Saturday, December 6, 2014

When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop, by Laban Carrick Hill

Title:  When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop
Author:  Laban Carrick Hill
Publisher: Roaring Book Press
Year: 2013
Genre:  Non-Fiction, Historical
Themes:  African American History, Music, Hip Hop
Age Range: 2nd-5th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads

Before there was hip hop, there was DJ Kool Herc.
On a hot day at the end of summer in 1973 Cindy Campbell threw a back-to-school party at a park in the South Bronx. Her brother, Clive Campbell, spun the records. He had a new way of playing the music to make the breaks—the musical interludes between verses—longer for dancing. He called himself DJ Kool Herc and this is When the Beat Was Born. From his childhood in Jamaica to his youth in the Bronx, here's how Kool Herc came to be a DJ, how kids in gangs stopped fighting in order to breakdance, and how the music he invented went on to define a culture and transform the world.

One of the things that my fellow teachers and I lament about is the lack of quality books about people of color to use with our students.  While some children's publishers are making strides in offering more titles with protagonists of color, but there are still not nearly enough.  As someone who works with a student population that is majority African American, I often find myself spending hours online trying to find quality books that will allow my students to see themselves in the writing.

So imagine my delight at finding this picture book while I was preparing for a parent workshop in what's new in children's literature.  When the Beat was Born is the story of one of the founding fathers of hip-hop, Clive Campbell.  He brought a Jamaican style of dubbing music to his New York neighborhood, spinning records at parties and creating longer "breaks" in the music by using multiple turntables for dancers (also the origin of the term "break dancing").  The books shows how Clive, known as DJ Kool Herc, was connected to the other founders of hip-hop and rap through the New York music scene.

While this book is technically historical non-fiction, unlike many books about African American history it takes place after the civil rights era.  Considering the huge impact that hip-hop and rap have had on pop culture in our country, students should be able to understand and appreciate the story because they will have direct experience with the topic in a way they might not when reading about Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks.  Since it is a children's book, there is very little in the way of social critique of hip-hop and the some of the negative issues surrounding it, but as an introduction to modern musical history that is relevant to their lives and experiences, this book does the trick.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

El Deafo, Cece Bell

Title:  El Deafo
Author:  Cece Bell
Publisher:  Harry N. Abrams
Year:  2014
Pages: 233
Genre:  Memoir, Graphic Novel
Theme:  Disability, Perseverance, Friendship, Self-Esteem
Age Range:  4th-7th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads

Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece's class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends. 
Then Cece makes a startling discovery. With the Phonic Ear she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in school--in the the teacher's the bathroom! This is power. Maybe even superpower! Cece is on her way to becoming El Deafo, Listener for All. But the funny thing about being a superhero is that it's just another way of feeling different... and lonely. Can Cece channel her powers into finding the thing she wants most, a true friend?

Charming is the first word that comes to mind when I try to describe this graphic novel about a girl (rabbit?!?) with a hearing impairment.  Cece Bell tells her own story in this engaging memoir, which details her bout with meningitis as a toddler, her struggle to learn to lip read, her ambivalence with her hearing aids, and her eventual acceptance of herself exactly the way she is.

Bell grew up in the 1970s, and there are quite a few pop culture references that today's student readers may not get right away.  But I grew up during the same period as Bell, and I found myself fondly remembering times and places from my own childhood.  The setting also highlights the difference in treatment options for children with hearing impairments today, when technology has allowed doctors to return normal or almost normal hearing to many people who would not have been able to hear as well in the past.

What hasn't changed, as far as I can tell, though, is the way that the deaf and hard of hearing are perceived and treated by some in society.  Cece's experiences demonstrate the things that people do, with good intentions or bad, that make people with hearing impairments (or physical or cognitive disabilities) feel like the "other".  Cece was afraid to stand out, didn't want to be noticed for her hearing aids or her awkward speech. She pretended to understand things that she didn't really hear in an effort to "fit in".  She desperately wanted a friend who just treated her like the normal person she really is inside, but the various other children she met during her elementary school years never seemed to be able to totally forget the hearing impairment.  She was the "deaf" friend, the friend who sometimes made unfortunate, laughable mistakes because of her difficulty understanding speech,  and some of the girls who befriended her seemed to be motivated by their own desire to be noticed for their kindness to the "deaf" girl.

There are a few things in this book that might be problematic in a school setting.  It was the 70s, and people smoked in the 70s (including her teacher, which is mentioned one time in one panel).  There is also some bathroom humor involving Cece's ability to hear her teacher while peeing.  I didn't find anything really objectionable, but if you are a teacher, you know your population and what would be acceptable or not.  There are definitely plenty of opportunities for discussion with the themes in this book, and the fact that this is a memoir makes the message even more powerful.

Teacher Resources:
Cece Bell Talking About El Deafo
Cece Bell's Website
Abrams Teaching Guides

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Barbed Wire Baseball, Marissa Moss

Title:  Barbed Wire Baseball
Author: Marissa Moss
Publisher:  Harry N. Abrams
Year:  2013
Pages:  48
Genre:  Non-Fiction, Historical
Themes:  World War II, Japanese Internment, Sports, Perseverance
Age Range: 2nd-6th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
As a boy, Kenichi “Zeni” Zenimura dreams of playing professional baseball, but everyone tells him he is too small. Yet he grows up to be a successful player, playing with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig! When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, Zeni and his family are sent to one of ten internment camps where more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry are imprisoned without trials. Zeni brings the game of baseball to the camp, along with a sense of hope.

There are quite a few children's and young adult books out there that describe the experience of Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II.  Books like The Bracelet and  Farewell to Manzanar have become staples of English classes in schools that strive to teach the complete truth about America in regards to its treatment of immigrants generally, and the Japanese Americans specifically.  There is even another book about baseball and the internment camps, called Baseball Saved Us.  Moss' contribution, Barbed Wire Baseball, tells the true story of a famous Japanese American baseball player named Zenichi Zenimura, sent to internment camps in the desert along with tens of thousands of other Japanese.  The story begins when Zeni was a small boy who became determined to become a great baseball player.  Unlike many young boys with the same dream, Zeni actually had the talent to make it a possibility, and the perseverance to make it happen.

Rather than focusing on the day to day life in the camp,  Barbed Wire Baseball details the extraordinary optimism, hard work, and ingenuity displayed by Zeni and the other prisoners at his camp.  Determined to play baseball, no matter the challenges, Zeni has a vision, a dream of a "real" baseball field in the middle of the stony desert.  He plants grass, chalks lines, steals wood to make bleachers for fans, and takes up a collection to buy equipment and uniforms for the players.  Zeni's quest proves the strength of the human spirit when faced with adversity, while highlighting the inherent injustices in this painful period of American history.

