Saturday, December 3, 2016

Need

I am really excited about this one.

My students have begun exploring the vast world of dystopian fiction. There is so much out there for them, but not all of it is appropriate for eleven year olds. An Ember in the Ashes (review) has too much rape and Pivot Point has drug use as a focal point. I'm happy that Joelle Charbonneau's Need gives readers the thrills that they seek, without taking it too far.

When a new social media network opens up to her high school, Kaylee isn't very impressed. That is, until she learns that this site provides members with anything they need. All her other efforts to get a kidney transplant for her brother have been futile, so Kaylee signs up. But she and her classmates soon learn that there is always a price for what we want, and sometimes it is very steep.

My lofty hope for this novel is that my students will think twice about what they post online. But if they just end up being entertained by Need, I'm okay with that. I can't wait to book talk this to my class.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

We Need Diverse Picture Books

I continue to search for picture books to incorporate into my classroom library, the more diverse, the better. At the 2016 International Literacy Association conference, Adora Svitak said, "Understanding starts with the stories we read." By providing access to diverse books, we open students' minds and worlds. I can't think of a more appropriate time for these books than right now.

The Soccer Fence tells the story of Hector, a young boy growing up in South Africa during apartheid. He spends many years watching other boys playing soccer through a fence, but never gets asked to join them. When Nelson Mandela is released from prison, things begin to change. 

Framed through soccer, this is a book that will appeal to my students. They'll be excited to learn more about the Bafana Bafana team and enjoy Jesse Joshua Watson's illustrations of the fan reactions to the team's win. I thought it was a bit unrealistic how the other children's opinions of Hector changed so quickly, but would highlight how similar their interests were, despite different backgrounds.


Stranger in the Mirror has to be one of the strangest picture books I've ever read. While searching our library for books about social justice issues, I turned to the Allen Say section, because his work is usually poignant. While this book does attempt to tackle ageism, it is so bizarre that it doesn't seem to work.

One day, Martin wakes up and he looks like a very old man. Doctors can't find a reason why and he feels okay, so he is sent to school. Martin's classmates ridicule him and his sister starts to call him, "Grandpa." Martin struggles with the change until he realizes he is the same, no matter how he looks.

There are social justice issues here, but my students will be so distracted by the odd plot that they won't be able to focus. On a positive note, Say's illustrations are gorgeous, as always.

Your Move is such a gem for teachers; it can be used as a mentor text for so many different units. I'll be using it as part of our social issues unit, focusing on peer pressure.

James will do anything to join the K-Bones, even sneaking out his younger brother late at night to vandalize some property. While he knows it's wrong, he wants so badly to fit in that he loses focus on what he should do.

The text is simple enough for any reader, but the issues are complex. We'll be discussing what small issues get resolved in the book, as well as which larger issues remain. This book belongs in every school's classroom. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Poet Slave of Cuba

As mentioned many times before (hereherehere, here, and here), I love Margarita Engle's writing. What a gift to learn about Cuba's history through novels in verse. The Poet Slave of Cuba is no exception; it tells the story of Juan Francisco Manzano. 

Juan was born a slave in Cuba and was treated as a pet by his master, whom he was made to call Mama. He learned to recite long pieces of literature and then did so at parties for applause. Meanwhile, his true parents watched and worried about their son. Juan was a gifted poet, and when he got a new master, he needed the beauty of poetry to help him through the torture she puts him through. 


The punishments that Juan receives are disturbing, which makes this book much darker than Engle's typical stories. While Juan finds solace in beautiful words, I think that middle grade readers would be upset to learn about his torture. Still, I am happy it is in my classroom library and hope that there are students who want to read it. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The White Giraffe

In my class, I have several bins of animal books, which range in quality from Kate DiCamillo's excellent works to the Animal Ark series, about which the less said, the better. I'm happy to have another quality book to add to the bins.

Something that has come up a lot in my recent reading is helping my students balance their desire to grow as readers and read all the 'hot' books like Red Queen, and what is actually appropriate for them. A lot of the time, when they finish a heavy series, they feel unmoored and want something light and safe. A palate cleanser that reminds them that the whole world isn't a dystopia. Lauren St. John's The White Giraffe is a book I could hand those students.

After the tragic death of her parents, Martine moves to her grandmother's wildlife reserve in South Africa. It is there that she learns the legend of the white giraffe and realizes that she might have some special gifts when it comes to healing hurt animals. A white giraffe is the rarest animal on earth, so Martine must protect her new friend before poachers can harm him.

I might be accused of being overly sensitive, but I was slightly uncomfortable about this white girl moving to Africa (almost always referred to that way, not referring to the specific country where it is set) to be a savior to the animals. While the setting is authentic, I wish that Martine had made friends with people of African heritage.

Overall, it has a good mystery and won't feel 'babyish' to my animal book lovers. There are more books in the series which I will add to the collection if this novel is popular.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

One of my students has recently moved to China after living in The Bahamas for six years. Understandably, he had many different emotions. China and The Bahamas have a complex relationship right now, so I wanted him to have a positive mindset about the move. As always, it comes back to a book for me. He and I read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon together.

