Thursday, March 31, 2016

New picture books to look for

I've been wallowing in so much middle grade fiction that I forgot that I can read picture books!  And they go fast!  What a treat!  And wow, were there some great ones in the Netgalley list this week.

This first one really knocked me out.  It's called "Saved by the Boats" by Julie Gassman and illustrated by Steve Moore.  It's a short picture book about September 11 in NY.  It's not about the terrorists or even about the people who were killed, it's about a group of people who wanted to help (and if you can remember that day as clearly as I do, just about everybody wanted to help, but there just wasn't much to do from a distance).  This group of people were boat captains.  It turns out that when the planes crashed into the buildings, the debris falling completely closed car traffic in the area and the public transportation was also closed.  So how would all the people in the area get home safely?  It turns out that since NY is an island, boats were a pretty good strategy to move people.  Hundreds of boat owners and captains volunteered their boats and time to get people to safety.  What's really great about this book is the pictures.  They are line drawings with a very simple color palette-just blue, white, and shades of grey and black, but the drawings manage to convey all the emotion (ok, maybe not ALL but a lot) of that day, without being too scary or overly graphic.  For someone who watched this event on TV, I can remember clearly watching all the people covered with ash, leaving them all gray so it's just genius to have these pictures to talk to kids about this event.  It's also great to have a story that can help kids understand the deep emotion, fear, and overwhelming generosity of the people of NY.  I LOVED this one.

The second one is a fun little biography about a Chinese American man who supported the people who were setting up the National Park system, it's called "Mountain Chef" by Annette Bay Pimentel.    It's about a man named Tie Sing who was a completely amazing cook and he was asked to cook for a journey into the mountains in 1915.  It was a big job-feed 30 people, three meals a day for 10 days.  You can imagine that might be a difficult task, even now, with modern equipment and pre-packaged food.  But Tie Sing was well known for his abilities to cook outdoors, and cook well.  So they planned to bring lots of amazing food with them-sides of beef, peaches, cantaloupes, heavy cream... these were people they needed to impress.  They were very impressed with Tie Sing's cooking and then one of the mules carrying the supplies fell over a cliff.  It goes on to describe some of the many complications that Tie Sing faced and overcame.  I liked the watercolor illustrations but I admit that I might be biased for a story like this since I'm married to a chef.  But I liked the perseverance and I liked the fact that he was Chinese American.  I also think it's a good idea to have the kids thinking about some of the services that people provide for others and what that might look like as a job.  

The last one is a funny little rhyming book about a girl named Martha who really wants a moose as a pet.  It's called "Mail Order Moose" by Lisa M. Bakos.  The text has a great rhyme and rhythm to it.  There is also some great alliteration going on.  The kids are going to love predicting what's going to happen next.  It turns out that one moose is so much fun that Martha decides to get another moose and then maybe one more.  The results are somewhat predictable (it turns out THERE IS a limit on how much fun it can be to have moose in the house) but I think the kids will still have fun guessing about what's coming next.  The pictures are super cute too, lots of high energy and bright colors.  I think the kids are going to like this one a lot.   Here's a link to the illustrator's blog, where he shows some of the drawings he's been making for the book.  

Monday, March 28, 2016

New books for Young Adults

I don't usually read YA books.  I've gotten onto kind of a jag with middle grade fiction, so it felt good this week to break into the YA realm.  Some of it is very similar to the middle grade fiction (SO MUCH DEATH) and a lot of it is much, much bigger than the middle grade fiction.  Hence, the YA categorization.

