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.