Thursday, June 14, 2018

Flying Lessons & Other Stories

Oh hooray, hooray for this short story anthology! Edited by Ellen Oh, who cofounded the "We Need Diverse Books" movement, there is so much to love in this collection. As a teacher, I am always looking for strong mentor texts and shorts stories are perfect because they can give a class a shared reading experience, without taking as long as reading a novel together.

Usually, short story collections start out with the best story and have a varying level of quality throughout. While I did think that Matt de la Pena's story, "How to Transform an Everyday, Ordinary Hoop Court into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium," was the best, I loved them all. De la Pena's story is all about hard work and lessons learned through basketball; this will be appeal to my male students so I'll be keeping it in my back pocket!

Another standout was Somain Chainani, whose sumptuous title story is about an extravagant grandmother who takes her nerdy grandson for a European adventure. I loved it and was eager to read more by the author, only to learn he wrote The School for Good and Evil that some of my students rave about and I avoid because of the cover. Lesson learned (again). 

I want this for my library so that students can dip in and out of the stories that interest them, so I can use them as mentor texts for writing lessons, and so I can interest readers in authors they might be hesitant to check out in book form (Grace Lin's books look big to developing readers, but her sweet story here might entice them to brave the pages!).

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Books I'll Give My Son for His 10th Birthday (in 9 years)

Yes, I have nine years until my son turns 10, but I already have a list of books for him in the future on my Goodreads page. The majority of them will be checked out of the library, but there are a few that will have to be bought so they can be pored over and enjoyed again and again.

The first is The Street Beneath my Feet by Charlotte Guillian and illustrated by Yuval Zommer. It's important to mention the illustrator because he does incredible heavy lifting in the book. The Street has the coolest design I've seen in awhile: the entire book is one long, beautifully textured page that folds out on a journey through the earth and back out the other side.

I learned so much about where things occur under the earth's surface. Who knew that rabbit dens are deeper than fox dens? The science is simplified and the text is conversational. I spent a good amount of time marveling at the gorgeous illustrations of the minerals.

The Street Beneath my Feet is worth adding to every school library and having in your own home. It will be pulled out again and again.

Lucy Letherland's Atlas of Adventures is the coolest. It is where children's bucket lists begin and I hope it opens my son's eyes to many potential adventures. Featuring places around the world, each location gets a two-page layout with exquisitely detailed illustrations, full of fun facts and new vocabulary.

I love the idea of asking kids to think about what they would add to this book. Are there any local adventures that they have had that could be added? What would the drawing look like and what facts would need to be included?

Between this and Maps by Aleksandra Mizielinska, young readers will be geographically inspired and ready to start planning future travels. Maybe I don't have to wait nine years to buy it. Maybe I'll buy it for my classroom (and myself) now and get it again for my son.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

There's not much better than a sweet, stand alone middle grade novel. My path to this book was interesting: I belong to a book club where we read based on themes. Our theme for the summer is books about plants, so I headed to the Nerdy Book Club blog for some recommendations. The selection was limited, but I did find an interesting interview with Dusti Bowling, the author of Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus. 

When I learned that the book centered around an armless girl and her friendship with a boy with Tourette syndrome, I was eager to read it. There is so much to love about this book. Aven has such a sunny personality and Bowling perfectly balances sharing information about people with limb differences, without it overshadowing the plot.

Aven and her friends decide to investigate a mystery and instead of keeping it a secret from her parents, like we see in most middle grade and YA novels, she tells them and they help her. Maybe it's the new mom in me, but I love it when parents are involved in characters' lives.

The story wraps up very neatly, but that's not a bad thing in a book that would be perfect to recommend to fifth and sixth graders. I will be doing that a lot.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Flowers in the Sky

Lynn Joseph has the market cornered on coming of age books about Dominican girls. I love all her novels and was eager to read Flowers in the Sky, the only one I hadn't been able to track down. Hooray for interlibrary loans!

Flowers features all the hallmarks of a Joseph novel: an innocent Dominican heroine, family drama that reveals itself throughout the book, and gorgeous descriptions of the lush Caribbean nature. In this case, we have Nina Perez, whose mother sends her to New York City to live with her older brother. While her mother hopes she will marry a baseball player and become rich, Nina just wants to garden and live happily back at home. Over the course of the novel, Nina becomes more worldly and discovers what she really wants.

