Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Short, scary stories

I finally broke down and read In the Land of the Lawn Weenies, which certainly does Louise Rennison proud in an attempt to force librarians to say embarassing things. I have added it, as well as Invasion of the Road Weenies, to my list to purchase, because the stories all embrace the warped, icky, 12-year-old boy sense of "Ewwww". I will recommend it to students who don't like to read anything that isn't gross, as well as to teachers who would like something to read aloud. Very clever, and for readers who won't read anything, these are good starters. From here, maybe I can move them into R.L. Stine, and Paul Zindel's monster books.

Other sucessful creepy stories that circulate well in my library are:
Horowitz, Anthony. Horowitz Horror, More Horowitz Horror.

Schwartz, Alvin. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Scary Stories 3

San Souci, Robert. Dare to Be Scared, Double Dare to Be Scared (and some Short and Shivery that I intend to look into!)

Rich Wallace

After reading One Good Punch and recommending the Winning Season series countless times, I thought I had better read one of these short, sports oriented books. I was not disappointed. I read Takedown, which is late in the series but about wrestling, which has become a popular request.

Donald is not a pleasant character. He works hard, but is a poor sport. His family life is somewhat difficult, but he still has supportive, if struggling parents. This book mainly detailed his wrestling training and meets, which is exactly what the boys want. It didn't mess around with too many emotions or problems-- just went right for the action, which is great. I thought that the book was much too short. I wanted to know more about Donald and his wrestling career. However, this length was perfect for the audience, who are often struggling readers who like the feeling of accomplishment they get when they finish a book. I am looking forward to reading the rest, and highly recommend the entire series for elementary and middle school libraries.

I could not find a web site for Mr. Wallace, but here is the Winning Season series as I know it:

The Roar of the Crowd (Winning Season #1) (2004)
Technical Foul (Winning Season #2) (2004)
Fast Company (Winning Season # 3) (2005)
Double Fake (Winning Season # 4) (2005)
Emergency Quarterback (#5)(2005)
Southpaw (Wining Season # 6) (2006)
Dunk Under Pressure (Winning Season # 7) (2006)
Takedown (Winning Season # 8) (2006)
Curveball (#9) (2007)
Second-String Center (Winning Season # 10) (2007)

Giles' Right Behind You

This is not a book for middle school collections, but I could not put it down. It would be extremely thought provoking for high school collections.

Kip burns a child to death when he is 9. While not exactly an accident, Kip is not a hardened, habitual killer. Years of juvenile detention and therapy take his childhood away from him and leave him ill-prepared for life after that. He manages to succeed quite well in high school in a different state, but manages to sabotage his own efforts when he becomes happy. Moving yet again, he meets a girl who also has made mistakes, and learns to deal with what he has done.

I had to finish this even though it was clear early on that the content and language of this book was too strong for my age group. Still, it was masterfully done and riveting. Ms. Giles has made some very wise remarks concerning reading level of books versus interest level, and clearly writes for older children, so I hope her feelings will not be hurt when I don't buy this one.

On the other hand, a book I should have loved, Barrows' The Magic Half, about a girl who is transported back in time to 1935, did not appeal to me at all. I think perhaps it is too young.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A nonfiction title!

Believe it or not, I really enjoy nonfiction, but it's a very hard sell to my students. I really enjoyed Jim Murphy's The Great Fire(1995) about the Chicago fire in 1871. I kept quoting odd bits of information to my family. This is an especially successful book because it combines facts about the fire with first person descriptions from several different people. The illustrations and photographs are well-placed, and the maps showing the spread of the fire are very helpful. I have several students in mind for this title-- there is a great interest in disasters, and when I tell them that 100,000 people were homeless, maybe they will be intrigued.

Mary Stolz' Coco Grimes will be read because it is short, but for a sports book has very few descriptions of baseball, which is what students seem to want. I did like the story of a boy interviewing a man who played on the Negro Leagues.

It's a Woman's World, a collection of poetry, was very interesting. Covered poems from many different places and times. It seemed sad to me, but I don't think it would seem so to students. Poetry is another hard sell, although when classes do units on it, my shelves get cleaned off.

Would like to say that I read The Carnivorous Carnival, but I only got about a chapter in!

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Reading Challenge

If you want a serious challenge, take a look at this web site:

I had to print out the rules so that I could consult them at home. I won't be doing the extra challenge, because of the nine titles listed, I have read five in the last five years and can't get two from the public library. I did check out The Only Alien on the Planet by Kristen Randle, because I loved her Breaking Rank!

I'm thinking that the 25 books won't be a problem, but I'm stumped on what "Classic" (published before 1920) book to read.

Poetry, Drama or Humor-- It's a Woman's World: A Century of Women's Voices in Poety (1/27)
Sports, Mystery Supernatural--Stolz. Coco Grimes. (1/27)
Fantasy or Science Fiction--Stroud. The Last Siege. (2/4)-- Not fantasy!!
Historical--Sutcliffe. Flame-Colored Taffetta. (1/28)
Nonfiction--Murphy. The Great Fire. (1/27)
Classic-- Stevenson. Kidnapped. (1887!)
Graphic Novel-- Vampire Kisses: Blood Relations, Schreiber.
Audiobook--Snicket. The Ersatz Elevator. (Audiobooks are so slow. I will no doubt cheat.)

