Monday, May 25, 2015

Fish in a Tree

I really enjoyed Lynda Mullaly Hunt's One for the Murphys so much that I added it to the suggested reading list for this summer. I've been eager to check out her latest, Fish in a Tree, for awhile. I was not disappointed and am excited to see where she goes next.

Ally has somehow made it to sixth grade without anyone realizing her big secret: she can't read or write. Leaving aside the implausibility of this (my kids are overly tested), it seems like sixth grade would be another year that she would slip through the class. Until Mr. Daniels showed up to cover her regular teacher's maternity leave. With his wacky ties, his nickname for the students "Fantasticos," and his genuine caring, Mr. Daniels refuses to let Ally slide. His goal is to convince her that she is smart, and slowly, she starts to believe it.

Fish in a Tree felt like Because of Mr. Terupt, but with better writing. At times, I thought the book might have been written for pre-service teachers, with all the explicit strategies for teaching dyslexics clearly spelled out. But when Mullaly Hunt lists all the famous people who have had dyslexia, I know it's geared towards middle grade students, as most adults are familiar with that list by now.

I know exactly the students in my class that need to read this novel. I'm excited to suggest it to them.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Scarlett Undercover

Hooray for a book that is truly original! I loved Jennifer Latham's debut novel, Scarlett Undercover, and hope that YA readers will embrace its smart, funny, and independent heroine.

Scarlett graduated high school two years early and works as a detective, solving all the crimes except the one that she wants most: that of her father's murder. While his death and her mother's death from cancer led to her sister becoming a more devote Muslim, it made Scarlett wary and distrustful. When a young client asks her to help learn why her brother is acting so weird, the case becomes far more serious and may lead her to answers about her family.

Scarlett is an awesome protagonist - sarcastic and aspirational, but still vulnerable. Latham struck a great balance with a Muslim American heroine. I learned about Islam, but also didn't feel like the book was didactic or shoving diversity at the readers. Her voice was unique; it felt like an old gumshoe updated to sound like a teenage girl. Somehow, it worked.

It's too mature for my fifth graders, but I will be buying a copy for the middle school library, and actively recommending it to the teenagers I know.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Terrible Two

Pure fun and destined to be the most popular book in my class library. 

I learned about The Terrible Two from a student who was reading it. One look at the cover and I was asking to borrow it when he finished. Then another boy was reading it on his Nook. (We've had an explosion of Kindles and Nooks in my classroom this year. My heart grew a thousand times.) Kids are circling it on my desk, debating whether both boys on the cover are pranksters, when one looks so innocent. I hang up all the covers of the books I've read and one of my lower level readers said one of her goals was to read a book that I've read. (See what I mean about my heart?!) This is the book I will recommend. Hooray for The Terrible Two!

When Miles moves to a new school, he is determined to continue his reputation as a legendary prankster. There's only one problem: the school already has a mysterious prankster and he or she is way more clever than Miles! 

This is a book to read for its funny illustrations, random cow facts, aspirational pranks, and the fact that it makes turtlenecks cool. The Terrible Two is essential.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Saint Anything

At my school in Colombia, we had a daily Drop Everything And Read time. When I get my hands on a new book by Sarah Dessen, I drop everything and read until the book is finished. Even better when Saint Anything is Dessen's best book in years.

Touted as being much darker than her usual work, Saint Anything tells the story of Sydney, who has always been overshadowed by her dynamic brother, Peyton. When Peyton's downward spiral ends with him in jail for drunk driving, Sydney becomes completely invisible, except to her new group of friends.

I didn't find this book to be particularly dark, but the big difference is that Saint Anything doesn't mainly focus on the romance. It is Dessen, after all, so there is a romance, but the friendships are given equal importance, as well as the family dynamics. These aspects make it Sarah Dessen's most well-rounded book.

If you read one Sarah Dessen book, you'll want to read them all. It feels so good to have new words from one of my favorite authors.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Picture Book Biographies

For our PYP Unit "Every Life Has a Story," my students are reading biographies. I have a variety of texts available for book circles, will have kids watch biographies on, and everyone will read at least one "Who Was..." book, which is like mainlining a biography. One of my groups is going to read a variety of picture books.

Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman is my favorite that I have read so far. It is really beautiful, with dynamic illustrations layered over photographs that relate to the page's topic. I only vaguely knew about Wilma Rudolph, so learned a lot about her and the perseverance that she showed throughout her life. Imagine going from a child who was unable to walk to an Olympian. Now I want to read a book about Wilma's mother, who had 22 children!

When Marian Sang tells the life of Marian Anderson, a gifted singer who performed before an integrated crowd of 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial. I had never heard of Anderson before and know that my students won't have either. While the writing was fairly ordinary to me, the illustrations are gorgeous. The muted colors and attention to details had me savoring the pages. I don't know many small children who would enjoy this as a picture book, but in a study of biographies, it makes a great addition to a middle grade collection.

Wanted Dead or Alive: The True Story of Harriet Tubman was published in 1965, and it shows. It could be placed next to When Marian Sang as an example of how far children's books have come. The illustrations are sketchy, all blue, and at times reminded me of grave rubbings we used to do in Girl Scouts. There was new information about Tubman in the book; in my head, she started the Underground Railroad, but now I know that isn't so. Still, there are so many better texts about this time period.

The Real McCoy: The Life of an African-American Inventor teaches the reader about Elijah McCoy, the inventor of the Oil Cup for locomotives, as well as many other inventions. I know I'll be thinking of him the next time I am at the ironing board! I love the idea of my students learning about the inventors or everyday items, and even better when they are people who showed determination and hard work to succeed. Something that I found interesting was that so many African Americans went to Europe so that they could be educated: Marian Anderson and Elijah McCoy both did so, then returned to the United States to struggle with racism. McCoy grew up in Canada, so I wondered why he moved to the US, when he could have had less problems in his birth country. I appreciated his advice for young people: "Stay in school. Be progressive. Work hard."

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.