Sunday, November 29, 2015

Strong girl voices

The books I picked this week seem all have very strong, modern girl main characters.  I worry that these will not be appealing to boys, but their voices are very fresh and very fun.

This first one was just adorable.  It's called "Dream On Amber" by Emma Shevah.  It's about 11 year old Amber who lives with her mother and little sister Bella.  Her nonna lives close by but her dad is just gone (and without an explanation, Amber makes up her own stories about why he isn't there).  As they are walking home through the park, Amber and Bella see a dad and his daughter and Bella is reminded how much SHE misses their dad.  So when Bella writes a letter to her dad inviting him to her birthday party, Amber knows how sad it will make her mom, so she writes back to Bella.  But Bella either misinterprets the letter or doesn't read it properly, because she believes their dad is coming to the party.  Additionally, Amber is starting middle school and doesn't really have any friends, she has a tragically old phone, and a bit of a germ phobia.  She also has a very creative mind, a terrific talent for art and spectacularly fresh voice.  I'm not sure this one really belongs on my short list, because I'm not sure that any boy would pick it up, but I know it's going to be a BIG favorite with the girls.

This second one might have a better chance with the boys.  It's called "How to Outswim a shark without a snorkel" by Jess Keating.  I think this is the follow up to another book called "How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes are Untied" because there are several references to past incidences, but I didn't read that one and this one is a good story even without that backstory.  It's about Ana, who is going into 8th grade which means she is 12 (I think).  Her grandfather is a famous zoologist and last year, she became a presenter at the zoo about reptiles (which she knows a lot about).  Her best friend has moved to New Zealand and seems to have a new life, which leaves Ana a bit adrift.  However, her grandfather has a big surprise for her.  A new aquatic exhibit at the zoo, which he would like her to help out with.  Help also comes in the form her nemesis, Ashley, who is also volunteering at the zoo for the summer.  There is lots of great animal information and some pretty terrific quotes (the opening one from Neil DeGrasse Tyson!).  But there is also quite a bit of conversation about how butts look in bathing suits or skirts, bras (needing them or not), and hot boys.  I think the middle schoolers might like this one better.  I'm pretty sure the boys at my elementary school would drop this like a hot potato when it got to a scene like that.  It is a fun and funny read though.  

This last one also had such a fresh voice!  It's called "A Blind Guide to Stinkville" by Beth Vrabel.  It's about 12 year old Alice.  Her family has just moved to Sinkville, SC, where her dad is the new manager of the local paper mill (which helps give the town its nickname-Stinkville).  Alice's mom is not coping well with the move.  In fact, she's suffering from depression and is struggling just to get out of bed in the mornings.  It's a good thing it's summer vacation, but Alice's older brother is really angry that his dad is too busy to help, so he isn't as much fun to be around as he might be.  Alice ends up seeking refuge at the local library where she meets some of the locals, including a really great girl named Kerica and a not so great one named Sandi. Did I mention that Alice is also visually impaired as a result of her albinism?  Alice gets wind of an essay contest about the success of Sinkville and decides to enter.  She uses the stories of the people that she's met.  It's a great story about resilience, and living with a different kind of ability, and friendship.  I really loved this one.  

Friday, November 27, 2015

My not so very short list for CYBILS

So I think I must stink at this.  Making a short list, that is.  I have the longest short list of all the people in my group.  Sigh.  But I LOVE these books.  I just looked at the list again.  The other people in my group have a nice manageable number like 5.  I have FOURTEEN.  I really just looked at it critically again (right after I added another book).  But it was SOOO good.

This one is called "We are all made of molecules" by Susin Nielsen and she has got author's voice NAILED.  This story is told from two different points of view and even though the chapters are headed with the person who is telling the story, you totally don't need it because each character's voice shines through in the best (and often most hilarious) possible way.  The story is told by Stewart and Ashley.  Stewart is a very intelligent but socially awkward 12 year old.  His mom died about a year and half ago and his dad has been dating a woman he works with and they decide to move in together.  Ashley's parents split up about the same time because Ashley's dad is gay and Ashley (who is 13) decided this wasn't good for her social capital, so she didn't tell any of her friends and is barely speaking to her father.  Ashley is very interested in appearances (particularly fashion) and misuses words (to hilarious effect).  When Stewart starts attending Ashley's school, he has to navigate the whole social scene, which includes some pretty awful bullying (in a locker room).  Part of what makes this book so awesome is Stewart's sense of what's right and how to get to that place of having people treat you nicely.  This one would be great paired up with "Wonder" by R. J. Palaccio or "Counting by 7's" by Holly Goldberg Sloan.

