Friday, December 28, 2012

Dodger and Me, by Jordan Sonnenblick

Title:  Dodger and Me
Author:  Jordan Sonnenblick
Publisher:  Feiwel & Friends
Year:  2008
Pages: 176
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Friendship, Family, Overcoming Fear
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Willie Ryan was not exactly the happiest fifth grader in the world.  He had an overprotective mother, an annoying little sister, his best (and only) friend moved away, the weird English girl from his class wouldn't leave him alone, and he hadn't made a hit for his baseball team all season.  It seemed like nothing he did worked out the way he hoped.  After yet another humiliating performance on the baseball field, Willie decides to take a shortcut through the woods to avoid seeing the other kids.  In a clearing he spies a McDonalds bag someone left on the ground.  When he goes and picks it up, he discovers that it is really a magic lamp in disguise, and when he runs his hand over it out pops...a large blue chimpanzee named Dodger.  Not exactly what you were expecting, huh?  Thus begins an unexpected romp through the familiar three-wishes territory, as Dodger tries to help Willie solve his problems-mostly by seemingly making things worse!

This is a cute book, though there is nothing hugely original about it.  Despite the "genie" being a large blue ape, the plot is very familiar-lonely, awkward boy gets magical intervention to solve his problems, which goes awry and forces him to realize that he can solve his own problems and/or learn to appreciate the things he thought he wanted to change about people.  Of course, if you are a third grader who has never read or seen any of the other variations on this theme (or the movie Aladdin), then it would feel original to you.

What makes this book really enjoyable, even if the plot is predictable for the more mature reader, is the way that the character of Dodger is written.  He is funny and sweet and crazy and slightly sarcastic, and there are a few things he says that probably only a mature reader would get.  I always appreciate it when authors throw the parents and teachers who also read their books a little bone-sort of like the "wink, wink" moments on Sesame Street that are meant for the parents who are watching with their kids.  Really, all of the characters are pretty well-written, and I think that a lot of students would feel a connection with Willie and his overprotective mother and insecurity.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Witness, by Karen Hesse

Title:  Witness
Author:  Karen Hesse
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  2003
Pages:  161
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Themes:  Racism, Friendship, Social Justice
Age Range:  4th-8th Grade

Summary: (from Goodreads)
The story takes place in a small Vermont town in the year 1924, revealing the devastating impact of the Ku Klux Klan on this pastoral, insular community. At the heart of the tale are two motherless girls who come to the attention of the newly formed Klan: 12-year-old Leanora Sutter, who is black, and 6-year-old Esther Hirsch, who is Jewish. 
Hesse tells her story, which is based on real events, through the eyes of 11 different characters. Each point of view is expressed in poetic form, but with a stark clarity of difference that makes the voices unique and identifiable. There is a fire-and-brimstone preacher whose sermons reveal him as a zealot and whose actions brand him as a hypocrite. There is a middle-aged farm woman named Sara who takes Esther under her wing despite the warnings of her neighbors, trying to help the child understand why the Klan has marked her and her widowed father as targets for their hatred. Esther's only other friend is Leanora, who is about to learn some harsh lessons on tolerance and hatred herself at the hands of the Klan. And linking them all together is 18-year-old Merlin Van Tornhout, a young man struggling to fit in with the adult world and determine for himself the difference between right and wrong. The remaining characters who circle the periphery of this core group reflect the various mind-sets and biases that were common during this era of fear and persecution, even in a setting as bucolic as the Vermont countryside.

This book is a gem, an example of high-quality writing for children at its finest.  This book details a pre-civil rights era America, and examines race and racial inequity not with the deep South as its backdrop, but with the rural Vermont countryside.  One of the myths that northern Americans have told themselves for years is that things were only really bad for blacks and other minorities in the south, but as Hesse clearly demonstrates that was never true.  We may not have had Jim Crow laws on the books north of the Mason Dixon Line, but that doesn't mean that out communities didn't struggle with issues of race and discrimination.

The content is not always easy to read, and there are a few of what I call "grown up" words in there, but mature 4th and 5th readers with the guidance of a teacher or parent could have some really interesting discussions about what life was like for Leanora and Esther-though there will definitely need to be some front-loading of historical context, since the novel is long on feeling and short on exposition.  That said, older students could read the novel either as a a reader or an author-the text structure is unique, free verse is something that many of them won't have a lot of experience with, and there is a lot of room for students to interpret what they are reading and to discuss character traits and character change over the course of the book.  The minister eventually ends up targeted by the clan himself, poor Marvin struggles with cultural expectations and what he knows is right, and the girls have such an innocence about them at the beginning that is truly tested through the events of the story.  Hesse has once again given us a moving, heartfelt book about a tough to talk about issue.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Magic Thief, by Sarah Prineas

Title:  The Magic Thief
Author:  Sarah Prineas
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Year:  2008
Pages:  422
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Adventure, Belonging, Magic
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
In a city that runs on a dwindling supply of magic, a young boy is drawn into a life of wizardry and adventure. Conn should have dropped dead the day he picked Nevery's pocket and touched the wizard's locus magicalicus, a stone used to focus magic and work spells. But for some reason he did not. Nevery finds that interesting, and he takes Conn as his apprentice on the provision that the boy find a locus stone of his own. But Conn has little time to search for his stone between wizard lessons and helping Nevery discover who or what is stealing the city of Wellmet's magic

Being the fantasy lover that I am, I fully expected to enjoy this book, and I was not disappointed.  In the magical city of Wellmet, where you live determines almost everything about you.  People who live in the Twilight are destined to be poor and live their lives scrambling to survive.  Citizens of Sunrise are the wealthy and privileged of the city.  Conn, the main character, is from the Twilight area of the city, making his living by picking locks and pockets.  An orphan, Conn is very skilled at taking care of himself-until he meets the wizard Nevery.  Suddenly he is thrown into situations that his life has not prepared him for-a wizard's apprentice, in school, meeting the most powerful people in the city.  In Conn, Prineas has created a character  of incredibly honesty and heart.  Once he realizes that the magic is in danger, he thinks nothing of his own safety.  And while he does not always tell the whole truth, he never tells a lie, even when it would be expedient to do so.

