Thursday, April 19, 2018

More Books About Women Who Persisted

In January, I wrote about picture books about women who persisted in the face of challenges. Little did I know that it was just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many nonfiction picture books featuring extraordinary women. I'm writing this post as a way to share with readers but also to keep track of them for myself!

Mary Nohl was a born maker; she saw art where others only saw feathers, driftwood, glass, and trash. Marching to the beat of her own drum, Nohl created massive sculptures of art in her garden, and even when vandals destroyed them, she used the pieces to make more. Eventually, her home became known as "The Witch's House" and her Wisconsin garden remains a gallery brimming with her work, even after her passing.

What I like best about this biography is that the subject isn't a well-known person, just someone who followed her passion and cerated something beautiful. I love the idea that picture books can be about 'regular' people who do interesting things. I hope that more follow.

Not all picture books about strong women can be winners. That's my thought as I finish Bertha Takes a Drive, about Bertha Benz, who drove her husband's invention, the automobile, against the law. She and her two sons drove sixty miles and received acclaim for what a motorcar could actually accomplish.

Although it was her husband's invention, Bertha shows ingenuity throughout the book to solve various problems that come up along the way. I liked that part, and I found some humor in how amazing they felt to be traveling at seven miles an hour. But, unfortunately, the story didn't grab me and I found the illustrations unattractive. Still, there are definitely some young readers who are interested in the minute details of how cars work. This would be a good recommendation for them.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Fish Girl

I'm working my way through my Goodreads "To Read" list and can't remember when or why I added Fish Girl, but I'm glad I read it. This strange middle grade graphic novel was an interesting read.

A nameless mermaid spends her life obeying what Neptune tells her to do: give the tourists a glimpse but never a full look and collect the coins they leave. It's all she knows until one day she makes a friend with a regular girl. This opens her eyes to the reality of her situation and makes the mermaid decide to escape her tank and see what the world is like.

The relationship between Neptune and the mermaid is worth discussing; in order to stay safe, she must do what he says. This is clearly a commentary on abuse and power, written in a way that can be discussed with young readers on a variety of levels.

There is so much the reader doesn't know--why can't the mermaid speak? What happens to her fins out of water? How can the octopus change shape? What happens at the end of the novel? These questions could be frustrating to readers, but could also be the catalyst for speculative writing. I hope to nudge my students who read this book towards the latter.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Real Friends

Thanks to authors like Cece Bell and Raina Telgemeier, young readers have a wealth of autobiographical graphic novels to cling to when adolescence gets rough. I love that these books provide hope for readers who feel awkward and friendless; that they all grew up to become authors and accomplished people is highlighted at the end of the books.

Shannon Hale's Real Friends details how she falls in and out of the group of popular girls throughout elementary school. It is such a common occurrence: sweet and slightly immature girls who are constantly on the razor's edge of acceptance. As a teacher, I see it and want them to know how special they are. Handing them this book could be one way of doing so.

There is a happy ending, but enough stays unresolved that it feels realistic. Some girls will always be mean and some friends aren't worth giving up what's special about you. Being true to yourself is a theme that bears repeating over and over for middle grade readers. 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Chasing Secrets

Gennifer Choldenko is the author of Al Capone Does My Shirts, which features my least favorite character ever in an otherwise good book. I'm happy to report there is nobody truly vile in Chasing Secrets.

Lizzie loves science and wants to be a doctor, which makes her an anomaly in San Francisco in the 1900s. She thinks she knows it all, but when rumors of the plague begin to spread, Lizzie realizes that she isn't quite as informed as she'd like. She and some new friends set out to uncover the secrets that the adults in power would like to keep hidden.

There is so much to unpack in this novel; it would make an excellent literature circle selection for 6th or 7th graders. There is a lot to discuss about race relations and feminism in the novel, but I was most interested in the issues of medical care in Chasing Secrets.  Is it ethical to hide medical information that could incite panic? Who deserves the best medical care and why? Although this is historical fiction, there are so many links to today. I haven't seen this topic covered in a middle grade novel before and I can imagine it would lead to great classroom debates.

This is excellent historical fiction with mystery mixed in to appeal to a variety of readers. I'm glad I got over my old prejudice against Choldenko's characters and tried out Chasing Secrets.

Saturday, March 24, 2018


Lifetime has been on my GoodReads list for three years and my school finally added it to the library. It is such a quality addition to our collection.

