Sunday, October 30, 2011

Nonfiction Monday-- Built for Success

I have several of these Sara Gilbert titles (McDonalds, Starbucks, Google, Nike), and they have circulated so well that I have added several others. There are always some students who flinch at the thought of reading nonfiction, but the state standards, at least in Ohio, are certainly headed toward a lot more of this type of reading. Nonfiction doesn't have to be boring! I've worked to get rid of the moldy old 1950s science text books that were clogging the shelves in my library and fill them instead with fun topics. Hey, it's all the same skill whether the students are reading about the life of the Okapi or about Starbucks. If they get excited about reading about Starbucks, that's okay with me!

These are from Creative Education, a company which has a wide variety of interesting books.

In Which I Run Out Of Steam

My children would tell you that this has occurred because the house is so cold that the only thing steaming is their breath, but I refuse to turn on the heat until November 1st unless the temperature dips below 55. It's been 56 all weekend. I also have a Book Fair induced cold, complete with a sore throat, and although it is a gorgeous fall weekend out, all I want to do is sleep. Therefore, while I have read a number of books, my germ-addled brain has taken but the most desultory overview of them. This is actually not a bad way to determine the value of books; I was struck by the quality of writing in them even though I now remain unable to give a sufficient plot synopsis.

Look's Alvin Ho: Allergic to Dead Bodies, Funerals and Other Fatal Circumstances was quite delightful, although too young for my own library. I enjoyed how the unlikely circumstances almost made sense, and was only slightly put out by Alvin's occasional misunderstanding of terms, such as the Odd Sea for the Odyssey.

Nikki and Deja's Election Madness by Karen English was also interesting, although I always have trouble with books that put a lot of emphasis on class presidential elections, since I don't know of anywhere these still occur. This looks like a nice series for younger readers, but the present tense narrative wasn't something I liked.

I thought that Chris Raschka's Seriously, Norman would be a good funny book for middle school boys, but it went a bit over on the quirky meter for me. I'd take a look at this one first; it might be one for your library.

Eames' The Dagger Quick was a great historical pirate romp, complete with intrigue and adventure. Eames did a very good job at keeping the dialogue and setting true to the period; the only slight anachronism was drawing a smiley face on a barrel. Would people have done that? Maybe, but wouldn't have used the term smiley face, perhaps. Spent most of yesterday reading this one and felt quite swashbuckling by the time I finished. Laundry? Why do I have to do that on the pirate ship?

 Falkner's The Project and was slightly disappointing. It wasn't Brain Jack, which was so very good. Good, but without the technological component that made Brain Jack so fabulous.

Two problem/quirky novels that came across my desk were Lewis' Wild Wings, which failed to really capture my interest even though it was set in Scotland, and Schmatz' Bluefish, which I read all the way through even though I don't think any of my students would ask for this sad but ultimately triumphant tale of two troubled and disadvantaged students who count on each other to make it through tough times in their lives.

Kathryn Miller Haines' The Girl is Murder was pure fun for me. Iris' father has been injured in the bombing at Pearl Harbor, her mother has committed suicide, and things are generally grim as Iris has to adapt to a new public school where the students are much grittier than they were at her private school. Since her father's detective agency is not doing well because of his injury, she tries to help him out, especially when one of his cases concerns a boy from her new school who has gone missing. The mystery in this was a bit weak, but I reveled in the details of daily life during WWII; the clothing, the teen culture, the slang. Gave this one to Teen Daughter to read.

When I am doing my normal reading for school and blogging, I go through a lot of books that I don't review because they don't quite strike a chord with me. For the Cybils, I try to read the books completely and review every one, but that is rather hard. There are 145 books in my category, and I have read 109 of them, most of which I reviewed. I'm waiting on a few more reserves, but hope that some review copies start coming in, especially of some of the good looking Canadian titles.

I try to tell the children that it will be warmer if they take a nap. I may follow that advice as well!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Public Service Announcment

A school near you wants your trash. Not random stuff, but nonetheless something you would throw away or recycle:
Box Tops For Education Logo
We're talking LABELS! Those little labels on your box of Cheerios mean 10 cents to me. That new electric pencil sharpener and three hole punch on my desk? Campbells labels. Thanks to my students and some very motivated volunteers, my library earned $800 this October to put towards books.

If you pass by a school in your daily travels, or don't live far from one, contact them about donating labels. If they don't collect them, chances are good they will know someone who does. For extra credit, sign up at the Boxtops for Education website: And select a school you want to benefit from your activity. There are several daily bonus boxtops offers you can enter with a click of the mouse, and your school (or in the 43081 zip code, Blendon Middle School!) could win several hundred dollars in contests.

And Campbells? (Plus Avery Labels, Dannon, Glad, Emerald nuts!) If I can collect 1,600,000 labels, we can buy a minivan. Really! I don't know what we would do with it, but I think we could make the local news if we could do it! I got a bit distracted by their "academic" offerings, like we used to with the Green Stamps catalog. Do I want a minifridge, a greenhouse, or my very own battery run bull horn?

So get clipping! A child somewhere will be glad you did.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Little Goofiness

Broad, Michael. Ghost Diamond! (Agent Amelia)
Nominated for the Cybils by Elizabeth Dingmann

Amelia takes her oversized back pack with her wherever she goes, because her disguises always come in handy. In the titular episode, her class goes on a field trip to a museum, and her teacher is acting strangely... mainly because she is planning to steal the diamond on display. Luckily, Amelia is prepared, so the teacher doesn't get away with it. Amelia also foils cat nappers who plan to use the cats to rob a bank and a man at a green house who is raising evil plants.
Strengths: This is the first book in a series. My children would have liked these a lot when they were younger. There are lots of pictures, a simple story line, and a triumphant young character saving the world from evil.
Weaknesses: The formulaic qualities that my children enjoyed are not something that I like, and the pictures could be a bit better done.