There is only a small amount of backstory given for the way that magic and the city are connected, but it is enough that the reader can fully appreciate the plot without feeling like there are holes in reason or logic.  Even fantasy novels have their own internal rules, and the world that Prineas has created is at once familiar and new, and she takes old ideas about magic from other fantasy writers and makes them her own.  As seems to be the norm these days, especially with fantasy and science fiction novels, this is the beginning of a series, of which there are currently three.  I'd recommend them for a classroom library for fluent readers ages 8 to 12.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Frankie Pickle and the Pine Run 3000 by Eric Wight

Title:  Frankie Pickle and the Pine Run 3000
Author:  Eric Wight
Publisher:  Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Year:  2012
Pages:  96
Genre:  Realistic Fiction, Graphic Novel
Themes:  Teamwork, Setting Goals
Age Range:  2nd-5th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
Frankie Pickle returns for another imaginative adventure and this time it all comes down to race cars. Well, not quite race cars, but the Pine Run Derby for scouts. Frankie is in danger of not advancing to the next ranking with the rest of his troop unless he can win the Pine Run 3000. But Frankie wants to do everything on his own so he imagines himself as a world-class sculptor, a mad scientist, and of course, a pro-racecar driver. In the end, Frankie learns that team work is the only way he won't get left in the dust.

Frankie is a character that a lot of kids can relate to.  He is messy and clumsy and always seems to get himself into trouble.  He really wants to do the right thing, but sometimes his impulsive behavior gets in the way-which pretty much describes almost every nine-year-old boy I've ever met.  Frankie is determined to do everything himself, despite the fact that his father wants desperately to help him.  Turns out, there is a family tradition of racing model cars in the Pine Run 3000, and Frankie realizes that sometimes teamwork is better than going it alone.

The ending is good, mostly because he doesn't actually win the race, which is more realistic than an awful lot of books.  But he still gets his desire to move up in the ranks of the marsupials, because his hard work was recognized even though he didn't come in first.  Considering the competitive nature of our society, and the fact that most kids think if they aren't "first" they are losers, this is a nice message.  Good addition to a classroom library.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Year the Swallows Came Early, by Kathryn Fitzmaurice

Title:  The Year the Swallows Came Early
Author:  Kathryn Fitzmaurice
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Year:  2009
Pages:  288
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Family, Loss, Parent/Child Relationships
Age Range:  4th-8th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
Eleanor "Groovy" Robinson loves cooking and plans to go to culinary school just as soon as she's old enough. But even Groovy's thoughtfully--planned menus won't fix the things that start to go wrong the year she turns eleven--suddenly, her father is in jail, her best friend's long-absent mother reappears, and the swallows that make their annual migration to her hometown arrive surprisingly early. As Groovy begins to expect the unexpected, she learns about the importance of forgiveness, understands the complex stories of the people around her, and realizes that even an earthquake can't get in the way of a family that needs to come together

Love, loved, loved this book!  Fitzmaurice did an excellent job taking a very difficult subject and making it something accessible to younger readers.  Groovy is a girl with goals.  She knows exactly what she wants to do with the money that her great-grandmother, the famous writer, left for her.  Groovy is going to be a chef.  She keeps a cooking notebook, and tries out new recipes for her family and friends.  One day, on the way to help her friend at his brother's store, her father is arrested.  When she finds her mother to deliver the bad news, her mother tells her that she is the one who called the police.  It turns out that her father stole the money that was meant for her education and gambled it away on one bet.

Obviously, Groovy is devastated.  And feels betrayed.  And generally hates life.  Around the same time, her best friend's absent mother returns.  He is devastated, and feels betrayed, and generally hates life.  Both of these characters are living situations that go beyond the usual "my parents just don't understand" that populates much of children's literature, especially for this age range.  But there are children who might read this book that also have awful parental situations.  And, like this book, their stories do not always end up with a happy ending tied up in a bright shiny bow.  Fitzmaurice has written a book that tells children that being deeply angry at a parent is OK, but that eventually you are going to have to make some kind of peace, either with your parent or inside of yourself, in order to move forward.  The book also highlights the healing power of forgiveness, but with the recognition that sometimes forgiveness is hard, or not possible at all.

Teacher Resources:
HarperCollins Reading Guide

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Insurgent, by Veronica Roth

Title:  Insurgent
Author:  Veronica Roth
Publisher:  Harper Teen
Year:  2012
Pages:  525
Genre:  Dystopian Science Fiction
Themes:  Family, Survival, Oppression, Identity
Age Range:  8th Grade and Above

Roth has created a fictional Chicago in ruins, cut off from the rest of the world by a high fence.  The lake and river have dried up, and the people who live within the city must get their food from farms on the outskirts of town.  Society has been divided into five factions:  Amity, the peaceful food growers; Erudite, the ultra-intelligent innovators; Candor, whose purpose is to always find and tell the truth; Abnegation, the self-less leaders of the community; and Dauntless, the fearless peace-keepers and informal police force.

Insurgent is the second book in the Divergent series.  It follows Tris Prior, former Abengation, and her love interest and fellow Dauntless fighter, Tobias, in the aftermath of the battle between Erudite and Abnegation for control of the city.  Tris and her friends are on the run from the Erudite leaders and the Dauntless traitors who have joined them.  As the old order breaks down, Tris and her fellow divergent are targeted by the Erudite.  They find temporary safety with Candor, but everyone knows that the current situation can't stand.  When Tris find out that the Erudite attack was a cover for the theft of valuable information from Abnegation, she sets her sights on discovering the information and bringing down Erudite.

As I wrote when I reviewed Divergent last year, this series is an anomaly for me, in that I am completely engrossed in the fictional world Roth has created, even though I don't really like the protagonist that much.  Tris is a complicated character, for sure, but her aggressive nature and her instincts to fight first and ask questions later is pretty antithetical to my worldview.  This book actually helped me like her a bit better, though.  She becomes a much more sympathetic character once she is loaded down by guilt over the acts of violence she committed in the first book.  Sad, but true...I liked her better when she was suffering.

Roth's fictional society and the rules under which they live provide rich fodder for discussion about how society is organized, and about governmental power.  Each of the factions provides the basis for a discussion about the relative merit of each aspect of humanity in society.  And Tris's journey through grief and guilt can lead to discussions of friendship, family, and being true to yourself within a crazy world.  Or you can just read it for the pleasure of reading a fast-paced story filled with action and adventure.  Either way, I recommend this series to anyone who loves science fiction generally, and dystopian fiction specifically.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Maze Runner, by James Dashner

Title:  The Maze Runner
Author:  James Dashner
Publisher:  Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Year:  2009
Pages:  374
Genre:  Dystopian Science Fiction
Themes:  Survival, Adventure
Age Range:  9th Grade and Up

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. His memory is blank. But he’s not alone. When the lift’s doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade—a large, open expanse surrounded by stone walls.

Just like Thomas, the Gladers don’t know why or how they got to the Glade. All they know is that every morning the stone doors to the maze that surrounds them have opened. Every night they’ve closed tight. And every 30 days a new boy has been delivered in the lift.

Thomas was expected. But the next day, a girl is sent up—the first girl to ever arrive in the Glade. And more surprising yet is the message she delivers. 

Thomas might be more important than he could ever guess. If only he could unlock the dark secrets buried within his mind.