I'm still debating about putting this one on the short list.  I really loved it but one of my fellow reviewers totally panned it.  I often wonder when that happens if I've given up on some of the books too soon.  It's surprising how much our background information plays into our experience as readers. Anyway, this one is called "Catch you later, traitor" by Avi.  It's about 13 year old Pete, who is growing up in Brooklyn in April 1951.  He likes baseball and hanging out with his friends and reading Sam Spade mysteries.  He even fancies himself a writer and writes passages in the style of Dashiell Hammet (which I enjoyed very much AND would make a great compare and contrast feature as well as talking about author's voice).  After parent night at school, Pete's teacher, Mr. Donovan, starts dropping hints that Pete's dad, a college professor, is actually a Communist.  After a few days, it's not so much hints, as full out bullying.  Pete is then visited by the FBI (when his parents aren't home) and he starts believing that maybe his dad has somethings that he hasn't fully explained. I loved the mystery aspect of the story (who IS informing to the FBI?) as well as the family dynamics and the historical perspective is terrific.  I think this is a great book.  

Here's a little piece of an interview with the author, Avi, telling about the importance of the setting in this story.

This last one, I also really loved.  It's called "Dear Hank Williams" by Kimberly Willis Holt.  It's historical fiction, set in Alabama in 1948 and it's told (unsurprisingly) in fan type letters to Hank Williams from 11 year old Tate P. (who is a girl).  She lives in a very small town with her great aunt and her little brother and a great uncle.  Through the letters she explains that (in addition to being a very big Hank Williams fan) she lives with her great aunt because her grandparents were killed in a car accident and her parents are both on the road (her mother is a motion picture deal and her father is a world famous photographer).  But it turns out that her mother isn't really in a motion picture deal and her father isn't really a photographer.  I really liked the voice of Tate as she comes to terms with some of the real life things that happened.  There are some interesting references to racism (both to blacks as well as to post World War 2 Japanese).  There are a lot of interesting musical references, which might be interesting to some kids, but what really pulled me in was Tate.  I really loved her character and her voice.  She describes herself as an optimist and she really is.  I loved her sunny disposition and her struggle to maintain that optimism.  Loved her!  

Sunday, November 15, 2015

More new picture books from Netgalley

Wow, are these some good ones and you'll have to keep an eye out for them, because I just tried to order them and they haven't hit the stores yet.  They are totally worth waiting for.  Check these out!

The first one is called Build Beaver Build by Sandra Markle.  The art work in this one is amazing.  The pictures are very detailed and so pretty!  It's about a young male beaver living in a dam with his family.  It shows how he grows and changes, how he gets food, how he avoids predators, how he plays with his sisters.  It's really a very thorough story of the life cycle and habits of a beaver.  Here in south Florida, we don't have beavers so I think my kids will be super interested to read about them in such an inviting and lovely book.  It's set to be replaced at the end of January, which should be an awesome time of year to get this one on the shelves, when the beavers are really having their babies and starting to be more active.  

The second one is called "Whose hands are these?" by Miranda Paul and I think this one is going to end up in practically every library that has little kids visiting.  It's a riddle book about community workers, so it's a super fun way to talk about peoples' jobs and the things they do while they are at work.  The text is rhyming so the kids will have fun guessing based on the rhymes.  The pictures are bright and adorable.  I loved this one and I can't wait to get it into my library.   But I will have to be patient (I'm trying not to whine about that), because this one also won't be released until the end of January (but I want it NOOOWWWW).  

The last one is a poetry book.  It's called "When the Sun Shines on Antarctica" by Irene Latham.  Unsurprisingly, it's a poems about the animals and geography of Antarctica.  What's really great about it is, that in addition to poetry and the lively pictures, are facts about the animals as well as some of the impacts of climate change.  This is going to be another one that lots of teachers are going to want to have because of the easy way to compare and contrast the poetry and the factual information.  Awesome!  This one won't be available until February.  Ok, I'm going to try to not whine about that either, but I'm REALLY going to have to work on being patient.  This one would be great paired up with Helen Cowcher's lovely picture book "Antarctica".  

