Thursday, December 6, 2018

More amazing middle grade characters

I'm still reading for the CYBILS award and it's bit surprising this year.  Usually there are several that I can start and within just a few pages, I know I'm not going to have to finish reading it because it's not interesting or it's poorly written, or I don't find the characters interesting.  But this year, they're all so GOOD.  Lucky I'm a fast reader!

This first one is called "Everlasting Nora" by Marie Miranda Cruz.  It's about a girl named Nora who lives with her mom in a cemetery in Manila.  They live in the cemetery because a while back there was a fire in their apartment and in addition to losing most of their belongings, Nora's dad was killed. They lived with relatives for awhile, finding small odd jobs to make money, but when things there didn't work out either, they ended up moving into the family mausoleum.  It's not ideal-there's only a small lock on the gate and it's only closed on three sides, but most of the people who live close by (there are other people living the cemetery) are kind to them and they have formed a pleasant community.  But one night Nora's mom doesn't come home.  It turns out that she has a gambling problem.  As Nora searches for her, she becomes more aware of how precarious their situation is and continues to hope for some solutions.  I don't want to give away too much because it's a really compelling story.  I loved that one of the things that the characters hold out for is education and that education can be the key to getting out of their current situation.  I think kids are going to like this one a lot because I think a lot of the storyline of being homeless is pretty universal but the cultural information about life in the Philippines is also really interesting.  It would help kids to understand why there are so many Filipino immigrants in the US.

                                            Image result for everlasting nora by marie cruz

The second one is called "Everything Else in the Universe" by Tracy Holczer.  This story is about Lucy, who is trying to be brave.  Her dad has left the family to go and serve in the military during the Vietnam War.  Before the war, it was hard to get to spend time with him because he was busy going to medical school to become a surgeon.  Lucy has a big support system-her mom, who comes from a family that believes that you should be very brave and keep a stiff upper lip, no matter what.  Then there's her dad's side of the family-a big, loud, Italian family that is superstitious and opinionated but also loving and caring.  When Lucy's dad comes home, he's left part of his arm in Vietnam so he has to think about how things are going to be different now.  She finds a new friend-Milo, who's dad is also serving in the military.  Together they embark on a mystery that revolves around a helmet and a Purple Heart Medal they find buried in the backyard.  This is a book that is both funny and poignant.  The family characters are endearing and seem like people you've met.  Lucy's character is compelling.  I really liked this book and I can easily see kids that are 4th-8th grade really enjoying it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Surprising characters in middle grade fiction

I'm polishing off the last of the turkey AND the last of my CYBILS list.  Although every time I think I'm really done I get another a box, so maybe I'm not as done as I think I am!

The first one I read that really surprised me was called "Boy Bites Bug" by Rebecca Petruck.  It's about Will, who lives in a small town in Minnesota.  His community doesn't have many immigrants so he's been with the same group of friends since he was in kindergarten until a new boy named Eloy moves in.  Eloy's family is from Mexico and his family runs a Mexican restaurant in town that has been wildly popular.  Will is offended when his old friend Darryl uses a racial slur towards Eloy and on a dare, eats a stinkbug which gains him a surprising notoriety in his middle school.  Will decides to use that notoriety to make Darryl feel bad about his use of the racial slur in a science project that he does with Eloy about eating bugs.  Except that Will often offends Eloy with his own racial biases.  So what was really surprising about this book is not the consumption of bugs (which will be intriguing to my students) but the whole idea of what constitutes racial bias and how even well intentioned people might be offensive.  I loved how Eloy would tell Will when he'd crossed the line and how Will tried to make things right.  I worry that there's a lot of description of feelings that some of my kids might find annoying, but overall it was a really good story and I can't wait to give it to my students.

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The second one is a book told in two voices.  It's called "Takedown" by Laura Shovan.  The two voices are McKayla (Mickey) and Lev.  Both are middle school students trying to figure out the usual minefield of middle school friendships and both have a love of wrestling.  Lev had a bit of a meltdown during last season when he lost an important match to a boy who's been a bit of a bully about the incident ever since.  Mickey is also struggling-she wanted badly to wrestle on the same travel team that her two older brothers wrestled on, but the coach refuses to let a girl join.  So she joins another team, the same team that Lev is on.  Because wrestlers compete based on their weight, Mickey and Lev end up training with each other.  What's really great about this book is the two voices and the different things they're struggling with but also the cross over between their two storylines and how you can see characters differently because of that point of view.  I learned a lot about wrestling, which I also thought was really interesting.  There was also some cultural information about Lev's Jewish family culture that I liked too.  All in all, it was a really terrific story that I didn't want to put down!