With the enormous amount of dystopian young adult fiction out there, it is not hard to find a book or series that appeals to anyone who loves dystopian literature.  I loved the Hunger Games series, the Unwind series,  and I'm right in the thick of the Divergent series right now.  But Maze Runner fell short for me, for reasons that I'm not sure I can accurately articulate.

Part of it goes to the fact that there is a male protagonist, while most of the other books in this genre that I love (those mentioned above as well as Life As We Knew It and This World We Live In by Susan Beth Pfeffer) have female protagonists.  While I don't usually find the gender of the main character problematic, the whole feel of this book is a little testosterone heavy for me.  That said, I'm sure there are  young adult males who find the female protagonists of those other books I mentioned not a perfect fit for them.  If you are looking for a dystopian series that will appeal to male readers, then The Maze Runner and its sequels are probably a good investment.

My other issues with the book have to do with the nature of the plot itself.  It reads like a straightforward story of survival against an oppressive "other"-the Creators-but I found that I was not necessarily buying the underlying premise.  At least, not until the end, when thing started to make a bit more sense.  But even those revelations felt a bit contrived, with some deus ex machina thrown in in the form of an unknown narrator who is only present a few times throughout the book to provide some sense of what might be going on behind the scenes.  It left me feeling as though all of the heroism of the characters was for naught, since there were people behind the scenes continuing to pull their strings that they were unaware of.  

While I did not love this book, I didn't hate it either.  I suspect that there are those who follow this series as faithfully as I followed The Hunger Games or Divergent.    I think it is a good addition to a classroom library, but I'm not sure there is enough substance there to make it a good book to use in classroom discussions.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Araminta Spookie: My Haunted House

Title:  Araminta Spookie:  My Haunted House
Author:  Angie Sage
Publisher:  Katherine Teegan Books
Year: 2006
Pages:  132
Genre:  Fantasy, Ghost Story
Theme:  Home, Family
Age Range:  2nd-5th Grade

Araminta is a little girl who loves her home.  She lives with her Aunt Tabby and her Uncle Drac in a huge, spooky house.  Araminta spends most of her time ghost hunting.  A house as large and creepy as hers must surely come with a few spirits.  But her Aunt Tabby has had enough of the old place, and she lists the house for sale.  Araminta manages to scare away every prospective buyer, until a the Wizzard family turns up.  With the help of two actual ghosts, Araminta pull out all the stops-but will she be able to save her beloved home?

If you're looking for a creepy, spooky ghost story, this is not the book for you.  However, if you are looking for a ghost story with a quirky main character and the friendliest ghosts since Casper, then My Haunted House just might fit the bill.  Araminta narrates the story, and she is definitely no shy, retiring girl.  She has a spirit as big as her house, and she's certainly not afraid to say what she thinks, or fight for what she thinks is right.  The other characters are all take-offs of movie monsters.  Aunt Tabby is constantly fighting with the boiler, leaving her covered in soot and flying around with a broom-sweeping up the mess, of course.  Her Uncle Drac keeps bats in a tower as pets, works nights, and sleeps in a sleeping bag suspended from the ceiling.  And the Wizzards end up, being, well, wizards.  Araminta's love of her home could lead to some interesting discussions with students, but mostly I think this book makes a decent addition to a classroom library.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Clementine, Friend of the Week, by Sara Pennypacker

Title:  Clementine, Friend of the Week
Author:  Sara Pennypacker
Publisher:  Hyperion
Year:  2010
Pages:  176
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Friendship
Age Range:  2nd-4th Grade

Summary: (from Goodreads)
Clementine has been picked for Friend of the Week, which means she gets to be line leader, collect the milk money, and feed the fish. Even better, she'll get a Friend of the Week booklet in which all the other third grade kids will write why they like her. Clementine's best friend Margaret has all sorts of crazy ideas for how Clementine can prove to the class she is a friend. Clementine "has" to get a great booklet, so she does what Margaret says. What begins as one of the best weeks ever may turn out to be the worst. Who knew that being a friend could be so hard?
Clementine, Friend of the Week is a throw back to some of the books I remember from my own childhood.  Both in writing style and in story it brings to mind Ramona and Harriet and any of Judy Blume's characters.  Clementine is a character that is easily relateable for other little girls, and her struggles, which seem so small from a grown-up perspective, are the types of problems that little girls have when it comes to making and keeping friends.

While most of the story is a sweet and rather funny look at how Clementine plans to bribe and cajole her classmates into giving her good comments in her Friend of the Week booklet, it gains some emotional momentum when her kitten, Moisturizer, gets lost.  He is fine in the end, and his disappearance provides the impetus for making up with her best friend Margaret, but while it was happening I felt her pain and fear.  Pennypacker did a great job making the crisis feel exactly like what it was; a heart-wrenching experience for a loving little girl who is miserable with worry.  This would make a good discussion point, either for discussing character feelings, or for discussing how a character changes at different points in a story.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Calvin Coconut, Trouble Magnet by Graham Salisbury

Title:  Calvin Coconut, Trouble Magnet
Author:  Graham Salisbury
Publisher:  Wendy Lamb Books
Year:  2009
Pages:  160
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Friendship, Family, Bullies
Age Range:  2nd-5th Grade

Calvin Coconut lives in Hawaii with his mother and sister.  His father, the famous Little Johnny Coconut, hit it big with his song "A Little Bit of La-la-la Love", and took for for Vegas.  Since then Calvin is supposed to be the man of the house, but trouble seems to follow him wherever he goes.  On his first day of fourth grade, he angers the sixth grade bully, Tito, and even his best friends Julio and Willy think he is going to get pounded.  His cousin, Stella, is coming from the mainland to stay with them, which means he has to move into the storage room in the garage, which comes fully equipped with spiders and other creepy crawlies.  And his new teacher, Mr. Purdy, calls his class "boot camp"  for a reason. Can Calvin manage to avoid all of the trouble that keeps coming his way?

