Friday, June 26, 2015

Codename Zero

Middle grade spy novels are huge--ten and eleven-year olds would love to be more powerful and equipped for every situation with gadgets and skills. Since that isn't the case, they get to live vicariously through literary spies. Loot, the Alex Rider series, and The Double Cross have all been popular titles in my class this year. Codename Zero is the latest spy novel to hit our shelves.

Carson is the school prankster who is suddenly in over his head. After a chance encounter, he's suddenly a member of a spy organization. His North Dakota town suddenly isn't so sleepy as he battles enemies and helps his friend evade capture.

My students aren't experiencing any "spy fatigue," they'll love this novel. It doesn't get much more aspirational than a prankster whose alter ego is a spy. It's less humorous than The Double Cross and about as intense as Loot. Sure to be a hit with the kids who are waiting for the next big mystery to solve.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Bone Gap

Bone Gap has huge buzz around it, and you could forgive me from thinking it would be similar to The Secret Life of Bees, based on it cover. It couldn't be further from that novel; it is completely its own interesting, twisted, surprising book.

It's a novel that defies a neat summary, so I am going to skip that and just say that I found myself reading as much as possible, including during my planning periods at school. I wanted to know what would happen, and although I found the ending strange and less satisfying than I wished, I still enjoyed it.

Laura Ruby is a gifted writer, crafting sentences like, "Funny how you notice how beautiful things are just when you're about to leave them." The quirks of Bone Gap won't be for everyone, but good writing cannot be denied.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Paper Things

Middle graders enjoy "problem novels" -- they teach them about the world and the issues that others face. In the case of Paper Things, the issue is homelessness, although our protagonist, Ari, doesn't think of herself that way.

Ari and her older brother Gage are "between homes." After their parents' deaths, things didn't work out with their guardian, so they drift between the apartments of Gage's friend, girlfriend, and the occasional shelter. Once a start student on her way to the middle school for gifted students, now Ari struggles to get her work done and to keep her uniform and herself clean. Through it all, she keeps a positive attitude and hopes that things will work out for her family.

Paper Things is a great novel for teaching empathy. At one point, Ari is teased for having greasy hair. If the students had known that it was because she was sleeping in a homeless shelter, they never would have said anything. I hope it makes readers put themselves in some else's shoes before lashing out with unkind comments.

I'll be passing this off to my students who enjoyed Rain Reign and Okay for Now. I think this thoughtful portrait of homelessness is worth sharing.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Make Lemonade

Wow, I really disliked this!

Our school librarian recommended it to me and I'm always excited to read novels in verse, but Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff did nothing for me.

Lavaughn takes a job babysitting for teenage mom Jolly's two kids, Jilly and Jeremy, and ends up getting more and more involved in their lives. I didn't find any of the characters likable, so did not care very much about their fates. Perhaps it's because I've known too many Jollys--people who don't take responsibility and say, "Nobody told me."

I only finished the book because I could read it in an hour. Now I have to think of what to say to the librarian when I see her again!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


Sweet was a fun one!

Laurel is excited when her best friend's father pays for them to travel on a cruise where a new miracle weight loss drug, Solu, is being debuted. What could be better than traveling with the rich and famous, while dropping a few pounds? Too seasick to take it herself, Laurel notices that Solu works. But then it seems like it's working a little too well, and everyone on board might be in danger.

I love a good zombie novel and reading People magazine is a guilty pleasure, so this was a perfect fit. It's upbeat and frothy, even when the froth is coming from the blood of Solu addicts. This would be a great book for fans of Libba Bray's Beauty Queens - satire, violence, humor, and pop culture all rolled into one.

It's too mature for my fifth graders, but I know many former students who will love Sweet.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

El Deafo

I feel like I have been waiting forever to read Cece Bell's graphic novel memoir, El Deafo. I even added it to our recommended summer reading list without reading it, which isn't usually a good idea, but in this case, it worked out. I loved this book.

Bell's deafness resulted from an illness when she was four years old; being preliterate ruled out writing to communicate. Eventually, she gets the Phonic Ear, a large device that helps her hear. When her teacher wears the microphone, Cece can hear what she says, anywhere in the school. This "superpower" inspires her alter ego, El Deafo, into acting braver than Cece really is.