Monday, November 19, 2018

Books to be thankful for!

As we're approaching the Thanksgiving holiday, it's great to have a little time to stop and think about all the things I'm grateful for, like the ENTIRE week off school (thanks Palm Beach County Schools) and having brand new books delivered to my doorstep (FIVE PACKAGES TODAY!!!-Thanks CYBILS!).  AND since I've got all these new books AND all this time, guess what I did today?  Not laundry!  Not yard work (ok, there was a little yard work, just a few weeds and a few bags of mulch). YES!  I was reading!  Luckily, there were some terrific ones in the mail today!

The first one is called "Class Action"  by Steven B. Frank.  Mr. Frank comes by his knowledge of kids and schools first hand.  On the back fly leaf, it lists his profession as a middle school teacher.  So he knows of which he speaks.  The story is about Sam, who feels like he's drowning his homework.  His big step sister is drowning even more thoroughly, because she is bent on attending a good college.  Sam's dad is supportive, but would really like to also help Sam build a treehouse.  Sam's mom thinks he should just work harder.  One day in class, as the teacher is handing out homework for over the break, Sam decides to take a stand (literally) and refuses to do the homework.  He is suspended for 3 days.  During the suspension, he ends up talking to the cranky neighbor across the street (who happens to be a lawyer) and he and his sister decide to appeal his suspension.  It doesn't work but the lawyer (after some coercion) decides to help with the case.  There is a lot of social commentary (and if you believe it) research cited about the role of homework, including opinions on both sides of the issue.  There's also some very funny dialogue and some very interesting fallout from the legal case.  I read this book in one sitting (the luxury of vacation time!) and I enjoyed every bit of it.

The second one is called "Eliza Bing is (NOT) a star" by Carmella Van Vleet.  It's actually the second book about Eliza, who is about as charming a character as you are likely to meet.  Eliza is starting 6th grade.  She has ADD, which leads her into trouble sometimes, but she has lots of supportive people around her, including her new-ish best friend, Annie.  Eliza is learning about being friends and how to be a friend from Annie as they navigate the dangerous waters of middle school.  Annie suggests that they make a list of rules about 6th grade, which Eliza embraces enthusiastically.  Annie also suggests that they both try out for the school play, which Eliza is less enthusiastic about (she already gets a lot of attention, but not really in a good way).   But, Eliza wants to be supportive, so she goes to the audition and gets a part!  It's not really easy to get to play practice because Eliza's parents are busy (her dad is in college after being laid off from his job and her mom is a nurse who picks up extra shifts to bring more money into the family, her big brother doesn't drive yet, but is busy with band and other extra-curricular activities, including a new girlfriend) and Eliza is already busy with Tae-kwando, which she really enjoys.  But she finds herself enjoying the play more than she thought, making friends with some of the other kids, and negotiating her friendship with Annie.   It's a really nice story and I think kids will identify with Eliza and her cheerful outlook on life.  

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Middle grade fiction with social issues

One of the things that middle graders find compelling is an exploration of social issues.  As a group, they are exploring the edges of childhood and adulthood and trying to find their own paths, they are connected strongly to their families but are finding their own identities and sometimes these clash with their parents' views.  It's an interesting time.  The books that I've been reading this week explore some of those clashes.

The first one is called "No Fixed Address" by Susin Nielsen.  It opens with an interview at a police station.  Felix is 12 and lives with his mother.  It turns out they've been homeless for several months and despite Felix and his mother's optimism that things are going to work out, they really aren't working out.  But, that's really the end of the story.  The beginning works it's way through how they ended up there.  When Felix was small, they lived with his grandmother.  She died when he was about 5 and they inherited her house, but it was something and when they sold it, they were able to buy a nice new condo.  Except the condo was built on sinking land, and when the repairs came to $40,000, they had to move into an apartment and when Felix's mom lost her job, they got kicked out of there too. So they moved in with her new boyfriend and when he left to go to an ashram in India, they took over his van.  Astrid, Felix's mom, manages to get him into a good school where his best friend goes and they begin a hand to mouth existence, bathing in sinks at the convenience store or at the community center, and sometimes shoplifting.  Felix gets an idea that if wins a game show that he loves he'll be able to win enough money to solve all their problems.  It's a lovely story with lots of plot twists and really interesting characters.  There are some really interesting threads of social commentary as well-refugees, helping others, homelessness, sexual identity, beginning romance, mental illness, and hopefulness.  I can't wait to put this one in my library.