The one thing I can say that Calvin Coconut, Trouble Magnet has going for it is the unusual setting, and the opportunity to learn some new vocabulary as a result of the island location.  Calvin and his friends introduce us to the culinary delights of "shave ice" and "cuttlefish" and "kim chee", and "dried shrimp".  We also learn the Hawaiian word for mainlanders, "haole".  Calvin is a likeable enough character, and the author did a good job of translating the cadences of Hawaiian English into print.  But unfortunately there is not much substance to go along with the novelty of a Hawaiian setting.  As I read I kept waiting for the point of the story to present itself clearly, and I'm still waiting.  Calvin has problems that kids can relate to, but without any clear resolution.  Calvin solves his bully problem by offering up his cousin Stella as a consolation prize to get Tito off his back-not exactly an honorable solution.  The fact that Stella herself is something of a problem for him is not addressed very well in the course of the book.  Calvin forgets to walk his little sister home from school, but there are no consequences as a result, not even from his sister, who could have easily blackmailed him into some kind of amusing situation.  Overall, I'd say that this book might be an ok addition to a classroom library, but there is just not enough there there to make it worth using in a teaching setting.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Frankly, Frannie: Doggy Day Care

Title:  Frankly Frannie:  Doggy Day Care
Author:  AJ Stern
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  2012
Pages:  123
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Careers, Learning a Lesson
Age Range:  2nd-4th Grade

Frannie is a little girl who desperately wants to be a grown-up.  Ever since realizing that a grown-up office was a bestest place ever, she has been scheming about how she can quit school and get a job.  She thinks her time has come when her teacher compliments her on the care she gave the class hamster when t was her turn to take him home overnight.  That's it!  She'll become a veterinarian.  While hatching a plan to get her parents to let her quit school and run a vet's office out of her bedroom, an opportunity falls into her lap.  Her Aunt Magoo, maker of sock dolls extraordinaire, needs help getting ready for a big meeting with a fancy lady from a big toy store.  Magoo needs Frannie and her best friend Eliot to take care of her animals, three slippery cats and a dog named Bark.  Can Frannie prove that she is ready for the responsibility of being a veterinarian?  Chaos ensues when Frannie takes matters into her own hands.

Frannie was introduced in the book Frankly Frannie, and since her first appearance she has tried on a few different jobs.  Each time she learns something new about herself, and she finds that being a grown-up with a job is harder than it seems.  The books are told in first person from Frannie's point of view, and as such the language is sometimes quirky.  I will admit that at times the unusual, child-like way that she speaks and the change in font to show emphasis were distracting for me as a reader, and I imagine that there are some children who would find that distracting as well.  Not to mention that some of the "grown-up" words she tries to use would be challenging for less proficient readers.  However, Frannie herself is a very likeable character, and there are opportunities for discussing the author's word choice not just from a characterization perspective, but also from a writer's perspective.  I think that this series is a good addition to a classroom library, and could be used in a thematic unit on careers.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

UnWholly, by Neal Shusterman

Title:  UnWholly
Author:  Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon and Schuster for Young Readers
Year:  2012
Pages:  416
Themes:  Social Justice, Morality, Survival, Identity
Age Range:  8th grade and Above

Summary:  from Goodreads
Thanks to Connor, Lev, and Risa—and their high-profile revolt at Happy Jack Harvest Camp—people can no longer turn a blind eye to unwinding. Ridding society of troublesome teens while simltaneously providing much-needed tissues for transplant might be convenient, but its morality has finally been brought into question. However, unwinding has become big business, and there are powerful political and corporate interests that want to see it not only continue, but also expand to the unwinding of prisoners and the impoverished.

Cam is a product of unwinding; made entirely out of the parts of other unwinds, he is a teen who does not technically exist. A futuristic Frankenstein, Cam struggles with a search for identity and meaning and wonders if a rewound being can have a soul. And when the actions of a sadistic bounty hunter cause Cam’s fate to become inextricably bound with the fates of Connor, Risa, and Lev, he’ll have to question humanity itself.
If you read Unwind, you know that Shusterman has created an alternate history for America that includes a violent war between pro-choice and pro-life forces that led to the Unwind Accords-abortion is illegal when the child is a fetus, but when the child turns 13 parents can decide to retroactively abort their child through a process called unwinding, and all of the teens organs and tissue will be donated.

When discussing UnWholly, Shusterman said that he never intended for Unwind to become a trilogy, but he just couldn't let the story go.  This novel continues the themes introduced in the first book.  At its most basic level, the unwind culture is about what defines being human.  Despite being set in a fictional future, Shusterman draws on the current debate about the power of corporations, both in our government and in society at large, as well as the debate about privatizing education (which in itself is at least partly also about corporate power).  The addition of Cam as a completely made up "person" brings a new level to the discussion of the morality of unwinding.  It's hard to argue that people's lives are saved by the constant flow of "donated" organs and tissue, but just because technology allows us to create new life from old, does that mean we should?  And if we do, then can there be such a thing as a "soul" as religious people define it, as coming from the divine?  This book would make a great choice for a book club discussion for teens (or grown-ups who love books for know who you are!).

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Sherlock Files: The 100 Year Old Secret, by Tracy Barrett

Title:  The Sherlock Files: The 100 Year Old Secret
Author:  Tracy Barrett
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Year:  2008
Pages:  157
Genre:  Mystery
Themes:  Art, Deduction
Age Range:  3rd-5th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Xena and Xander Holmes have just discovered they’re related to Sherlock Holmes and have inherited his unsolved casebook! The siblings set out to solve the cases their famous ancestor couldn’t, starting with the mystery of a prized painting that vanished more than a hundred years ago. Can two smart twenty-first-century kids succeed where Sherlock Holmes could not?
Xena and Xander are two smart kids, but then you'd have to be to solve hundred year old mysteries left behind by Sherlock Holmes.  Barrett does a good job creating a setting that somehow feels British, even though the main characters are American.  There's talk of their flat, and the Tube, and boarding schools...all very UK.  This is the first book in a series that so far has three books, so children who enjoy the first mystery can continue visiting Barrett's fictional  London.

As mysteries go this one is pretty good.  The kids follow clues and use deductive reasoning throughout.  Not all of their ideas pan out, but they show a perseverance that is a good example for real live children who seem increasingly adverse to "try and try again".  They also have something that the "real" Sherlock Holmes did not-21st Century technology. Conveniently, their mother is a reviewer of new gadgets for some online magazine, so they often have prototypes of new technology hanging around the house.  To solve this mystery, they needed a device that would locate metal behind a wall.   In the course of the search they meet Watson's youngest descendant, a painter, a gallery owner, the headmaster of a school, and a girl in a purple hat.  Figuring out how all of these people are related to the painting they are looking for takes brains, which Xena and Xander have in spades.  There isn't exactly a lot of deeper meaning here, but as an example of the mystery genre this book does the job adequately.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Toothpaste Millionaire, by Jean Merrill

Title:  The Toothpaste Milionaire
Author:  Jean Merrill
Publisher:  Sandpiper
Year:  1972
Pages:  129
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Economics, Inventions, Acceptance
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Sixth-grader Kate is feeling a little lonely at her new school in East Cleveland-until she meets Rufus, a 12-year old inventor.  She and Rufus become fast friends-even though it is 1972, and he is black and she is white. While running errands for his mom, Rufus is appalled by the high price of toothpaste.  Sure that he can make it for less, he invents his own toothpaste recipe and starts selling it in baby food jars.  And that is the beginning of a lighthearted story about how Rufus became a millionaire-and changed the lives of Kate and her classmates.

