Thursday, November 26, 2015

Neighborhood Sharks

This is an exciting time for middle grade nonfiction. Jessica Lifshitz has a bunch of excellent recommendations on this Padlet. The staff developers at Columbia University Teachers College Reading and Writing Project recommended Katherine Roy's Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California's Farallon Islands.

In 2012, Katherine Roy traveled to the Farallon Islands to observe the great white sharks, then used what she learned to illustrate the process of a shark hunting an elephant seal. The book explains how sharks are designed to be perfect predators. I loved exploring the images, particularly the comparison between the shark's body and an airplane, as well as how similar a seal and a surfer look from below.

Shark books are perennial favorites and Neighborhood Sharks is the best I've ever seen. This won't stay on the shelves in my classroom library for long.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Eye of the Storm

There is a particular kind of joy when you find the perfect novel for what you teach. For our Wicked Weather unit, I think Storm Runners is the ideal text, and then I found Eye of the Storm. Suddenly, I am dreaming of lit circles with the two very different but excellent texts.

In the future, life is very different because super storms now regularly destroy everything in their paths. Jaden's father is a scientist who has become very rich and famous creating StormSafe shelters for the US government. His Eye on Tomorrow School trains the smartest students for future careers in science. But Jaden learns that her father isn't the hero that she has always believed him to be, and that she may actually be the one who needs to save others.

I loved the little touches about the future that Messner added, things that seemed likely to happen. In prisons, the inmates ride bikes to create energy. Everyone uses DataSlates as their workspaces. Genetically modified food is the norm and real organic fruit is extremely expensive. The Eye on Tomorrow School is the direction where things should be heading: full of project-based learning and real world problems. The alternative term for science fiction, speculative fiction, truly applies to this novel.

I am excited to share Eye of the Storm with my students, as well as recommend it to the class I taught last year.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Moonpenny Island

Moonpenny Island is a total gem that I want everyone to read. Author Tricia Springstubb's writing reminds me of Marisa de los Santos--this is one of the highest compliments I can give. The book is full of beautiful descriptions, like, "Flor's afraid of the dark, and out here, she can tell, the dark would be that thick, suffocating kind, the kind that rubs against you like black fur."

As the only eleven-year-olds on Moonpenny Island, Flor and Sylvie are lucky to have each other as their best, perfect friend. When Sylvie is sent to school on the mainland, Flor thinks her world will fall apart. Nothing is as it seems, nor will it be again.

It's interesting that there is a scientific side to this, as well as one of my favorite books of the past year, The Fourteenth Goldfish. Flor meets a geologist who is on the island to study prehistoric trilobites, the first organisms to develop sight. The ability to see things clearly or with fresh eyes is a recurring theme in the novel, so I love how it factors in. I hope that using science to drive home the meaning in books is a new trend in middle grade fiction.

Like Circus Mirandus, I am debating whether this should be on the summer recommended reading list, or if I should read it aloud to the class. Either way, it is going to be enthusiastically shared with my students.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Mortal Heart

Ahhh, the delicious sadness of finishing a truly wonderful series. Robin LaFevers kept me entertained and guessing what would happen next, as well as wishing she would make it more than a trilogy. What about a prequel about Sister Serafina? What about a spinoff series about Sister Audri? What about a separate series set in the convent of Saint Mer? I could read these stories until the end of time.

Annith has always been a mysterious character in the series: the capable favorite who excels at all her assassin training, but has never been sent out to use those skills. When she is ordered to become the new Seeress, it crushes all hopes Annith has of being named an assassin. Tired of being the obedient and innocent girl, Annith decides to take action and become the person she has always wanted to be. This leads to shocking truths about herself and the convent that has always been her home.

While the beginning is slower than the other books and Annith isn't as wild a narrator as Sybella, I loved how Annith's story brings a resolution to the series. We get an interesting political ending, a satisfying love story, and a peek at where our beloved assassin nuns will go next. I highly, highly recommend this series!

Monday, November 2, 2015

This One Summer

Jillian and Mariko Tamaki's This One Summer has a lot of buzz, often being compared to Raina Telgemeier's books. Not even close. Telgemeier's books are engaging, funny, and relatable. This One Summer was grim, uncomfortable, and nostalgic for a time that didn't seem very good to begin with.