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Picture books from Netgalley

So I've been completely underwater with the books from CYBILS over the last few weeks.  I've had over 40 books laying on my coffee table, waiting patiently for me to pick them up (or if you are thinking negatively about it, having been sitting there in a surly silence waiting for me to pick them up, but I prefer the positive).  My students are shocked that I can usually get through one chapter book in a day, but they are easily impressed.  I am, however, feeling a little tired of the middle grade genre.  Too much death, too much drama, I needed a break.  So this afternoon, I started reading picture books.  The ones I picked are just terrific.  Just what I needed for a little literary pick me up.

The first one is called "A Tower of Giraffes" by Anna Wright.  It's basically a list of unusual collective nouns with some facts about the animals thrown in.  The text is interesting and kids will like it, but what's really awesome about this book is the pictures.  The animals are drawn (it looks like ink drawings to me, but I'm not really an expert) in a very realistic way and the expressions of the animals is terrific.  Then, she puts pieces of fabric over the animals' bodies and sometimes it looks hilarious and sometimes it's just plain gorgeous.  I think kids are going to love this one for it's balance of art and science.  Check out this picture of a group of flamingos.
 or this one of mice and hedgehogs. Fabulous!

The second one is called "Will's Words: How William Shakespeare change the way you talk" by Jane Sutcliffe and illustrated by John Shelley.  This book is a short history of William Shakespeare's life and it's beautifully illustrated.  It has side panels that tell the story.  On the left hand side of the page, there is a bit of William Shakespeare's life story and on the right side are some of the words and phrases he coined, along with citations of where they came from and what they mean.  It's a really brilliant piece of work and will inspire a lot of people to read more Shakespeare.  

The last one is not from Netgalley but I heard about it as a possible Caldecott contender.  It's called "Two Mice" by Sergio Ruzzier.  It's a very simple story about (not surprisingly) two mice.  The two mice appear to be best friends because they pretty much do everything together and for the most part, they get along very well.  What's really clever about the book is the very limited number of words for the story and how the story is told primarily with numbers and nouns. So here's an example:

And one more just because I can. 

See what I mean?  Completely adorable!  I think kids are going to love this one.  I know I did.  

It's noisy out there-more CYBILS books

I've been thinking a lot this week about how difficult it is to get noticed.  In particular, I was thinking about the database I wrote-The Booksearch- that lets you search for books based on the skill you want to teach (I'm struggling with marketing it).  But it actually must be exactly the same for authors. I've read some really great books this week that I think my kids will like a lot, but I never heard of them and I'm pretty sure unless someone with a very loud voice stands up to say "This is awesome, don't miss it", it's going to be relegated to a dusty corner of a shelf where in 10 years, someone's going to say "Why on EARTH did anyone buy this book?"  (Which I know happens, because I've been doing THAT this week too.)  So here goes... I'm adding my voice to the cacophony of noise already around you!

The first one is "The Girl in the Torch" by Robert Sharenow.  It's the story of Sarah, who lives in eastern Europe with her mom and dad.  It's not an easy life, but it's the one they know.  One night, a group of horsemen comes through their village and kills Sarah's dad along with several other men.  Sarah and her mom decide they need to leave their village and go to America to find Sarah's aunt, who lives in a beautiful place called 'Brookalin".  They get on a boat and Sarah's mom gets terribly sea sick so Sarah takes care of her the whole time.  When they get to NY, they are separated (at the time, the authorities would not let you in if you were sick, you went to quarantine).  Sarah gets word a few days later that her mom died and she is going to go back to Russia to live with her uncle, who never gave the impression that he liked girls in anyway.  Sarah REALLY doesn't want to go so she decides to make a break for it.  This book is full of action and historical touchstones that make it a really great story to read with kids who might be studying about immigration.  It has pieces not only about Jewish migration but also Chinese, Irish, as well as some of the prejudices of the Native Americans and the African Americans'.  I thought Sarah was a really plucky character and she deserves to be heard.   This one would pair up well with a book like "Big Sky Hattie" by Kirby Larson.

