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.

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.