This book, originally published in 1972, was re-released in 2006.  When I started reading it, I couldn't figure out why the fact that Kate was white and Rufus was black was a big deal, since it didn't appear to be a historical fiction novel.  Well, I finally thought to look at the copyright date, which explained a lot.  I mention it now both so that you won't have the same confusion if you read it (though you are all probably way smarter than me!), and so that you will understand why I added acceptance to the list of themes for this book.  Even though the race thing is a pretty minor aspect of the book, kids in 2012 may need some context about why Kate makes a thing out of the fact that before she moved to Cleveland she'd never met a black person, or why Hector, the factory manager, keeps asking if people discriminate.

What this book really excels at is explaining basic business practices, and how the price of goods is determined.  Rufus invents a product, starts making it at home and selling it.  When the business grows, he adds employees, who he pays in stock in the company.  When the company gets bigger, he finds a manager, gets a business loan, buys a factory, makes commercials-and almost drives the big companies out of business.  In the process, he shows that you can still make money without jacking up prices, which is a lesson that is still relevant today, even if the race relations of the book feel dated.  Rufus's business model basically shows how you can run a successful business based on principles of fairness and respecting your workers, even if it means making a smaller profit for yourself.  Again, a lesson that some of our largest corporations could learn.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Gollywhopper Games, by Jody Feldman

Title:  The Gollywhopper Games
Author:  Jody Feldman
Publisher:  Greenwillow Books
Year:  2009
Pages:  336
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Redemption, Competition, Fair Play
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary: from Goodreads
Gil Goodson's future happiness depends on winning the Golly Toy & Game Company's ultimate competition. If Gil wins, his dad has promised that the family can move away from all the gossip, false friends, and bad press that have plagued them ever since The Incident. Inside the toy company's fantastic headquarters, Gil will have to master trivia, solve puzzles, and complete physical stunts—and he'll have to do it better than all of the other kids competing.
Oh, and did we mention that Gil's every step—and every mistake—will be broadcast on national television?
I will admit to spending the first quarter of this book sure that it was some kind of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory rip-off (or, for the less cynical, perhaps an homage), but luckily I kept with it long enough to realize that while there are undeniable similarities between The Gollywhopper Games and Roald Dahl's classic, The Gollywhopper Games can stand on hits own as a legit piece of children's literature.

The book starts much like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  A young boy (Gil/Charlie) from a poor family gets a golden opportunity (see what I did there?) to compete for a fabulous prize from a (toy/candy) factory. Both boys were trying to make their families lives better, but for Gil the reason was not just to raise them out of poverty.  Gil had a personal mission to redeem his family's honor and give his father a reason to hold his head high.  Because Gil's father worked for Gollywhopper Toy and Game Company, and he had been wrongly accused of stealing money from the company.  Even though he had been acquitted, the whole town still thought that his dad was a crook.  Gil's other reason for competing was more selfish-he desperately wanted to get the money to move to a new town where no one would know his family's history.

There is also a cast of rather stereotypical characters, though not in the obnoxious way that the characters in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were stereotypical.  There was Lavinia, the brain, and Bianca, a slightly air-headed girl who just wanted to be famous.  There was Rocky, the bully, and a super rich kid who's father was trying to use his wealth to fix the games.  And unlike Dahl's story, which featured a tour of the factory with hilarious punishments for the bad, spoiled, naughty kids, once the kids get into the Gollywhopper Factory, they are competing for prizes by solving puzzles and completing stunts that force them to use all of their wits.  In fact, the puzzles were the part of the story I appreciated the most.  I always like it when children's media-whether print or visual-shows smart kids getting ahead by being smart.  I thought that the characters were very well-written and believable.  I could feel Gil's frustration when others were cheating, and his determination to win.

I think that kids will also like the fact that this book features kids who outsmart nasty adults, which I suppose is also a theme in Dahl's works.  Because in the end Gil is able to not just win the games, but to solve the mystery of who really took the money, and to help his father regain his place at Gollywhoppers.  This rather-lengthy-for-a-kid's-book novel is a fast and easy read, one that combines action with emotion in a way that I think will appeal to lots of kids.

Teacher Resources:
Kids' Wings Unit Plan
The Gollywhoppers Game Website

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School, by Candace Flemming

Title:  The Famous Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School
Author:  Candace Flemming
Publisher:  Schwartz and Wade
Year:  2007
Pages:  192
Genre:  Fables
Themes:  Lessons Learned
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Here's a chapter book of contemporary fables about a rambunctious group of fourth graders and their amazing teacher—the globe-trotting, Mayan-ceremonial-robe-wearing Mr. Jupiter—that is sure to delight students and teachers alike. There's Calvin Tallywong, who wants to go back to kindergarten. But when he actually gets the chance, he's forced to do the squirrel dance and wear a school bus name tag. The moral of his story? Be careful what you wish for. Then there's Amisha Spelwadi, who can spell wildebeest, no problem. When Mr. Jupiter asks the class to spell cat, all Amisha can come up with is kat. The moral: Don't count your chickens before they hatch.
I don't know about you, but when I've taught fables in the past, sometimes the students had trouble connecting with the very old stories from Aesop's classic collection of stories.  Some of them have stood the test of time remarkably well, but some of them are old-fashioned and confusing for kids.  Well, never fear, there is a book that can help you teach about fables in a way that will be accessible and fun for students.

The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School is a chapter book, with each chapter telling a different story about a different student or teacher, and each chapter is in itself a fable.  The great thing about the narrative structure is that the chapter can be read out of order, and if you only wanted to use certain chapters as part of a guided reading group or read aloud that would be very easy to do without diluting the meaning of anything.  Having just spent the better part of the weekend typing up the common core standards for reading for a bulletin board in my office, I can tell you that examining the narrative structure is an important part of the standards in fourth and fifth grade, and that by fifth grade the students will need to be able to explain how the narrative structure contributes to the meaning or enjoyment of the story.  In that regard we teachers of reading are going to have to expose our students to lots of different types of narrative. This sort of collection of loosely connected chapters is one that they will likely not have seen before.

As far as I can tell, the morals at the end of the chapters are taken directly from Aesop's fables, so you can also use the chapters as stand-alones to compare and contrast the modern story from The Fabled Fourth Graders with the original from Aesop's.  Comparing and contrasting texts on the same topic or theme, also really big in the common core standards.  Using these updates tales should allow student to have an easier time making meaning from the originals.  And using the updated tales as a jumping off point may help the students when you introduce multicultural fables as well.  Regardless of whether this title is used in explicit instruction, it is a great addition to a classroom library, because it is well written and funny.

