Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Any Which Wall, Laurel Snyder

Title:  Any Which Wall
Author:  Laurel Snyder
Publisher:  Random House Books for Young Readers
Year:  2009
Pages:  256
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Time Travel, Magic, Childhood
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
Four kids, a mysterious wall, and a good helping of common magic!
If you had a magic wall that could take you to any place and any time, where would you go? Would you want to visit castles and desert islands? Would you want to meet famous wizards, terrible pirates, beautiful queens, and dastardly outlaws? If so, then you are just like Henry and Emma, and Roy and Susan—and you will probably like this story a lot. In fact, you might even wish something similar would happen to you!

In Any Which Wall, author Laurel Snyder proves that you don’t have to be an orphan, know a dragon, or even be a child to get a taste of magic. You just have to keep your mind open and willing to let it happen. And when you do find magic (like Henry, Emma, Roy, and Susan), you might be surprised that along with all the fun, you also find out new things about your friends, your family, and maybe even a little bit about who you really want to be.

This is a charming story about four average kids who have an extraordinary adventure.  The narrator has a Lemony Snicket sort of vibe, talking to the reader and showing insight into the mind of a child.  And the whole book reminded me of the Narnia books, which was clearly an influence on Snyder.  What I liked most about it was the fact that the magic that the kids find is not what they or the reader might think.  Nothing turned out exactly as they expected from the wishes they made at the wall, but they learned more in the end about themselves and the world as a result.  I think this is a great addition to any classroom library.  

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Clone Codes, by The McKissacks

Title:  The Clone Codes
Author:  The McKissacks (Patricia, Fred, Pat)
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  2012
Pages:  192
Genre:  Science Fiction, Dystopian
Themes:  Freedom, Social Justice, Slavery
Age Range:  5th-8th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
In the year 2170 an underground abolitionist movement fights for the freedom of cyborgs and clones, who are treated no better than slaves

The Cyborg Wars are over and Earth has peacefully prospered for more than one hundred years. Yet sometimes history must repeat itself until humanity learns from its mistakes. In the year 2170, despite technological and political advances, cyborgs and clones are treated no better than slaves, and an underground abolitionist movement is fighting for freedom. Thirteen-year-old Leanna's entire life is thrown into chaos when The World Federation of Nations discovers her mom is part of the radical Liberty Bell Movement.

The Clone Codes is an interesting look at the concept of slavery in an updated setting.  We teach a lot about slavery and the Civil war in American schools, but I suspect that the farther we get from that event, and from the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, the less accessible the information about them becomes to the students of today.  We are no longer teaching about something that happened in their parents' active memory-we are becoming a generation removed from the marches and sit-ins and boycotts.  Using The Clone Codes in cooperation with a unit on slavery or the Civil Rights Movement could go a long way towards helping the "tween" set gain a clearer picture of the issues involved.

The book itself is well, if sparsely, written.  The McKissacks apparently took their writing teachers' lessons about clarity and brevity to heart.  But that makes it an easy read for readers as young as fifth grade, and maybe even skilled fourth grade readers could get something from the story.  There are a few things thrown in that would require some advance preparation or explanation-the Patriot Act, the workings of the Supreme Court-but nothing that can't be easily managed in a classroom setting.  And the book is part of a series, which means that their may be reluctant readers who get hooked by the book in class, and then go on to read the remainder of the story.  The second and third books in the series are already out, called The Clone Wars #2: Cyborg and The Clone Wars #3: Visitor respectively. I would say these are a good addition to a middle school classroom library, and while the main character is female I feel like the story itself would be just as appealing to younger male readers, even the reluctant ones.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Peeled, by Joan Bauer

Title:  Peeled
Author:  Joan Bauer
Publisher:  Putnam Juvenile
Year:  2008
Pages:  256
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Truth, Fear, Manipulation of the Press, Community, Loss
Age Range:  5th through 10th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads

Something's rotten in the heart of apple country!
Hildy Biddle dreams of being a journalist. A reporter for her high school newspaper, The Core, she's just waiting for a chance to prove herself. Not content to just cover school issues, Hildy's drawn to the town's big story--the haunted old Ludlow house. On the surface, Banesville, USA, seems like such a happy place, but lately, eerie happenings and ghostly sightings are making Hildy take a deeper look.
Her efforts to find out who is really haunting Banesville isn't making her popular, and she starts wondering if she's cut out to be a journalist after all. But she refuses to give up, because, hopefully, the truth will set a few ghosts free.