Telling the story of numbers and animals, readers get to learn cool facts, like, "In one lifetime, a giraffe will have 200 spots." The facts are fascinating and I actually hadn't heard any of them before. The illustrations are gorgeous and had me wondering if they were the actual number; are there really 550 eggs in the alligator drawing?

At the end, author Lola M. Schaefer goes into more information about each animal and teaches about averages. Reading this section could lead to more inquiry on students' part, trying to figure out some lifetime facts of their own.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Lawn Boy

If I couldn't see Gary Paulsen's name on the cover, I never would have believed he wrote Lawn Boy. It is such a departure from his boy vs. wild novels. Instead, Paulsen decided to teach about capitalism and the stock market in a slim volume.

When the nameless narrator inherits a lawnmower, he gets asked by a few neighbors how much he would charge to mow their lawns. Things snowball pretty quickly from there and he ends up investing in the stock market, sponsoring a boxer, and earning more money than he ever dreamed.

Lawn Boy could definitely be categorized as a "STEM novel." There is a lot of math done in the book, mostly calculating the amount of money earned. I know many students who would be intrigued by how the money multiplies through the stock market. It could be the provocation for a lucrative passion for a young reader.

This reminded me a lot of Toothpaste Millionaire; both books are very simple stories about teen entrepreneurs. While there are a few challenges, things work out fairly easily for the protagonists. I hope that Lawn Boy inspires readers to try to start their own businesses, but don't want them to be discouraged when they aren't millionaires after a few months. Still, it would be worth pairing these two novels for summer reading or in lit circles.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Four Ways to Teach with Wordless Picture Books

I've written an article for MiddleWeb about using wordless picture books in the middle grade classroom. Please check it out!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The War I Finally Won

Slow reviewing around here...I'm reading, but mostly board books and parenting books. Still, when I saw the sequel to The War That Saved My Life, I knew I would be devoting nap times to some amazing middle grades lit, rather than washing dishes!

The first book wrapped up happily and neatly, so I was surprised to see this sequel on the shelves at the library. While Ada and her brother were taken in by Susan at the end of the first book, the war continued and recovering from the emotional damage inflicted by their cruel mother continued. Ada's reaction to kindness is an interesting one to discuss with students.

Ada's ignorance is more noticeable in this novel; there are times when she misunderstands a word and frets about nothing for a few chapters. I wonder if the intention was for young readers to worry, as well, or if they should feel pity for Ada not knowing what funeral arrangements are. She is given a dictionary and spends a fair amount of time sharing definitions, which is never a popular plot device.

Still, despite these quibbles, I enjoyed The War I Finally Won. The characters are memorably complex and it's an excellent introduction to historical fiction for young readers.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Long Way Down

When my book club wanted to read A Christmas Carol for our December selection, I put up a fuss because I have gone through that plot too many times: I've seen Scrooge McDuck and just about every other version of that story structure. We picked another title and I decided to read Jason Reynolds' Long Way Down. Which, it turns out, follows the same idea as Dickens' classic. Ugh.

At least it was a quick read. Written in verse, although not the best verse, I was able to get through the book in a day. Young readers will like how quickly they will be able to speed through it, and maybe getting visited by ghosts from the past will be novel to them. I'm sure it will be a popular title, I just wish I had read something else instead.

Long Way Down was just optioned to make a movie, which is interesting because the whole book takes place in the course of 60 seconds. I won't be seeing the movie, but I'm sure I'll hear from my students about how it is done.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Patina (Track #2)

According to Goodreads, it took me almost a month to read Patina. It felt way longer than that! I read Jason Reynolds' first book in the series, Ghost, in a day, so I was shocked that I dragged my feet on this one. I think it would have gone faster if I had a physical copy, rather than reading it on my phone, but that hasn't stopped me from tearing through other books.

Patty is on the same track team as Ghost and she has a lot of issues in her life: a school where she doesn't fit in, a sick mother who can't take care of her, the responsibility of a little sister hanging over her head. On the other hand, she has a lot of blessings like a track team who accepts her, an aunt and uncle who are raising her, and the opportunity to attend a great school. I liked the balance in the book, that there are two sides to every drama. It's up to Patty to decide how she wants to see her situation.

Patina didn't click for me, but I think it will for many readers. I am eager to read the third book in the series, Sunny, and see if I like it as much as Ghost, or if it falls closer to Patina for me.