Wardlaw, Lee. 101 Ways to Bug Your Friends and Enemies.
Nominated for the Cybils by Lee Wardlaw

In this sequel to 101 Ways to Bug Your Parents and 101 Ways to Bug Your Teacher, Sneeze is back from summer camp only to find that his life has become complicated. He still wants to help out at Gadabout Golf but needs to take a class to make up a gym credit, since he has a complicated class schedule that is split between the high school and middle school. He did get into the Computer Aided Design Class, which should help him with his invention, the Nice Alarm, but there's a wrinkle-- Hayley (whose father owns Gadabout Golf) likes an older boy in that class, the new golfer from Hawaii, Cullen. Hayley, on whom Sneeze has a HUGE crush, asks Sneeze to intervene with Cullen on her behalf, and Sneeze gets involved in a Cyrano de Bergerac type correspondence with Hayley, impersonating Cullen. Add to the mix a variety of quirky friends with their own agenda as well as bullies who are threatening the golf center, and this is one wild ride!
Strengths: The middle school romance is fabulous, and these books are tremendously popular in my library.
Weaknesses: I hate reading dialects, so having Pierre's fake French accent and Cullen's pidgin about drove me over the edge.

Historical Fiction

Conkling, Winifred. Sylvia and Aki.
Nominated for the Cybils by Edith Campbell.

Sylvia is glad that her family is finally able to have their "own" farm-- they are leasing it from a Japanese family sent to an internment camp. When Syliva finds a picture of Aki, who is about her age, along with Aki's beautiful Japanese doll, she vows to take care of the doll and be a good steward of Aki's place. Sylvia has problems, though; because she is Hispanic, she is not allowed to enroll in the local school, but must go further from home to a substandard school that provides an inferior education to "Mexican" students. Her father does not deem this acceptable, and sues the school system. Based on the real case of Mendez vs. Westminster School District, this draws interesting parallels between Sylvia and Aki's lives.
Strengths: This gives a very human perspective to a little known historical event. While I knew about the treatment of the Japanese in the 1940s, I had no idea about the Hispanic segregation.
Weaknesses: Students today might have a hard time understanding the acquiescence of the Japanese. The historical notes at the back of the book help with this.

Yelchin, Eugene. Breaking Stalin's Nose.
Nominated for the Cybils by Craig Jaffurs
Sasha is all set to become a Communist Young Pioneer, since his father is prominent in the party. He doesn't mind that he lives in cramped quarters with other families; this is the way of Communism, which he fully supports. He is sad about his mother, an American who died "in the hospital", but whom he suspects may have been killed as a spy. When his father is suddenly taken by the police, Sasha tries to keep his normal routines, although he must go live with an aunt. For the first time, he starts to see that the class treatment of a Jewish boy whose parents have been sent to jail might be unfair, and his frustration with school and the Communist party grows in a brief span of days and culminates with his breaking the nose off of a statue of Stalin. This causes an uproar in his school, and various students emerge as being foes of the Party, among them, Sasha, because of his father's imprisonment.
Strengths: This is a riveting account of one boy's troubles under Stalin. There is very little that I have seen written about this time period.
Weaknesses: The cover and title make this look like a book for younger students, when the philosophy and poor treatment definitely make it more appropriate for older students. The drawings are uneven, and some are rather strange.

Enderle, Dotti. Crosswire.
Nominated for the Cybils by Jo Ann Banker

In 1883, Jesse's older brother Ethan has turned to drinking and gambling, which causes him to be thrown out of the house. Jesse's father is a hard man, but the rigors of trying to raise crops and cattle in the midst of a drought make it impossible for him to survive any other way. Jesse should now be his father's favorite son, but his reluctance to shoot a gun (in the wake of an unfortunate accident) limit his usefulness to his father, especially since the farm is beset by fence cutters who destroy the family's property in order to get to their precious water. When a suspicious hired hand arrives on the farm, Jesse fears that he is connected to the fence cutters, but a final showdown proves that he is not. Based on a real but rarely coveered problem in Texas during this time period.
Strengths: This is an excellent book for reluctant readers. The conflicts are harrowing and gory, the emotions raw but briefly discussed, and the "wild west" setting with Texas Rangers and gun toting evil doers is hard to find. Buying a copy for the readers who like Paulsen's Mr. Tucket series.
Weaknesses: This might be a hard sell-- the cover and title are nondescript.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

This reminds me of...

Han, Jenny. Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream.
Nominated for the Cybils by Terry Dougherty

Fifth grader Clara Lee has a bad dream, but her grandfather assures her that this means she will have a lucky day, and she does. She gets to sit in the back of the bus, gets to read the best part in class, finds a candy necklace in her desk, and generally has a great day. How long will the luck last? She wants to try out for Little Miss Apple Pie in the town Apple Blossom Festival, but she's afraid her speech won't be as good as Dionne's, and she doesn't have the family history in the town that Dionne has. To complicate matters, she has a fight with her sister and disappoints her grandfather, and also fights with a boy who has a crush on her.

Strengths: This reminded me of Carolyn Haywood's Betsy books, which I adored. There is the multicultural twist of Clara Lee being Korean. Details of her family's differences are included, but are not the main story. I would definitely purchase this for an elementary school and am debating it for middle school. Really charming.

Weaknesses: The fight at dinner didn't come across as that big a deal to me.