Writers like to write about writing-that is clear.  Bauer chose to write about journalism in this book, and she did an excellent job of showing what good journalism can be, even when done by high school students.  But what made this book more charming was the fact that it was essentially a cozy mystery for the tween set.  If you aren't familiar with cozy mysteries, they are mystery novels written around a specific industry or community.  There are cozy mysteries about farmers' markets, wine sellers, tea sellers, book sellers...they always remind me of  that old show Murder, She Wrote.  The setting for Peeled is apple growing country in upstate New York.  Much of the novel revolves around apple growing, apple orchards, selling apple products, etc...The mystery itself is pretty innocuous.  There is a death, but it was not a violent one.  What really drives the novel is the conflict between real journalism and sensational, tabloid style journalism.  While the book is an easy read, there is enough substance there that you could have a discussion about how people can use the media to manipulate public opinion.  Whether you choose to use it as a teaching tool or not, this is a good book to have in your classroom library.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo

Title:  The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
Author:  Kate DiCamillo
Publisher:  Candlewick Press
Year:  2006
Pages:  200
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Love, Friendship
Age Ranges:  3rd-5th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
"Someone will come for you, but first you must open your heart. . . ."

Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a china rabbit named Edward Tulane. The rabbit was very pleased with himself, and for good reason: he was owned by a girl named Abilene, who treated him with the utmost care and adored him completely. 

And then, one day, he was lost. 

Kate DiCamillo takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the depths of the ocean to the net of a fisherman, from the top of a garbage heap to the fireside of a hoboes' camp, from the bedside of an ailing child to the bustling streets of Memphis. And along the way, we are shown a true miracle — that even a heart of the most breakable kind can learn to love, to lose, and to love again

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is a little jewel of a book.  The setting, the language, and the art are all a throwback to an earlier time, a time of steamships and trains, a time when men rode the rails and children were hungry, a time when toys were made of china and fur and silk and metal, not out of plastic.  The book is completely charming, and quirky in the way that a lot of DiCamillo's work is.  The mood of the book reminds me quite a bit of The Magician's Elephant-there is a sense that something magical and amazing is working just under the surface of everything, from the mundane to the miraculous.  The message of the story, that you can learn to love despite having lost, is a rather mature lesson to learn, but one that is presented in such a way that students can easily understand.  And while we don't like to acknowledge it, many of our students have already dealt or are dealing with loss or a lack of love in their lives, and the book's hopeful message is one that all of us need reminding of when we lose someone we love.

Teacher Resources:

eNotes Lesson Plans
Candlewick Press Teacher's Guide

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Cabinet of Wonders, by Marie Rutkowski

Title:  The Cabinet of Wonders
Author:  Marie Rutkowski
Publisher:  Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
Year:  2008
Pages:  258
Genre:  Historical (?) Fiction, Fantasy
Themes:  Family, Freedom, Adventure, Magic
Age Range:  4th-6th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
Petra Kronos has a simple, happy life. But it’s never been ordinary. She has a pet tin spider named Astrophil who likes to hide in her snarled hair and give her advice. Her best friend can trap lightning inside a glass sphere. Petra also has a father in faraway Prague who is able to move metal with his mind. He has been commissioned by the prince of Bohemia to build the world’s finest astronomical clock.

Petra’s life is forever changed when, one day, her father returns home—blind. The prince has stolen his eyes, enchanted them, and now wears them. But why? Petra doesn’t know, but she knows this: she will go to Prague, sneak into Salamander Castle, and steal her father’s eyes back.

Joining forces with Neel, whose fingers extend into invisible ghosts that pick locks and pockets, Petra finds that many people in the castle are not what they seem, and that her father’s clock has powers capable of destroying their world.

I read this book fully expecting to really like it.  A blend of two of my favorite genres, historical fiction and fantasy, sounded like a recipe for enjoyment.  Unfortunately, I think that it needed a pinch more history.

Rutkowski is clear in the afterword that she took historical figures and events and completely changed them to suit the purposes of the novel.  She also says that she imagine some uptight history lovers sniffing their nose at her complete disregard for the historical record.  Well, I certainly don't think of myself as uptight, but  am going to turn up my nose slightly.  Some of the characters are based on actual people who lived during the 16th Century.  The geopolitical climate is similar to what was true at the time.  And the Roma, from which group two of the main characters derive, is certainly real.  But some of the history is changed not at all, some if changed a little, and some is completely fabricated.  Not in an "imagine if THIS one thing has gone differently" sort of way, but just kind of randomly to suit the story.

That said, most fourth or fifth grade readers of this book are not going to know any of the above, and Rutkowski does tell you in the afterword what was factual and what was made up.  But my real issue is that I don't think that she needed to base her story in the real world at all for it to work.  Basically it's the story of a young girl fighting the injustice of an evil king using magic-there is nothing inherently "real world" in the plot that would have required the use of actual people and actual places.  But, I imagine that younger readers, unlike me, will not really focus on that aspect of the book, and it is a good story.  The people who have magical powers have unusual ones-not just the ability to do spells or, say, levitate objects, but the ability to manipulate matter to make something at once mundane and magical.  Metal pets that grow and talk, marbles with water or lightning inside that multiples one-hundredfold when broken, a beautiful clock that can change the weather.  This is a land where skill is just as important as power, and that is a good message for anyone.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Deep and Dark and Dangerous, by Mary Downing Hahn

Title:  Deep and Dark and Dangerous
Author:  Mary Downing Hahn
Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Year:  2007
Pages:  192
Genre:  Supernatural Fantasy
Themes:  Secrets, Family, Ghost Story
Age Range:  4th through 6th Grade

Summary: (from Goodreads)
Just before summer begins, 13-year-old Ali finds an odd photograph in the attic. She knows the two children in it are her mother, Claire, and her aunt Dulcie. But who’s the third person, the one who’s been torn out of the picture?

