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.
Teacher Resources:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Smiles to Go, by Jerry Spinelli

Title:  Smiles to Go
Author:  Jerry Spinelli
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Year:  2009
Pages:  272
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Friendship, First Love, Family
Age Range:  4th-7th Grade

Will Tuppence likes things orderly, planned out, and unchanging.  The high school freshman and future astronomer has lived most of his life with one comforting fact at its foundation-protons never die.  And because protons can never be destroyed, then regardless of what happens to him as his body changes and eventually dies, some part of him will continue to exist.  But then the unthinkable happens-on Sept. 26 at 10:15 AM he learns that scientists have finally recorded the tell-tale flash that signals the death of a proton.  Suddenly, everything that he thought he knew about the physical world is called into question.  And just as suddenly, his relationship with his best friends Mi-Su and BT, as well as his relationship with his little sister Tabby, begin to change as well.  Does Mi-Su like him like him?  Did he really catch her kissing BT?  Will BT ever make something of himself?  Will his little sister ever leave him alone?  As events spin out of Will's control, he is forced to come to terms with the fact that worrying about the eventual death of his protons is less important than worrying about his loved ones in the here and now.

Spinelli's books are always spot on when it comes to creating authentic adolescent characters, and Will Tuppence is no exception.  He's also pretty good at writing characters who are clueless about what is really important in life, and Will is certainly that.  Will's character reveals the contradiction that lies at the heart of most transitions, and especially the one from child to teen to adult; we want things to stay the same at the same time that we desperately want change.  Will was happy with his world just the way it was-except for his annoying little sister, of course.  He loved his friends, he enjoyed their Saturday night Monopoly routine, he frankly enjoyed feeling superior to his friend BT, who seemed like a soul doomed to wander lost with no real purpose in life.  But inevitably things started to change-he started having feelings for Mi-Su, and then started having jealousy towards BT when he caught the kissing under the stars.  He felt even more jealousy when BT skateboarded down Dead Man's Hill, the only person ever to do so.  And it seemed like no matter what he said or did, his little sister became more determined to torment him day and night.

When Tabby is seriously injured in an attempt to re-create BT's amazing ride down Dead Man's Hill, Will is forced to confront his own ideas about what it important.  To be perfectly honest, it forces him to stop thinking only of himself.  He spends most of the novel being pretty self-centered, thinking about everything that happens only as it relates to him.  It also forces him to accept the people he loves for who they are, instead of trying to force them into the mold he wants to make for them.

I am not in love with this book the way I was with Stargirl, but it is another solid performance from Spinelli, and would make a good addition to any classroom library.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Touch Blue, by Cynthia Lord

Title:  Touch Blue
Author:  Cynthia Lord
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  2010
Pages:  192
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Family, Hope, Happiness, Loss
Age Range:  3rd through 6th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads

The state of Maine plans to shut down her island’s schoolhouse, which would force Tess’s family to move to the mainland--and Tess to leave the only home she has ever known. Fortunately, the islanders have a plan too: increase the numbers of students by having several families take in foster children. So now Tess and her family are taking a chance on Aaron, a thirteen-year-old trumpet player who has been bounced from home to home. And Tess needs a plan of her own--and all the luck she can muster. Will Tess’s wish come true or will her luck run out?


I thought that Touch Blue was a completely charming book, though I will admit to being predisposed to like it from a setting point of view.  While I grew up in the Midwest and consider Chicago the greatest city on earth, my family is from Rhode Island, and I feel like at least part of my heart is with my aunts, uncles, and cousins in New England.  And, I have always thought it would be really amazing to live on an island that you had to get to by ferry.  I realize this is in direct contradiction to my love of the Dunkin' Donut's drive thru, but  I think the peace and beauty and easily accessible seafood might make up for it!

At first I was a little bit put off by the islanders basically using those foster kids to keep their school, but given some of the foster parents I've had experience with over the years I can say first hand there are worse reasons to go into foster parenting!  What sold me was how much the islanders wanted the children to feel welcomed, and how hard they worked to make them feel at home.  Of course, children who have been displaced as many times as these children have been are bound to be skittish and unsure-why make relationships or develop feelings for people you can be snatched away from at any moment?  Aaron's demeanor and reactions to his new situation felt very authentic to me.

Tess's superstitions about luck were amusing at first, but it quickly became clear that it was all an effort to control her own feelings of worry about change in her own future.  First, the change of a new child coming into her family, but also worry about whether her best friend who had moved away still liked her, worry about having to move off the island if the school closed, worry that Aaron's mom would take him back.  Her father said it best when he reminded her that she is more than where she comes from-she carries her own happiness inside of her, if she can just let go of some of her fear and recognize it.