The illustrations pair beautifully with the story, done in a quasi-traditional Japanese style, but with American images included.  This picture book would make a good read aloud as a stand alone title, but would be a marvelous addition to a unit about World War II.

Teacher Resources:
Abrams Discussion Guide
Marissa Moss' Website

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wild Things, Clay Carmichael

Title:  Wild Things
Author:  Clay Carmichael
Publisher:  Front Street
Year:  2009
Pages:  241
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Love, Courage, Family, Mental Illness, Grief
Age Range:  5th-8th Grade

Zoe learned to take care of herself at a very young age.  Her father left before she was born, and her mentally ill mother went through a series of boyfriends over the years.  Their treatment of Zoe went from benign neglect to outright hostility, causing Zoe to realize early in life that it's best to rely on no one but yourself.  When her mother takes her own life, Zoe is send to live with her father's brother, her uncle Dr. Henry Royston.  Formerly a surgeon, Henry now lives in the middle of nowhere, creating stormy, muscular sculptures and volunteering at the local clinic.  Henry and Zoe find that they have many things in common: grief, a mercurial personality, and walls they've constructed to keep the rest of the world at bay.  But when Zoe sees a miraculous white deer in the woods, and meets the young feral boy that takes care of her, she is thrown into a local secret that forces her to let her guard down and take a chance on asking for the help that she never thought she's need.

I adored this book!  From the very beginning, Zoe was a character that I could sink my teeth into. Fiery, temperamental, wise and naive at the same time, she is an excellent example of quality character development.  In fact, all of the characters are well-written and interesting, with qualities that will endear them to any reader.  One of the most interesting character in the book is a feral cat, which Zoe names C'Mere, who represents the wild spirit that both Zoe and her uncle Henry possess. The cat is slowly tamed by Zoe, and that experience directly mirrors how Zoe and her uncle tame each other through patient care and attention.

There are many references to Zoe's past, including some of the men that were a part of her mother's life, for whatever brief period of time they were able to stay.  It would have been easy for Carmichael to turn these characters into your typical stereotype of the nefarious "stepfather", but his treatment of them is actually much more nuanced.  Zoe's irresponsible, mentally ill mother is also treated with some compassion in the story, despite the damage that her condition and lack of adequate treatment did to Zoe.  I found myself feeling sympathy for all of them, a feeling that was only intensified from knowing of children in similar situations.

There are many, many things to talk about with this book, including use of the cat as a metaphor for Zoe, suicide and mental illness, what it means to be vulnerable and open to love, and standing up for what you believe in. The story is told in the first person, with short interludes where the cat is the narrator, making the narrative structure something interesting.  And, as stated at the beginning, this book would make a great study of author's craft in regards to characterization.

Teacher Resources: 
Rebecca Caudill Book Guide
California Young Readers Award Guide
Clay Carmichael's Website

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Breaking Stalin's Nose, by Eugene Yelchin

Title:  Breaking Stalin's Nose
Author and Illustrator:  Eugene Yelchin
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Year: 2011
Pages: 160
Genre:  Historical Fiction/Memoir
Theme:  Conformity, Right vs. Wrong, Freedom
Age Range: 3rd-5th Grade

Ten year old Sasha is the son of an intelligence officer in the Soviet Union.  He strives in all things to be a good communist so that he can join the Young Pioneers and make his father proud.  On the night before he is to join the Pioneers, his father is taken away by the Soviet secret police.  Convinced that there has been a mistake, Sasha goes to school the next day, sure that Stalin himself will hear of his father's arrest and release him.  But when he gets to school, it becomes clear that Sasha, who has always been the star pupil, is now blacklisted along with the children of other "traitors" to communism.  How can he become a Young Pioneer now?

This semi-autobiographical account of Yelchin's childhood in Soviet Russia brings to light for elementary age students a time period that they probably know little about.  As a child of the 70s and 80s, I was very aware that the Soviet Union was the "boogeyman under the bed" the enemy that the brave and free United States had to fight in order to save the world from their tyranny.  Children growing up today have a very different context-now it is the Islamic terrorist who is the nightmare in the closet, ready to jump out at us freedom-loving Americans whenever they can.  While the political landscape has changed, both the Soviet era and our present situation have one thing in common-fear of an "other" who wants to destroy our very way of life.

The book-longer than a short story, shorter than a novel-is fast paced, taking place over a day and a half in the life of Sasha and his classmates.  Yelchin describes the crowded living conditions, and the constant state of fear and paranoia that the Russian citizens lived in.  Jealousy over their larger rooms in the communal apartment leads one resident to turn-in Sasha's father for being a capitalist sympathizer.  Sasha's school resembles a brainwashing camp more than a place to learn reading, writing, and 'rithmetic.  The fear, jealousy, and paranoia have bled down to the children, who are quick to turn on each other whenever a student is chastised by the teacher, who is a caricature of a rabidly conforming communist.

Children will need to be given some background knowledge to completely understand the book, as there is very little exposition given for what the Soviet Union was, or for its role in global politics and the Cold War.  But regardless of the historical knowledge that students may be lacking, the feeling of being betrayed, of fearing for a parent's safety, and the inherent unfairness of Sasha's situation is palpable.  I think this book provides teachers a rich way to introduce concepts of conformity and freedom to elementary school students.

Teacher Resources:
Bookrags Summary and Study Guide
Breaking Stalin's Nose Discussion Guide
Kids' Wings Activities for Breaking Stalin's Nose

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Miss Brooks' Story Nook, by Barbara Bottner

Title:  Miss Brooks' Story Nook
Author:  Barbara Bottner
Illustrator: Michael Emberley
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Year: 2014
Pages: 40
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: Reading, Imagination, Bullying
Age Range: Kindergarten through 3rd Grade

Summary: from Goodreads

Missy loves her librarian, Miss Brooks. And she loves to go to Miss Brooks’ before-school story time. But to get to Story Nook, she has to pass Billy Toomey’s house—and she does not love Billy Toomey.  Billy always tries to steal her hat and jeers, “I’m going to get you!” It’s vexing. Then one rainy (and hatless) day, Miss Brooks changes story hour to storytelling hour. She teaches the kids about characters and plot and action and satisfying conclusions and encourages them to make up their own tales. 
And that’s when Missy has a brainstorm. She sees a way to use her made-up story to deal with her real-life bully. 

Barbara Bottner is the author of some really high-quality books for primary grade readers, including Bootsie Barker Bites and Marsha Makes Me Sick.  She has a knack for writing fully rounded characters, mostly little girls, who are not just sugar and spice and everything nice.  Girls who have their flaws, but who learn and grow throughout Ms. Bottner's imaginative stories.

I found this book at a small bookstore in Lelan, Michigan, and was immediately enamored.  I think that part of the reason that I  love this charming picture book is because I was Missy when I was a child.  I loved stories, books, and teachers with a passion that bordered on reverence.  I was also the kid that was likely to get picked on in my rough-and-tumble blue collar neighborhood.  Of course, I am also Miss Brooks.  I see one of the major goals of my role as literacy coach at an elementary school as fostering a love of stories, both reading and writing them, in the students at my school.