Ali figures she’ll find out while she’s vacationing in Maine with Dulcie and her four-year-old daughter, Emma, in the house where Ali’s mother’s family used to spend summers. All hopes for relaxation are quashed shortly after their arrival, though, when the girls meet Sissy, a kid who’s mean and spiteful and a bad influence on Emma.

Strangest of all, Sissy keeps talking about a girl named Teresa who drowned under mysterious circumstances back when Claire and Dulcie were kids, and whose body was never found. At first Ali thinks Sissy’s just trying to scare her with a ghost story, but soon she discovers the real reason why Sissy is so angry. . . . 

Anyone who reads my adult book blog or visits my Goodreads profile will know that I love a good supernatural horror story.  The fact that I have read pretty much everything that Stephen King has ever written is a pretty big clue.  But my love of scary ghost stories started long before I was old enough to read Uncle Stevie...some of my favorite books as a middle grade child were The Figure in the Shadows and The House With the Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs.  Big spooky houses, mysterious noises, creepy characters-I loved being scared.  I can only imagine that Mary Downing Hahn felt similarly, since she has made quite a career of writing scary stories for young readers.

Deep and Dark and Dangerous was the perfect book for me to start my summer reading with.  The cottage that Ali and her aunt and cousin go to for the summer sounds like the perfect getaway-a cozy cottage with a light, airy studio; the cool lake surrounded by beautiful northern forests.  But Hahn quickly turns that idyllic setting into something creepy and menacing.  When Sissy shows up and starts harassing Ali and Emma it is clear that everything is not as it seems.  Soon every shadow, every noise, every bump in the night makes Ali and her family more and more unsettled.  

Despite the spooky atmosphere, the story stays just this side of being too creepy for the intended audience.  In fact, once the ghost is revealed, the story actually becomes more about doing what is right than about scaring the pants off of the reader.  In the end, the story is more about how mean children can be to each other, and how important it is to take responsibility for your mistakes.  This book would be a great addition to any classroom library.  I could even see it as part of a ghost stories theme unit.  But make sure that you read it with the lights on!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Divergent, by Veronica Roth

Title:  Divergent
Author:  Veronica Roth
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Year:  2011
Pages:  487
Genre:  Dystopian
Themes:  Identity, First Love, Coming of Age
Age Range:  7th Grade and Up

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can't have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself. 

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves… or it might destroy her.


This book was all over the place last year, and was voted the readers' favorite book on Goodreads in their Reader's Choice Awards.  It obviously has wide appeal to the same audience of YA readers that loved The Hunger Games, and they proved it by making it a huge bestseller.  I think that part of what took me so long to read it is that I am leery of know, like all of the vampire/werewolf/normal girl love stories that came out after Twilight hit it big.  But since everyone I know that's read it has raved about it, I made it the first book on my summer reading list.

And the praise they heap on it is well deserved.  It does not feel like nearly 500 pages, even as a young adult book.  The action is well-paced, and interspersed with enough of Tris's internal struggles to make it more than just an action book, but less than navel-gazing.   And what an interesting character Tris is.  While obviously the protagonist and a sympathetic character, I didn't always like her or approve of her choices.  I was turned off by the violence inherent in the Dauntless lifestyle, and how easily it sometimes was for her to use violence.  But I liked the book more for my ambivalence.  It made the story more thought-provoking.

Though really it didn't need much more than the basic premise to be more thought-provoking.  The idea of my city falling to pieces, the lake replaced by a giant dead marsh, with five different factions running the place gave me plenty to think about.  I think that this book would be an excellent choice for a teen book club.  I don't know that there is enough literary substance there to make it a teachable book for a whole class, but as a way to get reluctant teen readers to read and discuss what they are thinking it would be great.  What I think could produce the most discussion in a book club setting is the re-ordering of society.  I loved the fact that only the selfless could go into leadership and public service-makes what's happening in today's political culture seem small-minded.  And I imagine that a good discussion could also center around which faction the people in the group would choose.  I know what my answer is, and it is not Dauntless, that's for sure.  

Like most YA fiction, there is a love story.  What I appreciated about it was that it appeared to be an even partnership, with each person having power in the relationship and neither one having to change who they were to be together.  I also appreciated that it did not become the focus for the action of the story.  It was great that they fell in love, but it was not the main driver for why they did the things they did in trying to save their city.  It also did not completely conform to gender role stereotypes.  Tris, though diminutive in physical stature, was both strong and sometimes cold in her ability to do what needed to be done, which is often a masculine trait in media.  Tobias, while physically strong and skilled, was often shown as being emotionally vulnerable-a female trait, according to society.  

The ending was very up in the air, so don't expect a tidy conclusion.  But the second book in the series, Insurgent, came out May 1st, so if you are the kind of person who needs to know now, I suggest you buy both books together!