The second one is called "Where the Watermelons Grow" by Cindy Baldwin.  I kept singing that old song "Down by the Bay" when ever I saw the cover and I thought there might be a connection.  I was wrong about that.  The watermelons in this story are grown on the farm where Della and her family live.  It's a really hot and dry summer in eastern NC and the crops are struggling, but Della's family is struggling too.  Della's mom has schizophrenia and is sliding into a darker and darker place.  Della has seen this happen before and tries her hardest to try to help her mom by doing chores, helping her dad on the farm, watching her very mischievous little sister, Mylie but none of it is enough.  Della doesn't want anyone to know about her mom and her struggles, which is a really big theme throughout the book.  Della and her dad keep telling everyone she's ok but no one is surprised when things really fall off the rails and everyone wants to know why they didn't ask for help before.  I also really liked how Della seemed to think that there was something she had done wrong or something she could have done to fix this.  I think a lot of kids feel that way about family issues and it's good to see someone else going though this.  I thought this was a terrific story-I loved all the similes in the story and the language felt as sweet as the honey that was drizzled through the story.  

Monday, October 22, 2018

Compelling characters in middle grade fiction

One of the things that's so much fun about reading middle grade fiction is the amazing array of characters.  This first book has the most interesting array of characters I've read in awhile.  It's called "The Not So Boring  Letters of Private Nobody" by Matthew Landis.  It's about 12 year old Oliver, who is SO EXCITED to be starting a new social studies unit on the American Civil War.  Oliver loves learning about the Civil War.  He even belongs to a group of people who re-enact Civil War battles.  The bad news is that the project he's been so excited to start requires that he has a partner (he really wants to work alone) AND he and his partner are given a soldier to research that no one has ever heard of.  The partner is a GIRL named Ella who appears disheveled and is failing many of her classes.  She is not particularly interested in the Civil War and Oliver tries very hard to get out of working with her.  But, his teacher, Mr. Carrow (who is wildly enthusiastic and HILARIOUS) won't let him out of it and as he gets to know Ella, he finds that she's a lot more interesting (and pretty) than he thought.  I really loved the dialogue in this one-Landis has a great ear for conversation.  I also loved the plot twists and the mystery aspect of the story-the Civil War soldier was a lot more interesting than either of the kids actually thought and the conversation about who is really a hero is terrific.  I really liked this one.

This second one was a lot harder for me to read.  I didn't really recognize anyone I knew in the story as it began and that's actually what made it so great.  It's called "So Done" by Paula Chase.  It's about two girls named Jamila and Metai (Me-Tay, she'll tell you, not Me-Tie) who living in a housing project.  They have been best friends for a long time, but this summer, Jamila (who's nickname is Bean, short for Stringbean, because she's so tall and skinny) spent the summer with her big sister and her aunt in the suburbs.  Jamila enjoyed the time there and is not so sure she wants to be back-she has a lot of responsibilities with her family and the dangers of living in the housing projects are made very clear-but the real reason is something that happened at her friend, Metai's house, just before she left.  What made it hard for me to read was the dialogue, both spoken and texted.  It was very well written, but in a dialect that is completely unfamiliar to me (a middle aged white lady)- the dialect is urban teenager.  I did eventually sort of figure it out (I can read it, but I don't dare try to speak it) and that helped to make the picture of the girls and their lives more clear.  But the other part that was completely unfamiliar to me was the rage.  Tay is a character filled with rage and self-loathing and I found it really difficult to connect to her, but as the story progresses, you can figure out that the rage comes from knowing how much she's missing-no mom in the picture, a dad who is drug addicted and irresponsible and how understand the family that her best friend, Mila, does have, would be incredibly painful.  I loved this story of friendship and the evolution of friendships.  I loved how eventually the girls can tell their most painful stories and know that their friends have their backs.  I loved how each girl was able to find her own place, even if it looked like they were moving away from the friends they struggled to keep.  This one was a big wide window for me, into a place I've never been, but I'm glad I had a chance to see it.  

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

New middle grade fiction

I'm really excited that I get to be on the CYBILs judging panel again this year!  Last year I did middle grade speculative (fantasy) fiction and this year I'm doing realistic fiction.  It's such an awesome opportunity to get to read A LOT of books in a short amount of time!  So, not to gloat, but

Aaaand, that would be me doing the happy dance!