The story of Missy and her annoying neighbor Billy is one that should resonate with lots of children. I appreciate that Missy finds a way to solve her Billy problem using her imagination to come up with a story that definitely makes him think twice about giving her a hard time again!  I think that we do a disservice to children when we don't acknowledge the agency they have over their relationships with peers.  While adults must obviously get involved when there is real physical danger to children or repeated patterns of abuse, we must also teach children how to navigate their own conflicts in a way that is assertive but not aggressive.

What makes this a good book for use in the classroom aside from the massage about bullying is the way that it guides young readers through the creative process behind story writing.  Miss Brooks continually asks Missy questions to guide her storytelling, and offers her suggestions about what readers want in a story, such as a satisfying ending.  Without getting too technical about the writing process, Missy learns that all it takes for a good story is an idea and her imagination.  The story also gives teachers a chance to teach their students the importance of writing for an audience.  Not every child in Missy's class appreciates the scarier parts of her story, but all along the way there is an acknowledgement that authors tell/write stories for readers to read-they are not squiggles on a page disconnected from context.  It is the interaction of the written word and the reader's interpretation where the magic happens!

Apparently this is actually the second book about Miss Brooks.  The first is Miss Brooks Loves Books (and I Don't), and I suspect, though I haven't seen a copy of the first book, that they would work as a pair to introduce both reading for pleasure and writing.

Teacher Resources
Barbara Bottner's Website
Miss Brooks' Story Nook Book Trailer

Sunday, September 7, 2014

One Came Home, by Amy Timberlake

Title:  One Came Home
Author: Amy Timberlake
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Year: 2013
Pages: 272
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Themes:  Loyalty, Bravery
Age Range: 4th-8th Grade

Summary: from Goodreads
In the town of Placid, Wisconsin, in 1871, Georgie Burkhardt is known for two things: her uncanny aim with a rifle and her habit of speaking her mind plainly.
But when Georgie blurts out something she shouldn't, her older sister Agatha flees, running off with a pack of "pigeoners" trailing the passenger pigeon migration. And when the sheriff returns to town with an unidentifiable body—wearing Agatha's blue-green ball gown—everyone assumes the worst. Except Georgie. Refusing to believe the facts that are laid down (and coffined) before her, Georgie sets out on a journey to find her sister. She will track every last clue and shred of evidence to bring Agatha home. Yet even with resolute determination and her trusty Springfield single-shot, Georgie is not prepared for what she faces on the western frontier.


This is an odd little book.  I enjoyed it, both as a mystery story, and as the story of a strong young woman, but the subject matter seems a little mature for the intended audience.  While there is very little in the nature of graphic descriptions or violence, the fact is that the major impetus for most of the plot is the discovery of a decomposing body.  I think there are definitely readers in the targeted age range that are mature enough not to be put off or frightened by that, but the fact of it makes it a little more problematic for use as a while group or guided reading novel  Of course, a case could be made that there are many video games or movies that kids this age are exposed to that are more casually graphic about violence, but I'd probably stay away from it as required reading at the bottom of the range.

That said, there are many things that are really good about the book.  It was listed on many lists of he best children's fiction in 2013.  Georgie is a strong, sassy female characters, which I am always happy to see in books for kids.  Her loyalty to her sister known no bounds, and she is brave, even if impulsively so.  The historical context of the novel provides an interesting look at both passenger pigeons, which were hunted to extinction, and the small towns that were affected by their yearly migrations.  The mystery itself is pretty engaging, and there are elements of danger that make the story pretty exciting.  Overall, I think this is a good book to have as part of a classroom library.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Danger Box, by Blue Balliett

Title:  The Danger Box
Author: Blue Balliett
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Year:  2010
Pages: 320
Genre:  Realistic Fiction, Mystery
Themes:  Friendship, Family, Science
Age Range: 4th-7th Grade

 Zoomy, now twelve, was found on the doorsteps of his grandparents as an infant, with a note explaining that he is their run-away 19 year old's son.  The immediately take him in and raise him as their own, no questions asked.  Zoomy's childhood in bucolic Three Oaks, Michigan is not free from problems however.  Zoomy has pathological myopia, rendering him legally if not completely blind.  He also has symptoms reminiscent of Tourette's Sydrom or Autism Spectrum Disorder, including an obsession with tiny plant and insects and a penchant for list-making.  These conditions make it difficult for Zoomy to make a friend, but he finally finds one in Lorol, a girl his age who's mother is working at a local summer camp.  His life has never been better, but it is all threatened when his father reappears in town, bringing a mysterious box with him.  Concerned that the box may be part of a crime, Zoomy's grandparents open it to discover an old notebook.  Antique store owners that they are, they take the box, but give Zoomy the old notebook.  What Zoomy reads in the notebook leads him to an amazing discovery, and also brings danger to his small home town.

Balliett takes on a completely different vibe with this novel.  Her fourth mystery for the 9-12 year old set, The Danger Box is not set in the usual urban landscape of Hyde Park in Chicago, but in the lovely rural countryside of southwestern Michigan, just an couple of hours outside the city.  I can attest to the loveliness of the scenery there-I recently drove right past the exit for Three Oaks on my way back from a visit to Traverse City, Michigan.

What is the same, of course, is Balliett's high quality storytelling.  Balliett takes a real life mystery-on of Charles Darwin's missing notebooks-and uses it as the back story for her fictional story.  In the process of discovering whether the notebook was authentic, Zoomy and Lorol provide the reader with tons of interesting information about Darwin's life and work, making this novel a perfect tie in to a life sciences unit of study.  In the process, Zoomy's fears about his father coming back into his life, and his observations about the different way in which he sees the world, provide good fodder for discussions about family structures, what makes a family, and how people perceive the world differently.  And as always, Balliett's writing style shows an ease and flow that are a study in author's craft.  I highly recommend this book as an addition to any reading program, whether it be independent reading, guided reading, literature circles, whatever!

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic Discussion Guide
Blue Balliett's Website

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Hollow Earth, John and Carol E. Barrowman

Title: Hollow Earth
Author:  John and Carol E. Barrowman
Publisher: Aladin
Year: 2012
Pages: 416
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Family, Good vs. Evil, Imagination
Age Range: 4th-8th Grade

Matt and Emily Calder are twins with a special connection.  When they draw together, the things they imagine can come to life.  When a secret society called Hollow Earth wants to use them to access the nightmare world of demons they believe exists in a realm under the earth, they are forced to flee their home in London and go to their grandfather's estate on a remote island off the coast of Scotland.  There they learn more about their powers, and their father, who disappeared when the twins were small.  But the Hollow Earth Society doesn't give up that easily, and it will take all of their new found skills to stay one step ahead of the people who are trying to take advantage of them.