Can you tell I'm working on "s" authors on my way through the stacks?

Thanks to Alyssa at Shady Glade for a jump start I needed to my weekend!

Haddix's Uprising

I always love stories of turn-of-the-(last)century immigrants, and this coverage of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory strike and fire was ably done. We follow the lives of three girls: Bella, whose family sends her to America to earn money; Yetta, who with her sister has come from Russian to escape the persecution and poverty; and Jane, whose wealthy father does not want her to become involved in Suffrage or the rights of workers.

This book was rich in details of every day life at the time, and did have some twists. It is interesting that Jane leaves home, is taken in by Bella and Yetta, and becomes a governess to the factory boss's children, but it seems unlikely. The rest of the story goes along nicely, although the beginning and ending, which center around one of Jane's charges 15 years or so after the fire, are more confusing than they needed to be.

It surprises me that people still don't know about this historical era, so it is good to have another book about it. Mary Jane Auch also has Ashes of Roses, which I liked.

Read D'Lacey's Icefire, which is not about squirrels. The dragons come into play much more, but there are polar bears. Also, we are given a setting in Massachusetts, which I still don't believe, and which distracted me. I will wait a while to read the third book, and maybe by then I will be over my confusion, and then I might like the book better.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

D'Lacey's The Fire Within

The Fire Within, Icefire, and Fire Star have all been very popular in my library. Given the covers, and the length, I assumed they were hard-core dragon fantasies, so I was slightly confused to find a realistically based fantasy about a college student who boards with a family that makes clay dragons that are really alive. For most of the book, the dragons are hinted at, and most of the narrative involves squirrels, and the student's attempts to write a story for the young girl of the household. I am curious now to read the other two and see if more dragons are involved. LOTS of squirrels are, and usually books about squirrels don't circulate well.

I was also confused by the interpolation of clearly American references into a clearly British book. If any change had been made, it should have been to explain what conkers are. It's hard to explain, but I would just like to say "They're BUCKEYES!"

Any book that uses "erm" instead of "um", that has people eating beans on toast, and involves more than one cup of tea being served, is a British book.

Also read William Sleator's Into the Dream, which is a quickly moving story about two students who have the same repeating dream and try to find out why this is. Would appeal to students who like Twilight Zone type stories. From 1979.

Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days was an okay retelling of a Grimm story moved to Mongolia, and I appreciated that she would give part of her profits from the book to Heifer International, but I can't move her Princess Academy. I don't have a strong group of female fantasy/medieval fans, I guess, so will pass.

Also won't buy the pink and fluffy "Choose your own adventure" book. The only readers I have for those are 6th grade boys. I always feel compelled to read every possible combination, so they drive me slightly mad.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Hurray for Michael Cadnum!!!

My students especially enjoy this author's Book of the Lion series, as well as his two mythologically oriented books, Starfall:Phaeton and the Chariot of the Sun and Nightsong: The Legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. I am going to have some VERY happy students today when they found out that we won a copy of The King's Arrow from the author himself!We've had a lot of discussions in the library about the historical person we would most like to meet, so thanks to Mr. Cadnum not only for the book, but for getting my students thinking about intriguing figures from history.

Mr. Cadnum also has a very nice web site that you should check out. This link, of course, features me, as well as one of my students (Kaitlin), who is enjoying her fame!


Wilson's The Lottie Project

Given this cover, and not the Nick Sharrat one, I thought the book would be about time travel. It wasn't, but since it was still Jacqueline Wilson, I wasn't too disappointed.

Wilson's books that make it to the U.S. (she's a top selling British YA author) tend to be light problem novels, and this one was. The twist: While Lottie is dealing with her single mother's lack of a job, she is also working on a school project about servant girls during the Victorian era. Her mother gets several jobs cleaning houses and looking after a little boy, and these experiments are reflected in the story she writes about the Victorian girl.

Wilson's Candyfloss and The Illustrated Mum have gone over well here, as has her "Girls" series. When looking for Wilson titles to buy, be aware that a lot of her books are aimed at the 8-12 age range, but are given older looking covers in the U.S.
Also of note: Jessica Blank's book, Almost Home, is NOT for middle schools. Although it starts out with delicate wording of sensitive issues, it uses the f-word more times than I could count, and quickly descends in hair-curling descriptions of life on the street.

Paley's Huge

When I say that this book is sort of a novelization of "The Biggest Loser" for teenagers, that sounds like a criticism, but it really isn't. I enjoyed the book very much, and any books about eating disorders/weight issues are gobbled up (sorry!) by my students, especially as we are nearing February, which is tradionally Problem Novel Month in my library. This by demand, not by my request!

Wil is forced to go to "fat camp" by her parents, who run a fitness center empire and are embarassed by her weight. April saves up all year to go, to try to escape the eating habits that she and her mother have fallen into. As roommated, they don't work well together because they are at cross purposes-- Wil has decided to gain weight to irritate her parents. While good exercise and eating habits are hinted at, this is far more about the relationship that the girls have with each other, the students at the camp, and their pasts. There are some nasty characters, especially a boy who kisses both girls and then makes fun of them. They exact a rather nasty revenge, but all of the situations are portrayed as complicated and real.

