Monday, August 22, 2016

Fun Nonfiction Picture Books

I am in love with Elise Gravel's Disgusting Critters series. These accessible books will fit perfectly in every library. I know first and second graders who will happily shriek their way through the book, but my fifth graders will also learn something as they breeze through the pages. My mission is giving them access to as much fun nonfiction as possible, so even if the reading level is low for them, a positive nonfiction reading experience is worth a lot!

The Slug is helping me come to terms with the fact that I stepped on one barefoot about twenty years ago. I can still feel it, so spent a lot of time shivering and remembering as I read this book. There was a lot that I didn't know about slugs, like that they have a breathing hole on the side of their head (I wonder how that is different from a mouth, since isn't that what a mouth is?). I was slightly charmed when I learned that they follow each other's mucus trails to find a partner to mate with? Will I ever like slugs or stop thinking about how it feels to squish one? Probably not, but I know more about them now!

The Worm is another treat from Elise Gravel about an insect that is really little more than a digestive tract inside a muscle tube. Gravel manages to make worms cute, although I wondered why all the illustrations had eyes when the book makes a big point out of the fact that worms don't have them! Perhaps the drawings would be too creepy without them, but I wondered if that would be confusing for young readers. While I didn't like it as much as The Slug, I would add this and the rest of the series to my collection and listen to my developing readers squeal!

After reading Meghan McCarthy's Earmuffs for Everyone!, I asked our librarian to add another by the author to our collection. She chose Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum, which has such a fun cover.

Inside, readers learn about Walter Diemer, who was the first to create bubble gum. As we find out, people have been chewing variations of gum since ancient Greece, but never was it as fun as in the 1920s, when Walter did his experiments. As in Earmuffs, McCarthy emphasizes the effort and perseverance which goes into being an inventor. I want my students to realize that it takes hard work to create something incredible.

While not as chock full of information as Earmuffs, I found this book to be more straightforward and easier to follow. As always with McCarthy's books, there is a lot of fun information in the final pages.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Red Moon Rising

A feminist space western? I can safely say I have never read a book like K.A. Holt's Red Moon Rising, which is too bad because it is totally unique.

Our heroine is Rae Darling, the descendent of space farmers, who lives in constant fear of being abducted by the Cheese, natives of the moon who ride dactyls and cut off ears. Unfortunately, she and her sister are taken, but what they find surprises them. Among the Cheese, females are valued and trained to be warriors. Rae's sister quickly adapts (too quickly to be believable), but Rae struggles to decide where she truly belongs.

While there were a few things that could use some explanation (Horses in space? How do people breathe?), I enjoyed most of the world-building in the novel. Best of all was the Cheese language, which seems incomprehensible at first, but slowly becomes a good portion of the dialogue. Without translation, the reader understands it. I love how Holt did this.

We'll be reading Stuart Gibbs' Space Case as our science fiction novel, but for my advanced readers who have already breezed through all of Gibbs' novels, I'll be recommending Red Moon Rising. It's too good not to.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

World Without Fish

I'm heading back to school soon and moving from the International Baccalaureate's Primary Years Program to teaching sixth grade in the Middle Years Program. Middle school is my home and I am so excited to be part of building the new curriculum at my school.

One of our units will tackle sustainable fishing so I purchased World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky. I realized very quickly that I needed to buy many more copies and read it with my students. Issues like overfishing, pollution, and the politics of fishing are very complex, but Kurlansky explains them simply and engagingly. The layout of the book is very appealing, with beautiful illustrations, a variety of fonts, and a short graphic novel interspersed throughout the chapters.

This book will be challenging for my students. It's the last book we'll read in the year and I hope it sets them up for the rigors of the MYP. It's also a subject matter that is especially poignant for those of us who live in the Caribbean and love snorkeling, scuba diving, and fishing. I hope that by reading this book early, my students can be the ones to make a change to the way we treat our oceans.

Friday, August 5, 2016

A Curious Tale of the In-Between

Does anyone know any actual children who enjoy gothic tales?

I'll give you Lemony Snicket, but other than that, my very modern students aren't very interested in books that are nostalgically old-fashioned and hip at the same time.

Still, A Curious Tale of the In-Between was a good read, which would probably be downgraded to a decent read if I hadn't been on a plane when I read it. It's the story of Pram Bellamy, a young girl who has the gift of seeing the dead. Her best friend is a dead boy and she doesn't have much use for the living, until she makes a living friend named Clarence. She offers to use her abilities to help him find his late mother, but it ends up being far more dangerous than they ever imagined.

This is a pretty gloomy, atmospheric novel and, as I mentioned before, I don't know many middle grade readers who enjoy that type of book. It seems to be popular with adults who read children's books, so that may be the intended audience. Author Lauren DeStefano is talented, in spite of my roller coaster past with her books. This is a fairly wishy washy review, but that's how I felt about the novel. I wouldn't recommend it to children who have lost a parent, but if you have a reader who enjoyed Liesel & Po, then they just might like this as well.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Listen, Slowly

I was excited to check out Listen, Slowly, after having loved Inside Out & Back Again. I was surprised to find that this novel was not written in verse and that it is set in modern Vietnam.

Mia was raised by her Vietnamese parents in Laguna Beach, California and is your typical beach girl. But then she has to accompany her grandmother back to Vietnam and she realizes she might not be your average California girl, after all.

There is so much to love about Listen, Slowly. It has a beautiful exploration of Vietnamese culture with a true appreciation for the food, the people, and the language. I love it as an entry point to learning about a new culture from a relatable perspective.