Full discolsure: I am seriously predisposed to love this book because Captain Jack Harkness is one of the authors.  As a serious Doctor Who/Torchwood geek, the man can almost do no wrong.  So I am happy to report that my love of this story is not JUST because John Barrowman wrote it.  I liked it because it is an interesting concept, something that I have never read before in all of the fantasy books I have read over the years.

(In fairness to myself, I really wanted to love Chris Colfer's books as well, given my love of all things Glee, but I didn't, and I gave it an honest review.)

This book has some great elements of traditional fantasy in a contemporary setting, which I love.  I also appreciate the historical context that the Barrowmans (brother and sister) create for the Animare, with a middle ages tie in that helps ground the story in that period of time when people were most likely to believe in magic.  Not only are the children really well written characters, but the adults in the story are also pretty well developed and made the story feel a little more mature, though still appropriate for the age range.  The setting is cool-there's something about islands that I love.  This book is the first in a series, and I am so looking forward to reading the next book.

While the story is really exciting and engaging, there isn't really a ton of discussion-worthy themes in the story, so I don't think I would use it as a literature circle choice or for guided reading, but I think it is a very good choice to have in an independent reading program or as part of a classroom library.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, by Kirsten Cronn-Mills

Title: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children
Author: Kirsten Cronn-Mills
Publisher: Flux
Year: 2012
Pages: 262
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  LGBT, Identity, Acceptance
Age Range: 8th Grade and Up

Gabe loves music, being on the radio, and his best friend, Paige.  Gabe also, until recently, was a girl named Elizabeth.  At least, Gabe was born biologically female, and his parents raised him in the female gender.  As far as Gabe is concerned, he has always been a boy.  But his decision to start living his day to day life that way is new, and it is throwing his family for a loop.  The only people who seem to truly accept the new/old him is his best friend Paige, and his elderly neighbor John, himself a radio devotee.  Gabe gets his own late-night radio show on the local channel, which he calls Beautiful Music for Ugly Children.  Radio allows him to be fully himself in a way he can't be at school or at home.  But things get complicated when one of his fans discovers his secret, and Gabe is forced to confront the very real danger that trans* folks face from people who refuse to accept their identity.

I loved this book, in large part because I know a few young adults who could have been Gabe.  As a part of the queer community myself, and someone who works with teenagers on a regular basis, the prejudice, discrimination, and violence that trans* folks deal with is something that I am more familiar with than I would like.  I think that it speaks to Cronn-Mill's ability to write a fully-realized character that I was so readily able to identify with Gabe, if not through my own identity, then through the sharing of trans* youth I have worked with over the years.

Not that I have anything against issue driven stories, but ultimately this book is not "just" a book about being trans*.  The reader gains some insight into the experience of trans* folks, but Cronn-Mills does an excellent job showing just how universal the issues that Gabe deals with are in adolescence, even if Gabe has a harder row to hoe than most.  The teenage years are all about separating from parents, creating identity, and navigating increasingly sophisticated social structures.  Many youth struggle to find balance and meaning between the person they have always been, and the person they would like to become.  Gabe's transition from being Elizabeth is a more dramatic example of something that all of us go through.  Instead of diluting the issues surrounding being trans*, though, this universality may help the reader create connections with characters that are otherwise seemingly very different, which can only help create empathy for people in Gabe's position, and for anyone who is identified as "other"

I think that this book would be a great addition to any classroom library at the secondary level.  I also could see it being taught in a human sexuality class, or as part of a course on social justice topics.  Beautiful Music for Ugly Children won the Stonewall Award from the American Library Association, given to books for young adults that show excellence in portraying LGBT themes, an award that in this case is well-deserved.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos

Title: Dead End in Norvelt
Author: Jack Gantos
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Year: 2011
Pages: 341
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Themes:  Mid-20th Century America, Mystery
Age Range:  4th-8th Grade

In the Newbery Award-winning Dead End in Norvelt, Jack Gantos (the fictional one, not the real-life one) has his whole summer vacation stretching before him like the blue Pennsylvania sky-at least, until he finds himself in the middle of his parents' feuding and ends up grounded.  He fears that he will see no more of Norvelt, the small town where he lives, than the walls of his own bedroom, but he is given an unexpected reprieve when his mother starts loaning him out to the old woman down the road for chores.  His most important-typing up the obituaries for the town paper now that she has become too arthritic to do it herself.  His new job teaches him about the history of his town, designed as a modern day Utopia by Eleanor Roosevelt herself for soldiers returning from World War II, and the very flawed people who inhabit it.  When the old-timers start dropping dead, Jack senses a mystery to be solved. Despite his parents' fighting, his near constantly bleeding nose, and a few Hell's Angels, Jack helps uncover the disturbing truth about the deaths.

Jack Gantos decided to name his main character after himself, and apparently he has merged facts about his own childhood with a completely wild made-up tale about murder and mayhem in a small town.  Despite the 50 years between Jack's childhood and today, I think that he is a character that lots of kids, especially boys, could relate to.  He's mischievous but not mean, with a self-deprecating voice that rings true.  The fact of his ever-present nosebleeds and overprotective mother are things that would speak to any child who has ever been embarrassed by something over which they have very little control.  Jack sneaks out of his house, plays with his dad's war mementos, and lies to his parents when he thinks they need to be lied to.  He loves to play baseball, wants to learn to fly his father's plane, and uses binoculars to watch the drive in movies from his own yard.  In short, he feels very much like an average kid who happens to get drawn into extraordinary circumstances.

Miss Volker, Jack's "employer", is a feisty old woman, bent on preserving the town and its history, dedicated to making sure that Mrs. Roosevelt's dream of a peaceful, fair world becomes a reality.  She uses the obituaries she writes (which are honest to a fault, reputations be damned) to remind residents of Norvelt of the importance of their town, and about the values of fairness, equity, and tolerance that it was build on.  She also writes the "on this day in history" column for the paper, and she is very careful to choose events that support the very ideals that Norvelt stands for.  There are other examples of children and oldsters forming close relationships in children's literature (Opal and Miss Franny Block from Because of Winn Dixie come to mind), but while Miss Volker fulfills the role of mentor and guide to young Jack, she does so with a great deal more piss and vinegar than the average fictional 80 year old.  Through her, Gantos (the author, not the character) shows the importance of knowing your history, for those that don't are doomed to repeat it.