I loved reading about a person with hearing loss, but think that my students will relate to Cece's struggles to fit in, which mirror their own experiences. On the cover is a blurb by Wonder author R. J.'s fitting because these two books are great complements. Readers who loved Wonder will also enjoy El Deafo. I have a big crew of male graphic novel readers in my class. It will be interesting to see if they embrace this novel as they have so many others. I plan on book talking this on Monday morning.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Fish in a Tree

I really enjoyed Lynda Mullaly Hunt's One for the Murphys so much that I added it to the suggested reading list for this summer. I've been eager to check out her latest, Fish in a Tree, for awhile. I was not disappointed and am excited to see where she goes next.

Ally has somehow made it to sixth grade without anyone realizing her big secret: she can't read or write. Leaving aside the implausibility of this (my kids are overly tested), it seems like sixth grade would be another year that she would slip through the class. Until Mr. Daniels showed up to cover her regular teacher's maternity leave. With his wacky ties, his nickname for the students "Fantasticos," and his genuine caring, Mr. Daniels refuses to let Ally slide. His goal is to convince her that she is smart, and slowly, she starts to believe it.

Fish in a Tree felt like Because of Mr. Terupt, but with better writing. At times, I thought the book might have been written for pre-service teachers, with all the explicit strategies for teaching dyslexics clearly spelled out. But when Mullaly Hunt lists all the famous people who have had dyslexia, I know it's geared towards middle grade students, as most adults are familiar with that list by now.

I know exactly the students in my class that need to read this novel. I'm excited to suggest it to them.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Scarlett Undercover

Hooray for a book that is truly original! I loved Jennifer Latham's debut novel, Scarlett Undercover, and hope that YA readers will embrace its smart, funny, and independent heroine.

Scarlett graduated high school two years early and works as a detective, solving all the crimes except the one that she wants most: that of her father's murder. While his death and her mother's death from cancer led to her sister becoming a more devote Muslim, it made Scarlett wary and distrustful. When a young client asks her to help learn why her brother is acting so weird, the case becomes far more serious and may lead her to answers about her family.

Scarlett is an awesome protagonist - sarcastic and aspirational, but still vulnerable. Latham struck a great balance with a Muslim American heroine. I learned about Islam, but also didn't feel like the book was didactic or shoving diversity at the readers. Her voice was unique; it felt like an old gumshoe updated to sound like a teenage girl. Somehow, it worked.

It's too mature for my fifth graders, but I will be buying a copy for the middle school library, and actively recommending it to the teenagers I know.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Terrible Two

Pure fun and destined to be the most popular book in my class library. 

I learned about The Terrible Two from a student who was reading it. One look at the cover and I was asking to borrow it when he finished. Then another boy was reading it on his Nook. (We've had an explosion of Kindles and Nooks in my classroom this year. My heart grew a thousand times.) Kids are circling it on my desk, debating whether both boys on the cover are pranksters, when one looks so innocent. I hang up all the covers of the books I've read and one of my lower level readers said one of her goals was to read a book that I've read. (See what I mean about my heart?!) This is the book I will recommend. Hooray for The Terrible Two!

When Miles moves to a new school, he is determined to continue his reputation as a legendary prankster. There's only one problem: the school already has a mysterious prankster and he or she is way more clever than Miles! 

This is a book to read for its funny illustrations, random cow facts, aspirational pranks, and the fact that it makes turtlenecks cool. The Terrible Two is essential.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Saint Anything

At my school in Colombia, we had a daily Drop Everything And Read time. When I get my hands on a new book by Sarah Dessen, I drop everything and read until the book is finished. Even better when Saint Anything is Dessen's best book in years.

Touted as being much darker than her usual work, Saint Anything tells the story of Sydney, who has always been overshadowed by her dynamic brother, Peyton. When Peyton's downward spiral ends with him in jail for drunk driving, Sydney becomes completely invisible, except to her new group of friends.

I didn't find this book to be particularly dark, but the big difference is that Saint Anything doesn't mainly focus on the romance. It is Dessen, after all, so there is a romance, but the friendships are given equal importance, as well as the family dynamics. These aspects make it Sarah Dessen's most well-rounded book.

If you read one Sarah Dessen book, you'll want to read them all. It feels so good to have new words from one of my favorite authors.