Cheng, Andrea. Where Do You Stay?

Nominated for the Cybils by Charlotte.

Jerome, reeling from his mother's death from cancer, is trying to fit in with his Aunt Geneva's family, although it's hard to get along with his two cousins, and he misses his piano. When he meets Mr. Willie, who is staying in the carriage house of a derelict mansion on Jerome's street, he finds that the two share an interest in music. Mr. Willie tells Jerome about the history of the house, and when it looks like the house might be sold, the two make an attempt to fix it up. When a couple buy the house to use as the school, Mr. Willie needs to find another place to live, but Jerome helps fix up the house in hopes that the piano Mr. Willie talked about might be there.

Strengths: This reminded me of Constance Greene's A Girl Called Al, although it wasn't quite so sad! Jerome's family is loving and supportive, but his reluctance to be adopted by them rings true. Having lived in Cincinnati, I could tell that Ms. Cheng drew on her experience in the neighborhoods there to have a strong sense of place. I'll have to read this author's The Year of the Book, which comes out in May.

Weaknesses: There IS no house at 8600 Reading Road! I looked it up on Google Maps Streetview, and it's an empty lot. This somehow makes me very sad! I've even been to The Glass Barn down the street! Charlotte is right that the cover could be better; it is rather dark.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Nonfiction Monday/ Middle Grade Monday

Hughes, Susan. Case Closed? Nine Mysteries Unlocked by Modern Science.

Nonfiction Monday was started by Anastasia Suen, and the round up today is at Apple with Many Seeds. Middle Grade Monday is the brain child of Shannon Whitney Messenger.

This is the sort of book I try to hand students instead of the graphic novel of R.L. Stine stories. It has pictures, too, but has more to read and more opportunity to learn things. As the title states, this covers nine different historical mysteries, the most well-known being Anastasia and Hatheshepshut, which were solved so recently that the books I have that include them don't really close the cases! I also like the coverage of the polar explorer Sir John Franklin (watch those lead lined food cans!) and the story of Ubar-- an interesting use of space technology. Each case is laid out along the same lines-- the background, case opened, interesting side bars about additional information, and case closed, but also a sentence on whether there is more information that might be discovered. This is mainly illustrated, but some photographs are included as well. Since each case is relatively short, I am hoping that students will spend a little more time actually reading the book. (You can tell what my struggle was last week!)

This week is book fair and conferences, two weeks earlier than usual! I spend the weekend making peanut butter buckeyes to sell during the book fair-- it's become a sort of tradition, but takes a lot of time, so I got nothing read!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Rome, Math, Fashion and Death

Thompson, Kate. Most Wanted.
Nominated for the Cybils by Anamaria Anderson.

Marcus was out making his bread deliveries when he is handed a horse by a slave-- and not just any horse, but the purple bedecked "consul", Incitatus. Rumor has it that the emperor Little Boots (Caligula) is dead, and Marcus fears for the safety of the horse. He takes the horse home to his family's home and bakery and starts to think that he may also have endangered his family. His grandfather was killed by Little Boots, whose madness is portrayed in a number of scenes. The family decides that the right thing to do is to take the horse to the new emperor, Claudius, and hope for the best.
Strengths: So many. This is a short book with large type, but the details about every day life in Rome are vividly portrayed. This book makes the weirdness of Caligula's reign seem understandable, which makes it perfect for our seventh grade curriculum. Jonny Duddle's illustrations are reminiscent of Robert Lawson (think Ferdinand) and really add a lot to the story. Considering that this is a 5.7 Accelerated Reader level and just 2 points long, I may be buying two copies of this.
Weaknesses: Why were Duddle's illustrations not used on the cover? They had a You Wouldn't Want to Be book quality that would have appealed to reluctant readers.

Mills, Claudia. Fractions= Trouble!
Nominated for the Cybils by Susan Dobinick

Wilson is embarassed that he has to go to a tutor for help with his math, although he finds the tutor to be very helpful and also more enjoyable than he planned. His weakness is fractions, and he would rather spend his time drawing pictures of his hamsters, so his tutor works that into the lessons. Wilson is also hard at wotk at the third grade science fair, using the hamster in an experiment about how well hamsters can smell. His friend Josh is also working on a project-- trying to see under what conditions pickles will explode! Wilson is worried that Josh won't like him if he finds out about the tutoring, but in the end the two boys learn that everyone has trouble with some things.
Strengths: Nicely written, engaging book for younger students. A nice balance was struck with the tutoring, and it is a funny enough book that many students would pick it up in elementary school. Nice use of hamsters, something third graders ADORE!
Weaknesses: A little predictable.

Axelrod, Amy. Your Friend in Fashion, Abby Shapiro.
Nominated for the Cybils by Kathleen Morandini

In Massachusetts in 1959, Abby has a complicated life. She lives with her extended family, who own an upscale shoe store. Abby has two desires in life-- to own a bra and a Barbie doll. She loves to design fashions, and is particularly interested in the wife of an up-and-coming senator Jacqueline Kennedy, to whom she writes letters about fashion as well as the difficult things in her life. Abby tries to sell her designs in order to earn money to buy a Barbie. When her father moves out, Abby relies on the support of her family, expecially her aunt. To complicate matters, a girl whom Abby envies ends up having a father who embezzles money, her uncle dates a woman, and neighbors her aunt has hated (thinking "their people" killed her father during the war), turn out to have helped keep children safe during the Holocaust. One of them also finds and mails all of Abby's letters to Mrs. Kennedy, who kindly responds.
Strengths: Clearly, Axlerod lived through this period; the illustrations are ones she did when a child in 1959. The dynamics of the family are interesting, and the events in the world at large are described in a way that younger readers will understand.
Weaknesses: This read a bit like Adriana Trigiani's books. Great stuff, but heavy on details students might not appreciate. Readers today also might not understand the appeal of Barbie to a girl old enough to wear a bra. The father's role in this book could have been eliminated.