The first one is called "The Monster on the Road is Me" by J. P. Romney.  It's about a 15 year old boy named Koda.  He lived in a small town in Japan with his elderly parents who are shiitake mushroom farmers.  Koda can not imagine a fate worse than being a mushroom farmer, but it looks like that's where he's headed.  He loves video games, doesn't like school and he doesn't have many friends, mostly the kids at school pity him.  Koda was diagnosed with narcolepsy awhile back and so his parents insist that he wear a helmet so when he rides his bike, if he falls asleep, at least his head will be protected.  One day, a girl at Koda's school kills herself and Koda starts to think that, even though they weren't friends, she was trying to send him a message.  At her funeral, he has a narcoleptic episode and meets a girl who looks a lot like the one who killed herself.  The new girl, Moya, accuses Koda of being a thief and then asks him to go and steal a memory.  There are more deaths but Koda starts to think that maybe he can stop them.  What's great about this book is the characters and the dialogue.  I laughed so hard at some of the dialogue that I had to put the book down and was then deeply dismayed that there wasn't anyone that I could share this with.  What's difficult about this book is the amount of Japanese language (I have zero Japanese language skills and about the same amount of knowledge of Japanese culture) and Japanese cultural references.  Some of it was an easy leap and some of it was hard.  I'm not sure how many kids will be patient enough to keep reading when it starts to feel like you're guessing at the actual meaning of the words.  I liked the characters and dialogue enough to keep going.  The story itself seems to be based on a folk tale (and since I have no background knowledge of Japanese culture, it's only a guess) and parts of it are very scary and very creepy.  I don't normally like that kind of a story, but I keep going back to parts of it and thinking about what it means and how funny parts of it were.  I hope kids find this one as great as I did.

The second one is called "The Great American Whatever" by Tim Federle.  Federle has written several middle grade novels, which I'm afraid I have not read.  This one, FOR SURE, is YA.  It's about Quinn who is struggling at a vortex of all the bad things that could happen to a kid.  He's 17 (already difficult), his dad has left the family, he's gay and struggling to come out to his friends and family, and his older sister was killed in a car accident 6 months ago.  Quinn is an aspiring screenwriter and part of the problem is that he and his sister would make movies together.  Since she died, he can't quite put things together any more and is coming to believe that maybe she was the better part of this dynamic duo.  His mother is also in deep despair and struggling to cope but his friends are trying to rally around him and pull him out of his depression.  Quinn has a terrific voice and I loved hearing about his life, in spite of how depressing it was.  There is a small amount of sex in this book so I'm not sure if it would work in school library (for sure not my elementary school library) but it's really a great story about growing up.  This one would also be a great one for kids who love films because Quinn talks a lot about different films and why they are great so that could be a terrific topic of debate.  I thought this one was really good.  Here's a video of Tim talking about the book. 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Eclectic new middle grade fiction

It's spring break at my school so my husband and I went on a little trip to Las Vegas.  We'd never been before so we had a good time trying to figure out where things were, the best way to get there, and where the best places were to get something to eat.  The eating part is actually one of our favorites-my husband is a pastry chef and now teaches culinary at a local high school.  We had a great time and due to some flight delays, I had time to read!  Here are a few of the high spots.

The first one is called "A Bandit's Tale" by Deborah Hopkinson.  It's about a boy named Rocco who lives in a small village in Italy with his big family.  Rocco makes a bit of a mistake involving a donkey and some money and his parents decide that the best way to "help" Rocco would be to send him to America with a local man who promises that he will take care of Rocco and help him get work.  It turns out this "padrone" has a group of boys that he expects to earn money every day by playing instruments on the street corners.  The boys are marked so that they can't really run away (they would be easily identified and most of them don't speak any English) and so they live in horrible conditions with little food.  Rocco falls in with a group of pickpockets and finds he's very good at helping the actual thieves.  When he gets caught and goes to juvenile hall, things start to change.  There are some really great connections to historical figures (although the notes that follow the story give extensive evidence that the story is really made up) that will make it a good jumping off point for research on a variety of topics.  It remains a good story that kids are going to like reading because the characters are so interesting and well developed.  Don't miss this one!