The second one I almost put down.  It's called "Stealing the Game" by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld.  It's the second one in a series (and I TOTALLY missed the first one) about a 8th grader named Chris.  He likes to play basketball and he likes to draw comics (graphic novels) and he doesn't think that either of things will please his high powered lawyer parents.  His older brother, Jax, is the one who is enrolled in Stanford Law School.  But one day Jax comes home.  He's hanging out with people who seem bad.  He's been drinking a lot too and Chris is worried.  The timeline of the book is a little confusing.  There are flashbacks and flash forwards that are labelled in a way that made me go "HUH"?   But trust me, hang in there.  The story was totally worth it.  It would be a serious spoiler to tell you any more but it's really, really good.  This might be a little big for an elementary school (there is come conversation about kissing that I'm pretty sure would make my students squirm).  This would be great paired up with "STAT" the series written by Amar'e Stoudemire.  Here's a little video where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talks about the book.  

The last one (today) is called "The Secret Mission of William Tuck" by Eric Pierpoint.  This one is also historical fiction and it's set in the Revolutionary War.  William is 12, lives in Virginia on his family farm.  His awesome older brother, Asher, is fighting in the Revolutionary War.  One day, Asher is fighting near by when the British Army approaches the family home.  Asher tries to lead the army away but is caught and executed by Captain Scroope.  They take all of the family's livestock and burn their fields.  William is enraged and decides to join the Revolutionary Army to avenge Asher's death.  He's too young to fight, but Asher taught him all the drumming signals, so William takes his drum to join the army.  During the first battle, William comes across a badly wounded man who begs William to take a message and tells him that this message might turn the war.  William goes and ends up meeting many key historical figures and skirting the edges of many historical events.  The story itself is very exciting and filled with thrilling plot twists and suspense.  It would also serve as a great entry point for learning about the Revolutionary War.  At the end of the book there are many references that would be a good jumping off point for more research.  I liked this one a lot.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Heavy stuff: Reading for CYBILS

I'm amazed at the range of topics that are addressed in children's literature.  I think reading about situations is a great way for building empathy and helping kids understand the situations for others.  It kills me to think that for some kids, these experiences are real.

The first one I read is called "Paper Things" by Jennifer Richard Jacobson.  It's about 11 year old Ari (short for Arianna), who's parents died.  At the very beginning of the book, she's living with a guardian, Janna, and her older brother, Gage.  Things with Gage and Janna have deteriorated to a point where Gage wants to move out, so he does and takes Ari with him.  It turns out that Gage wants to have an apartment and a nice place to live but he doesn't have the money to do it.  So they've been couch surfing for the past two months.  This gives a really vivid picture of what's like to be homeless and understand what it must be like to feel like you have so few options.  It's also a story of standing up for yourself and understanding that sometimes there IS no good choice and so you have to live with the consequences of the choice you make.  I really liked Ari's character.  She really seemed to know where she was going and I'd really love to read about her again.  This would be great paired up with a book like "Hold Fast" by Blue Balliett or "Crenshaw" by Katherine Applegate.   Here's a little video with an interview with the author.

The second one I read is called "Finding the Worm" by Mark Goldblatt.  It's the second book about a boy named Julian Twerski.  The first book was called "Twerp" and I didn't read that one, but this one was really good.  Julian is growing up in New York in 1969.  He has a group of friends from his neighborhood that all hang together.  Many of the boys are getting ready for their bar mitzvahs and they are all struggling with the usual middle school dramas of teachers, bullying, and class work.  But one of Julian's posse is sick.  Quentin has been in the hospital for quite some time and people are very worried about him.  Julian is also trying to decide how to handle the one girl in their group- Beverly keeps bugging Julian to race her.  Julian has always been the fastest one and doesn't want to get beaten by a girl.  There are some nice themes of friendship as well as some deep philosophical questions like why do bad things happen to good people?  I felt like I connected strongly to the characters, but I wonder if kids today would.  I kept thinking about people I would recommend this one to, but they were people that would have grown up in a similar time to Julian, not my students at school.  
This one would be good matched up with one like "In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson" by Bette Bao Lord or "The Wednesday Wars" by Gary D. Schmidt.  

