Thursday, January 31, 2013

Eight Keys, by Suzanne LaFleur

Title:  Eight Keys
Author:  Suzanne La Fleur
Publisher:  Wendy Lamb Books
Year:  2011
Pages:  224
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Loss, Family, Identity, Growing Up
Age Range:  4th-6th Grade

Elise has just started middle school, and so far things are not going well.  Her best friend Franklin suddenly seems babyish and embarrassing to be around,  she's being bullied by a girl at school, and her schoolwork is overwhelming.  Things are changing at home, too.  Elise has had her aunt and uncle all to herself since she was a small child, coming to live with them after her parents died.  Now her cousin Annie is coming to live with them, and bringing her infant daughter.  Elise tries to solve her problems on her own, but nothing she does seems to do anything but make things worse.  Then, right around her twelfth birthday, she finds the key.  Her father, who died of cancer before she was old enough to start school, left her eight keys, each one opening a mysterious door in her uncle's barn.  When Elise opens the first door, she discovers a room that is full of her mother, who died the day Elise was born-pictures, mementos, her favorite chair, and her childhood teddy bear.  Her father left a note in each room, and as she discovers the keys to the other doors, she learns more about her parents, the uncle who took her in, and finally herself.

This is a beautiful, thoughtfully written book.  LaFleur does an excellent job showing how Elise changes from a rather selfish, immature girl into a young woman who understands what it means to be a friend, and who learns to appreciate the people in her life in new ways.  The other characters are equally well-written:  Franklin, her best friend from early childhood, with his allergies and Star Wars figures; Amanda, the bully; Aunt Bessie and Uncle Hugh, who know just how to help Elise find her way; and Caroline, the new friend that shows Elise that sometimes things change for the better.  And while he may have passed away prior to the start of the book, her father is very much a character.  As a parent myself,  I was especially moved by the effort he took to ensure that his daughter would learn the important lessons she needed to be happy.

This would be a great book for discussing how characters change from the beginning of the story to the end. It would also be good for looking at character motivation-even the school bully becomes a more sympathetic character when you realize what motivates her to be so mean.  It is also an excellent vehicle for talking about what makes a family, or how we handle adversity.  Just a wonderful gem of a book!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Spaceheadz by John Scieszka

Title:  Spaceheadz
Author:  John Scieszka
Publisher:  Simon and Schuster for Young Readers
Year:  2010
Pages:  163
Genre:  Science Fiction
Themes:  Saving the World
Age Range:  3rd-5th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
Michael K. just started fifth grade at a new school. As if that wasn't hard enough, the kids he seems to have made friends with apparently aren't kids at all. They are aliens. Real aliens who have invaded our planet in the form of school children and a hamster. They have a mission to complete: to convince 3,140,001 kids to BE SPHDZ.
But with a hamster as their leader, "kids" who talk like walking advertisements, and Michael K as their first convert, will the SPHDZ be able to keep their cover and pull off their assignment?
I don't get this book.  It is silly and zany and a little ADHD.  An awful lot of the action seemed designed to allow Scieszka to tell as many puns and goofy jokes as possible.  That said, I can completely understand why kids, especially 10 year old boys, probably like it.  The whole book reads like a cartoon, complete with all of the silliness and mayhem you might expect from the likes of Spongebob or Phineas and Ferb.

To be sure, there is very little literary content in this book, making it pretty inappropriate for use during whole group instruction or guided reading.  However, as a high interest book to have in your library for independent reading, it is great.  It's a good choice to offer an intermediate reluctant reader, especially if they are interested aliens taking over the world.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Tiger Rising, by Kate DiCamillo

Title:  The Tiger Rising
Author:  Kate DiCamillo
Publisher:  Candlewick Press
Year:  2002
Pages:  128
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Dealing with Loss, Divorce, Friendship, Freedom
Age Range:  3rd through 5th Grade

Rob Horton is a twelve-year old boy living with his father in a run-down motel in Florida.  After his mother died, he and his father both withdrew into their own grief, which mostly consisted of pretending they didn't have any.  One day, while waiting for the school bus, Rob discovers something surprising in the woods behind the motel-an actual, real tiger in a cage, pacing back and forth.  And that's not the only thing surprising that happens that day-he also makes a friend.  Sistine Bailey is the new girl at school-even newer than Rob.  Her mother has moved them back to her hometown after she discovers Sistine's dad is having an affair, and unlike Rob, Sistine has no problem sharing her feelings-loudly and often.  She thinks they should let the tiger free, but Rob isn't sure.  Letting animals-or feelings-out of their cage can be dangerous!

As one might expect from Kate DiCamillo, this book is beautifully written, with eccentric characters and lots of emotion.  The setting (the south) and some of the characters (the slightly mystical, wise old black woman; the quiet, troubled man) are familiar to anyone who has read Because of Winn-Dixie.  For a short book, The Tiger Rising packs a pretty big emotional punch, dealing with issues of divorce, loss, and finding your way through grief.  Spoiler alert-the tiger does not meet a happy end.  But I think that the choices that Rob and Sistine and Rob's father make could be a good jumping off point for discussion.

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic Discussion Guide
Professional Development Institute Literature Guide
Bookrags Novel Study Guide