The subject matter, while not graphic, does include murder and arson.  Not to mention the Hell's Angels.  I actually think that this book would make a great read aloud, because the language has a lovely flow, but if you don't think that your kids can handle hearing the word "hell" spoken aloud by their teacher, then I'd avoid it.  I definitely this that it belongs in any classroom library for upper elementary or middle school, and I'd use it in guided reading, or even as part of a social studies unit.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Rules of Survival, Nancy Werlin

Title:  The Rules of Survival
Author: Nancy Werlin
Publisher: Dial
Year: 2006
Pages: 272
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Overcoming Obstacles, Family, Child Abuse
Age Range:  7th Grade and Up

Matt and his sisters are used to living with their physically and emotionally abusive mother.  They spend their days constantly on the alert for their mother's moods, trying to gauge how whether they are in for a peaceful or tumultuous day.  One sweltering night, after their mother has locked them in the house while she goes on a date, Matt and his middle sister sneak out to get a Popsicle.  While at the convenience store, Matt witnesses a man stand up to a father who is physically bullying his son, and he creates a fantasy where the man rescues him and his sisters from their miserable life.  Imagine Matt's surprise when the man ends up actually dating his mother.  However, when the inevitable break-up happens, Matt holds on to hope that the man, named Murdoch, will still be the hero he hopes for.  As his mother's obsessive behavior towards Murdoch escalates, will Matt be able to protect his sisters from the toxic tornado that she creates?

This book totally sucked me in!  Written as a long letter from Matt to his youngest sister, explaining things that she may have been too young to understand, the book is at times heartwrenching, heartbreaking, and heart stopping.  Matt and his sisters live in a state of constant fear, with the kind of hyper-alertness that is common among the abused, similar to what soldiers and people living in war-torn countries experience.  It is not always easy to read.  Matt's honest portrayal of the abuse that they suffer at the hands of the person who is supposed to care for them is sometimes raw, and sometimes disturbing in its dispassion.  Werlin does a great job of showing, through Matt, how noramlized the emotional and physical abuse becomes when that is all that you know.

There are lots of triggers in this book for youth who may have experienced similar experiences, but there are also many things to discuss, both in the writing style and the themes presented in the story.  I don't think that the subject matter should be avoided, but if you want to use it in a school setting it should be read with adult supervision and discussion.  If it is part of a classroom library, there may be kids who seek it out as a cathartic experience, but I'd keep an eye on who was reading it and how they respond to it.  I firmly believe that kids self-select the books that they are ready for, and put down or ignore the ones they aren't, and this novel certainly has an emotional impact that will engage readers in a very visceral way.

Teacher Resources:
Rhode Island Teen Book Awards Discussion Guide
Discussion Guide from Nancy Werlin

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Game, by Barry Lyga

Title:  Game
Author: Barry Lyga
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Year: 2013
Pages: 520
Genre:  Thriller
Themes:  Serial Killers, Family, Identity
Age Range: 10th Grade and Up

Game is the second book in a series about a boy named Jasper Dent.  In the first book, I Hunt Killers, we discover that Jasper's father, Billy Dent, is a notorious serial killer.  Jasper lives in the small town where he grew up with his horrible, racist grandmother, who is suffering from dementia.  In the first book, a copycat killer draws Jasper out, and he makes it his life's mission to capture serial killers, all the while questioning whether his unusual (read: crazy) upbringing by his murderous father made him a sociopath.  In the second book, Jasper's hunt for killers continues when he is approached by a New York City detective trying to catch a serial killer called Hat-Dog, because of the distinctive marks he leaves on his victims.  Jasper agrees to help the detective in an effort to prove that he is not capable of the horrendous acts his father trained him for.  In the process, he discovers that his father, who escaped from prison at the end of the first book, may be involved.

As an avid reader of thrillers, I am very much enjoying this series.  The premise is unique-in all of the thrillers that I have read over the years, I have never come across one where the main character is the child of a serial killer, nor one where the main character is a teenager.  That said, I must admit to being baffled as to why this book is published as a YA novel at all.  Lyga does not pull any punches when it comes to describing the terrible acts committed by his villains.  Jasper's character is undergoing one of the most unusual coming-of-age narratives ever described in fiction, but I don't really think that is enough to justify marketing this as a book for young adults.

Not to say that mature readers in their teens won't enjoy this series, especially if they are as fascinated by serial killers and their capacity to do violence as many adult readers.  But this book being placed in the YA category means it will be marketed to tweens and teens alike, and I'm just not sure that it fits in that category. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am not squeamish about violence in books for younger readers, nor do I generally shy away from books with controversial topics that some other adults may think are inappropriate for readers of a certain age. My general feeling is that kids and teens will self-select when it comes to reading.  If something they pick up is more mature than they are ready for, usually they either don't understand it or put it down as uninteresting to them.  But I think that this book really belongs with the other thrillers in the regular fiction section of the store.  Adult readers of thrillers will certainly enjoy it, and mature teenage readers who are transitioning to that section will find it, but younger readers aren't as likely to come across it.

The story itself is fast-paced, and Lyga spends more time developing the characters of Jasper's girlfriend and best friend, both of whom play major roles in the plot line.  Like many middle books in a series, it opens up more questions than it answers, though there is a resolution to the Hat-Dog business.  The ending is very much a cliff-hanger, and since the third book in the series doesn't come out until this fall, if you are an impatient reader you may want to wait to start the whole series.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Fortunately the Milk, by Neil Gaiman

Title:  Fortunately the Milk
Author:  Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Harper Collins
Year:  2013
Pages: 114
Genre:  Fantasy/Science Fiction
Themes:  Time Travel, Imagination
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

One day, when Mother has left Father in charge of the children, there is no milk for the cereal.  Father goes off to the market to purchase some, and comes back some hours later with the most fantastical tale of time travel.  Fortunately, the milk helped him get out of some pretty serious scrapes.  He was kidnapped by aliens, forced to walk the plank by pirates, and rescued by a stegosaurus in a hot air balloon.  The children aren't sure what to make of this story-was their dad really abducted by aliens, or is this convoluted story made up just to excuse their father's tardiness?

Followers of this blog, and my adult book blog Book Addict Reviews, will know that I have a bit of hero worship going on when it comes to Neil Gaiman.  He is one of those people that makes me wish that science had the ability to transport us into another person's mind to live for a day, just to see what makes them tick. Of course, that's what writers use words for, to present their unique perspective and voice, and Gaiman gives us a pretty clear view into his imagination with Fortunately, the Milk.

According to Publisher's Weekly, Gaiman wrote this book as a counterpoint to the father in the book The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish (my review here), in which the father is basically a passive lump to whom things happen, rather than an active participant in the story.  Gaiman wanted to write a story in which the father did the sort of heroic things that fathers wish they could do, with a healthy does of humor thrown in.  The book is quite short, especially when you factor in the illustrations on each page, but Gaiman fits in lots and lots of action.  It is essentially non-stop, with aliens and dinosaurs and pirates and all manner of silliness.  In fact, that silliness highlights one of the things that I love about Gaiman's writing.  How is it possible that the same man who wrote the very dark story Ocean and the End of the Lane could be the man who wrote Fortunately, the Milk?  Because he is mad versatile, that's how!

