Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Beneath

Roland Smith's Beneath has a very deceptive cover. To me, it looks like it could be the cover of a B-grade horror film. In reality, it's an exciting middle school mystery that will hook readers.

Pat's older brother has always been a bit strange, but when Coop disappears to live with a community under the subways of New York City, there's only one thing to do. Pat must battle his claustrophobia to head underground to save Coop. It's not as easy as it sounds because there are many people living underground with secrets that are worth killing to protect.

Author Roland Smith wrote in a style that will keep readers motivated: short chapters, frequent action, and lots of surprises. Going into it, I didn't realize it was the first in a duology. My mission now is to track down Above, the sequel. I know that once my students finish this book, they will be dying to find out what happens next.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Will and Whit

Will & Whit has been on my TBR pile for years. I was happy to finally add it to my classroom library, although the cover had me a bit worried it would be too romantic for my sixth graders. I needn't have worried; it depicts a scene that is sweet and sad.

Will has been grieving for a year about the death of her parents, distracting herself with art projects and trying to stay out of the dark. She surrounds herself with artist friends, but when Hurricane Whitney knocks out the electricity, Will needs to face the dark and what it hides.

While I preferred Laura Lee Gulledge's first book, Page by Paige, (which prompted one of my international students to hug it and say, "This book is me.") I enjoyed Will & Whit. There is a major focus on STEM at my school right now, so I am happy to put forth something that celebrates artistry in many different forms. Will makes sculptures and creates lamps, her friends are bakers and puppeteers and there is a local carnival put on by teenagers. I hope this inspires readers to share their creativity with others and that everyone's strengths are valuable.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Clever Picture Books

I'm always on the lookout for interesting picture books to add to my classroom, to my school library, and for all the little loved ones in my life. These picture books are gems that will serve a variety of purposes, but most importantly, setting up conversations about their reading, a practice that is essential.

I must admit that I watched the author's video read aloud of this book. I love the premise: a hill and a hole are friends but want to see what life is like from the other's perspective. With the help of a mole, they are able to do this, at least for a little while.

I love the messages in Hill & Hole Are Best Friends, especially, "sometimes it's easier to do things than to undo them once they're done." This lesson is something that adults struggle with, so the younger we start discussing it, the better.

This book has the bonus of an awesome last line that will leave the reader wondering.


Oh my heart, I loved Worm Loves Worm. Who says things need to be done the way they always have? There is no better way to introduce concepts like gender, sexuality, and traditions than through worms, who are hermaphroditic and can be either the bride or the groom.

The book is deceptively simple, but packs so much meaning into its few pages. The rings, the veil, the band...none of it matters to Worm and Worm, who just want to be married to each other. The emphasis here is on love, where it should be.


There are myriad books about the first day of school jitters that kids have. Adam Rex's School's First Day of School flips this idea and talks about the building's experiences. This book won't give young readers new fears about school, rather, it will remind them of all the things they already know and do that take place in this unfamiliar place.

I love Christian Robinson's illustrations, which remind me of Ezra Jack Keats. There are so many cute details to enjoy, but the best is definitely someone laughing so hard milk comes out of his nose. This would be a great first day read, as well as worth sharing with someone who is about to start kindergarten.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Gregor the Overlander

Gregor the Overlander has been on my list of books to read for years. I knew I would like it: I enjoy fantasy and loved Suzanne Collins' writing in The Hunger Games series. Still, I never took the book home from my class library. Creating book clubs for our fantasy unit finally got me in gear.

Gregor lives in New York City with his mother and little sister, ever since his dad disappeared one day. When a freak occurrence pulls Gregor and his little sister Boots into the Underland, full of giant cockroaches, bats, and spiders, he gets wrapped up in a quest that could either kill him or get him everything he ever wanted.

I like that Gregor is a normal boy; he's like Percy Jackson but not as slick. Like most eleven-year-olds I know, he is clumsy and insecure. Gregor is also a good older brother and empathetic to others. A quote that jumped out at me was, "He could never hate people very long because he always ended up finding out something sad about them that he had to factor in. Like this kid at school everybody hated because he was always pushing little kids around and then one day they found out his dad had hit him so much, he was in the hospital. With stuff like that, all Gregor could feel was bad." I think it's really important for messages like that to be included in children's books, and I hope it is something my students consider in their interactions with each other.

There are four more books in this series and I am eager to see where they take our hero.


Saturday, May 27, 2017

Loot

For almost two years, Loot has been my go-to recommendation when a student is looking for a mysterious adventure novel. I was thrilled to see that there was a sequel, called Sting.

March, his sister Jules, and their friends thought they had retired from their lives as teen criminals. That is, until they are swindled and lose everything they have. The only way out is to hunt down three cursed gems, but there are other thieves who want the same prize, including one that they know very well.