Teacher Resources:
Classroom Guide from Ms. Flemming's website
Discussion Guide from State of Indiana
Aesop's Fables Lesson Plan from

Monday, August 13, 2012

Eleven, by Patricia Reilly Giff

Title:  Eleven
Author:  Patricia Reilly Giff
Publisher:  Random House Children's Books
Year:  2008
Pages:  176
Genre:  Realistic Fiction/Mystery
Themes:  Friendship, Family, Mystery
Age Range:  4th-7th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Sam is almost 11 when he discovers a locked box in the attic above his grandfather Mack’s room, and a piece of paper that says he was kidnapped. There are lots of other words, but Sam has always had trouble reading. He’s desperate to find out who he is, and if his beloved Mack is really his grandfather. At night he’s haunted by dreams of a big castle and a terrifying escape on a boat. Who can he trust to help him read the documents that could unravel the mystery? Then he and the new girl, Caroline, are paired up to work on a school project, building a castle in Mack’s woodworking shop. Caroline loves to read, and she can help. But she’s moving soon, and the two must hurry to discover the truth about Sam.

I must admit to not being sure what I was getting when I started reading this book.  from the blurb it almost sounded like it could turn out to be a fantasy novel, what with all the talk about castles and such.  Maybe I was just making the (false, as it turns out) connection between  Sam's reading disability and that of the demi-god Percy Jackson from Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.  At any rate, what I got was a pretty good mystery novel for the upper elementary set.

There are many things that are interesting about this book, beginning with the cast of characters.  Sam lives with his grandfather Mack, who can build anything out of wood.  They live in an apartment above Mack's woodworking business, in the same building as Mack's best friend Onji and his deli, and a sweet grandmotherly type named Anima who owns an Indian restaurant.  You don't find references to chicken curry or samosas in a kids' book that isn't about India.  Sam himself is a very relateable character.  His learning disability makes him shy and a little anxious in many situations, and his uncertainty about his place in the world is something that I imagine many students feel, whether they are searching for the truth about their family history or not.

The mystery is one central point of the story, but really it is the foundation for a broader theme of what it means to be a family.  Sam's family is certainly non-traditional.  While more and more kids are being raised by grandparents, it's not usually grandpa by himself, and certainly not with such interesting companions helping with the parenting.  Sam feels very ambivalent about searching for the truth about his relationship with Mack, considering giving up the search for fear that he would find out the man he loved is complicit in taking him away from his "real" family.  But in the end he decides he needed the truth.  This could be an interesting discussion point if using this book in a guided reading group or kids book club.

The book is also about friendship, and Sam's friendship with Caroline shows how being vulnerable can make a friendship deeper.  In order to solve his mystery he has to be very open with Caroline about his reading disability, but she also has to open up to him, admitting how hard it is to make friends when her father keeps moving their family around all the time.  I always appreciate a well written friendship between a boy and a girl, and this fits that bill.  They each bring different strengths to the friendship, and use them to work together to solve the mystery of Sam's story.

Teacher Resources:
WebEnglishTeacher Guide
Multnomah County Teacher's Guide

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Mercy on These Teenage Chimps, by Gary Soto

Title:  Mercy on These Teenage Chimps
Author:  Gary Soto
Publisher: Harcourt Children's Books
Year:  2007
Pages:  160
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Coming of Age, Transitions
Age Range:  5th-8th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
On his thirteenth birthday, Ronnie woke up feeling like a chimp--all long armed, big eared, and gangly. He's been muddling through each gawky day since. Now his best friend, Joey, has turned thirteen, too--and after Joey humiliates himself in front of a cute girl, he climbs a tree and refuses to come down. So Ronnie sets out to woo the girl on Joey's behalf. After all, teenage chimps have to stick together.

If you are looking for a book that will appeal to tween boys, I suspect this could be it.  The only word I can think of to describe this book is awkward.  Not the writing, not the plot, but certainly the mood.  But then, I suppose that's the point.  Being a tween is awkward, for girls and boys.  Never having been a tween boy  can only guess at how accurate Soto is about the feelings Ronnie and Joey are having, but having worked with teens at church for the last 15 years I can at least pay witness to the physical manifestations-gawky, clumsy, body parts out of proportion with each other.

I must admit to not getting into this book, but then it wasn't written for me.  I think that boys will find a main character in Ronnie that they can relate to.  He's smart, funny, and not afraid to laugh at himself.  He is a good friend, and puts his own feelings aside to help his fellow chimp, Joey, meet the girl of his dreams.  But most of all, he shows that even though boys turn into chimps on their thirteenth birthday, there is hope for them in the end.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Liberation of Gabriel King, by K.L. Going

Title:  The Liberation of Gabriel King
Author:  K.L. Going
Publisher:  Puffin
Year:  2005
Pages:  160
Genre:  Realistic/Historical Fiction
Themes:  Friendship, Acceptance, Overcoming Fear
Age Range:  4th-6th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Gabriel King was a born chicken. He’s afraid of spiders, corpses, loose cows, and just about everything related to the fifth grade. Gabe’s best friend, Frita Wilson, thinks Gabe needs some liberating from his fears. Frita knows something about being brave— she’s the only black kid in school in a town with an active Ku Klux Klan. Together Gabe and Frita are going to spend the summer of 1976 facing down the fears on Gabe’s list. But it turns out that Frita has her own list, and while she’s helping Gabe confront his fears, she’s avoiding the thing that scares her the most.

Increasingly, children's books dealing with being brave are teaching the lesson that being brave is not the absence of fear, but being afraid and doing something anyway.  This is the lesson that Gabe learns the hard way in this novel by K.L. Going.  Gabriel is like a lot of kids at the upper end of their first decade of life-he is still afraid of things that he now knows are irrational, like cows and corn fields, but he can't seem to let go of the fear that grips him every time he gets near a spider or the rope swing at the swimming hole.  Frita is the opposite, seemingly afraid of nothing.  But throughout the summer of 1976, he discovers that his beliefs about his own cowardice and Frita's bravery don't begin to describe the complexities of what it really means to be afraid.

I am slightly uncomfortable calling this book historical fiction, since I was about the age of Gabe and Frita in 1976 (I was six to their 10), and that doesn't feel long ago enough to be history!  But the book actually highlights for children a time period about which not much has been written, at least not for kids-the period after integration in the south, the struggle between the Ku Klux Klan and their supporters against what they saw as the destruction of their hegemony, and their way of life.  Frita represented everything they hated-inclusion, acceptance, equality.  Frita's family responded in different ways.  Her father the preacher and his wife tried to find common ground with their neighbors and live peacefully, Frita's older brother flirted with joining the Black Panthers and had a fascination with Malcom X, and Frita just tried to fit in at school the best she could...including pounding anyone who bothered her or Gabriel.

Everyone should have a friend like Frita.  She was loyal, and strong, and believed that Gabriel could overcome his fears and learn to fight his own battles.  Gabe didn't really understand what it was like for Frita and her family, at least not until the father of the school bully used a racial slur against Frita at the 4th of July celebration.  Gabe watches as the entire town refuses to stand up against the extreme bullying of the KKK, and then learns a valuable lesson about overcoming fear as his father, a quiet, soft-spoken man, prepares to speak on behalf of justice and equality.  When his friends are in trouble, he is able to overcome his own fears and do things he never thought possible-even making the dreaded transition to fifth grade.

