Monday, March 18, 2019

MMGM- Focused

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday at Always in the Middle and #IMWAYR day at Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers. It's also Nonfiction Monday.

Gerber, Alyson. Focused.
March 26th 2019 by Scholastic
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

Clea really wants to do well in school, and thinks it is her own fault that she doesn't get all of her work done and forgets to study for some things. It's hard enough to get out of the house in the morning, but if she would just buckle down and worked harder, she would do okay. It's hard to juggle school AND chess team, but she loves to play, especially since her best friend Red is on the team with her. When she fails several assignments, the school contacts her parents and suggests that Clea get tested for ADHD. Clea is angry-- she's not one of THOSE kids who cause disruptions and use ADHD as an excuse-- but her parents take her anyway to try to figure out why she struggles so much. In the meantime, Clea makes a new friend in teammate Sanam, and realizes that Dylan isn't as mean as she thought he was... and she may actually "like-like" him. There's a lot of drama about who will be able to compete in chess team tournaments, and dealing with a mean-girl teammate doesn't help, although the advisor, Mr. Lee, is very understanding. When the diagnosis comes in, Clea is given a number of coping strategies as well as medicine to try. The medicine doesn't help at the beginning, but after she gets used to it, she finds that her condition was also behind some of her problems with her friends, because she would get frustrated and angry quickly, and blurt things out before thinking. Clea learns to advocate for herself with her teachers, asking for her accommodations of extra time or a different environment to complete tests. She also gets used to budgeting her time and using logs and timers to keep herself on track. Things aren't perfect, but Clea feels much better about being able to handle middle school.
Strengths: This had some great characters-- I was a big fan of younger sister Henley, who was struggling with speech difficulties. This is something I haven't seen in middle grade literature much. The parents were very supportive, even though the father was out of town most of the week for work, and that was nice to see. Sanam, Red, and Dylan are all good characters, especially since they are generally understanding, but occasionally still get irritated with Clea. The most interesting part to me were the details about testing, medication, and coping strategies. Like this author's Braced, these are woven into the story in a way that doesn't slow it down.
Weaknesses: While the details of the chess tournaments make sense, and it was good to see Clea playing the game for several reasons, it slowed the story down for me.
What I really think: I will be very glad to have this in my collection. I actually have a girl who plays chess and is a very similar student to Clea. Not often that there is such an exact match for a student to see herself!

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Mozart Girl

Nickel, Barbara. The Mozart Girl
March 18th 2019 by Second Story Press
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

Nannerl has just turned 12, and is somewhat sad about her childhood being over. She is also angry that even on her birthday, her talented but tempestuous brother Wolfgang gets all of the attention. While her father allows her to perform along with him, if time runs out, Nannerl is always the one who does not get to play. When the family embarks on a tour of Europe, Nannerl hopes that she will be able to take her symphony to Bach, whom they are going to meet, and help her get it published so that she, too, can be famous. Instead, she spends a lot of time having to help with household chores, work on technical passages of other people's work, and suffer the injustice of being a second class citizen merely because of her gender. She misses her best friend, but does make some new acquaintances, including Sopherl, the sister and wife of other musicians who no longer speaks or performs in public. After Bach laughs at her attempts at composing a symphony without even looking at her manuscript, Nannerl is inspired by Sopherl to finally to take matters into her own hands and bring her work into the public eye against all odds.
Strengths: This was well written, moved quickly, and gave a lot of details about the performances that the Mozart children gave in a variety of European cities. There was a lot of positive girl power, even though Nannerl doesn't have any luck in getting much for herself. This reminded me a bit of some Carolyn Meyer of Ann Rinaldi fictionalized biographies, or the Scholastic Royal Diaries.
Weaknesses: While younger readers won't pick it up, I found Nannerl's tone a half a bubble off. This is the challenge of writing historical fiction; understanding how people felt about social mores of the time. Yes, Nannerl would have been frustrated at her lack of opportunities, but she would also have been less surprised at the unfair way in which she was treated.
What I really think: This is only available in paperback, so I think I will pass on purchase for my library, although I enjoyed reading it myself.
Ms. Yingling

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Cartoon Saturday- Julius Zebra

Northfield, Gary. Julius Zebra: Entangled with the Egyptians(#3)
March 19th 2019 by Candlewick Press
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

After Rumbling with the Romans and Battling with the Britons, Julius and his menagerie of friends are back, having routed Septimus and sent him on his way. Julius, however, would like to catch him, so sets off on his ship, only to be tossed about by a storm and washed up on a beach. Glad to be alive, the group is less glad when soldiers arrive. Luckily, the Egyptians mistake Julius for the horse god Heter, and gladly take him to the palace to install him as pharaoh. Brutus, Julius' wayward brother shows up as well. As usual, Julius gets himself in all manner of scrapes and misunderstandings. Heading to Memphis for his installment, his plan is almost derailed. Luckily, the group is close enough to home that their savior comes from a surprising source, and they are alive to head off on new adventures.
Strengths: There is a lot of fairly accurate information about the ancient world, and it's amusing to have a humorous novel incorporate the topics that are covered in a rather dry way in 6th and 7th grade social studies.
Weaknesses: I have trouble keeping the large cast of characters separate, even though they are different types of animals, and there are pictures of them. Perhaps character development is a bit lacking? Shocking in a goofy notebook novel, I know.
What I really think: The fact that these are published in Great Britain let me imagine for a little while longer that the Classics are still an important part of the British educational system, even though I have some serious doubts about whether Latin and Ancient Greek are still taught to tweens anywhere on the planet. (Nota bene: I was a Latin teacher 25 years ago!)
Ms. Yingling