Murphy, Sally. Pearl Verses the World.
Nominated for the Cybils by Lisa Schroeder

Pearl loves to write, but she doesn't like to write poetry for her teacher because her teacher wants them to rhyme and have meter. Pearl's grandmother has told her that poems sometimes just are. Pearl's grandmother, however, is in the final stages of her fight with Alzheimers, and Pearl misses her dreadfully and is worried about the toll caring for her is taking on her mother. Eventually, the worst happens and Pearl and her mother must say goodbye to the grandmother and move on with their lives.
Strengths: For a novel in verse, this is better done than many. The illustrations are just right. The whole book put me in mind of Estes' 100 Dresses somehow.
Weaknesses: Overwhelmingly sad. This is for slightly younger readers, and I don't know that I would want to hand it to someone whose grandmother was dying. This also gets points off for the portrayal of the librarian: "We have many books, says Mrs. Rose, the librarian, and ALL of them are good. Of course she says that. It's her job." (page 16) Pearl doesn't see any books she likes, since she wants to read about someone in a situation similar to hers, so she leaves the library "empty-handed empty-headed empty-hearted". (page 17) Pearl looks so utterly dejected in the accompanying illustration that one would hope the librarian would have taken her aside and asked what was wrong.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Guy Friday-- Rock Star Guys

Everyone likes to feel like a rock star. You know: adoring crowds, applause, tight leather pants. Well, okay, maybe not the last part. But we all like to feel appreciated for our hard work. The Liebster Blog Award from Iron Guy Carl brightened my day, as did having all three of my district waiver day sessions on 100 Great New Books fill up. If we continue to have waiver days, I really want the auditorium. The spotlight would be nice.

There are plenty of authors who should feel like rock stars every single day. Anthony Horowitz, Rick Riordan, Jon Scieszka and Jeff Kinney should, by all rights, demand that their offices be stocked with only blue M&Ms and grape Fanta if that's what they want. Not that they would, because they all seem like nicer guys than that. And for some reason, Scott Westerfeld makes a lot of librarians blush. We'll try not to get into the authors that librarians find sexy, because that could only be disturbing. Although if David Gilman ever asked me out to lunch, I would certainly cancel other plans.

There are some phenomenally hard working authors who don't get as much press as they should, considering the sheer number of books that they are able to put into the hands of boys. So, gentlemen, feel like rock stars today. I hear that Jarrett Krosoczka has a great leather suit!

Gordon Korman
Wow. Really, what has Mr. Korman NOT written? He seems to have the strongest grasp of any author I know of what 12-year-old boys want to read. Could be because he started writing at the age of 12 and has not stopped for a moment since. If I have a boy in the library who has no idea what he wants to read, we go straight to Korman.

Carl Deuker
Mr. Deuker has had a slow but steady stream of the most phenomenal sports books ever. Lots of good play-by-plays, but beautiful prose, well-developed characters, complex story lines--- why has he not been nominated for a Newbery? He makes me feel like a slacker, because I think he also still teaches. No wonder he is so in tune with what students want. His mysteries that also involve sports are brilliant. Always wait eagerly for his new titles.

Rich Wallace
Short but wonderful sports books. Most boys who love football books don't want a 400 page tome, and Wallace understands this and is able to fit a great plot, engaging characters, and sports descriptions into books that take me 20 minutes to read. His Wrestling Sturbridge is one of the few wrestling books out there for middle grades. I would LOVE to take the writing workshop he offers if I ever get around to writing my cross country novel. I look to him for writing tips. He strikes a perfect balance.

Jordan Sonnenblick
How does Sonnenblick write such hysterically funny SAD books? The first chapter of Notes from the Midnight Driver is nothing short of sheer and utter brilliance. When I had extra money a few years ago, I made sure that I had three copies of everything the man had ever written. And guess what? Not a single copy is on the shelves now. He is also my hero for his stand on standarized testing, and when I e mailed him recently about his book Curveball coming out in March, he had his publicist send me an ARC.

There are plenty of other authors who should also feel like rock stars. Right now, John Flanagan, Darren Shan, Walter Dean Myers and Joseph Delaney can all do a little air guitar and prance around their living rooms. But then they need to get back to writing, because we need more books from them!

(All photos from author web sites or publisher biographies. If anyone does not want these photos used, please let me know and I will remove them.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Musical Interludes, etc.

Zalben, Jane Breskin. Four Seasons.
Nominated for the Cybils by Jessalyn Pinsonault

Ally's parents are both musicians, so they have pressured her to succeed at the piano, especially since she is doing a Saturday program at The Julliard School. Her teacher is also very demanding and rarely pleased with Ally's playing. Ally feel especially stressed because she also has to keep up with her homework and tries to maintain her friendship with Opal and is nurturing a budding romance with Brad. Over the summer, she goes to a prestigious camp, where she has a good time playing piano with her roommate, a violinist, until the two fight. Back home, the stress continues to build until Ally has a break down. In the final section of the book, Ally tries to come to terms with how to balance her life- can she still play the piano, but without the level of stress she subjected herself to previously?
Strengths: Like Notes From an Accidental Band Geek, this had a lot of first hand information about what it is like to be a top flight musician. Not an easy life. I especially liked the summer music camp. Oh! Beatrice Levin's 1963 The Singer and the Summer Song! That's what that section reminded me of.
Weaknesses: I didn't quite see that Ally was stressed enough that she had a breakdown and had to be hospitalized. It's also a little hard for me to believe that musicians want their children to go into such a difficult field of work. I have certainly dissuaded my children from going into education!