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic Literature Circle Guide
Discussion Questions from K.L. Going's Website

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Mozart Question, by Michael Morpurgo

Title:  The Mozart Question
Author:  Michael Morpurgo
Publisher:  Candlewick
Year:  2008
Pages:  80
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes: The Holocaust, Music
Age Range:  3rd Grade and Up

Summary:  from Goodreads
Like any young boy, Paolo becomes obsessed with what he can’t have — in his case, a violin. Hidden away in his parents’ room, it beckons the boy to release the music inside it. The music leads Paolo to a family secret, a story of World War II that changed the course of his parents’ lives. But once the truth is told, the family is reunited in a way no one had thought possible. 

This slim little book-something between a novella and a picture book-is beautifully written.  The story is very moving, and evoked strong emotion in me when I read it.  I related to Paolo pretty strongly.  As a musician myself, I know what it is like to have music inside of you and want to get it out into the world.  And his relationship with his violin teacher resonated with me as well.  When I was a child there were a couple of older people who taught me various skills, and wisdom.  Neither one was related to me, but I remember how valued and comfortable I felt with them.  

Writing about the Holocaust for children is a task that more than a few authors have taken on over the years, with varying degrees of success.  I remember reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit as a child, and  being so sad and heartbroken and scared at how Jews and other minorities were treated in the concentration camps.   I also remember watching documentaries and made-for-tv movies about the Holocaust with my parents, and being oddly fascinated with the ways that the Nazi's came up with to torture and murder people.  I especially remember a movie called "Playing for Time", with Vanessa Redgrave, which was actually a very similar story to the story in this book.  What is slightly different about The Mozart Question is that it is told with a certain distance, since the children first see Paolo as an old man.  And Paolo was not the victim of the Nazi's, at least not directly; it was his parents who had witnessed the horrors of the camps.  Morpurgo does an excellent job walking the line between realistic descriptions and "scary" when he talks about the camps.  It is clear that many people died, but there are few specific details that could frighten a younger reader.

If you are teaching about the Holocaust, chances are pretty good that you have older students.  The reading level on this is a little low for middle schoolers learning about WWII for the first time.  But, if you are doing a literature unit based on the Holocaust, and you are doing guided reading, then this book would be good to use with those lower readers who may not be able to read Number the Stars or The Devil's Arithmetic or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or The Book Thief.  If you are an upper elementary teacher, then this book would be a great addition to your classroom library-as long as you were willing and able to answer the questions that may come up when some 9 or 10 year old gets their hands on their first look at one of the most terrible chapters in world history. 

Teacher Resources:
Holocaust Memorial Day Trust Reading Guide
London Philharmonic Orchestra Teacher Resources

Thursday, August 2, 2012

All the Lovely Bad Ones, by Mary Downing Hahn

Title:  All the Lovely Bad Ones
Author:  Mary Downing Hahn
Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Year:  2008
Pages:  192
Genre:  Ghost Story, Fantasy
Themes:  Redemption
Age Range:  4th-7th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Travis and his sister, Corey, can’t resist a good trick—so when they learn that their grandmother’s sleepy Vermont inn has a history of ghost sightings, they decide to do a little "haunting" of their own. Scaring the guests proves to be great fun, and before long, the inn is filled with tourists and ghost hunters eager for a glimpse of the supernatural.But Travis and Corey soon find out that they aren’t the only ghosts at Fox Hill Inn. Their thoughtless games have awakened something dangerous, something that should have stayed asleep. Restless, spiteful spirits swarm the inn, while a dark and terrifying presence stalks the halls and the old oak grove on the inn’s grounds. To lay the ghosts to rest, Travis and Corey must first discover the dark history of Fox Hill and the horrors visited on its inhabitants years earlier.
Mary Downing Hahn knows how to write a ghost story.  This book is a good, old-fashioned scare-fest, at least for the middle grade set.   It's got everything-cold spots, lights that turn on and off by themselves, mysterious flying objects, all taking place in an old house in Vermont.  The fact that Travis and Corey also learn a valuable lesson about the way they treat people is icing.  And make no mistake-this story is scary.  Too scary for immature readers who are still figuring out the difference between reality and fantasy.  If a child still believes in Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, then this book is not for them.  But for slightly older readers who like to be scared, this book is a good choice.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Obi, Gerbil On the Loose, by Michael Delaney

Title:  Obi, Gerbil on the Loose
Author:  Michael Delaney
Publisher:  Dutton Juvenile
Year:  2008
Pages:  197
Genre:  Animal Fantasy
Themes:  Pets, Self-Confidence, Adventure
Age Range:  3rd-5th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Obi the Gerbil is home alone! Obi's owner is on vacation, and the neighbor feeding the pets has forgotten all about the gerbil tucked away in her cage. Obi loves her cozy home, but without food and water she must escape to survive. So, taking on the courage of her namesake (Star Wars Jedi knight Obi-Wan), she breaks out and meets her fellow pets?cats up to no good, a maniacal tarantula, an insecure snake, a grumpy mouse, and a crotchety dog. Obi finds danger, but also makes new friends as she embarks on her great adventure
Obi the Gerbil is a very inspiring character for younger readers.  Even though she is afraid of almost everything in the wake of her being left behind, she overcomes her fear and is able to survive despite being left with no food and water.  Sounds like an awful lot of upper elementary students, as they begin to make the transition from being completely dependent on their parents to being more independent.  Obi's adventures are funny, and there is a lot of action, from cat chases to exploring the attic to traversing secret tunnels.  This would be a good book to use to talk about perspective and point-of-view.  Students could use Obi's example to imagine themselves as small as a mouse, and write a narrative from that perspective.  It is also a pretty good text to use for teaching voice in writing.  Obi may only be a gerbil, but she has a very strong personality that comes across beautifully in Delaney's writing.  My inner nerd also appreciated that she was named for a jedi, but maybe that's just me!  A great addition to a classroom library.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Dying to Meet You: 43 Old Cemetery Road #1

Title:  Dying to Meet You:  43 Old Cemetery Road #1
Author:  Kate Klise
Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Year:  2009
Pages:  155
Genre:  Fantasy, Ghost Story
Themes:  Family, Friendship
Age Range:  2nd-4th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
The best-selling author Ignatius B. Grumply moves into the Victorian mansion at 43 Old Cemetery Road, hoping to find some peace and quiet so that he can crack a wicked case of writer's block. 
But 43 Old Cemetery Road is already occupied--by an eleven-year-old boy named Seymour, his cat, Shadow, and an irritable ghost named Olive. 
And they have no intention of sharing!