Friday, March 15, 2019

Captured: An American Prisoner of War in Vietnam

Townley, Alvin. Captured: An American Prisoner of War in Vietnam
March 26th 2019 by Scholastic Nonfiction
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

Jeremiah Denton was a naval aviator who was shot down and captured by the North Koreans in 1965, and was held for eight years. This follows his time in various prisoner of war camps, including the Hanoi Hilton. Since Denton was an admiral, he managed to secretly contact other prisoners and make sure that they remained connected and focused on their mission to return home with honor. The North Koreans maintained that the Americans they captured weren't prisoners of war, and therefore cared for under the Geneva Convention, but were instead criminals, and were treated incredibly harshly. The prisoners managed to communicate with notes on small scraps of paper, code, and Morse code tapped out on the prison cell walls. The armed forces have a strict code for people taken prisoner, that they shouldn't give away classified information even if tortured, but the North Koreans were so cruel that they did eventually break some men and forced confessions out of them. Denton gave a filmed interview at one point, and had the strength to blink out "TORTURE" in Morse code! Very little news of the outside world got to the prisoners, but they tried to keep faith that they would eventually be released. As the war dragged on, their families came to resent the military's insistence that families remain quiet about their loved ones who were prisoners, and the POW-MIA association managed to change the government policy on the treatment of these soldiers. After that, the treatment in the camp got a little better. Denton was finally put in a room with another man, easing his feelings of isolation, and food, hygiene and medical treatment became a bit better. The extreme torture ceased. It wasn't until 1973 that an agreement was reached and POWs were sent home. Denton finally made it back to his family after eight years, and went on to be elected to the US Senate.
Strengths: This was perfect. I have so many students asking for books about Vietnam, and the POW experience was a big part of that. This goes into some detail about the torture, and is a great overview of the experience without getting into the more horrifying aspects of the torture. I hadn't been aware of the secrecy surrounding the POWs; I was eight in 1973, and was just starting to be aware of current events. I remember POWs coming home, but wasn't sure from where. While Denton's experiences are the focus of the book, there are lots of other prisoners showcased. There are a decent number of pictures and maps to help readers understand the set up, and relevant supporting historical details are inserted when they are needed. This is just what I needed. Now, may I have one about the Korean Conflict?
Weaknesses: The pages of the E ARC turned so slowly that I read another whole book while waiting for the pages to turn, which was frustrating and made it a bit harder to get a good grip on the events. I'm looking forward to seeing a print copy.
What I really think: Definitely purchasing, and this will be constantly circulating. Excellent treatment of a topic that is little covered in middle grade literature.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James

Blake, Ashley Herring. The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James
March 26th 2019 by Little, Brown
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

Sunny has had cardiomyopathy for two years, but has just been told she will have her heart transplant. The woman who has raised her, Kate, knows that she is afraid, but is supportive. Once Sunny has the surgery, Lena, her biological mother shows up. Lena was a friend of Kate's, but struggled with alcoholism after the motorcycle death of Sunny's father, and gave up custody to Kate. Kate owns a bookstore on an east coast island, hangs out with long time friend (an crush) Dave, and is over protective of Sunny. When Sunny is recuperating, she is allowed an outing to the beach. There, she meets Quinn, whose mother is a marine photographer who is staying on the island for the summer. The two quickly become fast friends and decide that they will embark on a "kissing quest" to find a boy to kiss for the first time. Sunny has fallen out with her friend Margot over a secret that Margot blabbed to members of her swim team after Sunny got sick, so she is glad to have someone to hang out with. Lena visits, and Sunny is finally able to get some information about her past. As she spends more time with Quinn, Sunny begins to realize that she would really rather kiss Quinn than a boy, but she doesn't want to lose her friendship. The physical recuperation goes slowly and hits some rough spots, and the emotional recuperation does as well, especially when it comes to Kate and Lena's relationship. Eventually, Sunny is able to be true to herself, Quinn, and even Margot, and forges a new normalcy for herself and her family.
Strengths: Aside from Pitchford's Nickel Bay Nick, I can't think of any books that deal with a child who has had a heart transplant. The medical details and plot are a nice foil for the family and relationships issues; any one of these alone could have become boring, but together, it made for an intriguing tale. The problems with Margot are realistic, as are the problems with Lena. There are more and more young readers with nontraditional families, so it's important to see this reflected in the literature. Quinn and Sunny's relationship is similar to the one in this author's Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World, and my students enjoy that book.
Weaknesses: Sunny and Quinn are both very nervous about liking girls, which lends a more YA level of angst to a middle grade story. Realistic, and liked by the target demographic more than by me. Even in my middle class, Midwestern school, students (especially the girls) seem to be completely unphased by students who identify as any manner of LGBTQ+. Still, all stories are different. I'm just old enough that I have no patience for angst in any relationships, fictional or otherwise!
What I Really Think: I will definitely purchase, and it is nice to see an LGBTQ+ story that doesn't involve heavy drinking and way more details than anyone needs to know.
Ms. Yingling

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Stick Dog Gets the Tacos (and Saves My Day)

Some days are just tough as a teacher. Whether it's that all of the children who had the flu are back in school but still not feeling great, the fact that spring break is less than two weeks away, or the start of the new grading period, students were unkind yesterday. They were especially unkind to the study hall monitors, and I pulled two 8th graders into the library to cool their heels for a bit.

