Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Surge and Eruption

After reading the first book in the Storm Runners series, I rushed to read the other two books. 
Since they are so short and so closely tied, I thought I would combine my reviews. 
The Surge picks up right where Storm Runners lets off, with the water rising, post-Hurricane Emily. Not only do Chase and his friends have to worry about flooding, there are also many hungry circus animals hiding in the shadows! Once that issue has been resolved, they need to help the rest of the circus members who are threatened by an earthquake and volcanic eruption in Mexico. 

I loved this series and how well it will fit in with our weather unit. I'll read the first book with my class and know that they will fly through the rest of the series. They are quick reads that will appeal to struggling readers who need action to hook them page after page. While the final book in the series wasn't as strong as the previous two, it tied up everything nicely with a satisfying ending. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Storm Runners

Our first PYP Unit of Inquiry for the year is How the World Works, with a focus on Wicked Weather. This is a nonfiction-heavy unit, so I wanted a fun fiction read aloud that still related to our topic. The first in Roland Smith's series The Storm Runners is the perfect book for the occasion.

Chase Masters' life has had two significant changes:
1. His mother and sister died in an accident.
2. His father was struck by lightning.
After those events, his father sold everything they owned and took Chase and an assistant, Tomas, on the road to hunt storms. They arrive before the storm hits and then use their carpentry and repair skills to earn some money after the storm. When Hurricane Emily is headed towards St. Petersburg, Florida, Chase and his father rush to beat the storm. It turns out to be far more than they expected.

Roland Smith is the perfect writer for my students - a boy-heavy grade with only 6 girls total. They loved the suspense that he maintains throughout the novel and would ask every day if we could read more. I'm happy that there is a lot of information about hurricanes included, and even more that its inclusion isn't heavy handed. I also appreciated that the two main female characters were athletic, strong, and highly capable.

My one quibble with the book is how it ended. It's the first in a series, but it practically ends in the middle of a sentence! I need thirty copies of the sequel, The Surge, to keep up with the demand of students who want to know what happens next.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


I didn't love The One and Only Ivan as much as the rest of the world, but was hopeful about Crenshaw after Mr. Schu gushed about it on Twitter. I admit that I liked this better and see a need for the book, but I still don't think it will be of interest to my students.

Jackson's family has always lived on the edge of poverty and they are about to cross over again. His parents are selling all their belongings and it looks like they will be living in their minivan again. It is then that his childhood imaginary friend Crenshaw, a giant cat, appears to comfort him. But isn't fifth grade too old for an imaginary friend?

I liked how Crenshaw helped Jackson through a rough patch and how the story made imaginary friends seem normal. I also think it's important for kids to hear about other children who are just like them, but don't have enough to eat or are worried about where they will live.

However. Similar to Ivan, the story felt fairly stark and sad, which doesn't appeal to the students in my class. I could see it as a read aloud, but I don't think it would be a very fun experience for anyone involved.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


Wait Till Helen Comes will always be the high water mark of middle grade horror for me. I read Mary Downing Hahn's classic so many times that I can recite some pages of it verbatim. When a student tells me that she likes scary books, it's always the first one I recommend. So I was ecstatic to see the cover of Took, which is the creepiest I've seen in awhile.

When his family moved from Connecticut to West Virginia, Daniel has a difficult transition. His parents can't find jobs, the kids are cruel to him, and his sister Erica is acting strange. She is withdrawing into herself and only talking to her doll, which seems a little too similar to the ghost stories his classmates told him about a girl who was 'took' by a witch fifty years before. Daniel realizes that they may be more than just stories, but in typical scary book fashion, no one believes him, so he needs to save his sister on his own.

This is a spooky and engaging book, yet not too scary for my fifth grade students. I'm so excited to have another book that I can recommend to them, especially in October when they are clamoring for frightening books.

Monday, September 7, 2015


I am always searching for a nonfiction mentor text that measures up to Albert Marrin's Oh Rats!  That book is informative, fascinating, engaging, and just the right length. For our PYP Unit How the World Works, we are studying wicked weather, so I hoped that Jim Murphy's Blizzard! would be the weather equivalent. It doesn't tick everything off that list, but it is a text I will refer back to.

Detailing the events of the 1880 blizzard, Murphy uses personal accounts, history, and images to paint a picture of life at this time. I thought it was interesting that this storm is the reason all electric wires and the subway are underground, as well as the cause of the creation of the national weather service.