Parry, Rosanne. Second Fiddle.
Nominated for the Cybils by Annamaria Anderson

Jody, Vivi and Giselle are stationed in Germany in 1990 with their families , who all have ties to the Army or diplomatic core. They are all set to travel to Paris with their music teacher for a competition, but he has to go into the hospital and can no longer take them. Jody especially wants to go because her family is soon moving back to the States and she will miss her friends. They spend the afternoon in East Berlin, getting ice cream and trying to figure out how to get to Paris. As luck would have it, they see a soldier beaten and thrown into the river, and rescue him. Arvo is Estonian and has run afoul of everyone, so he doesn't want to be turned in to the police. The girls bring him food and clothing and plan for HIM to be the adult to accompany them to Paris. Once there, Arvo steals their money, and they have an interesting day trying to earn money by busking, hanging out with some other musicians, and generally enjoying being on their own in Paris. Of course, this can't last forever, and the military police soon bring them in, and they find out surprising things about the soldier they rescued.
Strengths: It is obvious that Parry spent some time in Berlin and Paris, and the sense of place is strong. I also enjoyed the traveling. This was more exciting than the cover would indicate.
Weaknesses: I found it hard to believe that Arvo would have been able to get on a train in Berlin for Paris without any kind of I.D. at all. Perhaps this was possible at the time, and students won't notice, but it bothered me!

Paquette, A.J. Nowhere Girl.
Nominated for the Cybils by Kip Wilson

Luchi has lived her whole life in a women's prison in Thailand.When her mother dies, she stays under the care of the chief warden until the woman must send her away. The warden has a nephew drive Luchi the house of other relatives to acclimate to the outside world, and then on to Bangkok, where he leaves her in the care of a friend. The friend takes care of Luchi for a while,but then steals her money. Not knowing how else she can get to the US to find her grandmother (she has papers her mother left her), Luchi stows away in a ship headed to California. Luckily, when she is found, captain of the ship is sympathetic, since Luchi reminds him of his own daughter, who passed away. At last, Luchi arrives in the US only to run into problems with immigration officials. She finally meets her grandmother, but when her paternal grandfather also shows up, she finds out the ugly truth about the circumstances that led her mother to be glad to be imprisoned.
Strengths: Another very good travel story about a young girl on her own in an exotic part of the world. The writing made it believable that she could have gotten as far as she did.
Weaknesses: After being given clues for the entire book about why her mother chose to remain in jail, I found the ending somehow anticlimactic.

Woelfle, Gretchen. All the World's a Stage.
Nominated for the Cybils by David Rosenberg

Kit is an orphan who has come to London from the country and fallen in with a gang of thieves. After a failed attempt at taking a purse during a performance of a Shakespeare play , Kit is taken into the company by Richard Burbage and made to work at various tasks. When the company loses their lease, they plot to steal the building materials from Giles Allen, transport them across the river, and use them to build their own theater. The plan works when the group works together during a three day period when Allen is out of London. Kit, who has been performing with the company in bit parts, decides that his real calling is carpentry, since his grandfather was a shipwright. The Globe is built, Kit finds a career, and all's well that ends well.
Strengths: This might be good to use with grade school classes that have units on Shakespeare; I'm not a fan of the plays, so I always have trouble imaging that anyone does these units, but they seem to. The fairly fast paced action makes this a good choice for students who want a story set during that time.
Weaknesses: The type face and drawings are purposefully primitive but did not add to the story for me. Again, I see a trend in returning to the bad covers of the 80s.

Playing nicely in the sandbox

I'd like to thank Iron Man Guy (sorry- it was early!) Carl at Boys Read Boys Rule! for giving me a Liebster Blog Award. I love to get these, (growing up, I didn't get trophies just for participating!) but I feel a bit odd giving them, as if they are some horrid chain letter. I have to remember that blogs don't exist in a vacuum, and blogs that I look like might be unknown to my readers, who might benefit from them.

The Liebster is awarded to blogs with less than 200 followers. (Which I hope is the case with these-- that widget is blocked at school!) It's an opportunity to shine the light on fantastic blogs and their authors in an effort to build readership.

1. Thank the giver of the award and link back to them.
2. Give the Liebster to five bloggers and let them know with a comment to their blog.
3. Copy and paste the award onto your blog.
4. Have faith your followers will spread the love to other bloggers.

I would like to pass the award on to the following bloggers:

From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors
This site has great interviews and a round-up of releases of middle grade titles.

The Kiddosphere @ Fauquier
Lots of good middle grade book reviews.

Ms. O Reads Books
Book reviews and a little bit about library happenings.

BC Booktalks
I like all the books reviewed here-- I just wish there were more!

Mr. Ripley's Enchanted Books
Always taunting me with great new books, mainly adventure and fantasy, that are out in the UK but necessarily here.

Hope everyone finds a new source of great books by visiting different blogs!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sad books

Pinkney, Andrea Davis. Dear America: With the Might of Angels
Nominated for the Cybils by Tanita

In 1954, Dawnie Rae doesn't like the school she goes to because everything is worn out and old. The schools that the white students attend, however, are much different, which is why when the NAACP is looking for students to enroll in Prettyman High, Dawnie's parents sign her up. it takes a long time for her even to be allowed to go to school, and when she finally does, the town com pains. Her father loses his job at the town dairy, which starts a boycott of the company by the blacks in town. Some of Dawnie's teachers are supportive, but some are not. Going to an all white school is difficult, but with the help of family and friends, Dawnie is able to persevere.
Strengths: Better written than some books in this series, in that they tend to have a lot of whining and details about daily life that don't necessarily strengthen the plot. The redesigned covers are attractive, and the historical information at the back of the books is always helpful.
Weaknesses: Horrible binding. I didn't care much for some of the overly Southern turns of phrase (" I worry Bethune will melt right into the ground, like syrup on a pancake.") because they seemed out of place with the general writing style.