Both were failing every class, yet had brought no books or supplies to last period study hall. One's life plan is to work at a video game store he frequents. Had he asked the management if they hire people without high school diplomas? That would be a good place to start. The other was going to drop out of school at 14 to work in his father's business, which would be passed to him. He had not asked his father if there were any academic expectations, and he felt he did not need to learn math or anything else because he would have people do everything for him. He did not need to be kind to people, because no one would ever tell him what to do, and he would tell other people what to do.

I had another student who is very bright but also failing all of his classes; I suspect from conversations with him that he frequently stays up until 2 a.m. playing video games.

I am great with recommending books. I rock at helping with research and projects. I even have my successful math moments, if there is a moment to warm up. But parenting children who are not mine? It's really tough. It was tough enough with my own girls. They're grown, and even though I think I did a good job, there's always that doubt. Enough that I don't want to have to parent other people's children. A friend posted this article on Facebook, and I couldn't agree more. (Even though I'm a bit alarmed by the whole web site. A lot of articles about people seeming surprised that parenting is difficult. Hmm.)

SOOOOO, I was very glad that the Westerville Public Library sent the following book to me. Seriously, if there are people out there who don't have Stick Dog, they are missing out. Stick Dog is brilliant. And kind. And funny. And even if Karen (the dog, not me), has her reasons for thinking that Stick Dog is not very bright, she is so wrong. Stick Dog is more clever than all of us put together!

Watson, Tom. Stick Dog Gets the Tacos. (Stick Dog #9)
February 5th 2019 by HarperCollins
Public Library Copy

When Karen comes back from looking for barbecue potato chips in a garbage can that a dog is being abused, the whole group takes off to save it. Karen says that children are hitting it with a stick. And it's in a tree. Stick Dog has his doubts, but the group is first distracted by the idea of climbing trees (all "those whisker-twitching, nut-munching demons would be practically extinct" if Poo-Poo could climb trees!). When they get to the house where the abuse is occurring, they realize that the dog being hit with a stick is actually a toy unicorn that the people call a piñata. Children at the house then proceed to hit a birdie with racquets, and the dogs are convinced there is bird abuse. When the birdie gets caught in a tree, the people are all distracted by it, and leave some guacamole on the table. The dogs discuss the fact that it is probably made of boiled, mashed green birds... and that sounds tasty. They attempt to try some, but the people interrupt and bring out a bag of chips. The dogs get a taste, but are interrupted by a taco delivery. These have a promising meat smell, and while the humans go back and forth between the food and birdie in a tree, the dogs manage to cart off tacos, and even figure out that the piñata most likely contains dessert.
Strengths: Like Pixar films, Stick Dog has a child level and an adult level of humor. Stick Dog is a philosopher, and consummate manager of his tribe. He understands that they are not very smart (Karen thinks she is getting taller, when in fact the puddle in which she is standing is evaporating on a hot day), but never makes them feel bad about it. He works with them on their level to achieve the desired group goals. Plus, there is food involved. And squirrels.
Weaknesses: This lacks the complete and total brilliance of Stick Dog leading his tired band of friends up the hill in Stick Dog Slurps Spaghetti, but really, Stick Dog has no weaknesses.
What I really think: I want to bring Stick Dog and all his friends home and give them nice soft beds and regular feedings of healthy kibble, although I would keep a tiny jar of instant coffee around so Karen could have an occasional tiny sip. And a barbecue potato chip from time to time.

I think I will check all of these out to 8th graders today-- maybe it will change some of the negative energy to positive!

A Good Kind of Trouble

Ramee, Lisa Moore. A Good Kind of Trouble
March 12th 2019 by Balzer + Bray
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

Shayla is a good kid who doesn't like to be in trouble. Her older sister, Hana, is outspoken and interested in protests, but not Shayla. She's the kind of kid who will pick up a desk that has been knocked over by someone else so the her teacher doesn't get upset with the class. She likes hanging out with her friends Julia and Isabella, and doesn't understand why other people think it's weird that they are Japanese American and Latinx and not black. There's a lot of friend drama going on, but also a lot of boy drama. Shayla really likes Jace, with his green eyes, but Taylor is constantly talking to her, and even her annoying lab partner, Bernard, seems to be interested in her. After doing well on the timed mile in gym, Shayla is approached by her gym teacher, who is also the track coach, and Shayla joins the track team. Middle school has its tense moments, but near Shayla's West Los Angeles neighborhood there are even tenser moments-- a police officer has shot a black man, and the trial is bringing the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront. At first, Shayla is concerned, but not overly interested, but when a verdict of not guilty comes back, she decides she needs to act. She wears a black armband to school, and brings some for friends as well, even though the principal makes an announcement that wearing armbands is against the school dress code. Shayla doesn't want to get in trouble, but feels that it is important to stand up for her beliefs.
Strengths: This has a great middle school voice and excellent grasp of key middle school concerns. Crushes, lunch table musical chairs, scary classmates who turn out to be okay-- so much good stuff. It was good to read a book acknowledging the black suburban experience, and the struggle of wanting to be accepted by friends. The various romances were also spot on, and Ms. Ramee must have chaperoned a LOT of dances to get those details right! The fact that this covers Black Lives Matter issues against this background is a brilliant way to get more readers to pick up this book.
Weaknesses: So they run track around Christmas time in California? Track does not start until March in Ohio, so I was confused by this. I will not fault this for breaking the unwritten rule that a "diverse friend group" must also include a blonde or red-headed girl! (Am I the only one who has noticed this? Look at the covers of tween books, especially if there are four girls on the cover. There are so many books with ensembles like that, and I'm not sure that is realistic!)(Now I'm distracted and want to go find all of those covers and post them!)
What I really think: Definitely purchasing; if nothing else, this is a very good snapshot of the historical moment of 2019, but it will see a wide readership because it falls squarely in the "drama" category that is so frequently requested by my students.
Ms. Yingling

