Saturday, April 25, 2015

My Life With the Chimpanzees

Mention Jane Goodall to me and my thought process is "Chimps, Africa, was she the woman from Gorillas in the Mist? I heard that one of the primate scientists was difficult and possibly racist. Was that her or Dian Fossey?" (It was Dian Fossey.) Clearly, I am not very educated about her.

My 5th graders are in the PYP Unit of Inquiry: Every Life Has a Story and will be reading biographies. Two girls are doing a book club with My Life with the Chimpanzees so I decided to read it with them.

Something that struck me was how privileged Goodall's background is. She grew up in a manor, met the Queen of England, and was a baroness after her first marriage. I guess that makes sense, as it would be difficult to have the opportunity to travel to Africa and volunteer in the 1960s without a safety net.

One of the guiding questions for our unit is how the individual has affected change. That question will be so easy for the girls who read this book. Jane Goodall did so much for chimpanzees, but really for animal rights in general. While I found the book meandering a bit at the end, the bulk of it is fascinating and will give my students some great information on a fascinating person.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Snicker of Magic

 A Snicker of Magic has a lot of buzz around it, so I wanted to check it out because I am building my middle grade recommendations. Unfortunately, this reminded me too much of Savvy: rambling plot, too many quirky characters, Deep South setting, and magical powers. It took me forever to read and I was surprised to see on my Kindle that it was 311 pages, because it felt like twice that.

Felicity Pickle's mother has a wandering soul and moves her and her sister Fannie Jo around the country in their car, the Pickled Jalapeno, every time a thunderstorm falls too close to a certain date of the month. (Do you see what I mean about the rambling and the quirk?) They head back to her hometown of Midnight Gulch, a place that used to be magical but has lost its charm, due to a curse. Of course, it becomes Felicity's job to break the curse, so that they can stay in town.

There is an audience for this book. And there are some beautiful moments, like the character "The Beedle" who commits random acts of kindness, which is something that all children should learn about. And when Felicity is asked if she has a crush, she replies, "More like an inflate. He makes me feel the opposite of crushed. He makes my heart feel like a balloon, like it's going to blow up and fly right out of my chest." What a lovely description for what so many middle grade readers are beginning to experience.

I'll add A Snicker of Magic to a list of suggested books for summer reading. It's always an option, just not one I'll be pressing heavily.

Monday, April 13, 2015


Confession time: for years, I have been recommending Legend to students as a book they should read if they liked The Hunger Games. Now that I'm teaching my youngest students ever, I wanted to make sure that it is a book I could safely recommend. Happily, I am in the clear. The first in Marie Lu's series is a perfect book for dystopian fans, and less violent than The Testing, which I have also recommended.

Alternating between the perspectives of June and Day, we learn about life in a future where the Republic and the Colonies have daily battles and the gap between the rich and the poor is constantly widening. While both are prodigies, wealthy June has had every advantage and poor Day lives on the streets, praying that his family won't catch the plague. Pitted against each other, they don't realize how much they have in common.

Obviously, I am about three years behind on the reviewing this, but better late than never, especially since I can now have in-depth conversations with my fellow readers.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Watch the Sky

I was a huge fan of Kirsten Hubbard's Wanderlove and Like Mandarin, so was very excited to read her first middle grade novel, Watch the Sky. The cover drew me in, and I was thrilled when NetGalley accepted my request to read it early. I'm always looking for the next read aloud for my fifth graders. Unfortunately, this won't be it.

Jory's life is anything but typical. His family spends their lives preparing for an attack, searching for signs, and trying to avoid the notice of Officials. His stepfather, Caleb, believes that something is coming, so they must prepare. Jory is enrolled in public school so that he can "hide in plain sight," but this taste of normalcy makes him question if Caleb is right. Jory doesn't know who to believe, but he does know that time is running out.

I felt anxious for Jory throughout the entire novel. Caleb was such a dangerous character, full of mercurial moods and strange beliefs. It made me sad to see him instill fear in the family, and feed off of Jory's mother's agoraphobia and weakness. Luckily, he had his adopted sister, Kit, a strange girl with selective mutism. Hubbard keeps hinting that Kit might be an alien, or at least that she has a fascinating back story, but we never get it. I wish we had learned more about the most interesting character in the book.

More than anything, the reason I won't be sharing the book is the ending. I'm an adult and had a hard time figuring out what happened. No spoilers, but I couldn't tell if a character died or not. If I was sent to the internet to search for answers, I'm sure my students would be even more confused. I was disappointed by Watch the Sky, but haven't lost my faith in Hubbard.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Black Dove, White Raven

Black Dove, White Raven was easily my most anticipated book of 2015. I have loved everything I've read by Elizabeth Wein, and was excited to learn about the Italian-Ethiopian War, which I had never heard of. Most of my history knowledge comes from historical fiction, for better or for worse!

Emilia and Teo are the children of female pilots in the 1930's, which means their different races are not the only things that make them stand out. When a freak accident causes the death of Teo's mom, the remaining mother moves the children to Ethiopia, the land of Teo's heritage, and a place where they will not be judged by their race. Unfortunately, the threat of war with Italy causes its own set of problems, which will have devastating consequences for them all.

I've always enjoyed the way Wein writes friendship as a love story. The mothers, Rhoda and Delia, are depicted as soulmates, almost romantic in their devotion to each other. I wish there had been more chapters about their history and relationship, because it sounds fascinating (and similar to Wein's other novels). Emilia and Teo are raised as siblings and each other's only friends. They become everything to each other, and save each other's lives over and over again. I love my friends very much, but wonder if friendship was deeper in the past, before social media and even telephones. To be friends, you needed to be more present and close.