Although it is set in China, this book brought me back to my childhood love of The Wizard of Oz. It has all the hallmarks of that classic: a young girl on a quest, different strangers who help her along the way, overcoming challenges, and many lessons learned. I've mentioned before that my sixth graders are at an interesting stage as readers: they will push themselves to read more mature books, but occasionally want the comfort of a beautiful story for children. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is that kind of book, like a warm blanket being tucked around you on a cold night. It brought comfort to my student before his move, and it will be a book I recommend frequently to students in need of a feel-good story.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Night Divided

A Night Divided made me realize that I've never read a middle grade or YA book about the Berlin Wall. It's interesting because there are so many books for young readers about WWII, but not many about what happened afterwards. For that alone, I think this book is worth adding to a classroom library.

Gerta's father has always been under suspicion of being unfaithful to the East German government, but they never thought anything would come from it. Until the night that a wall goes up, with Gerta's father and brother on the western side, and Gerta, her mother, and other brother Fritz left behind in East Germany. Years go by under the oppressive regime until Gerta decides that it is worth the risk to try and escape to the west. With the clock ticking down until Fritz has to report for military duty, the children decide to dig a tunnel. But they've lived so long in a society where no one can be trusted, it's only a matter of time before someone betrays them.

I enjoyed Nielsen's The False Prince and she uses her skill with pacing to give the novel an intense final third. This is a middle grade novel, so the interrogation tactics of the Stasi are glossed over, but the society is familiar enough to the dystopian novels my students enjoy that they would understand. I found there to be too many conveniences that would only happen in a middle grade novel: there just happens to be a pond where Gerta and Fritz can hide the dirt from the tunnel, the father just happens to know of a bomb shelter with weak walls, etc. These lend an air of incredibility to the novel for the adult reader, but young readers will eat it up. I think there are enough students who are interested in reading about WWII that they would read this on their own after a book talk.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Stella by Starlight

I love Sharon Draper's books and Stella by Starlight has great buzz, but I went into reading it with apprehension. Stories about the post-Civil War era are so upsetting to me, so I kept waiting for the scenes that would break my heart and leave a residue. There were a few. How could there not be when the first page features a cross being burned by the Ku Klux Klan?

Stella lives with her loving family in segregated Bumblebee, North Carolina. Draper does a great job portraying the family as a tight group who take care of each other. They'll need to do so now that Stella's father wants to register to vote and the Klan doesn't like it.

I'm curious to know if any of my students would read this on their own. If it was a read aloud, they would be glued to it, but independently, they need more frequent hooks. I haven't had a patient reader for a few years, one who could sit this this book as its story unfolded. Still, I'll book talk it and keep it in mind if I'm ever teaching this historical era.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Carbon Diaries 2015

I saw a random recommendation on Twitter for The Carbon Diaries 2015 and I decided to check it out. I'm glad I did because it is a really fascinating look at how climate change could affect London. I advise the Eco Club at a Green Flag Eco School, so this interests me, but even if you aren't an environmentalist, it's worth reading. Told from the perspective of caustic teen Laura, we see how quickly global warming can destroy society.

In the "future" 2015, the British government decides to impose a 60% reduction in carbon emissions, through the use of carbon rations. Laura starts out feeling irritated with the restrictions, but then the drought begins, and then the floods, then the cholera, and so on. Laura needs to grow up quickly, and so do we if we are to avoid this fate.

I loved how the environmental disasters unfolded in the background and then became the focus. It reminded me of another favorite, Life As We Knew It. While it skews mature for my sixth graders, I would recommend it for 8th grade and up. Even better, there is a sequel set in 2017. My goal is to read it before that date.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda

I am so in love with Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda that I don't even mind that it made me cry about five times on a flight. It had been lingering on my Kindle for awhile, so I am thrilled that I chose it to accompany me from Reykjavik to Milan (you know I had to throw that in). It is an utterly charming and wonderful novel.

Simon's email correspondence with "Blue" has slowly become the most important thing in his life. Even though he doesn't know Blue's identity, Simon shares with him the most intimate details of his life--most importantly, that he's gay. When a classmate decided to blackmail him with this information, it sets off a serious of events that leads to growth for everyone involved.

There is a lot of discussion about the coming out process and how it should done when and how the individual chooses. I think it's really important for all readers to get insight into how this can look and feel. I loved how fierce Simon's allies were and his wonderful voice. Becky Albertalli is an awesome writer who made me fall in love with multiple characters. I am eager to read more of her work.

Monday, October 10, 2016

To Burp or Not to Burp

This year, I'll be teaching a unit on the solar system for the first time. I like to balance what my students need to know about a subject with what they want to know. To Burp or Not to Burp will answer many of the questions that they have. The bold ones will ask them aloud and the shy ones will wonder, but they will all be curious about how the body functions in space.

This picture book gives a lot of great information and taught me a few things that I had never considered. I now know how astronauts sleep in space and understand better why they have to do so much exercise on the International Space Station. It's a good supplement to textbooks. All I'll need to do is display the book prominently, and I can see it being passed around the class by everyone.

Best of all, it had me thinking of other questions which aren't covered in the book, like if the astronauts hair and nails grow at the same rate in space and do astronauts get the flu in space. The best nonfiction gets the reader wondering, so I'm excited to begin our inquiry with Dr. Dave Williams' book.