilities, Friendship, Overcoming Obstacles
Age Level:  4th-8th Grade

Summary: (from Goodreads)
Maxwell Kane, a lumbering eighth grader who describes himself as a "butthead goon," has lived with grandparents Grim and Gram ever since his father was imprisoned for murdering his mother. Mean-spirited schoolmates and special ed (for an undetermined learning disability) haven't improved his self-image, so he is totally unprepared for a friendship with Kevin, aka Freak, a veritable genius with a serious birth defect that's left him in braces and using crutches. Max is uplifted by Freak's imagination and booming confidence, while Freak gets a literal boost--hoisted onto Max's shoulders, he shares Max's mobility. Together they become Freak the Mighty, an invincible duo.

I loved this book!  Max was such a good narrator-at the same time that he is putting himself down for not having a brain, he is describing things in such a poetic, interesting way.  His heart really shows, despite his sometimes awkward behavior.  And there is a ton of fodder for a good discussion.  We have learning disabilities, exclusion, family issues, the effects of violence on children, friendship, and death and grieving.  There were moments when I laughed, I grimaced, I cried-you get the full range of emotions from this one.  Kevin's character was exceptional in many ways, but his brains and acceptance of Max were completely endearing.  There is plenty of action to please readers who are easily put off by slower paced stories, but sensitive readers who like stories with a lot of heart will enjoy it as well.  They made a movie based on the book called The Mighty which may be a good resource as well.

Teaching Resources:
  ReadWriteThink Lesson Plans
Web English Teacher Lesson Plans 
Teaching Guide from Author's Website 
Comprehension Activities from Resource Room 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Anything But Typical, by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Title:  Anything But Typical
Author:  Nora Raleigh Baskin
Publisher:  Simon and Schuster Children's Publishing
Pages:  208
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Self-Acceptance, Friendship, Disabilities
Age Level:  4th through 7th Grade

Jason Block is a boy with autism navigating the neurotypical world.  The book, told in a first person narrative from Jason, tells the story of Jason's atypical behaviors-such as hand flapping and hair pulling-and the very typical feelings of awkwardness, self-doubt, and fear that almost any 12 year old feels from time to time.  We discover that Jason is a creative writing whiz, and he begins an online correspondence with another author on his favorite writing website.  The girl, nicknamed Phoenixbird, loves Jason's stories, and frequently asks him for advice for her stories.  Jason feels like he may finally have his first real friend-until the possibility that they could meet in person derails his good feeling.  Can she like him if she sees how he really is?

Having worked with children with autism many times over the year, I can state that this narrative feels as authentic to me as anyone could write, given the fact that many people with autism have difficulty communicating at all, and especially in communicating their feelings.  Jason has a rich internal life, which he is frequently frustrated about not being able to express.  Like many young people with autism, Jason has learned and developed rules for himself to govern his social interactions,  but the tumultuous period of preadolescence leaves him unprepared for  the ways that he and his peers are changing.  

Baskin does an admirable job keeping this book from becoming another "heart-warming" story of overcoming disabilities.  Not that it doesn't have its tear-inducing moments, but unlike books I like to call the "Lifetime Movie" version of literature, there are no completely easy answers for Jason.  His mother has still not really come to terms with his disability, and she is alternately overly-protective and frustrated by his behaviors.  More than once I wanted to tell her to lay off-if Jason doesn't care that his belt is too tight why should she?  But I have worked with many parents over the years who have trouble finding a balance between accepting their child for who they are and helping them become more "typical".  When Jason finally meets Phoenixbird, it does not go as smoothly as Jason (and the reader) wish that it would.  But that is real life for many children with disabilities, and makes Baskin's story ring true.

Teacher Resources:
Simon and Schuster Reading Guide 
Nora Baskin's Website 
Autism Awareness Lesson Plans 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Running Dream, by Wendelin Van Draanen

Title: The Running Dream

Author: Wendelin Van Draanen

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers

Year: 2011

Pages: 352

Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: identity, friendship, survival, overcoming hardship

Age Range: Sixth Grade and up

Summary(from Goodreads): Jessica thinks her life is over when she loses a leg in a car accident. She's not comforted by the news that she'll be able to walk with the help of a prosthetic leg. Who cares about walking when you live to run?
As she struggles to cope with crutches and a first cyborg-like prosthetic, Jessica feels oddly both in the spotlight and invisible. People who don't know what to say, act like she's not there. Which she could handle better if she weren't now keenly aware that she'd done the same thing herself to a girl with CP named Rosa. A girl who is going to tutor her through all the math she's missed. A girl who sees right into the heart of her.
With the support of family, friends, a coach, and her track teammates, Jessica may actually be able to run again. But that's not enough for her now. She doesn't just want to cross finish lines herself—she wants to take Rosa with her.