This last one, I'm not even sure if I liked it, but it was super compelling and really couldn't put it down.  It's called "Watch the Sky" by Kirsten Hubbard and it is certainly the darkest of the middle grade books I've read so far.  It's about Jory who lives with his mom and his step-dad Caleb and his half brother, Ansel and Kit, who is a girl they found in their pumpkin field and have cared for ever since.  Caleb is a veteran with some pretty big issues with authority figures.  Jory's mom finds safety in Caleb and does what ever he says.  The story starts with Jory going back to school.  He's been homeschooled for quite some time.  Kit doesn't need to go to school because she doesn't speak or write and since they have no formal papers for her, there would be questions from "The Officials".  Jory starts making friends and they introduce him to a world where people laugh and have fun and use computers and eat fresh food, which is a big change of pace from Jory's family.  Jory's family is building a shelter to survive an apocalypse.  I liked Jory's character... he's a pretty smart guy who wants to do the right thing and tries really hard.  His friends are awesome.  I think I had the hardest time understanding his mom and step-dad.  I wonder if middle grade kids have enough life experience to fully understand a book like this.  It was certainly a lot different from the ones I've been reading.  

Monday, November 2, 2015

Crazy mystery adventures from CYBILS

THESE were really fun!  I've been getting bogged down in some of the realistic fiction.  I've been reading some pretty sad books so THESE were a breath of fresh air.

The first one is called "The Odds of Getting Even" by Sheila Turnage.  This one is the third one in a series and I'm a big fan.  The main character is Miss Moses LoBeau.  She's named Moses because as a baby, she was found floating a road sign in a river after a hurricane.  She was found by a man she calls the Colonel because he had amnesia and was wearing an Army shirt when he found her.  They live with Miss Lana and run a cafe in a small town in eastern NC.  Mo's best friend is Dale (named after Dale Earnhardt of NASCAR fame) and together they run the Desperado Detective agency.  In this third installment, Dale's dad has been accused of various crimes and is ready to stand trial, when he breaks out of jail.  The rest of the book is trying to figure out where he is and it's a thrilling tale.  One of the things that Sheila Turnage does really well is write similes.  Her figurative language is a thing to behold and at times, makes me laugh out loud.  Here's an example.  "Miss Lana says Reality is like cheap shampoo.  Sometimes it takes awhile to sink in."  or what about this one?

Dale struggled toward us with a pet carrier, his slight body leaning against its weight.  He set the cage by the steps and opened the door.  Two guineas (hens) popped their heads out-paste-white, wrinkled skin, cherry-red dots on each cheek, a sparse tufty of feathers on their tiny heads.  They darted out, and screamed across the yard.  "Those are the ugliest birds I've ever seen." Grandmother Mis Lacy said, blinking.  "Yet, but they make up for it by being loud." said Dale. "Guineas are the best watch animals next to a dog.

If you haven't read the first two, "Three Times Lucky" and "The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing", you don't HAVE to read them to enjoy this one, but why would you miss them?

The second one is also from one of my favorite authors, Dave Barry.  Dave Barry makes fun of Florida better than anyone else I know.  Most of the things he writes are more suited to adults, but this one is meant for kids.  It's called "The Worst Class Trip Ever".  It's about Wyatt, an 8th grader who lives in Miami.  He's a bit of a geek but he has a crush on the prettiest girl in 8th grade and is desperate to impress her (even though she's dating someone tall and handsome).  He ends up sitting next to his best friend on the plane ride to Washington, DC and things immediately deteriorate.  Without giving away any big plot lines, let me tell you that the story includes death threats (mostly from Wyatt's mom), a clueless teacher, a fellow student who can fart on command, an evil plot on the President's life, complicated technology, and terrible food.  In typical Dave Barry fashion, the story is hilarious and very fast paced.  The kids are going to love this one.  

The last one is a lot sweeter than the other two and it should be, with a title like "Honey" by Sarah Weeks.  It's about a girl named Melody who lives in a small town with her dad, Henry.  Her mom died when Melody was an infant and it makes her dad sad to talk about it so Melody doesn't really know anything about her.  Her dad has been even more absent minded than usual, so when she hears some gossip about Henry being bitten by the love bug, she assumes he has fallen in love and starts trying to find out who he is in love with.  Her best friend tries to help.  There is a great cast of characters, including a dog named Mo, who hates baths and cats.  It's a little funny, a little sad, and a really great story.