Saturday, September 27, 2008

Elvis and Olive

I thought this was a fantastic book. I loved the characters: book smart, lives-in-her-mind, socially reserved Natalie, and "feral cat" Annie (Natalie's description). The opening scene is their very strained but hilarious first encounter. They become fast friends and immediately form a secret club, with secret names (Elvis and Olive) and the secret mission of uncovering as many "good" secrets about their neighbors as possible. The two girl spies are good at their self-assigned task and manage to uncover some secrets that lead to tricky situations and more power than they know how to responsibly handle (including secrets about each other). The lessons they learn about friendship and privacy and community are rich and are very well earned by the careful story development and true to character writing. Stephanie Watson zooms in on what it's like to be a 10-year-old girl with that same sweet accuracy as Jenny Han does with her 12-year-old characters in Shug.

I hate that this great book about ten-year-old girls will be a rather hard sell with my eleven-turning-twelve-year-old students. Sixth graders are fussy like that. I think I can make the hard sell, and I'll put some serious effort into it because the reading level of the text is right at the "enjoyment level" of my students, because it's a story I think they'll delight in, if they give it a chance, and because I think it's far better written than those silly vampire books that my students can't get enough of.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It by Sundee T. Frazier

Brendan, according to his gram is "chocolate milk"---chocolate from his dad and milk from his mom. He's a good kid with a good stable family. One day when he's walking around the mall with his gram he sees this old man at a table full of rocks. He strikes up a conversation but when his gram happens up on them she goes bezerk. Turns out the old man is his grandfather, his mom's father, who he's never met. His other grandpa recently passed away and so Bren is determined to learn more about his grandpa and to find out why they've never met.

Strong writing. Nice amount of allusions to things like the internet and video games---makes the setting and story more real, but not over the top. Just part of the story.

The only thing I didn't love was the ending. A little bit too After School Special-ish for my tastes, but those feel-good-endings were my tastes as an 11 year old, so there ya go.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Series Series Series

My students read lots of series. Some of my students' favorites this year have been: the Twilight series, the Uglies, Pretties, and Specials series, the Warriors series, the Deltora series, the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, the Cirque Du Freak series, the Percy Jackson series and the Hank Zipzer series. Yeh, my kids are all over the map on both their reading and interest levels.

I don't have any questions about the value of reading series. Of course I know they're rarely spectacular literature, but they hook kids into reading, build their vocabulary and fluency, and I think they're actually quite wonderful for my kids who are still mastering English because they are fairly predictable and you don't have to learn new characters and settings for each book. A Children's Literature professor once had us put our heads down and answer two questions: Did you read series books as a kid? Are you an avid reader today? Usually, adults who answer yes to one question, answer yes to both.

For the series that my students love I often wonder how many books in each series I ought to read. I like to be able to talk to my students about the books they're reading, but I can usually only handle one or two books per series, and once I've read enough to "hook" my kid readers, I don't feel motivated to read the entire series myself. What about you?

Also, what are some of your favorite series, or ones that are big hits with kids you know?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Tangerine, by Edward Bloor

This is an excellent sixth grade book. It's a little bit slow, for the first twenty pages, which is why I abandoned it the first time I attempted to read it. However, I'm very glad I gave it a second chance. The pace really picks up and the story and characters are quite well done.

Paul learns many things in this story. He learns what really caused the damage to his eyes when he was young. He learns there are many more ways to live than in the gated, pricey communities he's always taken for granted. He learns to sit on the sidelines, to be a loyal friend, and to stand up for himself. He learns a lot about what kind of a person he wants to be, but here's the thing you've got to trust me on: these lessons are all very tightly woven in the fabric of a wonderful, believable story. There's no explicit moralizing or talking down to the reader. The narration is just Paul, writing in his journal, about a series of experiences that change him.

The plot includes race and class tensions, sibling hatred, less than perfect parents, a couple horrible deaths, and several great soccer games. The resolution is satisfying and the setting (Florida citrus tree lands) is like a subtle but strong character. Lucky for me, Washington has a class set of this book, which I'm looking forward to reading with my sixth graders next year.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Comfort Books

I've been sick for almost three days. Fever. Stomach ache. And a constant head ache. Maybe it's exhaustion. I don't know. As usual, I still worked, while sick, until this morning. This morning I came home around 11 a.m., crawled in bed, and have been sleeping and reading all day.

I started reading Waiting for Normal around 1 p.m. and I'm almost finished. Hunkering down in bed with such a wonderful book feels just like getting warm milk and toast prepared for my sick body by my gentle mom. So comforting.