Review: Wendelin Van Draanen, the prolific author of the Sammy Keyes and Shredderman series (among many other books), has created an emotional and inspirational tale with The Running Dream. The book opens as sixteen year old Jessica wakes up in the hospital following a bus accident and the subsequent amputation of the lower portion of one of her legs. Told in Jessica's voice, the story follows her journey of recovery and reinvention. The details, though interesting (and true to the life of a contemporary high schooler), are not what made me love this tale. It is the bigger ideas that readers will take from it: endings are almost always beginnings, true friendships can be found in the most unusual of places, an individual is not defined by his/her disabilities, and with love and hope one can achieve the seemingly insurmountable. This book speaks to students, athletes, and anyone who has ever been humbled by a challenge. Read The Running Dream.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Troublemaker, by Andrew Clements

Title: Troublemaker

Author: Andrew Clements

Publisher: Atheneum

Year: 2011

Pages: 160

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Themes: school, identity

Age Range: Third through Fifth Grade

Summary (from Goodreads):There’s a folder in Principal Kelling’s office that’s as thick as a phonebook and it’s growing daily. It’s filled with the incident reports of every time Clayton Hensley broke the rules. There’s the minor stuff like running in the hallways and not being where he was suppose to be when he was supposed to be there. But then there are also reports that show Clay’s own brand of troublemaking, like the most recent addition: the art teacher has said that the class should spend the period drawing anything they want and Clay decides to be extra “creative” and draw a spot-on portrait of Principal Kellings…as a donkey.
It’s a pretty funny joke, but really, Clay is coming to realize that the biggest joke of all may be on him. When his big brother, Mitchell, gets in some serious trouble, Clay decides to change his own mischief making ways…but he can’t seem to shake his reputation as a troublemaker.

Review: Let me begin by saying that I wanted to love this book. I truly did. I have been a fan of Andrew Clements for ages, and count many of his books amongst my favorites - Frindle, The Landry News, The Report Card, No Talking...I even loved Room One. I was hoping that after reading Troublemaker, I'd have another Clements classic to add to my list of faves. Sadly, that is not the case.

Though I believe that there are plenty of kids who can relate to Clayton Hensley (and I have certainly known a few Clays in my day), his transformation from gleeful mischief maker to considerate rule follower felt altogether too simple to me. It seemed that, within a short period of time, Clay had managed to change his behavior, learn the error of his ways, rebuild a relationship with his beleaguered principal, and discover new insights into the nature of his best friend. Quite a list of accomplishments for a kid who started behaving just because his brother told him to.

All my grouching aside, I do think that this book will speak to many students, especially those who are proud to call themselves troublemakers. It would also be a good choice for read aloud because it could spark some interesting discussion about rules and why we follow them, as well as the nature of friendship.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Summer I Learned to Fly, by Dana Reinhardt

Title: The Summer I Learned To Fly

Author: Dana Reinhardt

Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books

Year: 2011

Pages: 224

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Themes: Coming of age, friendship, family, identity

Age Range: Fifth through Ninth Grade

Summary (from Goodreads): Drew's a bit of a loner. She has a pet rat, her dead dad's Book of Lists, an encyclopedic knowledge of cheese from working at her mom's cheese shop, and a crush on Nick, the surf bum who works behind the counter. It's the summer before eighth grade and Drew's days seem like business as usual, until one night after closing time, when she meets a strange boy in the alley named Emmett Crane. Who he is, why he's there, where the cut on his cheek came from, and his bottomless knowledge of rats are all mysteries Drew will untangle as they are drawn closer together, and Drew enters into the first true friendship, and adventure, of her life.

Review: In honor of the Book of Lists that Drew obsessively reads in order to connect with her deceased father, I am writing my review as a list, entitled...

What I Loved about The Summer I Learned to Fly

1. This book is set in the 80s, but never makes obvious jokes about the decade.

2. Drew's mother owns a gourmet cheese shop, and Drew makes mention of the difficulties Mom faces as a small business owner. This is a topic to which many of our students can relate, and has potential for rich discussion.

3. Drew's voice (and point of view) remind me of being thirteen. The things she says, and the choices she makes, feel 100% real.

4. I consumed this book in two, big gulps. It is simple, honest, and lovely.

5. The ending doesn't give you all the answers, but it gives you just enough.

6. Since completing the book, I still find myself thinking about Drew, Emmet, and Nick. I wish them well.

Teaching Resources