Is this Great Literature? No. It was however, valuable, interesting, and fun. And, along with The Black Sheep, it will be fun to have in the library in 15 years, when reality television is (hopefully!) not around anymore.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Lurlene McDaniel

This author has the sad romance down to a fine science. There are so many devoted fans at my school that I picked up a bunch of paperbacks to replace lost copies this weekend, and I should be processing them right now so they can be checked out today.

I read Angel of Mercy over the weekend. Again, not the thing to read when it's cold and January out, since it is the story of a girl who goes on a mission to Africa to help the impoverished. There is a little romance, an abundance of Christian sentiment, and much sadness. Again, the fans will be glad, but this is just not the sort of book that appeals to me personally.

Sheth's Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet

How do I not already have a copy of this? After reading this author's The Keeping Corner, I checked this one out... again, apparently. This is one I have to have because it shows such a different MODERN lifestyle. Since Sheth's Blue Jasmine (about an Indian girl who moves to the States) is so popular, I think the students will enjoy this story of Jeeta, a high school age girl with two older sisters. The family's main concern is getting all of the daughters married, and the parents work hard at arranging suitable matches. I predict that a lot of the readers will come to me and ask if this is actually still true!

Jeeta's family is solidly middle class-- the father works for a jewelry store, the weddings they give are fairly elaborate, and the children are getting an education, but all seven of them live in a one bedroom apartment in Mumbai. The father sleeps in the living room, and there are five mattresses for the other six. This is the sort of thing that students often don't understand, and I think it is valuable for them to see how others live .

Drat. Those are all the books by this author. I hope she is writing more!

Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It

In middle school, I loved post apocalyptic tales like Z for Zachariah, so this one would have pleased me inordinately, as did my 8th grade daughter. I'm not usually one for books in journal form (e.g. Angus, Thongs), but as my daughter put it, it makes more sense this way. We get to hear all of her emotions. We both especially liked "Life sucks. Wish I had fudge." There were a few more quotable lines, but my younger daughter stole the book from me, so I don't have it.

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice-- and here we get a little of both because an asteroid has pushed the moon out of orbit. Communications and utilities go down, food is in short supply, and people, in general, go nuts. Still, life has to go on, and I appreciated that we were shown a realistic family who does the best they can. Stock up on canned goods and kitty litter (I appreciated that they kept their pet-- wouldn't many of us try?), move everyone into the room with the wood-burning stove, and hunker down. I can see why this has been popular. Well-written, intriguing twists, fresh and fun voice in the face of obstacles.
However, on a personal level, it was not a good thing to read over a long weekend while I had the heat set at 58 degrees. I felt like I should stock up on peanut butter, as if the ten jars I got on sale wouldn't be enough. As a mother, reading post-apocalyptic novels, especially one this detailed, does not make me happy. 8th grader did admit that she now understands why I make her bike everywhere, as well as why I keep a well-stocked pantry.

Wonder if having this book will increase readership in The Beauty Queen from 1974? If you want more information on Ms. Pfeffer, check out her blog at:

Friday, January 18, 2008

More Sleator, and Stevenson

If your library doesn't already have an older (1988) copy of The Duplicate, you may be forced to read a paperback with this really, really bad cover. Still a thought provoking story-- we all think it would be nice to have another one of ourselves to get all of our work done, but who's to say that WE would get to do the fun stuff and the duplicate would be folding socks in the basement?

This is the situation that David finds himself in when he finds a Spee-Dee-Dupe on the beach and makes a copy of himself so that he can go spend time with his girlfriend rather than with his grandmother. Not only does that plan not work out, but the duplicate starts becoming rather sinister, and there's some nice action/adventure/suspence to round out an interesting story.

James Stevenson's The Bones in the Cliff (1995) is out of print, but if there is one around, dust it off. It is a short and simple mystery about a young boy living on an island who is fearful for his father's life. Who is the man with the cigar who might get off the ferry, and what are his plans? While both Pete and his friend Rootie have some problems, they manage to spend a fun summer exploring the island, and when the man with the cigar finally does arrive, there is some action and suspense. This hasn't gone out much, but I know of a lot of students who should enjoy this!

Giants of Science, Marie Curie

I love biographies. In the 4th grade, I would bring home two Childhood of Famous Americans books every night and read them. Elizabeth Blackwell: Girl Doctor was one of my favorites.

Krull's Marie Curie was much, much better, and written in an amusing, engaging style that is sure to entice readers. The first sentence is "She risked her life for science." Okay! Tell me more! This is no sanitized version for children. Curie is given credit for her vast scientific acchievements, but her personality also comes through strongly. Given the odds she faced as a woman working around the turn of the last century, some depression is to be expected. The science is well-explained and understandable. The Curies both probably knew that radiation was bad for them, but they were too involved in their work to consider it a problem. This is not a long book, but quite fascinating. I will definitely look for the others in the series, including Sigmund Freud, Isaac Newton, and Leonardo da Vinci.
The only this I would add would be some actual pictures. The drawings are okay, but students are very visual, and like to see what the person really looked like.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Encyclopedia Brown Cracks the Case

Donald J. Sobol's Encyclopedia Brown books were my second great love (after Carolyn Haywood), so I was tickled to see that at the age of about 83, he had another one out! I have fond memories of sitting with my mother and reading a case, then talking about what we thought the solution was.