The next one is also historical fiction.  It's called "The Search for the Homestead Treasure" by Ann Treacy.  This one is actually told in two different historical periods-1865 and 1903.  The story starts in 1865.  Cora is 13 and lives with her mother and baby brother on their homestead in Goodhue County, Minnesota.  Cora's dad died awhile back and her mom suddenly gets sick.  The story flashes forward to 1903, and Cora's baby brother, Jacob, is now a grown man with a family.  He has inherited the family farm and is moving his family there with the hope that they will love farming.  His son, Martin, is less than thrilled.  He wants to stay in town with his friends and his school.  It turns out that the farm hasn't really been kept up and there is a lot of money owed in taxes, so Jacob goes to work in a logging camp some distance away from the family home.  Martin, his mother, his great aunt, and his little sister are left to deal with the farm.  Martin is also dealing the death of his fun-loving, daredevil older brother.  Martin starts cleaning things out around the farm and finds his aunt Cora's diaries (which is where the story started) and starts to suspect that there might be treasure hidden somewhere on the farm.  Martin also makes friends with a boy, Sam, who is a Gypsy.  Martin's great aunt thinks Gypsies are all bad and that they should be avoided or run out of town.  This one was a nice little mystery with an interesting setting.  It would be a good one to use to talk about the hardships of the settlers as well as the prejudice and racism that surround groups other than African Americans.  

This last one is NOT historical fiction and no one dies so it was a real change of pace for middle grade fiction.  It's called "Dara Palmer's Major Drama" by Emma Shevah.  Emma Shevah wrote a book last year called "Dream On Amber" that I really liked and I think this one is even better.  It's about a girl named Dara Palmer who is dying to be an actress or at least be famous.  She and her best friend Lacy have been very busy practicing their faces and are completely sure that they are the best actresses in their school, probably in the nation.  So when they try out for the spring play, they are both shocked to find that they are not chosen to be the lead actresses, in fact, they are not chosen at all.  As they start going through the reasons why that might be, Dara comes to the conclusion that maybe she didn't get chosen because she is Cambodian (she's adopted).  Her mom calls to raise a ruckus about that possibility and the teacher says no, the problem is that Dara doesn't really know how to act.  So Dara has a choice, take acting lessons or give up the dream of being famous.  She decides to take acting lessons and Dara learns a lot, in the most hilarious possible way.  She also has some opportunities to learn about her Cambodian culture and has some really great opportunities to think about what it's like to grow up in a culture that doesn't match your face or grow up with people you are not related to by blood.  Dara's voice is so clear and so sparkly and so much fun, girls in particular are going to be absolutely crazy about her (maybe boys not so much).  Dara has such a great way of expressing herself (at one point she says "School is sleeve chewingly boring.") and I found myself wanting to help her along her path (which, according to her, she so DOES NOT need).  I loved this one!

Friday, March 18, 2016

The NCRA and some middle grade fiction

This week I had the opportunity to present at the NCRA (the North Carolina Reading Association).  I've been looking at ways to market my database (The Booksearch) which lets you search for books based on the skills you want to teach.  I was presenting about finding just right books and boy, did I have a lot to think about!  I've presented on this topic a few times, but on Monday, I listen to Tim Shanahan, a professor at University of Illinois at Chicago.  (Here's a link to his blog.)  He was talking about teaching reading and he explained that most of the reasons that we work really hard to get books on the right levels for kids is based on a research study done in the 1940s and IT'S WRONG.  Holy cow.  Talk about mind blown.  But I thought it made a lot of sense.  I often have the feeling that when I'm teaching reading that it's mostly my job to show the kids how and then get out of the way.  That's kind of what Shanahan was saying too-that we should be giving kids harder materials than they feel confident with and then help them get confident.  I also had the opportunity to listen (and talk to) Donalyn Miller, who I've admired for quite some time.  She is as charming and wonderful in person as she is in print.  (here's a link to her website). She talked about how important it is to give choices about what they read so that fit in perfectly with my presentation about how to find just right books for kids. I also got to meet two amazing professors from East Carolina University - Alan Bailey and Dr. Anne Ticknor.  Alan Bailey talked about two different awards-the Caldecott and the Coretta Scott King Award and Dr. Ticknor talked about cultural diversity in books.  All of the sessions were interesting and thought provoking.   It was a wonderful conference and my parents are already hoping I can come back (me too!).