Rose's family goes to Awago Beach, where she spends time with her younger friend, Windy. Unfortunately, this year, her parents are arguing, Windy seems immature, and the only excitement is watching a romantic drama play out between two teenagers. That's about it.

There is a lot of discussion of female bodies, some slut shaming, a bunch of horror movies, and familial sadness. This leads me to wonder who the audience is, as it is certainly not Raina Telgemeier fans!

The art is beautiful and I love the choice to make everything blue in the book, but that's not enough to make me recommend it to someone. This is a great example of "Don't judge a book by its cover." This is nothing close to the summer fun that the cover promises.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Dark Triumph

Exactly three years ago I read the first in this series, Grave Mercy, and absolutely loved it. I don't know why it took me so long to read the sequel, Dark Triumph, but I do know that I will be starting the final book in the trilogy today. Robin LaFevers is an author who can hook and surprise me.

Sybella is a handmaiden to Mortain and her skill is in death: spotting who is marked for death and carrying it out. It is this talent that leads to her placement in the castle of d'Albret, with the mission of killing him to protect the Duchess from his evil desires. As in the first book of the series, things don't go as planned and Sybella must learn who she can trust, before she is out of time.

I found Sybella to be an even more fascinating character than Ismae from the first novel. Her complicated past affects all her actions, but she is still able to open herself up to love. And what a love! I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say that the love interest in Dark Triumph is the best I have read in a long time.

Clearly, this is a book for an audience far older than my fifth graders. I greedily read it for my own pleasure as I will do with the next, right now.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Question of Miracles

I have a huge pile of books to read, and to be honest, I chose The Question of Miracles because it was the shortest. Still, it took me far longer to read this book than others twice its length. It is sad and slow and I can't see it appealing to my students.

Iris' family moved from California to rainy Corvallis after the death of her best friend, Sarah. Resistant to her new life, Iris doesn't want to enjoy anything about it, including her new friend Boris. She wants to know why some people are granted miracles and some aren't.

Really, that's it. There are some mild peaks in the book, but for the most part, I was irritated by Iris. She had wonderful parents who cared for her, but didn't appreciate it. Boris is the boy version of a golden retriever - kind, funny, smart, and eager. Iris spends most of the book thinking negatively about him. Losing a best friend is something no child should have to face, but I don't know if reading this book would help a reader in that situation.

I won't be passing this one on.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Lie Tree

What better way to celebrate my birthday than with a feminist Victorian mystery?

I checked out The Lie Tree based on its glowing review from The Book Smugglers. After a slow start, I was hooked and eager to know what would happen in this suspenseful novel.

Faith's family moves to a remote island to avoid a scandal involving her father's scientific research. Since she has always idolized her father, Faith refuses to believe in the rumors. When he is murdered, she must find the answers, even if she doesn't like what she learns.

I loved the statements that Frances Hardinge made about women in The Lie Tree. "There as a hunger in her, and girls were not supposed to be hungry. They were supposed to nibble sparingly at the table, and their minds were supposed to be satisfied with a slim diet, too. A few stale lessons from tired governesses, dull walks, unthinking pastimes. But it was not enough. All knowledge--any knowledge--called to Faith, and there was a delicious, poisonous pleasure in stealing it unseen." In a time where women were supposed to be invisible, the females in this novel seem to follow the rules. Under the surface, however, they are fascinating, passionate, full of motives, and fully formed. I plan to keep this in mind when I read about the famous men of this time period. What were the women really doing?

This is a great book for eighth graders and older.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Who Stole The Wizard of Oz?

What happens when you have a student whose reading level is below the rest of the class? You spend the summer reading books at that child's level so you always have something to recommend.

Who Stole The Wizard of Oz? is a simple mystery that will keep even developing readers wondering what will happen next. When a copy of The Wizard of Oz is stolen from the library and Betsy is blamed for it, she and her twin Toby must find the true thief. Although this book was originally published in 1981, it doesn't feel dated. Avi is clever in making books central to the mystery, which may lead to readers checking out the novels he recommends.

It's not groundbreaking and probably won't become a favorite, but it is good for getting those struggling readers' eyes on print.

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.