Still, the first 70 pages were a true slog and I only kept reading to see if I could find useful excerpts for my class. Very few young readers would enjoy this whole book, but there are small gems to be found that I will be extracting to share with my class.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Trouble In Me

"The Follower" and "The Bloody Souvenir" are my go-to read alouds for middle school students. They are funny, disgusting, and relatable. I once heard TCRWP Goddess Mary Ehrenwerth say that if kids weren't begging for more at the end of a read aloud, you picked the wrong text. That was never the case with those two short stories. Kids were dying for more misadventures with Jack and the Pagoda brothers. This book is the answer to that desire.

The Trouble In Me is a preface to Hole In My Life, a sneak peek at how Gantos got set on the path that led to imprisonment for drug smuggling. This would be an awesome pre-high school summer reading book, with Hole In My Life read and discussed in class. When does lighthearted mischief go too far? What are the possible consequences for being too much of a follower? There is so much to discuss.

As for the casual fan of the Pagoda brother stories, they should stick to the shorter version. This memoir is written with the wisdom of adulthood; the short stories are in the moment, and therefore, more humorous. The longer version is colored by the fact that these events led Gantos to prison. The short stories could be any reader. It was interesting for me to read about the same events through a darker lens, but I will be keeping the short stories in my rotation, as opposed to the memoir.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Another Day

It's been three years since I've read Every Day. I've read many books since then, which helped me read Another Day with fresh eyes. In the first book, we met A, a soul who wakes up in a new body every day. A falls in love with Rhiannon and tries to find a way to make it work. David Levithan's newest novel tells the same love story from Rhiannon's perspective.

In the sequel, we get to see more of Rhiannon's life, which she has shrunk to suit her difficult boyfriend, Justin. Her best day with Justin was really when he was inhabited by A. While the story on A's side is fairly straightforward (must find Rhiannon, must declare love), Rhiannon has a life and entanglements that are more difficult than A can understand.

Although I vaguely remembered what happened, I wasn't able to put the book down. I spent the day reading, wondering where it would leave us and what would happen to the couple. The end was a combination of satisfying and desperation-inducing--I want more!

David Levithan is one of the best authors for YA readers, hands down. I love how these books challenge our idea of a typical romance and have me rooting for A and Rhiannon to find a way to make it work.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Circus Mirandus

I spend so much of the year thinking of which books I should add to the suggested summer reading list. When it's summertime and I find a book like Circus Mirandus, I have to decide whether it becomes a class read aloud or on the summer reading list. It's just so good!

Micah was raised by his Grandpa Ephraim's stories of the magical Circus Mirandus. Now Ephraim is sick and wants to call in the miracle he was promised as a child, but he needs Micah's help to be sure that it comes true. Along with his new friend Jenny Mendoza, Micah must use all his belief in magic to save the person he loves most.

I have found that many middle grade fantasy novels are bloated and intimidating to students who dislike huge tomes. Circus Mirandus is the perfect length for readers who want to take a dip in the fantasy pool without committing to months of reading. The best solution for my quandary? I'll read a chapter of the book aloud to hook everyone, then recommend they add it to their TBR piles!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell

My students love to write "their version" of their favorite books. It's not quite fan fiction because they create their own characters, it's more like them telling the same plot in their own way. Chris Colfer's The Land of Stories series is highly imitated in our class.

It's easy to see why. Colfer created a land where all the fairy tale characters live together, ready to be explored by twins Alex and Conner. My students are at an age where they are able to play with these familiar tales, so they appreciate how well Colfer does it. I loved that Snow White's Evil Stepmother got a backstory that explained her behavior. It's good for kids to see a more fleshed out character.

While I found the book overly long, I enjoyed it and have already been given the second in the series by a student. So it goes on my summer reading pile and I'll see what other adventures Colfer has written that are worthy of homage.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Space Case

I intentionally chose Space Case as the read aloud to end the year, as I knew we wouldn't have time to finish. That way they would already know the first book they wanted to read over the summer. Anything by Stuart Gibbs is a guaranteed winner for 5th graders.

Dashiell's scientist parents are recruited to live in the first colony on the moon, which seems like the most exciting prospect in the universe. The reality is not as thrilling: nothing to do, disgusting food, and sparse accommodations is what life is like for the "Moonies." Until a famous doctor dies in an unplanned moonwalk, the morning after Dash overhears him talking excitedly about a discovery. Dash is convinced it's a murder, but no one else seems to believe him, so he decides to investigate on his own.

Gibbs has mastered the modern middle grade mystery. The problems in his books are complex and have serious consequences, rather than the stolen lunch money in typical mysteries geared to this age group. The lack of condescension is refreshing and appreciated by my students.

Like all of Stuart Gibbs' books, I highly recommend Space Case.