These are most appropriate for elementary age students, but one of my very reluctant 8th grade readers devoured all the titles I had. If students are having trouble with mysteries and have to read one for class, these books are a good way to ease them in.

As always, I solved some of the chapter long mysteries, but not others. (Didn't know that ducks needed gravity to swallow, not to spoil it for you!) I miss the original drawings, but am glad to add this title to my collection.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World

E.L. Konigsburg can be very, very good. One need look no further than From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. This title had an art mystery in it as well, but I just couldn't get into it. At least I didn't hate it, as one of teachers, a big Konigsburg fan, did.

Amedeo moves to Florida with his mother, who is a big time phone executive. He befriends a boy whose mother is an estate liquidator, who happend to be liquidating Amedeo's neighbor's possessions. I did sort of enjoy that part-- the neighbor was an opera singer who has all sorts of interesting autographed books and whatnot. There was also a sketch, found in the library, that looked intriguing, so Amedeo, along with his godfather(the director of an arts center) works on solving the mystery, which ends a little too neatly for my taste. The depiction of the art world at the time of Nazi Germany is intriguing, and heartrending, as many of these stories are, but everything came together too coincidentally.

Students who liked the Blue Balliet mysteries may find this interesting, but I don't think I will buy it. Moves too slowly and does get confusing, due to shifts in point of view.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Sheth's Keeping Corner

For fans of Whelan's Homeless Bird, this book about a young Indian widow circa 1918 is even better. Sheth, who did the wonderful Blue Jasmine about her own experience coming from India to the United States to live, tells us the tale of an aunt who was widowed at a young age and refused to stick to the very strigent code of conduct prescribed for widows. Since she is so young, she needs to listen to her parents a bit: she "keeps corner", staying in the house for a year, but continues her studies and looks for ways to escape from the restrictive life style. Luckily, an older brother argues her case, and the social upheaval at the time also works in her favor. Ghandi is effecting social change, and this is explained in the context of the story.

The descriptions of every day life are very interesting, and the story moves along at a good pace. Students who don't like historical fiction are drawn into Homeless Bird by the struggles of the heroine, and they will be even more intrigued by this story.

I read Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet and didn't buy it. I can't remember why. I like this author so much that I will have to revisit the book!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Ranger's Apprentice, The Ruins of Gorlan

Admittedly, I was reluctant to read yet another medieval quest fantasy, especially one in which the first few pages talked about Wargals, but it ended up being a good read. Fans of Tolkien certainly eat this one up, as will any fans of Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain.

Will is not large enough to go into battle school, but because of his stealth and intelligence, he is apprenticed to a Ranger, who works as intelligence for the kingdom. Complications ensue, adventures are had, and Will proves that being strong isn't always the best way to win fights.

There are seven of these books available in Australia, although the fourth has yet to be published in the U.S. A must have for fantasy fans in the middle grades.

Assorted "s" authors

William Sleator's Dangerous Wishes was a worthy sequel to his Spirit House. Dom, the younger brother from the first book, is now 15, and the family travels to Thailand to stay while the mother does research. Dom wants to find the amulet that his sister lost so that the spirits stop causing grief for his family. He is aided by Lek, a street merchant. While the ending is improbably, the views of Thailand, especially Lek's village, are interesting, and there is nonstop action. Really enjoyed this.

I had trouble getting into Sleator's Strange Attractors. Time travel is usually something I enjoy, but this book was somewhat confusing, with the bifurcation of time. Sort of like Molly Moon's Incredible Time Travel Adventure. You bifurcate time, you need to think very hard about when and where you are in the book!

In an effort to pay attention to graphic novels, I picked up Sfar and Guibert's The Professor's Daughter. Daughter of professor in love with the mummy Imhotep IV-- should be good. Instead, it was a bit confusing and just odd. My daughter didn't like it either.

Over the past month or so I've been working on Skurzynski and Ferguson's National Park Mysteries. We only have six of them here, but they are well-done, straightforward mysteries that I enjoyed. There are a lot of survival elements in them, and the few pictures in the middle of the books showing the parks are quite fun. Only problem-- book one is falling apart!

Find out more about the authors and books at:

Friday, January 11, 2008

Sonia Levitin's Strange Relations

This story of a young girl who goes to Hawaii for the summer to stay with very religious relatives just won the Sydney Taylor Book Award, and it certainly deserves it. Marne is Jewish, but her family is not observant. Her aunt, however, is. There is a lot of interesting discussion of Jewish traditions and rituals, and how Marne learns to accept some of these into her life.

While I love this author, I don't think I will buy the book. Some of the concerns and situations are more suitable to a high school audience. Certainly, any school with a sizeable Jewish population will find this interesting.

My favorite Levitin book is still The Mark of Conte. Even after 30 years, it still resonates with students. If you are lucky enough to have a copy about, dust it off and give it a try.