The novel is not without flaws. I think it could have been split into two separate novels and been more appealing to its target audience: middle grade readers. The novel felt overly long and was full of convoluted paragraphs like this, "This is my understanding: if a brain is thinking in English, it's Vietnam; if thinking in Vietnamese, it's Viet Nam. If you learned it as Viet Name first, then your brain will think Viet Nam no matter the language. Unless you learned it as Vietnam and then become superfluent in Vietnamese, then your brain will switch to Viet Name. Unless you learned it as Viet Nam but forgot your first language altogether, then your brain will think Vietnam. Why do I care?" My students wouldn't care and probably would have given up.

I'm eager to continue reading Thanhha Lai's work, I just hope she realizes she will have more chances to write and that she doesn't need to cram it all in one book.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Underdogs

WOW- what an ending! I was excited to read Sara Hammel's debut novel, The Underdogs, so I could add another mystery to the list I recommend my students. What I got was so much more.

Evie and Chelsea are best friends who tend to be invisible at the tennis club where their parents work. When the local beauty queen is murdered at the club's pool, they use their knowledge of the people and place to investigate the crime on their own. This turns out to be dangerous and leads to shocking discoveries, for both the characters and the reader.

A murder is a difficult plot point for a middle grade novel, particularly when there seemed to be many characters in love with the victim. I kept waiting nervously for the book to go darker, but it skirted the line very well.

Best of all was the surprise twist at the end that I never saw coming. I hate spoilers, so won't say any more than I ended the book in tears and can't wait to share it with my students.

Monday, July 18, 2016

My Sister Rosa

After reading and loving Liar by Justine Larbalestier, I was so excited to see that she had a new novel out. My familiarity with the author had me searching for clues along the way to the twist ending which I knew was coming. All that self-preparation still left me surprised by how it ended. Bravo!

Che's little sister is terrifying. She is thrilled to kill ants, manipulate her friends into doing wrong, and using people to her advantage. Under her Shirley Temple facade lies a psychopath, but no one seems to believe Che. In his words, "Rosa is a ticking time bomb. I don't think it matters what you call it: psychopathy, sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder, evil or the devil within. What matters is how to prevent the bomb from exploding." Che seems to be the only one who can keep Rosa in check, until she starts to seem him as a nuisance, rather than an ally.

While we spend the novel in the mind of Che, the title character consumes the story (and everyone around her). My stomach felt sick as I read, waiting for the next terrible thing that Rosa would do, and how she would get away with it. Larbalestier never pushes Rosa's terror too far; it all seems like it could be possible with a deeply disturbed child. This is what makes My Sister Rosa so scary and unsettling.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Serafina and the Twisted Staff

I can't believe I didn't review the first Serafina book; a student did an earnest book talk about it and started everyone in the class passing it on to each other. I loved Serafina and the Black Cloak, so I was eager to read the ARC of Serafina and the Twisted Staff from NetGalley. My only regret is that my students will have to wait to read it and I won't be able to discuss it with them!

The novel starts happily, with Serafina coming out of hiding in the basement of the Biltmore, no longer just a rat catcher, but also a friend to Braeden Vanderbilt. As readers of the series know, that peace won't last long as there always seem to be evil forces at work in Asheville's mountains. This time around, the villain is able to use magic to control animals, and they are being used to hunt and attack Serafina and her friends.

What I love about these books is that they are genuinely scary! They don't shy away from gore and are just frightening enough to disturb, but won't cause nightmares for middle grade readers. I'm excited for the third book in the series to come out in 2017.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Red Butterfly

As I was reading Red Butterfly, I reflected on how unique the story was. I've never read a book from the perspective of a Chinese adoptee, especially one that follows the child from her original family life to her adopted life in the US. This originality kept me reading when the plot felt too sad. Make no mistake, this is a very sad book for a middle grade audience, but it is beautiful and worthy of a read.

I was confused, at first, by Kara's family life. Slowly, I learned that she was abandoned because of a malformed hand and taken in by an older American woman who was never able to get her adoption papers. They live a solitary life until Mama's older daughter has a medical emergency and their existence comes to light. Following this, Kara finally learns who she was, and needs to decide who she will be.

I love novels in verse, and I think that this story was well told through this genre. One of my favorite things about novels in verse is that so much of the story occurs in the beats between the stanzas. Author A. L. Sonnichsen makes good use of this, particularly when Kara is adjusting to her new home, full of empty spaces and quiet moments. I don't this would be popular with my current set of students, but one day I hope to have a poetic child who will love this like I did.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Salt to the Sea

Salt to the Sea is why I read historical fiction. Ruta Sepetys has taken a historical event I've never heard of, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, and connected me to it forever. After finishing the book, I searched out more information about the tragedy. This is exactly what teachers want readers to do-- be inspired to learn more.

Told from the perspectives of four teenagers, the novel gives various reasons why they are on the run from the Nazis and eager to board the ship. At first, it was a challenge to keep track of the back stories of each character, but then I was totally hooked and eager to find out their fates. Once I figured out that the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff wasn't good, I decided not to look up the tragedy and learn about it in real time. I was horrified to learn that over 10,000 people were packed onto a ship built for 1,500. Even if it wasn't torpedoed, the conditions on the ship would have been unimaginable.

I was totally engrossed, but don't know if teenagers would choose to read this independently. It would be a great addition to a unit on WWII or as a book club selection. It should be read because the tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff should not be ignored.