Russell, Krista. Chasing the Nightbird.
Nominated for the Cybils by Lesley.

Lucky is Happy with his job on a whaling ship in 1851, but when he is docked in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he is shanghaied... by his long lost brother who thinks that their father owes him money. Fortuna, the brother, deposits Lucky at a boarding house, where a sympathetic woman who knew him as a baby takes good care of him, but also makes him work in a mill. There, he meets Daniel, a runaway slave, whose fortunes entwine with his own when Lucky (who is from Cape Verde and therefore free) is targeted by slave runners. Fortunately, he has also meets Emmeline, a young Quaker girl whose father is a sea captain. She tries to help Lucky, and is instrumental in freeing him not only from the slavers but also his evil brother.
Strengths: Lots of action and adventure, and a topic that is always in demand for our 8th grade curriculum.
Weaknesses: Despite the number of really evil characters opposing him, I never particularly liked Lucky.

Yep, Lawrence. Dragons of Silk.
Nominated for the Cybils by Natasha Maw.

Following four generations of a Chinese family, two of whom live in China and two in the US, Yep tells the story of how the silk industry ties them all together. In 1835, a family oaf two daughters and a mother struggle to keep their silk worm business alive after the father returns after having been addicted to opium. Despite their efforts, things do not end well. In 1881, the family is involved with a local realigns factory that is suffering the effects of the war, and the daughter meets young man who was born in the US and decides to escape her life in China for one with the young man, even though things are very difficult for the Chinese there as well. In 1932, it is again the women in the family who have been abandoned by the patriarchs when there is a reversal of financial fortune. While the mother proves unsuited for a difficult life the grandmother and granddaughters take in piece work, tighten their belts, and do what they can to stay safe and happy. Later, in 1962, one young woman tries to get into the designing end of fashion work; the end of the book follows her success and also ties her family in with the family of the sister who did not leave China.
Strengths: Interesting use of the myth of the Weaving Maid and her festival to set all of the stories,and good details about what daily life would have been like during each of the eras.
Weaknesses: There is more discussion of the silk making process than will interest many students; Parks's Project Mulberry is one that I can't get students to read. I was hoping for something more like Dragon Road.

Christopher, Lucy. Flyaway.
nominated for the Cybils by Kelly Jensen. (Who, by the way, is sort of like the person running directly in front of me in a 5 k. Every time I read three books, she reads four. I know, I know; the Cybils is not a contest to see who can read the most, but Kelly is reading way more than I am!)

Isla and her father love to watch the swans near their home, but are very disturbed when new power towers cause the death of three swans and the grave injury of another. Isle wants to nurse the other back to health, but runs into trouble because her father is suffering from a heart condition that is becoming more and more serious. Beset by dreams about the plight of the swan, Isla decides that for a school project she will try to get the lone swan to try to migrate, going so far as to take apart a stuffed swan and try to fly with it's wings. Her family is brought closer together as her father's condition worsens, even though her grandfather hates hospitals because her grandmother died in hospital, and tries to take hope from the progress of the swan.
Strengths: Lyrical writing is very effective and sad.
Weaknesses: Again, probably more about swans than the average reader cares to know.

Cybils Nominations

Hurwirtz, Michele Weber. Calli Be Gold.
Nominated for the Cybils by Jennifer Wharton

Calli Gold has a family of busy overachievers. Her sister ice skates competitively, and her brother plays basketball. Her mother is the Chief Family Organizer, operating with a complicated system of sticky notes and an enormous tote bag. Calli has tried lessons of various sorts, but would rather just "sit quietly and smell the flowers", which infuriates her parents, who rail that they did not have the many opportunities Calli has to benefit from activities. When her school starts a Peer Helper Program, Calli discovers that she likes helping Noah, better than taking improv lessons. Can Calli make her parents see that everyone has different dreams and goals?
Strengths: There are so many over programmed children and hovering parents, yet this is the first book I can think of that features them. The family dynamics are interesting and true to life; Calli wants to please her parents but also wants to be true to herself.
Weaknesses: The father is a bit over the top.

Couloumbis, Audrey. Lexie.
Nominated for the Cybils by Sara Soukup

Lexie's parents are divorced, and for the first time she is spending her week at the shore without her mother. To make matters worse, her father is bringing his girlfriend, Vicky, and her two sons. The cabin isn't clean, she doesn't get her regular room, and nothing seems right. Slowly, however, she starts to toddler Harris, who makes truck noises and is constantly dirty, and older Ben, who includes her in activities even though he is a teenager. When Lexie finds out that her father and Vicky are getting married, she is happy because she likes the boys who will be her brothers, but doesn't want to be disloyal to her mother.
Strengths: Even though Lexie is only ten, her feelings about the divorce and remarriage are treated in a way that will make sense to middle school students. I also appreciated that the group spent just a week at the shore and not the whole summer!
Weaknesses: The cover and illustrations might dissuade older students from picking this up, which would be a shame.

Collard, Sneed. The Governor's Dog is Missing.
Nominated for the Cybils by Sallie Lowenstein.