In fact, reading it is much more pleasant than being on the internet, so, I'll just say this: it's realistic fiction. The main girl character is 12 and her life is sad and poor, but she's blossoming anyway.

Also, I started Painting the Wind, by Pam Munoz Ryan, and it was so good I didn't want it to end, so I stopped after about six chapters. And so now I'll have even more comfort reading for later this evening.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Sweethearts, by Sara Zarr

Sweethearts

Sweethearts reminded me a bit of Fighting For Ruben Wolfe and I Am the Messenger, because it felt much more mature than lots of young adult literature; right at that crossroads into adult fiction. It wasn't mature because of any explicit content. It was the particular types of problems and the way the characters responded to things. It was all more on the adult side of the adolescent galaxy, the side where questions can stay open, where people are impossibly complex, and where resolutions aren't tidy.

This is a story about a girl and boy who were best friends in late elementary school. They were both the "losers" of the class and had a very deep and tremendously strong bond. Cameron disappears one day and Jennifer, who later turns herself into Jenna, has to figure out how to go on without him. She ends up abandoning the self she was at that time of her life and when Cameron shows up again when she's seventeen, Jennifer/Jenna has to figure out how to honor both their friendship and the little girl she tried so hard to bury.

This was a great read. Not really for most middle-schoolers, though. I just don't think they'd really get it. Also, I hate the cover. It doesn't even begin to represent anything meaningful about the story.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Dear Kadir Nelson

Mr. Nelson, if you're out there, I really want to tell you about this kid I love.

He lives in the homeless shelter in Salt Lake City. He has a really rough home life. Dad's in jail. Mom's on drugs. This year, by some amazing graceful miracle, this ten-year-old has learned to LOVE books. I think reading has become his refuge. First, he read and took very good care of my precious, signed copy of Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary, by Walter Dean Myers. It took him five minutes to read each page back in September, but he was so determined to read that book. Finishing it took him about six weeks. In December he discovered Darren Shan and has since read every single Cirque Du Freak and Demonata book.

Last week I handed him We Are the Ship and he carries it around school and back and forth to the shelter like it's a million dollar prize. He comes up and shows me the illustrations and stories and can barely contain his admiration for those players. His is a fierce admiration that is settling into the deep roots of his tender little soul.

I can only speculate here, but this is what I believe: I believe those stories, of determination and triumph in the face of horrible adversity and discrimination will give this kid deeper wells of strength than any other forms of "help" that I can imagine.

Teaching kids with such steep slopes all around them can sometimes be very difficult work, but with books like yours and children like this one, I consider it a great privilege to be working out in the trenches.

From the very bottom of my heart: THANK YOU!!!

(This true story/letter actually started out as a comment at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Do The Math, Secrets, Lies, and Algebra, by Wendy Lichtman

Tess loves math. She likes the way it is predictable and leads to single, correct answers. She maps her friendships with Venn diagrams and she thinks through problems with her peers by considering what makes someone's power over another person less than, greater than, or equal to.

When her mom discloses some suspicions about the death of her coworker's wife, Tess is sure that the single, correct answer to this situation is to inform the police. Her mother and father disagree with this solution and Tess has promised not to talk to anyone about it. She is trapped in a problem with an answer that is "D.N.E."--"does not exist".

The characters in this novel were thoughtfully developed and even though Tess has a particular, mathematical way of viewing the world, she still has many universal middle-schoolish struggles. She's trying to define her own morals and she relies on her best friends to help her figure things out.

The resolution was a surprise and the situations that push Tess to make difficult choices keep the plot moving right along. Even though some of the math references are beyond sixth grade, I think many of my students will enjoy this book.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

We Are the Ship, by Kadir Nelson

I love Kadir Nelson as an artist, and in this book the man proves he's got some writing talent as well.

This is a non-fiction account of the Negro Baseball Leagues, and black baseball players from the 1800s on.

You know how some topics can be mildly boring when you first consider them, but when someone who is super passionate pulls up a chair and talks to you, it's impossible not to develop your own interest and appreciation. Okay. That's how this book was for me. It's not as if I have zero interest in black baseball history, but Nelson is so enthralled by his subject and so loving in his writing and art that it's impossible not to get swept up in the story and carried along by the husky, fierce energy. They loved the game. They were ballplayers. And theirs is a rich and complex story. They were privileged, relative to many black folks of their time, but they were victims of a racist country that wouldn't let them play and get paid with their white peers.

