June 23rd 2014 by Little, Brown and Company
Copy graciously provided by James Patterson
Rafe finds out that the school he is supposed to attend, Airbrook Arts, is closing, and he'll have to head back to Hills Village Middle School. However, since he was expelled from the school, the principal requires him to complete a wilderness survival/character building Program. If he completes it, he MIGHT be readmitted to school. Not thrilled with the idea but realizing he has no choice, Rafe heads out to the woods, where he meets up with strict and demanding counselors, difficult and uniquely individual fellow campers, and all that living in rough circumstances in the woods can throw at him. Rafe learns that he has to get along with people in order to provide the most basic of needs for himself, and begins to learn that there is more satisfaction to be had in solving problems than in creating them. Copiously illustrated, this notebook novel uses humorous situations to teach serious lessons.
Strengths: The previous books in this series generally showed Rafe making lots of bad decisions, which became less amusing over time. Seeing him make an effort to turn his life around was more enjoyable than watching him continue down a self-destructive path, and the episodes had just as much humor in them. Enjoyed this much more than the previous books for this reason! The outdoor adventure and camping was a fun twist.
Weaknesses: The principal is shown as being rather evil and mean, which I'm sure is Rafe's perception. It's becoming a big trend to have evil principals in middle grade literature, which is a bit ill-founded, since clearly the assistant principals are in charge of graft and corruption. A nonstereotypical principal could have added some innovation to this book.
Peirce, Lincoln. Big Nate in the Zone
March 11th 2014 by HarperCollins
Copy from Westerville Public Library
Nate is in trouble, as usual. He's left his review notes at Teddy's, where they had a bad encounter with waffle syrup. He's made Artur mad (because Nate is jealous of him), and Artur quits their band, Enslave the Mollusk. This is too bad, because the band is supposed to perform at an assembly and write a song about the new Fitness Zone initiative at the middle school. This initiative has taken all the fun food out of the school and is encouraging more physical activity like Jazzercise instead of basketball. Chad likes Maya, but she is enthralled with the attentions of 7th grader Marcus until Marcus shows his true colors. Nate finds out that his own father wasn't a particularly stellar student, and Nate and his friends are able to showcase their talents at the field day.
Strengths: Finally, stuff that actually happens in middle school (unlike elections, bullying syndicates and school dances that include tuxedos)! We recently had the cafeteria choices reconfigured, and there were student complaints! I've seen field days, but not for a while. I always love Nate, because he TRIES to do the right thing, but usually fails. This perfectly describes so many middle school students!
Weaknesses: Middle school students in a bad strain credulity just a tad. I've seen them, and they are usually really, really bad.
Angleberger, Tom. Princess Labelmaker to the Rescue.
March 4th 2014 by Harry N. Abrams
Copy from the Westerville Public Library
The Origami Rebel Alliance has a horrible foe to face-- Professor Funtime and Gizmo, who are the stars of the horrifically bad test prep videos that the students have to watch. To make matters worse, these videos are accompanied by worksheets preparing students for the test, and are taking the place of classes that students actually enjoyed. Not only has the school board paid for these videos with a grant as a pilot program, but they are also debating getting the online version for all the schools for the following year. Principal Rabbski is given the Alliance's notes on their rebellion, and is soon won to the cause of providing learning experiences instead of test preparation to students. The Alliance is offered gifted classes, but turns them down because they feel that ALL students should have enjoyable learning experiences. Will Principal Rabbski, with the help of Princess Labelmaker, be able to help them with their cause?
Strengths: Again, testing can be an issue, and the use of educational programs as dictated by the school board can be... less than desirable. (And I found out something shocking-- Channel One is still around! My mother was supposed to have her classes watch their videos years ago because they gave schools televisions, but only if they agreed to watch advertising-heavy programming. Hmmm.) I loved how Principal Rabbski seemed evil at first, but ended up being very sympathetic to the cause-- that was fun, especially when her middle school year book was found!
Weaknesses: I got a bit confused by the sheer number of characters, and the pages are a bit visually busy, but this does not seem to matter to my students. Not sure Rabbski would be able to win her case, but the book was realistic in that she decides to step down as principal and go back to the classroom. I know that everyone is against standardized testing when that is the only thing that matters, but I think in moderation, having assessments that gauge where students are performing are not a terrible thing. In my building, students historically have done well, so there's never been a huge push to concentrate on tests.