Sting doesn't stray much from the plot of Loot, but that was so good that it's worth living again. The stakes are higher and there is more action, so young readers won't get bored. Rather, they'll be like my student who wanted to know if there would be a third book. There's always hope!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z.

Sometimes you just need to read a good book about growing up. Kate Messner is the perfect author for this situation; many of her books involve a close-knit and quirky family, a serious illness that the protagonist needs to accept, and information about an unusual hobby. All the Answers and The Seventh Wish fit that mold, so does The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. 

Let's check the boxes:

Family runs a funeral parlor
Annoying little brother who lives to tell jokes
A grandmother with Alzheimer's
Leaf-collecting

Yes, it's all here. I have some die-hard Messner fans in my class who will be thrilled that I found this in my library. This will be my next book talk.

One note: Gianna was exceptionally disorganized and it stressed me out to read about it. I found it strange that her parents weren't more supportive in helping her create systems for success. Telling her to make a list isn't going to help someone with these issues. I kept waiting for Gianna to be diagnosed with ADHD, there were certainly plenty of hints, but nothing paid off there.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Nine, Ten

Fifteen years after September 11th, several books were published aimed at sharing the experience with young people. It made me wonder if fifteen years was no longer considered “too soon” or if writers wanted to commemorate the tragedy for readers who were too young or not alive to understand. For me, it would still be too heavy to read all the 9/11 books, so I chose Nora Raleigh Baskin’s Nine, Ten.

Nine, Ten tells vignettes of young people in the days leading up to September 11th. The reader watches the hours tick by with impending doom as parents head to meetings at the World Trade Center, a character befriends a fireman, and a Muslim student struggles with how much she needs to explain her hajib to her classmates. While I wasn’t particularly attached to any characters, I worried about how the events would affect them.


Baskin chooses to skip most of the horror of the day and its aftermath, keeping the novel safely in middle grade territory. In focusing on individual people, she helps young readers understand how unprepared everyone was for the events of September 11th. My favorite part of the novel was the end, when the characters’ stories intersect and made me tear up. While this won’t inform readers much about September 11th, it will give them faces to the humanity behind the history.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Return Fire

Return Fire was the most anticipated book in my classroom this year, even more than Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts. We read the Christina Diaz Gonzalez’s first book, Moving Target, as a class last year and even had a Skype call with the author. We were eager to learn what would happen to Cassie Arroyo and the spear; we weren’t disappointed.

Picking up where Moving Target left off, Cassie and Asher need to find the spear in order to free destiny. Having used the spear, Cassie is becoming increasingly less sure that that is the right decision. Wouldn’t it make more sense for her to make the right decisions for the world? After being betrayed and lied to by several people she loved, Cassie feels she can only count on herself, and the spear seems to be tugging at her…

Return Fire offers redemption for some villains, which means that Cassie is more forgiving than I am, or that this is a true middle grade novel where the reader needs to learn about giving second chances. I would not have been so kind as Cassie, which was a good discussion topic with the class. When can someone be forgiven? How do people learn to trust again?


The story wraps up fairly neatly in the end, and Gonzalez told us there won’t be any more in the series. I like when an author knows when to end a story, but will also be looking forward to her next book.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Millicent Min, Girl Genius

Millicent Min, Girl Genius is an exemplar for the #weneeddiversebooks movement. Our protagonist, Millie, is Chinese American, but it is never more than a background detail about the character. I have students who enjoyed seeing someone who looked like them on the cover of a novel, and were even happier to discover that it’s a good book.

At only eleven, Millicent has just entered the summer before her senior year of high school. That’s when everything starts to change: her mother signs her up for volleyball, her beloved grandmother is moving away, and she has to tutor the aggravating Stanford Wong. It’s not all bad, though. It seems that Millie is making a new friend, if only she doesn’t scare Emily off with her genius. We all know what happens when someone tries to hide his or her true self.


Some of my students will be reading this as part of their social issues book clubs. I’m happy that the social issue doesn’t revolve around being a minority, but rather about trying to fit in. I found Millie to be a charming narrator and am eager to hear what my students think.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ghost

Hooray for Ghost, Jason Reynolds’ novel that had me glued to the couch from start to finish. It’s a novel that grabs your heart and keeps you cheering for the main character, even when he keeps making mistakes.

Ghost learned to run the day his father tried to shoot him and his mother. He didn’t think much of his talent until he came across the Defenders, an all-city track team. After being recruited to the team by the tough Coach Brody, Ghost decides he wants to channel all of his energy and rage into something good: being the greatest sprinter of all time. Of course, that’s harder than it sounds.


There is so much goodness in this book: the camaraderie between the runners, the struggles Ghost faces, the way people love him and look out for him in their own way. I hope that every school library gets a copy and that teachers talk it up wildly. I still help make the summer reading lists for a school where I used to work, and this will definitely be on the list for the 8th grade. It’s that excellent.