The text is told with a collective voice, with lots of "we" and "our" pronouns, as if one of the ballplayers is telling the story. It was a little awkward, this point of view, but I liked it a lot better than a third person, dry, "objective" voice. I imagined sitting on a porch, next to the rocking chair of one of these players now in his nineties, as he slowly told me this amazing swath of American history. My dad is a sports fan and history buff and it was because of him that Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were not completely unfamiliar names to me. Today, at Sunday dinner, I'm going to loan him my just-finished library copy of this fine book.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Crooked Kind Of Perfect

This title made several splashes around kidlit land before I finally got the audio version and enjoyed it while commuting for a week.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect is contemporary realistic fiction with several zany, complicated characters and with many believable problems. With wry humor and tender self-awareness, Zoe tells the story of her family, her clumsy navigations of sixth grade social circles, and her adventures learning to play the Perfectone Organ.

As I imagined scenes from the last few chapters, when Zoe competes in the PERFORMARAMA, I kept remembering this great video, which I stumbled across a few weeks ago.

This book is a great bridge into more YA-ish titles, for our young, but very strong readers. The vocabulary and writing style are fairly high, but the themes and plot and events are still very appropriate for children as young as nine.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness

The premise of this picture poetry book is that there's a sixth grade class who models their own poems on William Carlos Williams' famous apology poem about eating all the plums. The sixth graders come up with a wide variety of poems. Each character and poem is crafted with an attentive eye to the experiences, struggles, and personalities of 12-year-olds, and in my experience, I'd say Joyce Sidman has strung the various harp strings of this age group beautifully.

In response to each poem of apology, the second half of the book is full of poems of forgiveness. Yes, each problem is solved and the students are all valued and loved, but that's exactly the sort of world that kids this age crave deeply. A world where they can make mistakes, try on new hats, and still have friends and be loved.

Someone on Goodreads wrote that this book will most likely be read by students as part of school work. Yes. I, agree. But---that's okay. I'm always looking for great resources and just like this year's Newbery, I think many children will read and value this book as it's carefully knitted into their reading lives by many a thoughtful teacher.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

True Story

A science writer found out that his carefully crafted words had been cut and pasted directly into a trashy romance novel. The writer describes this experience in this hilarious account, and in the end he wants us to remember the real tragedy---the endangered meerkats. I couldn't help but also note the racist and sexist representations of American Indian men and 19th Century women in the culprit romance book. YUUUCCCK. Do people really read this crap?

So. Let's all do our part to teach kids not to plagiarize or stereotype. Yeh. Duh.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Frog Princess, by E.D. Baker

When she finally agrees to kiss the frog who swears he's a prince, 14-year-old Emerelda ends up as a frog herself. At least now she won't have to deal with that pathetic suitor with whom her mom's been making arrangements. With the help of some creature friends, including the still-a-frog prince she kissed, Em has to figure out how to become human again and how to survive as a frog in the meantime.

There are some solid, if rather predictable themes about friendship and courage, but the reason I really enjoyed reading this book is because the tone was very light-hearted. I hate fantasy books with narrations that sound like bible readings. The narrator, here, is simply an enchanting storyteller. Often funny, sometimes very dramatic, but never pretentious. The tone reminded me of Hunky Dory.

This is the first book in a growing series. The end of the chapter scene when Em kisses her prince and becomes a frog herself would make a great booktalk. Another Books of Wonder rec.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A question or two

I adore picture books and find that older kids, who actually read them, often enjoy them, too. But this year my big, beautiful, collection of picture books has been collecting dust. I desperately need some sort of plan to get those books off the shelf. I need a solid plan for some sort of picture book reading experience with a younger grade class. How might that look?

I went to the "transition" meeting this afternoon, where the middle school teachers come to talk with the sixth grade teachers from feeder schools. The talking was okay and I feel like my students will be in good hands, but the middle school library, where the meeting was held, was dismal. I worry that everything I've done this year to promote lots of choice reading will be wasted if they don't have a library brimming with excellent, high-interest books. The City Library here is fabulous, though, so I'm trying to think of a way to get them over there a few times before the end of the year. I want them see what a great place it is for finding great books. Getting over there isn't the challenge---it's making the visit positive and increasing the chances that they'll go back on their own. How do I do that?

Monday, January 14, 2008

And the winner---was on my DESK!

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz was sitting on my desk at school this morning with a stickie note on it that I'd wrote that said, "For Middle Ages unit." My student teacher is planning a sixth grade Middle Ages unit soon and I'd bought this book for us off of some highly reliable rec, that I can't remember now, so that she'd have at least one good book to work with for that unit. I'd trusted whoever rec'd the book, and I skimmed through enough of the poems to see that it was indeed strong writing, good information, and would make a nice resource. I was totally surprised, though, to get a text message from my library sister in Philly this morning, as I was driving to work, that said this book just won the Newbery . So, I haven't, in fact, read the darn book, but I did buy it! And was planning to use it with my students. So there ya have it.

