Sunday, December 10, 2006

An American Plague; The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, by Jim Murphy

In 1793, Philadelphia, then capital of the fledgling United States republic, was overpowered by a vicious killer. The mysterious disease descended upon the bustling city, driving it's wealthy residents to the countryside, and killing an alarming number of citizens. The prose of this non-fiction text flows like a gripping mystery novel, including gruesome details, heroic characters, and pivotal conflicts. The setting, post-revolutionary America, is brought to life through rich details, including the smells, sounds, and dialects unique to late 18th century Philadelphia. This well-researched book is an outstanding example of how I wish all non-fiction books were written---with a unique, flavorful voice and by employing elements of fiction, such as character development, plot, and conflict, in order to tell a true story.

I have not yet had the opportunity to share this book with a class of fifth graders, but I predict they will relish the suspense and enjoy the story, while also learning many true and important facts about this historical time period.

Posted by Picasa

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Becoming Naomi Leon, by Pam Munoz Ryan

Eleven-year-old Naomi Outlaw Leon has lived with her great-grandmother and younger brother Owen for most of her life. Her world is turned upside down when her abusive, alcoholic mother suddenly shows up and starts all sorts of trouble. Naomi is half-Mexican and half-American, and she learns many new things about her Mexican identity as she, Gram, and Owen travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, to find her father. This book is full of beautiful descriptions, endearing characters, and complex themes. Can someone be Mexican if they don't speak Spanish? What makes a family? What is true courage? Naomi tells her story in a voice that is careful, quiet, observant, and splendid.

Here are some comments from two former students of mine about this book:

"I really enjoyed Naomi Leon. Because it gave a lot of different stages that she went through. For example she became less shy, and came to her senses. She was a more opened person at school and at home. I also enjoyed it because it gave a lot of details, it had sad parts and happy and in the middle parts. And it was very interesting."

"This book was really good, because I think it had a good plot. I liked that it had a lot of details. I liked the author a lot so I decided to read other books from her. The plot was good because it was about a young girl who found herself. The details that were good was when they explained her soap carving of the animal family."

Posted by Picasa

I Could Do That: Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote, by Linda Arms White

This picture book biography is the true story of Esther Morris, America's first elected woman official and the driving force behind the first successful suffrage campaign in United States history. The story starts when Esther is a young child who sees to the necessary arrangements when her mother dies, as the rest of her family mourns. Esther goes on to start a small business, move out west, and to strategically negotiate between political parties to win women the vote in Wyoming. The lively illustrations capture the independent, fierce, feminine spirit of this remarkable woman. Linda Arms White represents the known facts about Esther Morris' life, without filling in details that have been lost through time, yet she also pulled the story and Esther's life together into a single powerful theme as Esther's buck-up-and-get-the-job-done refrain is repeated throughout the book: I could do that!

When I shared this book with my class I was delightfully surprised to see that my fifth grade boys were just as into this lively story as were my girls. They were all cheering for Esther and were quick to connect her struggle for equality to other familiar movements, such as the one championed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Posted by Picasa

The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan

A sixth grade boy named Percy Jackson is on a field trip when he suddenly discovers that he has some freaky, incredible super powers. It turns out that Percy is actually a demigod: a being who is half god and half human and that he must go to Camp Half Blood, a refuge for all demigod children. Olympus has followed the center of world power from Ancient Rome to contemporary New York City. The cast of characters includes gorgons and centaurs, Gods and Goddesses, and a handful of young friends who are struggling to define their identities, understand their parents, and save the world. Percy figures out who his father is and then gets caught up in a cosmic clash of egos--someone has stolen Zeus' lightning bolt and all hell is breaking loose (literally).

This story has plenty of references to Ancient Greek mythology and is told in a spunky, adolescent voice. In an email to Rick Riordan, after enjoying this book with my class last year I wrote: "Several of my boys were begging for more 'action and adventure' books and Percy Jackson provided us all with a perfect adolescent hero. I'm already having trouble keeping track of who has my two copies of [the sequel], The Sea of Monsters. Thanks so much for the excellent books. Thanks for helping me cultivate strong, thoughtful readers."

The Lightning Thief is one of those rare, wonderful finds that has enough action, fighting, and adventure to hook video-game addicts, but also has plenty of character development, fabulous word choice, a unique and interesting narrative voice, and many surprising plot twists. The third book in the series is scheduled to be released in May 2007. I am planning to host a "Percy Party" with my class to celebrate.

Posted by Picasa

Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse

When I started this book as an assignment for my Children's Literature class, I predicted that I wouldn't like it. I wasn't much interested in the setting---Okalahoma during the 1940s---and I anticipated that the poetry form would be full of abstract metaphors and difficult imagery. I certainly didn't think I would discover a stunning, tragic, beautiful, and powerful story; one that I would want all of my fifth grade students to have the opportunity to enjoy.

Billie Jo, the 14-year-old main character and narrator of this story, lives with her family in the arid, dusty, broken land that was Oklahoma in the 1940s. Throughout most of the story she is determined to "get out of the dust." The character development and plot are very engaging, and the setting is crucial---it shapes the story and creates a vivid, informative picture of life in this time and place. Many of the details are based on primary source materials from the time period, creating a historical backdrop that is both believable and accurate.

I haven't had the chance, yet, to use this book in my classroom. I am hopeful, however, that I will get the chance and that my students will understand the themes, become attached to the characters, and be transformed by the story. I hope, in short, that they will have an experience with this amazing book, that is similar to my own.

Posted by Picasa