I would definitely say this book would make an excellent addition to any classroom library, and it could also be used as a read aloud or for guided reading.  There is not a ton of character development, but it is science fiction that does NOT include a superhero, which can be hard to find for this age range.  The time travel creates a narrative structure that is linear, sort of, but could lead to interesting discussions with students about time and the way we perceive it.  And as a mentor text for writing it could work great-students could choose an errand or chore they were supposed to do, and come up with a fantastical story for how or why it did or did not get accomplished.

Teacher Resources
Harper Collins Discussion Guide
Brightbulb STEM Activities for Fortunately, the Milk

Monday, June 2, 2014

Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda, by Margaret Atwood

Title:  Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda
Author:  Margaret Atwood
Illustrator: Dusan Petricic
Publisher:  Bloomsbury Publishing
Year: 2007
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Alliteration, Friendship, Family
Age Range:  2nd through 5th Grade

Bob was abandoned by his mother and raised by a pack of dogs. Dorinda is an orphan being taken care of (in Cinderella like fashion) by distant relatives.  Bob is bashful, Dorinda is sad and lonely.  When Donrinda decides to run away, she encounters Bob living in the bushes on a vacant block with his canine companions.  Dorinda and Bob become fast friends, with Dorinda teaching Bob how to talk and behave in public.  When a rampaging buffalo threatens the town, Dorinda and Bob's quick thinking make them celebrities.  When Dorinda's long lost parents show up, and Bob's mother has a change of heart, they each get the one thing they were lacking-a home to call their own, with people who love them.

You may know Margaret Atwood from her many novels for adults.  She is a master of speculative fiction, demonstrated most notably in her books The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake.  She has written many feminist novels, and several volumes of poetry.  I've admired her work for a long time, and like many consider her one of the most important literary voices of the 20th and 21st centuries.  So imagine my delight to find that she has written books for children!  Atwood brings all of her prodigious alacrity with language to this charming story about a bashful boy and doleful girl.

The story reads in style very much like something written by Roald Dahl, taking on rather morose subjects with a sense of whimsy and sly humor.  But what truly makes this book unique, and perfect for classroom use, if that it is written in alliteration.  The first couple of lines gives you a sense of what's to come,

 "When Bob was a baby, he was abandoned in a basket, beside a beauty parlor.  His bubbleheaded mom, a brunette, had become a blonde in the beauty parlor, and was so blinded by her burnished brilliance that baby Bob was blotted from her brain."

The entire book reads this way, with B themed sentences for Bob and D themed sentences for Dorinda.  Despite this device, the story is not at all simplistic.  As you can see from the above sample, the vocabulary is very high level, and most of the sentences flow perfectly well, despite the challenges of finding alliterative phrases that express exactly what Atwood wants to say.  Teachers in my school have used this book, and another of Atwood's that I will review later, to teach alliteration, and to discuss how to find word meanings from context clues.

Speaking of context, the illustrations by Dusan Petricic  go perfectly with the text, and provide students with some clues as to the meaning of the often long, convoluted sentences Atwood wrote.  This is not a text I would hand students to read on their own unless they were pretty mature readers, but as a read aloud this book has lots to offer.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Dark, by Lemony Snicket

Title:  The Dark
Author:  Lemony Snicket
Illustrator:  John Klassen
Publisher:  Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Year: 2013
Pages: 40
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Overcoming Fears
Age Range: 1st through 5th Grade

Laszlo is afraid of the dark, but the dark is not afraid of Laslo. Most of the time the dark lives in the basement, except at night when the dark spread and covers the land.  The night that Laszlo's nightlight burns out, the dark invites Laszlo down into its lair to find what he needs, and in the process shows Laszlo that the dark doesn't have to be scary.

Being afraid of the dark is a pretty common childhood fear.  Most of us get over it with some degree of success, but who among us hasn't caught a faint reflection of ourselves in a mirror in a dark room and squealed in fright?  Well, Snicket and Klassen take this fear and use it for this charming story about Laslo and the dark.  Laszlo is not a wimpy crybaby of a kid, but he does have a healthy fear of and respect for the dark.  Every morning when it is safely back in the basement he stands at the top of the stairs and says hello to the dark, and he figures that maybe if he visits the dark every day, the dark will stay out of his room at night.  That works wonderfully-until that pesky nightlight burns out.  The story is engaging for young audiences, who may be struggling with their own fear of the dark, and the illustrations make great use of light and complete blackness to demonstrate the dark's power, both over the physical setting and poor Laszlo's mind.

The Dark won the Charlotte Zolotow Award for outstanding picture books for 2013, and it is a well-deserved honor.  Klassen won the Caldecott for his book This is Not My Hat, and the art is just as imaginative in this book.  Snicket is best known for The Series of Unfortunate Events books, which my daughter inhaled like oxygen when she was in elementary school.  Teachers can use the story to discuss the role of a narrator, and inanimate objects as characters.  And there are great opportunities for cross-curricular activities in writing, science, and art.  Definitely recommend this book as a mentor text, read aloud, or as part of a classroom library.

Teacher Resources: Guide
Interview with Lemony Snicket about The Dark

Monday, May 12, 2014

Sold, by Patricia McCormick

Title:  Sold
Author:  Patricia McCormick
Publisher:  Disney-Hyperion
Year: 2006
Pages:  263
Genre:  Realistic Fiction, Novel in Verse
Theme:  Child Sexual Slavery
Age Range:  9th through 12th Grade

Summary: from Goodreads
Lakshmi is a thirteen-year-old girl who lives with her family in a small hut on a mountain in Nepal. Though she is desperately poor, her life is full of simple pleasures, like playing hopscotch with her best friend from school, and having her mother brush her hair by the light of an oil lamp. But when the harsh Himalayan monsoons wash away all that remains of the family’s crops, Lakshmi’s stepfather says she must leave home and take a job to support her family.
He introduces her to a glamorous stranger who tells her she will find her a job as a maid in the city. Glad to be able to help, Lakshmi journeys to India and arrives at “Happiness House” full of hope. But she soon learns the unthinkable truth: she has been sold into prostitution.
An old woman named Mumtaz rules the brothel with cruelty and cunning. She tells Lakshmi that she is trapped there until she can pay off her family’s debt—then cheats Lakshmi of her meager earnings so that she can never leave.
Lakshmi’s life becomes a nightmare from which she cannot escape. Still, she lives by her mother’s words— Simply to endure is to triumph—and gradually, she forms friendships with the other girls that enable her to survive in this terrifying new world. Then the day comes when she must make a decision—will she risk everything for a chance to reclaim her life?