Slate and Daphne are living in Helena because their fathers are both geologists. When the governor loses his dog, Cat, when out walking, the two decide to help solve the mystery. They visit the capitol building and talk to the governor's staff, and eventually the governor himself. They retrace his steps and look for clues, interviewing people along the way who might have seen the dog. Slate has an enormous crush on Daphne, which confuses and embarasses him, because they've been friends for a long time. Finally, the two put together a number of clues and manage to find the dog in an unlikely place, and get recognized by the governor for their hard work.
Strengths: Very strong sense of place, which is something I like. Well paced mystery, with all of the elements students need for their 8th grade mystery project.
Weaknesses: Even though the two are middle schoolers, some details make this seem like a young book. Slate's descriptions of how he feels about Audrey seem akward, and my students never ask for missing dog mysteries-- they want murder. (Sigh.)

Davies, Jacqueline. The Lemonade Crime.
Nominated for the Cybils by Kara Schaff Dean.

After Evan and Jessie worked so hard to earn money in The Lemonade War, they are crushed that over $200 disappeared from the pocket of Evan's shorts. They are sure they know the culprit-- Scott, who has just bought an expensive video game. Inspired by a legal pamphlet her mother has written, Jessie "serves" Scott with a warrant in school, and proceeds to try to take him to trial for his crime. In the end, several mitigating circumstances come to light that affect the way that Evan and Jessie view the crime.
Strengths: There is a lot of good information about the legal process and the characters were well developed and sympathetic.
Weaknesses: There never seems to be any doubt about who took the money, and I found it hard to believe that they could accuse Scott in school for something done during the summer.

Larsen, Andrew. The Luck of Jude.
Nominated for the Cybils by Monica Kulling.

Jude and his mother live in Toronto with his grandmother. He rarely gets to see his father, who runs an Indian restaraunt and seems to be avoiding him. When his best friend Sanjali is hit by a new kid from England, Terrence, and Jude himself later suffers at the hands of this child, Jude tries to figure out why Terrence is so mean. Jude embarks on a study of the game of conkers after being hit in the head by horse chestnuts (or, as we call them here in Ohio, buckeyes) in hopes that the project he must work on with Terrence will help him be less mean.(For more information about what the game of sonkers is, consult the BBC articcle, Bonkers for Conkers.)
Strengths: I liked the multicultural aspect of this book, the strong family support, and how Jude was trying to figure out what made Terrence so angry.
Weaknesses: A LOT about conkers.

Selfors, Susanne. Smells Like Treasure.
Nominated for the Cybils by Robert Ranson.
Homer Pudding is back (after Smells Like Dog) and is finally issued an invitation to join L.O.S.T., the Society of Legends, Objects, Secrets and Treasures in place of his uncle, who passed away. Along with his friend Dog, he travels out to the moors to stay with Zelda, an officer in L.O.S.T., and finds out that since he is being challenged for the position by Lorelei, who caused him problems in the first book. Since she has the uncle's coin, she can issue the challenge, and takes Zelda as her guardian, leaving Homer with the sinveling secretary Hercules to help him with the challenge. A back story about the man who made the treasure map, Rumpold Smeller, is told alongside this one. Adventures ensue, and Homer must do his best to win the challenge so he doesn't have to go back home and be a goat farmer.
Strengths: Fair amount of action and adventure, treasure hunting, and slightly evil adversaries.
Weaknesses: Very quirky.

Whew. I feel better. I was updating Cybils databases in my dreams last night!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Nonfiction Monday

Harrison, Olivia. George Harrison: Living in the Material World.
Published by Abrams Books.

It's hard to believe that George Harrison passed away almost ten years ago. I've been looking for a nice Enslow or ABDO biography of him, since there is perennial interest in anyone related to The Beatles. No such luck. This book, put together by Harrison's wife, includes postcards, notes, original drafts of lyrics, photographs taken by Harrison himself, and plentiful quotes from Harrison as well as friends, family members, and associates. I loved how the book started with pictures of bombed out buildings in Liverpool-- it's easy to forget that the Beatles were products of the aftermath of World War II. This is a huge, gorgeous book that shows little known facets of Harrison's life in a sympathetic light. This is not necessarily a book that would be useful to my students, and since it has a $40 price tag I will pass, but it is a great read if your favorite Beatle is George.

Weekend Reading

Johnson, Maureen. The Name of the Star

Rory's parents move to England from Louisiana, and she attends a boarding school. Shortly after she gets there, a Jack the Ripper style murder occurs very near the school, so everyone panics and Rippermania take hold of the area. Having snuck out on the night of the murder, Rory is questioned by the police, especially since she saw one man that no one else saw. It turns out that Rory has the ability to see ghosts. Is the murderer really Jack the Ripper? Rory gets involved with paranormal "police" to help solve the crimes.
Strengths: Really can't do this book justice without spoiling the suspense. I'm not a fan of gory books, and this one is not especially so, but given the nature of the murders described, this is not for the faint of stomach. Johnson always does an excellent job of realistic fiction, but her foray into the paranormal is fantastic as well. 
Weaknesses: Not quite sure where the sequel to this will go; I'm sure it will be good but I would have preferred a stand alone title.

Grimes, Nikki. Planet Middle School. 

Joylin is a self-proclaimed tomboy who disdains all of the fripperies that girly-girls employ, but when she starts to be interested in several boys that she knows, she finds herself wearing makeup and uncomfortable clothing in order to attract them. She has many typical issues-- buying a bra, arguing with friends, feeling akward. 
Strengths: I'm always hypercritical of novels in verse, and this one is not bad. While the poetry doesn't have as much meter or rhyme as I would prefer, each poem is at least thematic, and the progression of them makes a fine story. I do have a lot of girls who play basketball, and it was great that the story was about an African American girl and NOT about her being African American! Weaknesses: Joylin approaches her problems with an overwrought sort of energy that I found tiring but which is true to life. 