I got to read a bit too.  My flight from Fort Lauderdale to Raleigh included a stop in Atlanta (always a highlight) so I had plenty of opportunity.  I read two good ones this weekend.  The first one is called "The Inn Between" by Marina Cohen.  It's about a girl named Quinn who is having a hard time.  Her best friend is moving away.  They've been friends since they were in kindergarten so Quinn is going on a car trip with Kara and her family to see their new place and then she will come home.  The trouble is, home isn't as awesome as it once was.  Quinn has been struggling with school and one day when she had to stay after school because she'd lied and not done her homework, her little sister, Emma, had to walk home alone and disappeared.  Quinn's parents are struggling too and everyone thought the trip would do them all good.  Except when they stop for something to eat, they end up at a really strange diner (they only serve grilled cheese sandwiches) and then end up at an even stranger hotel called "The Inn Between".  There appears to be a man following Quinn and then people start disappearing.  The story is kind of scary and creepy and I think a lot of kids are going to like this one a lot.  It was a very quick read and it was hard to put down.  It would be great paired with "No Passengers Beyond This Point" by Gennifer Choldenko.

The second one is also a mystery.  It's called "Click here to Start" by Denis Markell.  It's about a boy named Ted who comes from a multi-racial family.  Ted's dad is Jewish and his mom is Japanese-American, by way of Hawaii.  Ted's sister is a very high achiever and he really likes playing computer games, particularly escape the room games.  Ted ends up meeting his great uncle (also named Ted) who is a World War 2 veteran.  Great Uncle Ted tells Ted "The box is only the beginning." and changes his will to leave Ted all the possessions in his apartment.  When Great Uncle Ted dies, Ted goes to investigate (with his best friend Caleb) and end up meeting a girl, Isabel, who has just moved to the area (her dad is Ted's dad's boss).  As Ted starts digging through the things in Great Uncle Ted's apartment, the kids start to realize that there is a puzzle to be solved, treasure to be found, and villains to be avoided.  There are also some very funny cultural references as well as references to Henry James novels and the Maltese Falcon.  I loved this one.  I thought the characters had great voices and I wanted to be friends with them.  It was also suspenseful enough that it was hard to put down!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Middle grade fiction for social issues

One of the big units my fourth and fifth graders read during the year is one on social issues.  They usually really like it because they get to read about the big stuff-death, abuse, war, homelessness, disabilities... I sincerely hope they haven't had to deal with the issues, but the truth is, they do.  Not all of them, thankfully, but a lot of kids deal with some of these things on a daily basis, and it's great for building empathy, even if they don't have to deal with them directly.  These new books all would be great for a social issues unit.

The first one is called "Feathered" by Deborah Kerbel.  It's about 11 year old Finch and it gets it's title from a story she tells that when Finch was little, she sprouted a feather.  They pulled it out and no more grew in, but Finch always has had the sensation that she would one day be able to fly.  In the meantime, her life is not awesome.  Her dad died of cancer 9 months ago, her mom is suffering from deep depression, her brother is hanging out with a super creepy friend, and Finch's former best friend is now friends with another girl who is big into fashion.  On top of that, Finch is struggling in school (she hates writing) and she has the same teacher she had last year, who she hated.  The only bright spot is the new family that moved in next door.  There is a girl there just her age named Pinky.  Pinky's family moved from India and her dad worries about her being bullied and wants to keep her at home.  It's funny, when I read the description, I thought this story was going to have mystical or magical elements (nope) and I almost put it down after about 30 pages (it was pretty sad),  but Finch's voice really stuck with me and it had a nice ending.  I think a lot of kids will like it (in spite of how sad it is) and it will make a great addition to social issues unit.

The second is called "The Hour of Bees" by Lindsay Eagar.  Carol is 12 and although she was hoping to spend the summer hanging out with her friends, she's ending up out in the New Mexico desert with just her family.  Her grandfather, Serge, is suffering from dementia and her dad (who's had a troubled relationship with his dad) is trying to make amends.  They are cleaning out the ranch house so they can sell it and with the money, move Grandpa Serge into an assisted living facility.  Carol has mixed feelings about all of this.  She hates the desert and the ranch and has never really had a relationship with her grandfather, however, she is really the only one he speaks to (she looks very much like her grandmother).  He starts telling her stories about her grandmother (who died before she was born) and mystical stories about a healing tree.  Carol comes to appreciate her Mexican ancestry in a way she never had and develops a strong bond with her grandfather.  I think this would a fun one to read with kids and talk about the fantasy-reality pieces in the book.  It would be great paired up with a book like "Echo" by Pam Munoz Ryan (which also skips between fantasy and reality) or "Finding Naomi Leon" also by Pam Munoz Ryan or "Circus Mirandus" by Cassie Beasley.  