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

Hernandez, Carlos. Sal and Gabi Break the Universe
March 5th 2019 by Rick Riordan Presents
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

Sal is new to Culeco, a school for the performing arts in Miami, having moved there with his Papi and American Stepmom after his Mami Muerta (the spirit of his mother, who is deceased) kept appearing in their home! He runs afoul of Yasmany, whose locker is next to his, but saves his own skin when the boy bullies him by having a dead chicken appear in Yasmany's locker, but then all traces of it disappear. Gabi is a friend of Yasmany's, but she and Sal hit it off. It turns out that there really was a chicken, but Sal brought it through a wormhole in a locker, and when it returned to its own dimension, all traces of it are gone. When his Mami Muerta appears again, his father (a scientist) tries to find a way to make her not return. He installs an enormous remembranation machine and tries to keep track of the calamatrons that are being left in our dimensional plane by things from other planes. Gabi has a newborn brother, Iggy, who is very sick and has spent the entire month of his life in the hospital, and Gabi wonders how Sal's powers might be used to help him. Sal has Type 1 diabetes, and occasionally has issues with it, but is good about checking his levels and is well versed in how to deal with light headedness and other symptoms. Yasmany is having troubles at home, which make him act out at school. When it looks like Iggy might not make it, Sal and Gabi try to increase their research, deal with their families, and stay out of trouble at school.
Strengths: I really liked the fact that the diabetes was just one factor with which Sal had to deal, and it was depicted realistically and without drama. The Cuban cultural connections are interesting, with lots of descriptions of food, relatives, and some Spanish language phrases. Sal and Gabi are both rather fun and likable characters, and I loved how supportive American Stepmom was. While most of the Rick Riordan Presents has some sort of mythology included, this is more of a science fantasy with Cuban culture, which was a nice innovation.
Weaknesses: There's a LOT going on in this 400 page book, and some of it is not well explained. I never felt very sure about what Sal's father was trying to accomplish, or about how Sal brought things from other universes. Gabi has a lot of "dads" with really odd names (e.g. Grizzly Dad'ums), and that was never made clear, nor was the existence of a robot/android character. The plot is a bit hard to discern with all of these wacky goings-on.
What I really think: If this were going to be a stand alone, I might buy it, but Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe is due in March 2020. There are so many fantasy books, and with my readership, space constraints, and budget, I can buy about a quarter of them. Since I can't get anyone to check out the very similar Margot and Mateo Save the World by Darcy Miller, I think I will pass on purchasing.

Ms. Yingling

Monday, March 11, 2019

MMGM- Young Captain Nemo

Henderson, Jason. Young Captain Nemo
March 12th 2019 by Feiwel Friends
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

Gabriel Nemo lives alone (but with access to a lawyer in case things need to be signed) near the sea, and has access to a state-of-the-art submarine, the Obscure, that he uses to help ships in need. He has two good friends, Peter and Misty, who help him man the ship. When they sneak away from a school fund raiser to save a ship and have an encounter with a giant animal that has inhabited a sunken WWII era plane, Gabriel knows he is going to have to ask his parents, who are living at the bottom of the sea in a lab, for help. They agree to a "school trip" for his friends, and the trio are soon off. Also in on this adventure is Gabriel's sister Nerissa, who has inherited the Nemo gene for trouble making and has spent the last few years with her own ship, the Nebula, ramming illegal whaling boats, so she is wanted by the government. After some research on one of the creatures that they are able to capture,  Gabriel finds that the creatures they saw were "Lodgers", giant, crab-like creatures that feed on plastic pellets in a garbage zone and use abandoned ships for their shells. They can apparently communicate with each other, and when Gabriel tries to recreate the sounds, it calls the creatures to the lab, which they try to destroy in order to save their fellow creature. Nerissa knows that the navy is trying to kill the creatures, but if they try to blow them up, the resultant explosion will be horrific, since their eating habits make them basically mobile oil fields! After an epic battle that involves tremendous planning and skill, crisis is averted, but there are further wrinkles-- Misty is tired of lying to her parents, even though she loves the adventure. Luckily, the Nemos have some resources, and off to start a legitimate school that Gabriel, Misty, and Peter can attend while they have further adventures!
Strengths: I love that this just jumped right into the action and explained all of the backstory in small snippets interspersed with giant, flying sea creatures in WWII planes. Perfect, AND everyone's parents are alive! I was completely in awe of the scenes in the water, both sailing and diving. Wow. I don't know if they were accurate, but they certainly seemed so to me. The details from Verne's Nemo story are threaded throughout in a way that made me want to go back and read the original (okay, a translation!), which is a great thing for young readers up for the challenge. The characters are all great-- I loved that Peter didn't want to get wet (he can't swim!), Misty didn't want to lie to her parents, especially if there were a chance she might end up dead on the ocean floor, and that Gabriel, as much as he loves his adventures, misses his parents. All treated lightly, but effective just the same. Nerissa is an interesting study in opposites-- she's a criminal, but for all the right reasons! The details about the ecology of the ocean are great as well, and might lead to further research. Brilliant all the way around.
Weaknesses: I need more details about the properties of Nemo glass, how that much mother of pearl is harvested for use in the ships, and how the lab is powered! Perhaps that information will be woven into the next book.
What I really think: I was really looking forward to this, and had read a couple really awful books before I picked it up, so I found myself sighing in happiness, relief, and satisfaction while I read this. I had to stop in the middle to do real life things like laundry, cooking, and cleaning, and I was NOT happy until I got back to the book. Isn't that how we want students to feel about what they read?
Ms. Yingling