Alvarez, Julia. How Tia Lola Ended Up Starting Over. 
Nominated for the Cybils by Gina Ruiz. 

Victor and his three daughters have moved to Vermont from New York City and share a house with the elderly Colonel Charlebois. The family loves the area, as well as being near Victor's girlfriend Linda and her children, who are living out in the country with Tia Lola, but everyone is concerned that Victor is not going back to his job as a lawyer. In order to make money, the family decides to turn Colonel Charlebois' house into a bed and breakfast. This angers the owner of another such establishment in town, and when Tia Lola gets the B&B up and running, a string of bad luck causes many disturbances. The children investigate and find out who is behind these, and the families all formulate plans to get their lives organized. Strengths: This is a nice multicultural story with a strong family support system, and is funny as well. Weaknesses: This is the fourth book in a series, and somewhat confusing because I hadn't read the others.

Sternberg, Julie. Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie. 
Nominated for the Cybils by Janelle. 

Eleanor's babysitter, Bibi, moves to Florida to take care of her sick father, and Eleanor is inconsolable. She misses Bibi and doesn't want to like her new babysitter, Natalie. Everything reminds her of Bibi, and she is frequently mean to Natalie just because she is not Bibi. Ellie is also somewhat concerned about starting third grade, and spends the summer working through all of her issues. She plays with children she doesn't like, sets up a lemonade stand, and finally comes to an acceptance of the new reality of her life with the help of her parents, Natalie, and a letter from Bibi. 
Strengths: This might be helpful for a very young child who has lost someone dear to him. The pictures and easy text would make this an accessible book for that. 
Weaknesses: I was halfway through before I realized it was meant to be a novel in verse-- the short lines seemed more like an I Can Read book than poetry.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Guy Friday- Picture This (or more aptly, Philosophical Friday)

My three children all ran middle school cross country for two years each. My older daughter also ran for three years in high school. That's 9 years of cross country running. How many pictures do I have of them?


I don't have any of my younger daughter, mainly because it's hard to juggle a clipboard and stopwatch AND camera while running back and forth across fields to yell times at 20 runners per race. I intend, at some point, to get some pictures from other parents. The good parents.

The larger point of this, aside from my many deficiencies as a parent, is that I don't really care about pictures. Graphic novels annoy me because I have to ferret the text out from the drawings. Have to turn more pages. It's more efficient to skip the pesky pictures and put more text on each page.

The students, especially the boys, don't feel this way. They LOVE pictures. Guinness World Record books. Lunch Lady graphic novels. Books about cars and sports and World War II, as long as they have pictures.

My only reservation about this is that I am not entirely sure that boys read the words in these books. There's a lot of page flipping that indicates the information presented is not being absorbed. I believe strongly that all middle school students need to read 30 minutes a day in order to strengthen their reading skills. That way, when they are forced to read East of Eden or The Canterbury Tales in high school, they can at least get through them. If they actually read the story in Magic Pickle books, great. If they only look at the pictures, will this help them?

I always tell students that my job is to make their reading as enjoyable as possible by picking out books about things that interest them. But they have to do the actual reading. This year, I seem to have more students than ever who don't want to read ANYTHING.

The point of this? What do you hand to the hard core reluctant readers? Are there graphic novels or books with pictures that you think students actually read?

Opine. Obviously, today it doesn't have to make a lot of sense!

(And have to laugh; immediately after posting I had to help my daughter find a quote by Robert Browning, and came up with this as well: "There, that is our secret: go to sleep! You will wake, and remember, and understand.")

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Unforgotten Coat

Boyce, Frank Cottrell. The Unforgotten Coat
A number of years ago, Julie's school near Liverpool had two Mongolian students show up for classes. Chingis and Nergui refuse to be separated, since Chingis is watching out for his younger brother. The two have their heavy coats from Mongolia, and a series of Polaroid pictures detailing their life there. Chingis claims that a demon is after his brother, but the class soon finds out that the family has more to fear from immigration officials. After the family is sent back to their country, the brothers' plight stays with Julie, until one day she looks them up online. Based on the true story of a student Boyce encountered during a school visit.
Strengths: A teacher recently asked me to put together a reading list with books about immigration-- this would be perfect. Can't say, though, that we have many Mongolian immigrants here in the US!
Weaknesses: The interior format of typing on notebook paper is a little unnerving.

Soto, Gary. Hey, 13!
From the description:
"Being thirteen is happy, sad, humiliating, surprising, wonderful, awful, exciting, boring, in other words full of ups and downs. The thirteen-year-olds in Gary Soto's thirteen stories experience all this and more.

In one story, a girl's world is turned upside down when she visits a college campus where she expects to find a rarefied atmosphere of intellectual pursuit, only to meet a tour guide who is tattooed, overly pierced, hungover, and not at all focused on academics. In another, two girls test the attraction of their new bodies by flirting with boys at a mall and then find themselves in an uncomfortable and somewhat frightening situation."

I am woefully bad at synopsizing books of short stories, but if your students like short stories (mine tend not to), this would be fun to have. Is Tiger Beat still published? That's what this cover looks like to me. I was hoping for something with the appeal of Mercy on These Teenage Chimps .

Last cross country meet of the season, then repairing the vast damage to my household and obtaining groceries this weekend (and, apparently, Halloween costumes) before hurling myself headlong into Cybils reading. May not be posting until Monday. My dining room table ... it's bad!