Also read Snicket's The Hostile Hospital, which was not as bad as some of the others.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Truth About Stone Hollow

I thought I might have read this in middle school, and when I was picking a book to read last night, it was on my shelf. First checked out in 1979(published in '74) , this title from Zilpha Keatley Snyder has a languorous quality that I remember from my childhood. Set during the Depression, this slow moving mystery follows a young girl whose father was injured in an accident and a boy whose exotic family moves to a small town so the father can write a book. The two discover an abandoned house that is rumored to be haunted, and try to figure out what is going on.

Not that they do. They do spend a lot of time ruminating on it, and in the end they decide there is an ancient stone that blurs the boundaries of time. It stops short of being a fantasy, because the closest the children come to traveling themselves is seeing images of people from the past. I was confused at the end-- did the grandmother die, or was she somehow involved with the Italian man who was found dead down by the still after his daughter passed away from lockjaw? That's pure conjecture on my part.

I enjoyed the book, but am not sure that it is still viable. Styles change, students change, and sometimes old things need to go to make way for new. Not right away, but eventually.

Library History

Can't get a good scan of this, but it is the circulation card from The Odyssey of Homer from the Boardman Center Middle School Library. The book was accessioned on 9-7-66, and my best friend Lori checked it out in 1978. The book is still there, and my friend's daughter brought it home. I had to laugh at the random date due stamps on the pocket, knowing that we were probably responsible for the ones from '78! The stamping was hugely fascinating.
I'm trying to remember what books I might have checked out that would still be in the library, but I'm having a hard time. Snyder's The Velvet Room, perhaps; Moskin's I am Rosemarie. Farmer's Charlotte Sometimes. I know I read a lot, but the titles are lost to the mists of time.
I still use circ cards, because middle school students frequently suffer from bouts of amnesia, and the cards jog their memories. My student helpers sometimes make mistakes on the computer, and it's nice to have a backup system. Then there was the order from Follett that came with the same bar code numbers on two sets of books. (Raptor and Rats both were 50927, for example.) If I hadn't had the cards, I would never have tracked down about 40 books. Also, should the computer go down, I am still in business.
Students are fascinated by the cards, and asked how one did overdue lists before computers. The answer-- looked through the cards and typed a list of overdues, then very carefully crossed out names when the books came back. I don't know how we would ever have been limited to a certain number of books, or how they could have prevented us from checking out if we had something overdue-- unless they looked at the typed list.
The public library took pictures of the books we checked out with our library card sitting on the pocket. I never understood how they used those records, but someone once said that there was someone sitting at a microfiche reader in the basement, going through records constantly. I can't imagine.
Sorry to digress, but this was such fun! Thank goodness for computers!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Camel Rider by Prue Mason

This was recommended to me by my public librarian, and I enjoyed it. Books set in the Middle East are obviously timely, and this is a good action/adventure/survival book as well.

Adam puts his passport in with his traveling father's luggage so that he does not have to return to Australia with his mother, but can spend a few more days in the airline compound in Abudai where his family has been living. Unfortunately, shortly after his mother leaves, the city is attacked, a war is started, and he must evacuate with another family. He makes the additional unwise choice of leaving them so he can return for his dog.

Walid, a boy connected with a group of camel racers, unhobbles a valuable camel when the bombing starts. The camel ends up breaking its leg and having to be shot, so Walid is going to be sold to other slavers.

Both boys meet up in the desert and try to make their way back to the city. It is hard for them to communicate, which is portrayed realistically in the book. Using different typefaces, we know what each boy is thinking.

Not only do the boys have to survive in the desert, the men who are after Walid follow them, and there are good case scenes and a lot of details about cultural differences that the boys find. The ending is happy, if a little pat.

This is a good addition to a multicultural collection. Several of my reluctant readers are enjoying Deborah Ellis' The Breadwinner, and this is my next choice for them.

Lemony Snicket

My mother taught me that if you can't say anything nice, you shouldn't say it, which here means that I should poke myself in the eyes with sharp objects, hindering me from saying anything about The Series of Unfortunate Events and also preventing me from having to read the 7th and 8th books tonight.

Children love these books.

I fail to see why. Nothing really happens, or rather, the same thing happens over and over. The children get placed with a somewhat decent guardian. Things go bad. Count Olaf shows up. Things get worse. They improve slightly. The children move on. It is not the plot to which I object so much as the style of writing. It is overly precious, and assumes that we are idiots and want three words defined for us on every page. Even my 4th grader admitted that the first chapters were especially hard to get through.

These are also horribly bound and fall apart constantly. Thanks, Scholastic.

Children do love these. They are different. They are a nice, long series. There is a movie.

I am not looking forward to reading any more of these!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Spooks, spirits and Spinelli-- oh, my!

Delaney's The Last Apprentice series is set in a Medieval time, involes traversing the countryside in search of evil creatures to take care of, and is oddly involving. The Revenge of the Witch was a great start, with Tom Ward starting his apprenticeship with the local Spook, who binds boggarts and witches. We see the further implications of this dealing with evil in The Curse of the Bane-- the townspeople count on the Spook but still fear him. In Night of the Soul Stealer, the two travel to the Spook's winter home at the edge of evil, so they can keep a closer eye on the Golgoth and the forces trying to invade their world. It was interesting to see the Spook in weak moments-- he loves a lamia witch, whom he has kept drugged and docile so that he doesn't have to imprison her in the basement. After an encounter with a stone throwing boggart, the Spook is injured and Tom assumes more responsibility. I zipped through all 486 and was horrified at the end when it was clear that there was another book and it wasn't published yet! Oh, the anguish. This is the sort of reaction I want from books, not "Great, have to slog through yet another sequel!"