As they grow, Emilia and Teo adopt the alter egos of Black Dove and White Raven. Their fantasy stories about these characters litter the book, and were my least favorite part of the novel. They usually held pretty strong metaphors for what was happening with the characters, but I couldn't get into them the way I liked reading about the real people. I'm sure others will have different opinions about this.

Black Dove, White Raven wasn't as strong as Code Name Verity or Rose Under Fire, in my opinion. Still, it is so far above average that I will enthusiastically recommend it. I loved learning about a new time period and found myself doing extra research for more information on what was happening. Wein's novels always push me to learn more.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing the ARC.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Walls Around Us

I love NetGalley for allowing me to read books ahead of time, but I have waited seven months to rave about Nova Ren Suma's  The Walls Around Us. My best way to summarize my feelings for the novel is, "I loved it, everyone must read it, can someone please explain the ending?"

The Walls Around Us has two narrators: Amber, who is locked away in a juvenile detention center for the murder of her stepfather, and Violet, a ballerina whose best friend has been convicted of murder and sent to the same prison. Ori, the best friend and best person in the novel, never gets to share her inner thoughts, but the way she is described by Amber and Violet makes the reader feel sad and worried about her fate.

When someone is locked up, time takes on an elastic quality, and the author plays with that, keeping the reader guessing when the events are taking place. Nothing in Suma's world is as straightforward as it seems, or as the characters wish.

The Walls Around Us is a book about relationships, particularly between girls. After three years in the detention center, Amber has taken on a hive mind mentality--much of her thoughts are projected as part of the group. "We were, all of us, the exact opposite of special. We were bad. Broken. It was up to the state to rehabilitate us into something worthy, if it even could." Amber protects herself and disassociates  from her actions by sticking to the pronoun 'we' when she refers to bad things that may or may not have been done.

The end of the book was confusing to me, but only because Suma has drifted heavily into the magic realism by this point. I think once someone I know has read it and we are able to discuss, I will fully appreciate the conclusion the way that I loved the rest of the book.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Reconstructing Amelia

I wasn't sure if I should review Reconstructing Amelia here. I mostly review YA and middle grade books, and have been particularly trying to focus on the books that would appeal to 5th and 6th graders. Reconstructing Amelia is for the oldest of young adults and adults.

After her only daughter commits suicide by jumping from her school's roof, single mother Kate is devastated. But when she receives a text message saying that Amelia didn't jump, Kate is determined to get answers.

Full of secret societies, bullying, teenage love, and plot twist, Reconstructing Amelia will appeal to fans of Gossip Girl and Gone Girl. For me, it was the perfect vacation read and a break from reading books that I can recommend to my students.

Sometimes you have to read a book just for you.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Greenglass House

I'm not sure who the audience is for Greenglass House. It's a middle grade novel, but seems geared towards adults who read middle grade novels, rather than actual ten year olds.

I was enchanted by the setting. Give me an old hotel with stained glass windows, perched on a hill in a snowstorm. Continue handing out steaming mugs and having the mysterious hotel guests tell each other stories that may involve the history of the smugglers' hotel. Keep me guessing about who is trustworthy. But don't ask my students to do that, because they won't.

Milo and his friend Meddy decide to figure out the true background of the guests, but in the guise of a role playing game. Which means that half of the time, they go by the names Negret and Sirin. I guarantee that many of my students would think those were two separate characters. Not a slam on my students, it's just confusing to skip between names, often in the same paragraph.

I also don't know many preteens who would persevere through sentences like, "There were three sconces along the wall on each side, and at the far end, a little half-circle-shaped table with a potted white poinsettia on it." So many of the sentences in Greenglass House were just like that. Curious, I looked up the Lexile for the novel, and it is only 800. But the sentences are long and the vocabulary is complex (puissance, glazier, etc.). Aside from that, it took 100 pages to really get going. I had to force myself to finish.

I'm glad I read to the end and learned the truth of the mystery. I don't know any young readers who would do the same.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Hollow City

I have a rule that whenever a student recommends a book to me, it jumps to the top of my To Be Read pile. When the student hands me the physical copy, I read it in one day so that I can discuss it with her. Or maybe that wasn't the only reason I read it in one day. Ransom Riggs' Hollow City is addictive and hard to put down.

I remember liking the first book, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children for its creepy ambiance and uniqueness. Still, the characters were rusty in my memory. I did have a vague recollection of Jacob, the narrator, being whiny, but I didn't find him that way in this book. The beginning of the novel features portraits of the characters, which helped me keep them and their peculiarities sorted.

It's rare to enjoy the second book in the series more than the first, but I think I prefer this book. Jacob has accepted that he is a Peculiar, so we don't have to deal with any angst, we just get to follow the group on adventures throughout time and space. The book is fast-paced and full of surprises, particularly the end. When my student handed it to me, she said, "There's going to be a third one." Hooray for that!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Crossover

I've been trying to track down Kwame Alexander's The Crossover since last year, and managed to get my hands on it days before it won the 2015 Newbery Medal. As a fan of novels in verse, I couldn't be happier.

JB and Josh are the twin sons of a retired basketball superstar. They are fairly interchangeable at the start of the book: popular, talented, and funny. Then JB gets a girlfriend and Josh is hurt by that, and their differences come to the surface.

With a tearjerking ending, this book will appeal to so many different readers. I have the boys will read any basketball book, the kids who like novels in verse because they are quick reads, the readers who want the "hot titles." The Crossover is good for all of them. I am so happy that it won THE major award, another point for the We Need Diverse Books movement.