The issue of modern day slavery is something that has been more and more on my mind in the last year or so.  A good friend of mine is working with an organization called Destiny Rescue, which rescues children in sexual slavery from brothels in Thailand, India, and Cambodia.  They also rescue children trapped in bonded labor situations, where they are working to pay of their family's debts in grueling, often dangerous situations. In fact, there will be several reviews of books dealing with indentured child labor or modern day slavery on this blog in the coming weeks-in one of those synchronous twists of the universe I've come into contact with the issue in my personal, religious, and professional life.  My friend came and presented about her own rescue trip to Thailand to my youth group, and I subsequently presented a workshop on the topic at a youth conference.  Social justice has always been a passion of mine, but the international slave trade and the way that it affects people in the developing world and right here in the United States is something that has a particular draw for me at the moment.

I've long thought that one form of "doing" social justice is raising awareness of issues through the use of high-quality literature.  While I am not in a position to go to Thailand myself, nor do I possess the wealth to donate gobs of money to organizations like my friends, I can and will read and share books on social justice topics with my students, the youth I work with, and any adults I can.  And since literature is my thing, I actively seek out fictional narratives with the emotional impact that may change people's hearts and minds, or that will help them take steps towards becoming involved themselves in the global justice movement in whatever way they can.

This book is a great example of the kind of high-quality social justice literature that I look for.  Sold is a genre bending novel, told in verse.  The verse is presented as a series of vignettes that show various aspects of Lakshmi's story.  We follow Lakshmi from her small village to the big city, from farm to brothel, and eventually to freedom.  Along the way we feel her sorrow, her fear, the numbness she must develop to deal with life as a sex slave, and eventually her hope.  McCormick does not shy away from descriptions of the sex trade, and more immature readers may find that difficult.  But the book is rich with opportunities for awareness and discussion.  It is clear from the narrative the combination of forces that lead families to send their young girls away into bonded labor or sexual slavery-poverty, lack of education, lack of national infrastructure, police and government corruption.  All of these have major implications on our fast-growing global economy, and our students-the future leaders of our society-should have an understanding of the inequality that results from lack of opportunity.  I would highly recommend this book to as a part of a larger unit that looks at issues of poverty.  I was very moved by it, and I think that students would be as well.

Teacher Resources:
Allen and Unwin Unit
CPalms Human Trafficking Unit
Global Literature Unit

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, by Neil Gaiman

Title:  The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish
Author:  Neil Gaiman
Illustrator:  Dave McKean
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Year:  1998 
Pages: 64
Genre:  Realistic (?) Fiction
Themes:  General Silliness
Age Range:  1st through 5th Grade

The narrator of this silly story desperately wants his best friend's two goldfish.  So desperately, in fact, that he trades his father for them.  (His father wasn't that interesting anyway-all he ever did was read the newspaper.)  His little sister tries to tell him that it's a bad idea, but he doesn't listen.  When his mother comes home, she is understandably furious, and sends him on a journey to retrieve poor old dad.  Of course, Dad's now been traded to a string of friends for a variety of interesting items.  Finally, the narrator tracks down his father, sitting in a chicken coop-reading the paper!

Full disclosure:  Neil Gaiman could probably transpose the phone book and I would love it.  I have yet to meet one of his books-children's or adult-that I didn't want to gobble up with a spoon.  It is therefore no surprise that I adored this charming picture book.

The story is simple enough.  What brings it to life is the interplay between the narrator and his younger sister. She is dryly hilarious in a way no small person probably ever is in real life, but authenticity is not exactly what this story is going for.  There were a couple of points that I found laugh-out-loud funny, and you don't often find that in a picture book meant for children.

McKean's illustrations are darkly engaging, and they fit perfectly with the mood that Gaiman creates with his storytelling.  As always with Gaiman's books, there is a certain level of darkness present, but unlike some of his longer fiction for children it is not scary.  As an anglophile, the fact that the book is littered with British turns of phrase only added to the appeal, and provide good opportunities for conversation with kids about the difference in language.  The story structure is fairly straightforward, and there isn't a ton of depth there to mine for good discussion, but it is a funny story that I think kids would like, and could certainly be used for working on sequencing, plot structure, or examining how the illustrations enhance comprehension.  Overall, a solid choice as a read aloud for elementary age kids.

Teacher Resources:
Diana Wagner Lesson Plan (scroll down) Resources
Oh, Boy, Fourth Grade Writing Unit for The Day I Swapped My Dad...

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Slob, by Ellen Potter

Title:  Slob
Author:  Ellen Potter
Publisher:  Philomel
Year: 2009
Pages:  208
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Dealing with Loss, Bullying, Self-esteem
Age Range:  4th-8th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Twelve-year-old Owen Birnbaum is the fattest kid in school. But he's also a genius who invents cool contraptions? like a TV that shows the past. Something happened two years ago that he needs to see. But genius or not, there is much Owen can't outthink. Like his gym coach, who's on a mission to humiliate him. Or the way his Oreos keep disappearing from his lunch. He's sure that if he can only get the TV to work, things will start to make sense. But it will take a revelation for Owen, not science, to see the answer's not in the past, but the present. That no matter how large he is on the outside, he doesn't have to feel small on the inside.

Bullying has been big in the news in recent years.  School districts and states are trying to address bullying in a number of ways, both legislative and practical.  As a result, there have been many, many books featuring bullies published in the last few years.  Usually, the bully is another student, and teachers and parents are at a loss as to what to do to help the victim.  The plot often revolved around the victim finding ways to deal with the bully through improved self-esteem, or we discover the bully is actually in such emotional pain themselves that it is only through helping the bully overcome their own issues that the bullying is resolved.  But Slob takes the bully story another direction-what do you do when the person bullying you is a teacher.

To be sure, the other students at Owen's school are not exactly understanding of his weight gain and general clumsiness.  But the driving force behind Owen's fear of school, and his biggest detractor, was his gym teacher.  As a teacher myself, reading about the way that the coach went out of his way to make Owen's life miserable, humiliating him at every turn, made my stomach turn.  I have never really understood why there are some people who seem to take other people's weight (or physical appearance in general) as a personal affront, but the character of the gym teacher really seemed to feel personally offended by Owen's very existence.

Ultimately, however, this book is not really about the bullying, except as part of a larger issue for Owen. Owen's parents were killed in a robbery, and it is this event that drives the major events of the book.  His issues with food and dramatic weight gain are the result of emotional eating.  Most of us are guilty of it at some point-the pint of ice cream consumed after a break-up, the secret stash of chocolate bars for days when you want to punch everyone you meet in the face.  But Owen has taken emotional eating to the level of an Olympic sport in an effort to subsume his feelings of loss and guilt after the death of his parents.  It is these same feelings that cause him to obsess over making  the machine that he believes will allow him to see into the past, and find his parents' killers.  Owen thinks that by bringing these people to justice he will be able to move on, but it is the quest itself that is holding him back.