This last one isn't actually a new one.  It was published back in 2010 (waaay back then).  I found it because it's on the list for middle grade fiction on March Book Madness (#2016MBM).   It's called "Because of Mr. Terupt" by Rob Buyea.  It's about a 5th grade class and their brand new teacher, Mr. Terupt.  It's a class with some issues in getting along with one another, like practically any class, but Mr. Terupt seems to notice things and is able to deal with them in a way that lets the kids know that they are responsible for their behavior.  The book is told from seven different points of view-boys and girls, and that's part of what makes it great.  These are kids with issues (including divorce, death of a sibling, teen pregnancy, over protective parents, parents who are not parenting, body issues, ADHD-social issues galore) and their issues come through loud and clear in each passage.  In some cases, so loud and clear, it made me squirm.  There is also a ton of foreshadowing to give you clues about what might happen next.  The beginning is a little rough (but will TOTALLY hook the boys) with an extended passage about the bathroom and how to use the bathroom so that you can spend time out of the class without the teacher noticing.  I think at the end of the day, it might not be an ideal read aloud, but I think the kids are going to love it. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Elementary non fiction

It's hard to find good non fiction for little kids.  Kids are interested in EVERYTHING but it's hard to get a good balance of the specific vocabulary that you need to be able to understand complex topics and text that's easy enough for kids to read.  Here are some that seem to be working that balance!

The first one is called "Stickmen's Guide to Aircraft" by Chris Oxlade.  It looks like this might be a series (I checked Amazon and there is another one!) and I think that's a good thing.  This book about aircraft gives an excellent overview of aircraft.  It has information about the history of aircraft as well as information about how aircraft are designed and built.  It also has information about different kinds of engines.  The graphics are nice too.  There is a lot of information in the graphical parts (which my students think is awesome).  This one will appeal to elementary school teachers because it's going to be a great one for teaching text features.  The book is short and the passages of text are short, which is very appealing to a lot of kids.  I think they are going to like this one a lot.

The next one is narrative non-fiction and it's going to be for the bigger elementary kids because the reading passages are pretty long.  But they're very interesting and cover a lot of ground.  It's called "Bridge to the Wild" by Caitlin O'Connell.  Ms. O'Connell explains in the introduction that she loves animals and wants to help build bridges of understanding about animals so the kids (and I suppose people in general) will also feel compelled to connect and help animals.  Her vehicle is the Atlanta Zoo and in this book, each chapter is about a different animal exhibit at the zoo.  It talks about the different animals, their behavior, as well as conservation efforts.  The story has a nice flow to it and the full color photographs will help draw in the readers.    I can see this one getting used for guided reading and kids enjoying reading it for all the animal information.  

The last one could be used with little kids or bigger kids.  It's a picture book but it has some pretty big ideas in it.  It's called "The Pullman Porter" by Vanita Oelschlager.  It's a very brief history of the Pullman Porter and I think it's purpose is to demonstrate how hard African American men worked and how difficult some of their lives were.  The pictures by Mike Blanc are lovely and luminous.  The story had a few weaknesses though.  As it described the duties of a Pullman Porter, it told about the service part of the job, carrying suitcases, making up beds, bringing food and drink, shining shoes, even taking care of the small children.  But then the story doubles back and says that the porters did some of those things for tips.  I found it a bit confusing.  The book also talks about some of the hardships of the porters (long trips, long hours, uncomfortable accommodations) but also some of the benefits-travel to far away places and the exposure to some of the wealthiest families in America (and their newspapers).  I'm not sure I really loved this one but it did give some background information on some of the jobs that African Americans once held.