William Sleator's The Spirit House was a shorter book, but also a good page turner. Julie is not happy that her family is getting an exchange student from Thailand, and when he arrives, things start going poorly in her world. Is it the fault of the spirit house that her brother builds in the backyard? And is the student really who he says he is? There is enough mystery to make up for the lack of action-- the feeling of impending evil is enough to keep me with the story. I will definitely be recommending this to students. I believe there is a sequel, and I am looking forward to that.

Think I still need to pick up Spinelli's Maniac Magee, but read Fourth Grade Rats (again?) and Crash last night. Crash struck me as a boy related protoversion of Stargirl in some respects. Boys who like humorous books could be enticed to read this one, and it does involve football. It veers away from the earlier books in that it is more introspective, but stops short of navel gazing by the way the "odd" friend is treated in a humorous but not mean fashion. Fourth Grade Rats is a short and amusing book for middle schoolers who need something quick; I imagine that actual fourth graders would find it more meaningful.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Neal Shusterman's Unwind

Sometimes, books are well-written, gripping, AND thought-provoking. This dystopian novel from Shusterman is all of that and more. Set in a future America that has been torn apart by a war between ProChoice and ProLife factions, the compromise that has been made is that abortion is illegal, but mothers may abandon their children on people's doorsteps or at massive state orphanages, and children between the ages of 13 and 18 may be "unwound". Three children-- Connor, whose parents make this decision because of his behavior problems; Risa, who is a ward of the state and unwound due to budgetary constraints; and Lev, whose religious parents decided to unwind him at birth because they believe in tithing everything-- meet up on the run from their supposed doom, which is to become organ donors for people who need livers, arms, even brain cells, since technology has advanced to the point where these transplants are easy and effective.

Eventually making their way into an underground system that saves such children, the three get caught up in intrique at a camp whose leader was an author of the Bill of Life, which set up the unwinding process. Feeling guilt over having his own son unwound, he has set up a camp in the dessert for children to bide their time until their 18th birthdays while working for him.

When they try to save this man when he has a heart attack, the three get discovered and sent to a Harvest Camp. Another boy from the camp is "unwound" and we get to hear how this is done. The society has decided that this is not death, since 99 and 44/100th of the children live on. This is a chilling premise that is handled in such a brilliantly delicate manner that I found myself thinking "Is Shusterman ProChoice or ProLife?" For being such a central part of this book, abortion is not really discussed; the reader has to draw his own conclusions on what this society thinks of the sanctity of life, and also what are own society does

A long book, this is not easy to describe, but the most effective part of this book is that the philosophical musing is broken up by car chases, explosions and fights. Things HAPPEN.

This is my son's new 5th favorite book. If I had my way, this would win the Newbery. Riveting. Chilling. Absolutely excellent.

Several very large fantasy books

Fantasy fans are another group of voracious readers. I don't care much for fantasy, so it's hard to find books that will fill the bill for these students. I can tell when books will be popular even though I don't care for them personally.

Angie Sage's Septimus Heap trilogy (Magyk, Flyte, Physik) is one such series. Nice quests, lots of magical details, easy to follow plots-- all good. Incredibly painful for me to get through. Can't tell you the plots. They wandered through the swamps a lot. People got kidnapped regularly. Still, a very good series to have on hand for avid fantasy fans.

Also read Georgia Byng's Molly Moon, Mickey Minus and the Mind Machine. I really liked the first two books, found the third confusing, and didn't like this one. It was easy to follow-- Molly travels into the future to find her missing twin brother but gets caught in the web of an evil ruler-- but the characters were all rather unpleasant, and I thought the section with all of the evil mutant animals, which was lengthy, dragged a bit. Still, I realize that these are personal objections and not ones that will keep students from enjoying the books. In fact, 8th grade daughter ran off with this one and thought it was great.

Pink books,a law unto themselves

While I would like to have only "pink" books that are really high quality with engrossing discussions of relevant topics, there is such a huge demand for this type of literature that things that are competently written and amusing will have to suffice. I do have lots of girls who will read at least four books a week.

Perfectly competent but a little weak (name dropping, slightly weak plots) are Victoria Ashton's Confessions of a Teen Nanny series. (That title, Rich Girls, and Juicy Secrets.) Two teens work as nannies for the families of students in their school/social circle. Complications ensue. Interesting depiction of students with lots of money, some celebrity, etc.

Also cashing in on celebrity in the Dyan Sheldon sequel to Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet. Sheldon does more comedy, and the main characters missteps (and oblivious qualities) make this amusing, although I like her other titles a bit more.

Certainly, these books get checked out frequently, even though I didn't enjoy them as much as Rallison's Revenge of the Cheerleaders.