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Mostly the Honest Truth

Little, Jody J. Mostly the Honest Truth
March 12th 2019 by HarperCollins
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

After Jane injures her hand when her father is passed out drunk, she is sent to temporary foster care for the fourth time, this time with Officer D, whom she befriended previously. Officer D lives in a collaborative community called Three Boulders that is far from town and has a kibbutz like system for jobs and caring for the young. After making friends with G and the other children in the community, Jane is still counting the days (12, total) until she can be with her Pop again. Questions arise about how the injury really occurred, however, and after being visited by a social worker, Jane manages to get to town and visit her father. There are problems with Three Boulders as well, since the elderly founder wants to sell the land to pay for his end-of-life care. Jane is desperate to get back together with Pop, although she starts to realize that it might not be in her best interest to do so. With the help and support of Officer D and the other members of Three Boulders, Jane starts to put together a new expectation for normal.
Strengths: I was really intrigued by the idea of temporary foster care, and the idea of a commune type community in the modern day. Officer D is a supportive and caring foster parent, and hearing about former placements Jane had was interesting as well. It was good to see Jane make a friend right away, and realistic that she wanted to get back to her father as soon as possible.
Weaknesses: The Three Boulders community was interesting but a bit odd, and I kept expecting something else to happen with it, like the residents were all really space aliens. They weren't, but something about the whole set up put me on edge. Jane's injuries had a hidden, horrific cause that might be traumatic for students younger than fifth grade to read about.
What I really think: I prefer Galante's excellent Strays Like Us is, and I also have a number of other books with character in foster care, including One for the Murphys, Gill's Scarlet Ibis, Carter's Forever, or a Long, Long Time, Davis' Peas and Carrots, Every Shiny Thing, and Little Bits of Sky.  This had an odd vibe to it, so I may pass. I have a decent number of students who are themselves in foster care, but I usually never know this until they leave, so I try to be careful about the books I have depicting variations of this experience.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Because of the Rabbit

Lord, Cynthia. Because of the Rabbit.
March 26th 2019 by Scholastic Press
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

Emma's father is a game warden, and when she accompanies him on a rabbit rescue, she falls in love with the adorable honey colored rabbit they find. It's not a wild rabbit, and the local shelter has not had anyone searching for an animal that matches the description, so Emma keeps Lapi. The name is short for Monsieur Lapin, the name of a character in stories that her grandfather had told her. Emma has always been homeschooled, but is starting public school for the first time. Her older brother has enjoyed it, but Emma isn't keen on the idea of not having free time after her lessons and having to deal with trying to make friends. She approaches school with the right mind set-- try to fit in, be friendly and nice, approach people cautiously-- but her attempts aren't too successful. She tries to get her project group to come to her house, but the two girls she would really like to befriend don't come. Jack does. Jack is on the autism spectrum, so has some moments when he is difficult for Emma to work with, and he does not help her social standing. They work well, together, however, and Jack even tries to get over his fear of animals in order to pet Lapi. Emma hopes that if she can take Lapi to school for her project, the girls in her class will warm to her, but Lapi might have owners that could claim him. Emma manages to figure out school and eventually feels more comfortable there.
Strengths: Lord uses her own personal background to good effect in this latest book. Her son is on the autism spectrum, she homeschooled her children, and the family fostered rabbits. She consulted with her daughter about the difficulties she faced when entering public school, so this is very effective.
Weaknesses: This was just a little young for my demographic.
What I really think: I would definitely buy this for an elementary school library, but I have a number of similar books that don't circulate much, so I will pass for now.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Nikki on the Line

Roberts, Barbara Carroll. Nikki on the Line
March 5th 2019 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Public Library Copy