I wish I had a better system for remembering or recording recommendations. I'd really like to know right now who I trusted enough to buy that book, skipping my usual library filter.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

TRIPLE 8 CHALLENGE

I really hate new year's resolutions and goals and such. I've just never been a very goal driven kinda gal. I love working hard to puzzle out interesting problems, but I hate diets, Stephen Covey, and self-help books. My book-related goals for the summer ended with a shrug, an "oh well, I tried" and a C-.

BUT--I am still a human and feel some weird thrill when looking up a steep slope. I read about this cool challenge out there in cyberspace somewhere. To read 8 books in 8 different categories in 08. The Triple 8 Challenge. I'm not going to officially enroll in the on-line challenge. I can't even remember how I happened upon it. But I'm going to do it---challenge myself to complete the 64 books before the calendar flips to 09. I like how it'll push me to read in new genres and broaden my repertoire of good choices for all my student readers. In addition to reading all the books, I'm also gonna try to write here about at least two of them from each category.

So, here are my 8 categories:
Kid Fantasy, Professional Development, Popular Kid Series, Picture Books, Graphic Novels, Science Non-Fiction (kid or adult), Sports Novels, and YA.

I know there is potential cross-over between my categories, but I don't want to double count any books. I have some ideas about some of the books I want to read, but I'd also love suggestions. And if this challenge sounds fun--let's do it together. Leave a comment. Join in!

Happy New Year, everyone.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex

Wowsers. This was book was such a rollicking read. An eleven-year-old girl journeys with a Boov alien in a flying car, all the way from Florida to Arizona---and together they save the planet from the Gorg aliens. The two main characters, Gratuity, the human, and J. Lo, the Boov, were amazingly well-drawn and believable. I can't think of any other non-human character that I've ever enjoyed knowing as much as J. Lo.

I also loved how deep questions regarding cultural imperialism, language, identity, and what it means to be human were all tossed around in very playful, yet thoughtful ways.

So--you've got great characters, a wild, gyrating, plot, and a style so funny and sarcastic and self-aware that the real life author Adam Rex, must have invented some sorta scientific contraption to actually channel the voice of a sassy, thirteen-year-old girl. (The book is Gratuity's entry, as a thirteen-year-old, into an essay contest titled The True Meaning of Smekday.)

I am amazed this book hasn't shown up on more of the blogs I follow. I wonder why. Oh, I almost forgot to mention, there are illustrations---many polaroid camera shots of the characters and also a few comic book inserts that reminded me a bit of Dragon Ball Z. There was some PG-13 language. But not much.

Much thanks to the nameless booklover at Books of Wonder for this incredible find. And if you decide to "push" this book in your classroom, or if you just want some more info on the Boov invasion, here is a great place to start.

By the way, that's what I wanna be called: A Kid Lit Pusher. Watch out for me, all you not-yet-addicted children, once you get hooked, there's no turning back.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Books of Wonder

Last fall, somebody in Kid-Lit-Land blogged about Books of Wonder, an independent children's bookstore in NYC. My dear brother helped me find this amazing little store when I was in New York last November for the NCTE conference. I roamed around the shelves for a while and watched a guy reading a picture book to a group of six-year-olds who were having a birthday party.

I thought the store was pretty cool, but after about ten minutes I was ready to leave. As I was looking around for my brother, I happened to overhear one of the booksellers talking to a thirteen-year-old girl. The bookseller went on and on, recommending book after book and responding expertly to the girl's interests and responses. I was very impressed by the conversation and when they finished I asked the bookseller if she had any recommendations for two "teacherly" requests: easy chapter books with great fantasy stories, and good books for kids who read at a YA level, but appropriate for me to shelve in my elementary school classroom. We talked and chatted about many different books. I was thrilled to hear that she (like me) didn't like Twilight or its sequels that much. I told her some titles I love and she filled my arms with a huge stack of books, talking, in detail, about each fantastic title.

Forty-five minutes later I ended up buying over a hundred dollars worth of books and having a sack full of books for my second carry-on for the plane ride home. I'll write about some of them over the next week or two. For now, cheers to Books of Wonder, and a knowledgeable booklover who gave me the gift of many excellent recommendations.

It's most often the people (not the programs or even cool settings) that make places amazing and wonderful.