Thursday, August 9, 2018

Caribbean Middle Grade and YA Books

Although I've shared a few Caribbean picture books before, as well as highlighting many novels on the blog, I've never done a post with all of the middle grade and YA Caribbean books I've read. I hope to keep adding to this post as I read more. Titles are linked to their reviews.

Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engle

Serafina's Promise by Ann E. Burg

A Song for Bijou by Josh Farrar

Dancing in the Rain by Lynn Joseph

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Flowers in the Sky by Lynn Joseph

The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle

The Wild Book by Margarita Engle

The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle

The Poet Slave of Cuba by Margarita Engle

Hold Tight, Don't Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner

In Darkness by Nick Lake

Taste of Salt by Frances Temple

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Amal Unbound

Imagine if making one small mistake and insulting the wrong person could cost you your freedom. This happens to Aisha Saeed's heroine Amal, who disrespects the wealthy landowner in her Pakistan village and ends up an indentured servant to him indefinitely. Ripped from her family, Amal must learn who to trust and try to do her best in her new life, while keeping hope that she can someday be a teacher and return to her family.

I can't remember reading any other books set in Pakistan, so I was eager to learn more. The culture is incorporated really well; Saeed keeps it authentic without forcing translations upon her readers. If you don't catch what a word means, it's okay.

My only issue with the book is the extremely saccharine ending. I know this is a middle grade novel and needs to have a happy ending, but this was a bit much. I feel it was so unrealistic that it did a disservice to the young readers who are encountering situations like indentured servitude for the first time, as well as not honoring the many people who live like this.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Orphan Train Girl

There is always some hot book out that I never manage to get around to reading. For awhile, it was Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train, which was a bestseller for several years. I had seen it around but mentally put it in the pile of books I didn't have time to read. Until I saw the young readers' edition and realized I could do two things at once--become a late follower to a literary trend and read a book that I could possibly recommend to my middle school students. Win win.

And recommend it, I will. I flew through Orphan Train Girl. It alternates between the story of Molly-- an orphan who has to help an elderly woman, Vivian, as part of community service for stealing a book-- and Niamh, an Irish immigrant in the 1920s who is sent across the US on a train, hoping for adoption. I knew from the start that Vivian and Niamh were the same person, so I wonder when young readers will figure it out. Even if they figure it out immediately, they will enjoy the story and be rooting for things to work out for both girls.

I love that this is a light introduction to historical fiction. Orphan trains did exist and there is information at the back of the book, but kids who aren't fans of history will enjoy the plot, as well. It could spark an interest in readers and lead them to check out more weighty historical fiction. I love a good gateway book. Even though we are on summer vacation, I'm texting a few parents that have children who would love this book. I can't wait until the fall to share it.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

In Praise of Yusuke Yonezu

There are countless board books about shapes, but Yusuke Yonezu's are the absolute best.

I picked up his book, Triangles, on a whim from the library, then immediately ordered his entire oeuvre through interlibrary loan. Yonezu's books are so good. They feature die cut illustrations where a shape turns into an everyday object or an animal. The shape aspect isn't too didact or in your face, but it is repeated enough that my 1 year old runs for the correct book when I say the shape. My son also loves looking through the holes in the book. I'll be revisiting all of them when he is a bit older and able to identify the shapes "in the wild." In the meantime, I've got a new go-to baby gift: Yonezu's brilliant books.

Thursday, July 12, 2018


Check out Kate Messner's Breakout on GoodReads and you will see a wall of 5 star reviews. Everyone loved this book.

Except me.

Nora lived a normal life until two inmates escape from the prison near her house and her summer is flipped upside down. Suddenly, she can't feel safe anywhere and she notices an ugly side to the people in her town. For extra credit, Nora compiles extensive notes (and I mean EXTENSIVE) on everything that happens in the summer, as part of a time capsule.

There are some good nuggets in Breakout and there need to be more books that address racism, but at 448 pages, there is a lot of unnecessary filler in this novel that makes it hard to sift through. I don't know many readers in the target audience who would slog through 200 pages while waiting for the plot to start. Even Messner admits it on p. 188, saying, "If I put everything, you'll be really sick of me by now." Yup.  I won't be recommending this book, nor will I add it to my library. 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Leah on the Offbeat

I'm pressed for time, but I want to record my thoughts on Leah on the Offbeat so I can refer back to it. 

The solution? A book review in GIF format. I recently wrote about using GIFs in the classroom for MiddleWeb, so I'm trying to practice what I preach.

How I felt when I heard Becky Albertalli had another book coming out:


When I started reading and realized that Albertalli had a ton of characters she expects the reader to remember from her previous book:


When I figured out the love interest/plot early on:

But it took forever to get where it was going:

Is it appropriate for my sixth graders?

Still, I love Albertalli's writing, so my overall feeling about the book:


This was way too much fun. I'll be reviewing via GIF again!

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Front Desk

The We Need Diverse Books movement emphasizes the importance of readers being able to see themselves on the page. Kelly Yang's semi-autobiographical middle grade novel, Front Desk, will resonate with many readers who have been searching for a literary hero who has a life like theirs.

Mia's family moved from China to California with hopes of the American dream. That all came crashing down and they struggle to make ends meet while running the nasty Mr. Yao's motel, the Calivista. Despite the hardships, Mia perseveres and does her best to make her life better.

This novel tackles big topics like poverty, racism, and immigration, but it also focuses on how friends can look many different ways, parental relationships, and mean girls. This is the first novel I've read where a character receives free lunch at school, and there isn't a big deal made of it. I love Front Desk for that alone. Fortunately, there is much more to love.

When sharing this novel with my students, I will be sure to mention the author's insanely inspiring story.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Lifters

There are plenty of sad middle grade novels, but there aren't that many about the concept of sadness. Leave it to Dave Eggers to write a novel that makes sadness okay, while offering hope.

The plot instantly engages: Gran and his family move to a new town where there are frequent sinkholes and a lot of sadness; somehow, the two are connected. Gran and his new friend Catalina Catalan need to figure out a way to hold everything together. Their solution involves handles, carousel horses, and borrowing an old wheelchair.

The Lifters is strange and sweet, and full of nuggets like, "...when someone asks if you trust them, it usually means they're about to do something that will make you reassess that trust." You can tell that Eggers has children and knows young readers (from his work with 826 National) because there is so much thought put into this novel: there is an illustration on every other page to break up the text, the chapters are short, and the characters are relatable. The Lifters is a stand-alone novel, which is perfect, but I hope it isn't Eggers' last middle grade novel. Young readers deserve books like this. 

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.