Nikki is looking forward to playing on a competitive travel basketball team, especially since her friend Adria is also on it. It's a struggle for her single mother to afford the fees, but basketball is what Nikki really loves. In order to help out, Nikki offers to babysit her high-energy younger brother after school. School is a bit of a struggle for Nikki, so she hopes to be able to have time to fit everything in. When her science teacher assigns a family tree project, she is upset for another reason; her mother had both children through artificial insemination and she doesn't want anyone to know. Another student, Booker, also doesn't want to do the project because his parents were drug addicts who abandoned him, and his kindergarten teacher adopted him. Nikki has a very motivated teammate, Kate, who has a very pushy father who wants to see Kate get a college scholarship. When Nikki overhears the two talking about Kate's lack of height and wondering why she is wasting everyone's time, this undermines her confidence and she starts to back off from taking shots. She starts to think that maybe she should add different skills to her game, and decides that the team could use someone who can make good three point shots. She doesn't want to tell Adria about this, since Adria's father has always coached her, so she asks Booker for help. When her grades drop, her mother threatens to make her go back to a county league. Nikki struggles with the challenges of balancing school work, team activities and friendship, as well as her new knowledge about her father, in this fast-paced, valued-added sports novel.
Strengths: My rule of thumb for a great sports novel: are there enough details about the sport that I don't quite understand all of it? Then there are enough details for the readers who play those sports! This had basketball galore, but also important middle grade issues like personal identity, friendship diffictulties and school/life balance. I actually know a 6th grade boy whose biological background is similar, and I may recommend this to his mother. Nikki's reactions to everything are spot on, her struggles with her younger brother relatable, and her slight romance with Booker really charming. I also adored Booker's father and the fact that Booker has a lot of chores. There are never, ever enough books about sports for children, especially girls' sports, and this is just perfect.
Weaknesses: Sure, Nikki's mother is a college research librarian and likes to read, but she went to a lot of trouble to have her children, and when she wanted to finish a book rather than play basketball with Nikki, that didn't seem right! She seemed oddly disconnected from the children. Will young readers notice this? No. But I know I made a point to always drop everything for my girls, and they went to haircuts and the grocery store with me, as well! They are both away from home now, so that may be why I found this disconcerting. Just miss them!
What I really think: Can I justify buying two copies?? Yes. Yes I can.

Ms. Yingling

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Reader Request

Ms. Ahart commented "Can you write up a post about how you maintain such amazing reading volume and speed? I just hit 350 books a year last year (not counting picture books) and I can't imagine breaking through that book a day barrier without staying up all night. I also feel like my recall really suffers at this rate; I remember the feel of the book and maybe certain key moments, but almost never a single character name after a week or two!"

Certainly, Ms. Ahart! My students ask about this all the time, and my easy explanation is that I am like a marathon runner of reading. If you read for 50 years so excessively it alarms your family, you too can acquire the ability to read three to five books a night!

In reality, I don't know. I have always read a lot, and while I've never taken any speed reading courses, I can scan a page in about five seconds and tell you about what is going on. I read Rich Wallace's Roar of the Crowd in 20 minutes and got a 100% on the Accelerated Reader test. On a good day, a 200 page middle grade novel takes me an hour to read, and I remember enough details to write a review. When it is not cross country season, I get home about 3:30, run, read the paper, eat dinner, etc. and start reading books about 5:00. I read until 9:00. I even read while I'm walking the dog! I don't read a lot of picture books or beginning readers, although I read some, but I also don't read a lot of 400+ page books. It adds up.

It sometimes takes as long to write the reviews as it does to read the book! I tend to write those in the mornings. While I am rubbish at remembering character names and how books end, I do have a good file in my brain with one sentence on each book ("It's about a giant killer mosquito whose venom liquidizes its victims and the mosquito's psychopathic serial killer handler!" Man, was I sad when both copies of Dean Carter's Hand of the Devil fell apart, but how could they not?), as well as read alikes and a general feel for which books are a good fit for which students.

I can tell really good writing from bad writing, but honestly, my students are not picky about that. They are more concerned with topic, pacing, and whether or not things blow up. Am I occasionally blown away by Sonnenblick or John David Anderson's turns of phrase? Of course. I also don't read self published books, and by the time a book makes it through agents, publishers and editors, the writing will be decent. Honestly, some of the best writing I've seen recently is "Coco Simon's" Cupcake Diaries. So smooth, so easy to read, so effortless. Is it brilliant? No. Not going to win prizes. But it's like aloe on a sunburned brain at times.

For the past couple of years, though, I've been having a lot of trouble focusing. If the book is the fourth in a series, I may read it but not review. Sometimes, I don't read any books at all, but watch BBC murder mysteries. Unlike middle grade novels, where people are always ending up dead when they absolutely should not, I KNOW that murder mysteries will be sad! Plus, most British actors are just as wrinkly as I am!

Picky Reader in Ireland
This summer, my goal is to get back on track. For now, I'll blame Empty Nest Syndrome (Nell is having a great time in Ireland, but I miss her!), dealing with aged parents, some weird health issues, and a whip lash sort of school year that started with the threat of a new building that would mean possibly losing my collection and having to walk eight miles a day to commute! The immediate threat is gone, but it still feels possible.

So, Ms. Ahart, thank you for the kind words. Writing a blog is, to quote Don Marquis, "like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo," and it's always encouraging to know that there are people who benefit from my reviews!