This book was a bit fluffier than Joseph's other novels, which both had political and historical elements. Flowers is a simple love story. Nina is extremely naive and, at times, it could be irritating that she couldn't figure out what was going on. I'd have to remind myself that Nina had never seen an elevator before moving to the US, so she should be forgiven her innocence. I don't think that younger readers will notice it, though. I'll recommend this to students who enjoy Sarah Dessen and Jenny Han novels.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Picture Book Biographies

Do I have a sudden urge to read picture book biographies because good ones are finally available, or are there more available because the audience has a thirst for them? Either way, students who have to do book reports have a wider range of options than ever before.

I'm a big fan of Meghan McCarthy's picture book biographies; I always learn so much and her illustration style is fun and unique. McCarthy had the odds stacked against her with the subject of Charles Atlas. In the author's note, she admits that Atlas is a modern "Paul Bunyan"--all stories have been twisted and exaggerated. I wonder why she followed through with him as a subject, rather than choosing someone easier to research. The result is a book that is weaker in information, but still entertaining.

Fans of McCathy's work will breeze through this title and readers interested in health will enjoy reading about the founding father of the fitness industry. Still, if you only have room or money for one McCarthy title in your library, stick to Earmuffs for Everyone.

Author Jess Keating did something incredibly smart with Shark Lady: she wrote a picture book that could be accessed on many levels. The first is that of a simple picture book, telling the story of Eugenie Clark's lifelong passion for sharks. The youngest readers (or students listening to a read aloud) can enjoy and take information away from this book.

Keating then included two sections for the more advanced reader: two pages of interesting facts on sharks and a timeline of Clark's life. These pages add some meat to the bones for readers doing their first biography projects for school. Finally, Keating writes an author's note that whets the older reader's interest to learn more about Clark that couldn't fit in the book and includes the resources to find that information. That's where Shark Lady finds its middle grade sweet spot. When framed like this, it's a worthwhile purchase for any library.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Sun is Also a Star

If I was a young adult author, I would feel dejected reading Nicola Yoon's The Sun is Also a Star. Man, this is good! So smart and romantic with incredible plotting that ties everything up.

Natasha is independent, scientific, and about to be deported back to Jamaica. Daniel is dutiful, poetic, and on track to being a success. Neither is looking for love when their paths cross, but sometimes the universe has other plans.

Do yourself a favor and listen to the audiobook. The accents by actors Bahni Turpin and Raymond Lee are amazing and add so much to the story. Having lived in both South Korea and the Caribbean, I loved that the protagonists came from these underrepresented areas in YA fiction. And I'm happy to add this book to my too short list of novels with male Asian love interests. Daniel might even be too perfect, but that is a ridiculous quibble. This is an awesome book.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

There's Someone Inside Your House

Stephanie Perkins stepped way outside of her usual YA romance fare with There's Someone Inside Your House. A tribute to teen slasher flicks, this novel worked for me because the horror and gore was balanced with Perkins' typical great writing.

Makani Young moves to Nebraska to escape a tragic secret from her native Hawaii (that is hinted at ad nauseum throughout the book), but feels haunted by violence when her new classmates are killed in gruesome ways. Everyone feels like a suspect and it's only a matter of time before Makani is a target.

Fans of horror films will see where this novel is going from the start, except for one twist: the killer is revealed about halfway through the novel. This is a controversial choice, but I think it was appropriate in this era of school shootings. The surviving students spend a great deal of time speculating about the motivations of the killer, which, unfortunately, is a common occurrence. Along with the diversity, this felt like a modern touch on what could be a tired plot idea.

As a sixth grade teacher, this isn't an appropriate novel for me to recommend to my students, too much sex and gore. As a reader of YA fiction, I enjoyed the novel but still prefer Perkins' romances.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Connect the Stars

Marisa de los Santos, please let me read your grocery lists. Or anything you jot down throughout the day.

I love her writing and gobble up anything I can find, so I was shocked that I somehow missed Connect the Stars, written with her husband, David Teague. As usual, de los Santos' writing is fantastic and I think this novel will be more enticing to young readers than the pair's previous novel, Saving Lucas Biggs.

Aaron and Audrey have "super powers" that are making middle school miserable. He is a walking encyclopedia with no social skills and she is a human lie detector who would rather distance herself from everyone than be hurt again. They meet when their concerned parents send them on a wilderness trip with other adolescents who are working on issues. Things go wrong, and Aaron and Audrey learn that their abilities are actually the gifts that will keep the alive in a harsh desert.

While there are many scenarios that are a stretch, I'll recommend this novel to readers who liked Moonpenny Island and other books with sensitive narrators coming to grips with the challenges of adolescence.

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.