The first book I read was already terrific!  It's called "Once Upon a Princess" by Christine Marciniak. I'm going to tell you the truth, I was totally ready to hate this one.  I have very little patience with things that are just pink and sparkly and after the first chapter, I was ready to kick it to the curb, but I persisted and man, was it worth it!  It's about a princess (yes, pink and sparkly and silk gowns to start with but be patient!) who is ready to attend her first ball.  She's only 12 and typically princesses don't get to start attending balls until they're older but this is a special ball commemorating the 800th anniversary of Fritzi's family's ruling the small country of Colsteinburg.  The ball is amazing, full of lovely food, beautiful people, best friends, dancing and all the things you would hope for from a ball. Fritzi goes to bed dreaming of what a wonderful night it was.  And then she's abruptly awoken by her big sister, telling her to pack a bag and come quickly.  Fritzi can hear breaking glass and shouting but is unprepared for her swift departure from the life she's always known.  There's been a coup and her father is missing and Fritzi, her mom, and her sister have to hide in order to be safe.  The story that follows is exciting and filled with danger and surprises.  There are themes of adaptability, bullying, who people make judgements about you and standing up for yourself.  There is also a very interesting piece about the use of social media that I think could be an excellent teaching opportunity.  Fritzi is a terrific character and this was a very fun read.

This second one had me checking the author's information in the back of the book, because it was clear from the story setting in this one, that the author, Meg Medina has spent time in South Florida (where I live!)  It was just hilarious to be reading along and she would mention a very familiar place.  It gave me such a charge!  It's called "Merci Suarez Changes Gears".  It's about a girl named Merci (that's short for Mercedes) who lives in Palm Beach County with her extended family.  She attends a private school on a scholarship, which she likes and doesn't like.  She likes the school but some of the kids are really mean, particularly about Merci's amblyopia and the fact that her dad is a laborer - he's a painter.  In fact, the school bully, Edna, uses her words like swords ("No offense, but...").  Merci seeks solace in her family, especially her grandfather, whom she adores, but has seemed a little off lately.  It turns out his issues are pretty serious, but that comes pretty late in the book.  What's great about this story (aside from the setting) is Merci.  She is such a wonderful character-she works HARD, she loves sports, she adores her family, she's really creative and she's a really nice person too.  The people around her are interesting too and the family crises that come up over the course of the book will ring true with lots of kids.  I think my students are going to love this one.  

Here's a video about Meg Medina and what she's doing until the book comes out. 

                                                Image result for merci suarez changes gears

Sunday, September 16, 2018

New books from the book fair

We had our Scholastic book fair this week and there was a grand assortment of books.  There were two new ones I'd been hearing about but hadn't read, so I got to read this them this week!

The first one is a picture book.  It's called "All Are Welcome" by Alexandra Penfold.  It's a story told in rhyming verse about how school is a welcoming place.  The illustrations are warm and inviting and show a range of people who look different, sound different, and worship different from me.  This is going to be a terrific book for talking about classroom and school community.  I think it would be appropriate for little kids, but I think big kids, even middle or high schoolers, could appreciate it too.  Unfortunately, Scholastic only sent me three and when I tried to reorder, they were out of stock.  I think this shows that a LOT of people are enjoying and appreciating what a good book this is.  So you need to look for it too!

The second one was a chapter book and it keeps coming up on my Mock Newbery list, so lots of people must be enjoying it and after I read it, I can see why.  It's called "The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle" by Leslie Connor.  I absolutely loved her book called "All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook" about a boy who had been born in jail and grew up there and was "rescued" by the new district attorney.  Mason Buttle is one also excellent.  The first thing to love is the beautiful cover, designed by the Fan brothers-I adore their work.  The second thing is the amazing cast of characters assembled in this book.  There's Mason, who is struggling with so many things-he can't really read or write, the kids in the neighborhood bully him relentlessly, he has a disorder that makes him sweat A LOT, he lives in a house that is crumbling around their ears with his grandmother and his uncle (his mom died a few years before and sent all of them into a depression), and his best friend was killed in an accident at a treehouse that they built together.  Then there's Calvin, a boy who Mason rescues from the bullies and becomes close friends with, an amazing teacher, a police officer who believes that Mason had something to do with his friend's death... oh, I could go on and on.  The writing in this one is terrific and the opportunities for empathy are endless.  This is middle grade fiction at it's best.       

                                                       Image result for the truth about Mason buttle book trailer