How High the Moon

Parsons, Karyn. How High the Moon
March 5th 2019 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Copy provided by the publisher

Ella is being raised by her grandparents in small town South Carolina during World War II, since her mother long ago went to Boston to pursue a singing career and is now also working as a shipfitter. Her grandmother took in Myrna after her mother showed up wanting help from a midwife and died after giving birth. Along with Henry, her best friend, Ella enjoys church socials and playing outside, but doesn't enjoy the mean girls in town who make fun of her for being light complected. When her mother finally agrees that she can spend Christmas in Boston, Ella is very excited and hopes to remain with her mother indefinitely. The way that African-Americans are treated in Boston is very different from how they are treated in the South, and Ella is pleased not to have to use "colored" water fountains and to hear her mother being treated with respect. Her mother is as beautiful and fashionable as ever, but her apartment is small and dingy, and she has a roommate, Helen, who is also a shipfitter. Ella's mother is very busy with work, and Ella is supposed to spend her days in the apartment reading, which gets to be boring. The group spends a nice Christmas together, and Ella hopes that she will soon start school, but when her mother gets the opportunity to sing in New York City, Ella finds herself suddenly delivered by a friend of her mother's back to Alcolu like a package. Ella still wants to know about her father, and neither her mother nor grandparents will give her any information, leading her to speculate that everyone from celebrity Cab Calloway to local store owner Mr. Parker might be her father. When local teen George Stinney is arrested for the murder of two young girls, Ella's friends and neighbors are all fearful of the outcome, and rightly so. The 14-year-old is framed and executed, and the community struggles to deal with this injustice while World War II is challenging everyone.
Strengths: This had some intriguing things to do: children being raised by grandparents, life in the South, traveling on the train, life in Boston (somehow Christmas was particularly charming), and the real life connection to the accusations of George Stinney. The inclusion of Henry's father off fighting was good, and there could be an entire book about Henry and his father's experiences.
Weaknesses: The details of daily life are a bit weak; at one point, paper plates are used at a church picnic, which seems unlikely. No, young readers won't be at all bothered, but I always like a bit more period feel in the small details. There was also a somewhat confusing moment where Ella comes across Helen and her mother cuddle up in bed-- I thought we were going to find that they were in a romantic relationship, but nothing else was ever discussed.
What I really think: Glad to have for both the World War II and Civil Rights historical tie ins, and I love that the title is from a song from this time period.

And... well, when DON'T we all need some Ella Fitzgerald?

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Stand on the Sky

40796125Bow, Erin. Stand on the Sky
March 5th 2019 by HMH Books for Young Readers
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

Aisulu and her brother Serik are out looking for his horse when a summer snowstorm hits the mountain where their Kazakh nomadic family lives. They manage to make it home, but see an injured eagle on their way. Their uncle, who has raised eagles and used them for hunting, can't save the mother, but Aisulu hunts for the nest and manages to save the eaglet. In her culture, it is the men and boys who raise eagles, but Aisulu is bound and determined to enter a competition with Toktar, especially after Serik does not return from the hospital after their snow storm ordeal. Serik's leg had been bothering him, and he begged Aisulu not to tell, but when he has his injury treated, they find out he has an osteosarcoma, and his leg must be amputated. Entering the competition could mean money to help her brother, so Aisulu raises and trains the eagle, finding unlikely allies her uncle Dulat, his wife, and a retired eagle trainer. She is afraid that even if she wins, she will lose Toktar when her family is forced to live in the city, but things have a way of working out, and Aisulu is able to remain true to her hopes and dreams.
Strengths: The details of what it is like to live in a ger are very complete. Food, clothing, shelter, daily life, work, school-- these things are all very different from life in the US, and there's just the right amount of detail. There is also a lot of girl power, with Aisulu wanting to buck tradition and getting support from most of those around her. My favorite was the grandmother of one young man who gave Aisulu a hard time because she was a girl-- the grandmother makes the young man give Aisulu a pair of boots he has outgrown! The aunt, who is from another tribe, has a different outlook on life, and teachers Aisulu some valuable skills. Their relation ship is my favorite.
Weaknesses: This is not an #ownvoices book, but the research is very thorough, so until a woman raised in a nomadic Kazakh family writes a middle grade book about her experiences and it's available in English, I am VERY happy to have this book!
What I really think: There are so many good things about this book, and since I've been able to get students interested in Butterworth's Running on the Roof of the World, I have high hopes for this one!

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Seventh Grade vs. The Galaxy

Levy, Joshua S. Seventh Grade vs. The Galaxy
March 5th 2019 by Carolrhoda Books
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