As ghost stories go, this one is not exactly going to make anyone check under their bed or in their closet before turning off the lights at night.  Olive is really a very nice ghost, in a sort of Mary Poppins/Nanny McPhee sort of way.  She is proper and smart and caring of Seymour in a serious, no-nonsense sort of way.  There is nothing here that could actually scare a younger reader-but unfortunately I'm not sure there's much here to attract them, either.

The problem as I see it is two-fold.  First, the story unfolds very quickly, with very little exposition about the characters or the motivations for their actions.  Each character felt flat to me-the grumpy writer, the abandoned boy, and the irritated ghost-and when they changed it happened in a snap, with very little actual development.  The other problem, which I see as more troublesome, is that while the book is obviously supposed to appeal to younger readers, the plays-on words and wink-wink-nudge-nudge moments that make it funny are not things that younger readers will necessarily get.  Anyone who has spent time with 5-10 year olds knows that their idea of humor is fairly unsophisticated.  Think of the incessant knock-knock jokes and silly riddles they love.  All of the characters names are puns, which younger readers might appreciate-if they were puns that they understood.  I'm not sure that E. Gadds or Anita Sale will be immediately recognizable to the age range I think this book is designed for.

However, there is one thing that makes this book worth having around a classroom, and that is the narrative structure.  This is an epistolary novel, meaning that it is told through a series of letters between the various characters, as well as drawings doe by "Seymour" and newspaper articles from a fictitious newspaper.  Epistolary novels seem to have been more popular lately in the adult publishing world, and any exposure to different narrative structures can only help students be better readers and writers.  Were I to use this in the classroom, I might actually use it as a mentor text for writing rather than for reading.  I think that it would make a good fall activity-read the story as a read aloud (it's not terribly well suited for that, but a person could make it work), share it on the document camera, whatever; then have the students write their own ghost stories as letters between themselves and a ghost.  This also would allow you as the adult to explain some of the puns and references that the kids may not understand.  I suppose that a proficient reader who has a mature sense of humor could fully enjoy this book independently, but I really do see it having more value used as a mentor text.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Kenny & the Dragon, by Tony DiTerlizzi

Title:  Kenny & the Dragon
Author:  Tony DiTerlizzi
Publisher:  Simon and Schuster Books for Young readers
Year:  2008
Pages:  160
Genre:  Animal Fantasy
Themes:  Friendship, Acceptance, Non-Violence
Age Range:  3rd through 5th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
What do you do when your new best buddy has been designated a scourge by the community and marked for imminent extermination? Just ask Kenny Rabbit. When the simple folks in the sleepy little village of Roundbrook catch wind that there's a dragon running loose in the countryside, they get the wrong idea and the stage is set for a fight to the death. So it's up to Kenny to give his neighbors front-row seats to one of the best-known battles in history -- the legendary showdown between St. George and the dragon -- without losing a friend in the fray.
In a media landscape for children that seems to subsist mostly on CGI and splashy graphics, this slim novel is a welcome throw back to old fashioned children's stories.  Kenny and his new friend the Dragon are charming-a word I feel like I've been throwing around a lot lately with the kids books I've been reading.  But considering some of the post-modern, ironic, or just downright gross titles for kids out there these days (Walter the Farting Dog, anyone?), I find it refreshing to get some sweet, non-scatological stories!  

Kenny is a very good rabbit, if a little misunderstood by his farmer parents, who don't understand why he always has his nose in a book.  Imagine his delight when he finds an actual dragon in his backyard-a dragon who is just as enamored with books and stories as Kenny himself.  Their friendship is a not very subtle example of how people from vastly different backgrounds can find understanding through shared interests.  That instant connection is what makes it so horrifying to Kenny that everyone in the village wants to come and kill the mean, nasty, killer dragon.  After all, they don't even know him!  And what did the dragon ever do to them, anyway!?!  Again, a not very subtle message about the consequences of stereotypes, but perfect for younger readers.  And then there is the violence aspect.  When faced with a real angry mob, Kenny and his family uses their wits to give the villagers just what they wanted, without anyone getting hurt.  I appreciate any story that shows how brains are better than brawn!  I think that this would be a great novel to use in a fantasy unit, and there is ripe fodder for discussion.

The other thing that this book has going for it, other than the above mentioned themes, is the excellent writing.  This book is full of rich vocabulary and unusual ways of saying things.  Because, of course, the dragon is quite old, and has a rather antiquated way of speaking that is engaging, and might cause a younger reader to really have to use those context clues we all try so hard to teach. All in all a solid classroom choice,  either for guided reading or as an independent read for a proficient reader.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Roxie and the Hooligans, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Title:  Roxie and the Hooligans
Author:  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Publisher:  Aladdin
Year:  2006
Genre:  Realistic(ish) Fiction
Themes:  Adventure
Age Range:  3nd-5th Grade

Summary: (from Goodreads)

Do not panic.Lord Thistlebottom's Book of Pitfalls and How to Survive Them has taught Roxie Warbler how to handle all sorts of situations. If Roxie's ever lost in the desert, or buried in an avalanche, or caught in a dust storm, she knows just what to do. But Lord Thistlebottom has no advice to help Roxie deal with Helvetia's Hooligans, the meanest band of bullies in school.
Then Roxie finds herself stranded on a deserted island with not only the Hooligans but also a pair of crooks on the lam, and her survival skills may just save the day -- and turn the Hooligans into surprising allies.

Roxie is a charming little girl, and if I was stranded on a desert island I would definitely want her with me. She is the kind of character I think kids can relate to.   She is afraid of lots of things-most importantly, she is afraid of the bullies at her school who make fun of her "sugar-bowl handle" ears.  She avoids them as much as possible-until the day they find themselves stranded on an island with two bank robbers.  Suddenly, the bullies who had seemed to threatening show themselves to be real people, with their own fears.  And none of them is as well-prepared as Roxie to manage the many challenges they encounter trying to stay away from the robbers and get rescued.  
Naylor's writing is old-fashioned and fun, a throw-back to adventure stories from the past.  But I think that 21st century kids will find it to be quirky and engaging.  Roxie's resourcefulness is pretty unique, but the message is something we all need to hear now and again.  We may not be able to fight our way out of the swamp, or dig out of an avalanche, but we can do "this"-this one thing that has to be done right now, even if we are scared.  Roxie is a great example of how being brave has nothing to do with a lack of fear, but with facing your fears.
The book is pretty short, and the story is fast-paced.  There is not a ton of exposition of any of the characters, or the setting, or really much of anything, but it doesn't really need it.  I think this would make a good book for use with guided reading groups if you are doing a unit on adventure stories, or overcoming fears.  It would also be a good book to choose if you want an author study-Phyllis Reynolds Naylor has written about a gajillion books, including several series, and it might be interesting to compare how her various protagonists are portrayed.
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