Why I Read Books

I read so that I can tell my students what books they might like. I read so that I know what to order. I also talk to my students a lot about the sorts of books that appeal to them. There are many books that are perfectly fine, but which the majority of students will not find interesting. My job is to find books that walk that fine line-- thought provoking AND interesting.

One of these was Katherine Brubaker Bradley's Leap of Faith. Kicked out of her public school because she attacked the principal's son with a knife, Abigail is forced to attend a Catholic school. While there, she finds out that she has a flair for theatre, and also thinks a lot about what she believes. Certainly, this is something that a few students would find very compelling, but it suffers from what students calls "nothing happened". That's slightly more polite than my "introspective navel-gazing" description. In short, it's a fine book, but one that would gather dust most of the time. I can only afford books that will get used frequently.

Another book where not much happens is Sharon Creech's Replay. Leo finds his father's teenage journal and is surprised to learn that he liked to tap dance. Child's Language Arts teacher read this and thought it would be good for discussion in class, because it is largely concerned with issues of personal identity and how people change. Leo is involved with a play at school, and there is a lot of discussion about the roles that are cast, and this would also lead to good discussion. Child, however, read about three chapters before returning the book to me and telling me it had no plot. (I.E. Nothing happens.) My 4th grade daughter didn't get that far, because she was sooooo bored. (She's a reluctant reader.) My 8th grader started it but put it down in favor of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. General verdict: fine book, but it's not going to thrill children who HAVE to read it for class.

Friday, January 04, 2008

My New Favorite Author-- Janette Rallison

This doesn't mean I no longer love Maureen Johnson, but Rallison has burst on the scene with a huge number of really good "pink" books. This is, of course, my shameful and secret love. So many of these books are not quite what I want them to be, but the one I read last night, Revenge of the Cheerleaders was almost perfect.

Chelsea is a cheerleader, but a nice one. Her sister, Adrian, is dating a grunge rock punk (Rick) who pens an album of mean songs about cheerleaders. To get back at Rick, Chelsea plans to tryout for the television program High School Idol, hoping to beat Rick's band. In order to get coaching, she needs to help two unpopular girls gain enough confidence to sing in public. During her supervising of her mercurial sister, she meets a nice, attractive college boy (she's a high school senior) whom she really likes. Complications ensue. Everything works out well in the end.
I appreciated the fact that this was a high school story but not inappropriate. The cheerleaders were all nice and sympathetic characters. The plot twists were surprising but plausible. Lessons were learned. It made me very, very happy.
Liked all the titles by this author, especially How to Take the Ex out of Ex-boyfriend. Check out either Ms. Rallison's blog or web site:

More Jerry Spinelli

I definitely admire the breadth of Spinelli's writing. It's fun to find an author whose next book is not something that you would expect.

For my lower readers, I have his Tooter Pepperday, which is good for fans of Junie B. Jones, and apparently a series. (Girl does not want to move to farm with aunt so father can write full time, but is won over eventually.) The Bathwater Gang is rather Cleary-esque (neighborhood full of kids gotten together by spunky grandma). I don't feel qualified to comment on either, since they were emergent reader "chapter books". I never like these. In first grade, I checked out Carolyn Haywood and Donald Sobel and have never looked back.

Loser was much better than I anticipated. Introspective navel-gazing, to be sure, but very well done, and a very understanding view of a student who struggles and doesn't fit in. This would be very effective for a classroom discussion.

Check out Mr. Spinelli's web site, which is very flashy and fun, to see more about his books. Again, he has such a wide range. Aside from Stargirl, I particularly liked Milkweed (about a boy surviving during the holocaust) and The Library Card. I found Wringer disturbing, but some of my reluctant readers adore it. I would like to read Jason and Marceline (sequel to Space Station 7th Grade) but it's out of print!


Thursday, January 03, 2008

Caroline Lawrence, The Charioteer of Delphi

This is the 12th book in the series of mysteries set about 79 a.d., mainly in the port city of Ostia, but also in various other spots. In this, the children go to Rome to solve the mystery of a missing race horse and get caught up in intrigue surrounding the races in the Circus Maximus. Rich in details, these are all fun ways to give students information about ancient Rome in a way that is entertaining and yet very, very informative. There are apparently going to be 18 in the series, which is wildly popular in England. There is even a television program that I wish could be obtained in the states.

I read this on the last day of break, which would account for my slight annoyance at a couple of things. Nubia, the African slave girl, speaks in stilted English. I hate reading anything in dialect. (This is why I haven't abscounded with the new Brian Jacques' book. It can wait until summer. )Nubia could also "talk" to the horses and understand what they were feeling, which seemed odd. I don't think students will mind, and these things were certainly minor issues in a well-crafted series. I am looking forward to the next!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

McDonald and Draper

Janet McDonald's last book (the author died last year), Off-color, was very interesting. Cameron has a bad attitude about life (many of McDonald's characters do), which I found irritating as a teacher, since she doesn't seem to suffer very much from it. What does bother her is finding out that her father was black. Coming as it does after her mother moves them to a neighborhood where she is around a lot of black girls, it gives her a lot to think about in terms of identity. Since there are a lot of multiracial students, and not much literature that shows them, this is a good book to add to many collections.