It's the last day of school for PSS 118, a space ship school orbiting Jupiter. Because of living conditions on the planet, it's cheaper to have school on a space ship, and even then, it's a rather run down place. Jack is glad for the year to be done, since his father, a science teacher at the school, was fired a few months back for ostensibly sabotaging the engines. After some epic gravity free dodge ball games, Jack and his friend Ari are suffering through the principal's end of year speech when all of the power goes out in the ship. No phones, no lights, nothing. Nothing, except for a bunch of texts from Jack's father directing him to go to the engine room. Jack thinks it is a bad idea, but Ari encourages him. They are joined by Becka, a tall, super-good athlete on whom Ari has an enormous crush. The three are making some headway on fixing things (using Ari's modified nanobot producing PENCIL), but when they go back to the bridge, everyone is gone. Their ship has been captured by the Minister of the Elvid System for a parking violation, and since they are unable to pay the fine, the entire school is imprisoned. Seeing no other way out, Jack and his friends trick their guard into thinking they have a highly contagious disease, the medicine for which is located on their impounded ship. He takes them there, but they manage to take the ship, with plans to perhaps head to Earth to get help. Of course, things don't go smoothly-- the need to get more fuel, have trouble at intergalactic customs, get sidetracked by alien video games, and end up back with their school mates to seek more help in righting the situation. There is still work to be done, but the students and faculty of PSS 118 plan to work together to solve their situation.
Strengths: A lot of good things going on here. The beginning of the books was SNAPPY. It just clicked right along, with the dodgeball game and then the power outage, and then fixing the engine and running into Becka, then the other students disappearing. Whew. Talk about a great start to get readers halfway through the book! The number one complaint my students have about books is that "nothing happens". This cannot be said of this book! I really enjoyed the three main characters, and appreciated that the father was disgraced but still responsible and keeping tabs on Jack. I also really liked the school staff, the brief bit that we saw of them, and am hoping they are more involved in the sequel. The principal was a bit bumbling but pulled through, and there was a scene where the staff are described as circling the students protectively that was really touching. The adventure made sense, the world building was strong, and the end left me wanting to know more!
Weaknesses: The pace slowed down in the middle a bit, when they were looking for fuel and hanging around. Sure, Ari wanted to play alien video games, but this is not the time!
What I really think: Definitely purchasing and will be glad to have this for the fans of space adventure books like Fry's Jupiter Pirates, McDougall's Mars Evacuees, Kraatz's Space Runners,  Emerson's Last Day on Mars, and King's Incredible Space Raiders from Space.

Ms. Yingling

Monday, March 04, 2019

MMGM- We're Not From Here

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday at Always in the Middle and #IMWAYR day at Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers. It's also Nonfiction Monday.

Rodkey, Geoff . We're Not from Here 
March 5th 2019 by Crown Books for Young Readers
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

Lan, Ila and their family live on Mars in a colony of under 3,000 people who escaped Earth after it was made uninhabitable. However, the supplies are dwindling quickly, and life there is unsustainable. There is the possibility of terraforming another planet, but there's no time. Luckily, the group receives an invitation from the residents of Choom, which is conducive to human life. Only about half the residents want to go (the other half return to Earth), so they take off for Choom. It takes 20 years in suspended animation, and when the ship arrives, there is trouble. There has been a change in administration, and the current rulers don't want humans, as they are considered too violent. The ship is attacked by angry mobs of Zhuri (who look like large mosquitoes), but eventually, the government allows one reproductive unit-- Lan's family-- for a trial period. Leeni, of the Immigration Division, gets the family settled into a heavily protected home, enrolls the children in school, and gets the parents jobs. Of course, since humans are deemed violent and not intelligent, the parents end up working at the morgue and in garbage collection, where things get off to a rocky start. Luckily, translating computers make communicating easier, although the minority Krik accent is not translated. School is not much better, although Lan's teacher, Yurinuri, is very kind. The classmates are very fearful, which Lan can understand because the Zhuri emit a smell like sour milk when they are afraid. This is considered very rude; Zhuri have a partial hive mind and "everyone agrees" that all emotions are bad and rude. Lan makes a friend in Morf, who is the only Ororo (a people who look like giant marshmallows, are 7,000 times smarter than humans, and are keen to make a buck!) student in the school. Marf adjusts the translator to understand Krik and invites Lan's family for dinner, where the parents produce a salve to help the father's wounds from being attacked by venom spewing Zhuri at work and send them home with food. The government starts sending propaganda to the news to persuade the population that "everyone agrees" that humans should not stay. Ila becomes very depressed, since she had a career as a singer and actress on Earth. Lan realizes that making the Zhuri laugh might be the only way to turn the tide, but when he sees the effect of his sister's music on the group, he knows that might help as well. After some small experiments at school, things become dire, and Marf helps Lan overthrow the government peacefully so that the rest of the humans can be settled on Choom.
Strengths: As in Tom O'Donnell's Space Rocks, humans are the aliens here, and this is used to HUGE advantage! The destruction of Earth is set up in a believable way, the Mars colony is quickly dispatched, and the description of Choom is perfect for setting up this allegorical tale of  immigration. It's perfect that most of the story centers around Lan (whose gender is never mentioned-- do you know how hard that must have been to write?) and the experiences at school, since that is where young readers' concerns would be. The use of language was particularly effective and made it sound like actual translation from Zhuri-- body garbage, midday nutrition, human animals-- it's hard to describe but well done. Normally, odd language irritates me, but this was spot on. The difficulties in the changes in government, plus the reason for the changes, was thought provoking. Lan and Marf were great characters, and it was great to see how people with completely different backgrounds can bond, even if it's over slapstick comedy.
Weaknesses: From an adult perspective, this is pretty heavy handed in its message, BUT it is also plenty goofy. Kids will enjoy the comedy and friendship, but also not be able to miss the message about being welcoming to people who are different from you.
What I really think: I am very impressed. I will definitely recommend this to 6th and 7th grade teachers for use as a class novel. It could start some great discussions!