There are lots of interesting characters in this book-the boy who he thinks is stealing his oreos; his sister, who is a member of a club of girls who want to be boys; his Tibetian Buddhist friend who is trying to teach him different ways to deal with his emotions.  I think that middle grade students will find a lot of things to think about while reading this book, and there are lots of good topics for discussion.  I think this book would be well suited as a guided reading book, or as part of a classroom library for independent reading.

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic Anti-Bullying Activities for Slob Resources
Indie Library Discussion Questions for Slob

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Mr. Wuffles, David Wiesner

Title:  Mr. Wuffles
Author:  David Wiesner
Publisher:  Clarion Books
Year:  2013
Pages:  32
Format:  Wordless Picture Book
Genre:  Science Fiction
Themes:  Aliens, Pets
Age Range:  1st-5th Grade

Summary: from Goodreads
In a near wordless masterpiece that could only have been devised by David Wiesner, a cat named Mr. Wuffles doesn't care about toy mice or toy goldfish. He’s much more interested in playing with a little spaceship full of actual aliens—but the ship wasn't designed for this kind of rough treatment. Between motion sickness and damaged equipment, the aliens are in deep trouble. When the space visitors dodge the cat and take shelter behind the radiator to repair the damage, they make a host of insect friends. The result? A humorous exploration of cooperation between aliens and insects, and of the universal nature of communication involving symbols, “cave” paintings, and gestures of friendship

Wiesner's book, Mr. Wuffles, was a 2013 Caldecott Award honor book.  The Caldecott Award is giving annually to the best picture book by the American Library Association.  Wiesner's book certainly belongs in the category of beautifully illustrated picture books.  His illustrations are sharp and engaging, with vivid colors and aggressive shading that provide depth and realism to an otherwise obviously fantastical story.  But what is most wonderful about this book is the juxtaposition of the adorable cat and the tiny aliens.  Wiesner cleverly takes the natural inclinations of a cat to bat around small objects, and uses it as a springboard for the trials and tribulations of a small group of ant-sized aliens.

This book is almost wordless, if you only consider Earth languages.  In reality, the aliens have a rich language that is scattered throughout the book, made up of symbols that are meaningless when viewed alone, but with the context of the wonderful illustrations it is pretty obvious what kind of things the aliens are probably saying.  The structure of the book is comic-book like, with multiple panels on most pages, and speech bubbles in place of traditional paragraphing.  The book could be used with younger students to emphasize the importance of using illustrations to look for comprehension clues.  Older students could be asked to "translate" the alien dialogue into English, inferring what the aliens are saying based on the context of the story and the illustrations, and essentially writing the text for Wiesner's illustrations.  Or, you can just put the book out for your students to enjoy, because even without words it is an engaging read.

Teacher Resources:
HMH Books Discussion Guide
TeachingBooks.Net Guide

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, Jordan Sonnenblick

Title:  Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie
Author:  Jordan Sonnenblick
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  2004
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Coming of Age, Cancer, Family
Age Range:  5th through 8th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Thirteen-year-old Steven has a totally normal life: he plays drums in the All-Star Jazz band, has a crush on the hottest girl in the school, and is constantly annoyed by his five-year-old brother, Jeffrey. But when Jeffrey is diagnosed with leukemia, Steven's world is turned upside down. He is forced to deal with his brother's illness and his parents' attempts to keep the family in one piece.

Middle school is hard enough without having a brother with leukemia.  Jeffrey was already trying to negotiate the murky waters of boy-girl relationships when he finds out his brother is sick.  Suddenly, the life of the entire family revolves around hospital visits, side-effects, and medical bills.  Steven's mother takes on the bulk of the work, leaving Steven and his father alone to fend for themselves when his brother goes for treatment.  Sonnenblick always does an excellent job writing realistic middle school characters, and while Steven is certainly a sympathetic character, he is not without his moments of self-doubt and selfishness.

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie is not the only time that Sonnenblick has tackled the subject of childhood cancers.  In his 2010 release After Ever After he comes at it from the point of view of the best friend of the patient.  Both novels  he shows a sensitivity to the subject that I can only assume means that he has had similar experiences with a loved one with cancer.  One of the great things about both books is that they do not give the topic the "Lifetime movie" treatment.  There is nothing saccharine or schmaltzy about his treatment of the subject-all of the characters, including the ones with cancer, are written as three-dimensional people with flaws and strengths alike.  While there are certainly "awww" moments, especially towards the end, but Sonnenblick treats all of his characters like what they should read as, real people with real emotions and real issues.

There are some great opportunities for discussion with this book, making it good for guided reading or middle school book clubs.  Sonnenblick himself is such a prolific, high quality writer that I think he'd make a good author study.  He taught middle school English before he began writing full time, and if you get a chance to hear him speak, as I did at a reading conference in Illinois a few years ago, you should do it.  Especially if you are someone who has a love of teaching writing.  The man knows his stuff!

Teacher Resources: Lesson Plans
Discussion Questions and Read Alike List
Author Interview

Friday, May 2, 2014

Inside the Slidy Diner, Laurel Snyder

Title:  Inside the Slidy Diner
Author:  Laurel Snyder
Publisher: Tricycle Press
Year: 2008
Pages:  32
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Imagination
Age Range:  2nd-5th Grade

Meet Edie, who visited the Slidy Diner and was never able to leave.  She'd really like for you to join her there.  Edie recounts her many experiences living at the Slidy Diner, a place where the old men at the counter smell like mice, and you don't want to know what the crunchy topping is on the pumpkin asparagus pie.  Snyder has created a creepy, gross, slightly dark world that kids who are into creepy and gross will definitely love.

I LOVE this book!  I was introduced to it by a very good friend of mine as a part of a writing training, and I have used it every year since when teaching how to write good descriptions.  Snyder's use of language is stunning.  She describes the colors on the wall as "the color of your grandma's slippers", and some of the dishes on the menu are Lumps and Dumplins and Greasily Niblets.  This book is definitely sort of gross, but in a more mature way than your average Captain Underpants.  Not that I have a problem with Captain Underpants, mind you, but that grossness is more designed to appeal to the sense of humor of the average eight year old boy, whereas the grossness in The Slidy Diner is more designed to create this slightly malevolent, grimly humorous mood throughout the whole story.

After reading this book with students, I bring in a collection of restaurant menus, and we analyze the way that menu descriptions are different than, say, an essay.  Then the students imagine a meal that might be served at The Slidy Diner, and after they draw it they write their own menu description.  I have yet to have a class that didn't get totally into this activity.  They love coming up with gross meals like "spaghetti and eyeballs" or "toenail and booger stew".  The trick is to describe them so that people would actually want to order them!
Given the rich language of the story, I think that this book could also work as a close reading lesson, either as a read aloud or an independent read. So invite your students into the world of The Slidy Diner, where there are "dark blue secrets and silver whispers"

Teacher Resources:
Laurel Snyder's Website