This book introduces the concept of foster care in a fairly benign way.  So many stories of children in foster care are tragic and sad.  This story has it's emotional highs and lows, but it portrays those working in the foster care system as caring individuals who consider the needs and desires of the children the serve.  This is not always the case, and caseworkers are often portrayed as neglectful/clueless/mean/absent.  I think it would help upper-elementary-age kids who haven't had experience with foster care understand what it is supposed to be.  This book would be a good addition to a unit on family, since a lot of it deals with exactly what makes a family.  One of the central questions Tess's family had to face was how to make Aaron feel welcome and included in their family without dishonoring his own biological family.  There is a lot of good discussion fodder in this one.

Teacher Resources:
Grand Canyon Award Teacher's Guide Teacher's Guide

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Thing about Georgie, by Lisa Graff

Title:  The Thing About Georgie
Author:  Lisa Graff
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Year:  2007
Pages:  224
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Disabilities, Acceptance, Friendship, Family
Age Range:  3rd through 6th Grade

Everyone has a "thing"-something about them that other people see that defines a part of who they are.  Like the thing about me is that I love books, or that I am an opinionated liberal.  Well, the thing about Georgie is that he is a dwarf, and now that he is in fourth grade he is starting to realize what that means for his future.  He is never going to get much taller than the 42 inches he has already attained, which makes managing in school, with too-big furniture and more and more activities he can't participate in, that much more difficult.  His mother is pregnant, with a baby who is likely NOT going to be a dwarf, and Georgie feels like the new Godzilla baby will overshadow him.  His best friend Andy made friends with the new boy in their class, and Georgie is pretty sure he like him better.  And his is forced to be partners with Jeanie the Meanie for a class project.  How do you grow up when you aren't getting any taller?

I thought that this book was absolutely charming.  As far as I'm concerned, the thing about Georgie is that he was such a normal little boy, even if he is a dwarf,  This kind of story can quickly devolve into the children's book equivalent of a Lifetime Movie, with lots of sappy sentimentality and tear-jerker moments, but Graff does an excellent job showing that children with physical disabilities have the same feelings, and can act in the same obnoxious ways, as any other kids.  Georgie's feelings are informed by his condition, but they are not because of his condition, and in the end he finds he is not really defined by his condition, either.  Georgie's worries about his friendship and the fears he has about the new baby taking his place with his parents are fairly universal...whether a person has dwarfism or not.  I think that kids will really relate to Georgie, and this book is a great way to introduce disabilities in such a way that students understand that people with disabilities are people first, and should be treated as such.

Teacher Resources:
TeacherVision Reading Guide
Scholastic Book Wizard

Thursday, July 5, 2012

11 Birthdays, by Wendy Mass

Title:  11 Birthdays
Author:  Wendy Mass
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  2009
Pages:  267
Genre:  Fantasy, Magical Realism
Themes:  Friendship, Family, Forgiveness
Age Range:  3th-6th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
It's Amanda's 11th birthday and she is super excited -- after all, 11 is so different from 10. But from the start, everything goes wrong. The worst part of it all is that she and her best friend, Leo, with whom she's shared every birthday, are on the outs and this will be the first birthday they haven't shared together. When Amanda turns in for the night, glad to have her birthday behind her, she wakes up happy for a new day. Or is it? Her birthday seems to be repeating iself. What is going on?! And how can she fix it? Only time, friendship, and a little luck will tell. 

11 Birthdays is Groundhog Day for the upper elementary set.  Amanda is doomed to repeat her birthday until she figures out what good deed she must make or important action she must take to move on in her life.  This is my first time reading a book by Wendy Mass, and I was impressed with how real Amanda and Leo seemed.  Mass seems to really understand (remember?) what it is like to be 10 going on 11, when you're getting closer to being a teenager and you start worrying about what's cool, who's popular, and who likes who-you know, likes likes...

One of the things that I really like about this book is that it portrays a friendship between a boy and a girl that is deep and abiding, without any hint of romantic attachment.  Amanda doesn't suddenly realize how cute Leo is.  Leo doesn't start blushing fiercely whenever Amanda is around and mumbling.  The friendship feels balanced, with each half having equal power in the relationship.  As a fifth grade teacher, I've noticed how much earlier children are falling into the whole boy/girl (or boy/boy or girl/girl) thing, and I appreciate that Mass shows her readers that it is possible and rewarding to have friends of the opposite gender without romantic overtones.

Mass gives readers plenty to think about with this story.  What is the true nature of forgiveness?  How do you make amends for things that you have done?  How do you balance things you do for other people with things that you do for yourself?  Amanda and Leo struggle with all of these questions through the course of the novel, and I think that this title would be a good one to add to any reading program.

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic Book Talk
Kid's Wings Unit
Kids Book Club Activities