Probably the best book I read all break was Draper's November Blues, a sequel to The Battle of Jericho. November's boyfriend died at the end of the first book, in an awful hazing accident. She is starting to comes to terms with that when she realizes that she is pregnant. While Josh's death certainly figures largely in this book (his parents want to adopt the child until they fear that she might be brain damaged after a premature birth), it is really a book about teen pregnancy told in a very delicate way. Like One Good Punch, it shows choices and consequences in a realistic way.

For whatever reason, this sort of book is starting to hold more appeal to me. Held up against something like Jan Slepian's Back to Before, it seems much more relevant. No one has picked up the book about time traveling cousins the whole time it has been at my library, and I can't say that anything about it compels me to make sure that anyone does.

Back to school tomorrow, to see how the students liked the new shipment of books that came in the day before break!

More Spinelli

Who Put that Hair in my Toothbrush (1984) is really two stories-- that of Megin, tomboyish 7th grader who is into hockey, doughnuts, and visiting a friend at a local nursing home, and of Greg, a vain 9th grade boy who loves a girl who has moved away, and is annoyed by his younger sister. Told in alternating chapters, both stories are interesting, but I think the book would be better if they were separated, because then the boys who like romance books would read this. As it is, I don't think it likely that they will wade through Megin's tale.

Spinelli has a very fine comic sense, which is not as evident in his quirky, dysfunctional Newbury attempts like Stargirl and Eggs. He should next write a romance book for 8th grade boys. Nice, clean, funny. Perfect.

The Rise of Lubchenko

Simmons Finding Lubchenko was half fantastic. This was okay. Again, Evan is put into a lot of danger, but spends most of his time goofing off, flying to Europe and hanging out on topless beaches. I hope that this is just building suspense, waiting for his run in with the dangerous spies that want to kill him, but when he finally gets to that point, it is anticlimatic and I'm disappointed. I will have to read a third book before buying it-- these are ultimately unsatisfying despite their really, really promising premise. And I liked Pool Boy, too, for examining the teen angst. Even the angst is treated lightly in Lubchenko. Sigh.

The Last Holiday Concert, Clements

Certainly, Clements is safe for everyone to read. A teacher on the verge of being laid off due to budget cuts gets fed up with his rowdy 6th grade chorus and leaves it to the biggest trouble maker to arrange the whole concert. Despite mishaps, the students learn to work together, and the teacher sees that sometimes he had to let the children work out their own problems. Touching, clever, and sort of boring. Every elementary school library should have all of Clements' work. Except for the Things Not Seen series. Some should have that one.

Like One Good Punch, the ending is unclear. What happens to the teacher who loses his job? And how many teachers let their programs be cut without putting up any fight? Oh, well.

Masquerade, de la Cruz

The second in the Blue Bloods series, this is another one of the vampire books that are fairly mature. While delicately done, there is still the whole issue of "bonding" with her human companion that Schuyler faces that makes me uneasy. The first book was very, very clever ( I still love the tie in with the First Families in New York and vampires); this one was less so. The girls who like Twilight will love this one as well. WHile I won't be handing this to 6th graders, it was awfully fun to read, and I think that some of this would go over the 6th graders' heads.

Assorted Older Sports Books

Will have to keep Slote's Love and Tennis because it is very technical and has a lot of information about tennis and pursuing a professional career. I don't get many students who are seriously into tennis, but if I did, this would be the book for them. Basically, Buddy's mother and father want him to train more seriously than he wants to train-- he'd rather hang out with a potential girlfriend, but he does go to a very intensive tennis camp to see if he has "what it takes".

John K. Tunis' World Series was a decent enough baseball book, with lots of play-by-plays and talk about what the players will do. Unfortunately, since this author died in 1975, the book is also filled with characters with nicknames like Fat Stuff and Babe. These still check out well, and they certainly aren't offensive at all, but they do seem slightly dated. I need to read a few more, but these are for strong readers who are really, really into their baseball!

One Good Punch-- Wallace

This is a bit of a departure from the younger sports series that Wallace has (and I can't think of the titles, of course), but it is very, very good.

Michael Kerrigan, 18, makes some good choices. He is committed to running track, he very competently and responsibly writes obituaries for the local paper, and he is thinking about college. He also makes some very bad choices, including buying four marijuana joints from a friend, who stashes them in his locker. Just before a police dog sweep.

The title comes from a story a friend's father tells him. One good punch was all it took for this man's boxing career to be over. Will one good punch (being expelled for the marijuana) take down Michael?

We don't know. Not to ruin the ending, but Wallace leaves us hanging. I see why ( we are supposed to get, I think, that Michael will not let the punch get him down), but it wasn't very satisfying.

The slim size of this does concern me. This is not necessarily for 6th graders. There is some discussion of making out with a girl friend and also the rather unnecessary supposition that she may be a lesbian. Still, there are a lot of bad choices that students can make, and books that show these choices, as well as the consequences, are good for them to read. Would I let my 6th grade son read this? Yes. Do I have any books I really don't want him to read? No. Am I leaning more toward problem novels with challenging concepts than I have in the past? Yes. The world we live in is a more difficult place than it was when I was in middle school, and some students need to see how decisions lead to consequences without actually having to live through them.