Sunday, July 26, 2015

A School for Unusual Girls

Boarding school novels are my favorite, so I was eager to check out this novel about girls with strange talents who are taken in by Headmisstress Stranje and taught how to use their talents for the good of the country. Our heroine is Georgiana Fitzwilliam: blessed with a scientific mind and (according to the novel) cursed with red hair and parents who don't care for her. Together with the other unusual girls, Georgie must prevent Napolean from taking power again (at least I think that was the goal).

I don't know anything about the Regency Era, but usually learn a lot of history through historical fiction. Unfortunately, this series seems to also be speculative fiction along the lines of, "What would have happened if Napolean came back into power?" It had me wondering how much of the history was true, so I didn't learn much.

This is the first in a series, so it starts with a newcomer to the school. Unfortunately, the other girls at the school seem far more interesting than Georgie. Add to that the slightly racist portrayal of Madame Cho, the school's disciplinarian, and I won't be sticking around to find out about the other students.

Monday, July 20, 2015

P.S. I Still Love You

Oh Jenny Han, you are the queen of teenage romance!

I finished P.S. I Still Love You while on a weekend boating trip to the Exumas for a family friend's 14th birthday. I made all the girls promise me they would read The Summer I Turned Pretty series and then this series.

Han is so spot-on in her depiction of teenage girls. I love that our heroine, Lara Jean, has decided that she is in charge of how far she goes sexually, boyfriend or not. And she decides not to do much, which will be reassuring to girls who feel like everyone else is more experienced than they are. I wished that Lara Jean had a better female friend than Chris, who rarely shows up in this book. On the other hand, she has two incredible sisters, particularly Kitty, who is fun and wise and hilarious.

I adore Han's descriptive writing. She uses a lot of similes, but they are so beautiful that I want to remember them as mentor sentences, rather than counting how many there are. You can't fight with sentences like, "I feel like a purse bulging with gold coins. I can't wait to spill." and "Her hair is long, and the ends dip into the hot tub like calligraphy brushes in ink. The boy runs his hands down her spine like she is a cello and he is playing her." I probably won't use that last one with my fifth graders, but there are plenty more to choose from!

Since I already told a boat-load of girls they have to read everything Han wrote, now I'm going to say the same to anyone reading this: get PS. I Still Love You now!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Double Cross

Spy novels are all the rage with my fifth graders. They love Loot, the Spy School series, the Alex Rider series, and when I read them the blurb for Jackson Pearce's The Double Cross, way back in April, they were gnashing their teeth to get their hands on it. Like me, they're really going to enjoy this book.

Hale Jordan has grown up in a family of spies, generations trained by the SRS to save the world. So maybe Hale is a bit chubbier and less athletic than the average spy. He has a lot of other valuable skills that will hopefully make him a junior agent. Until his parents go missing on a mission and his world turns upside down. Hale and his enthusiastic little sister, Kennedy, now have a mission of their own: to save their parents.

The female characters were particularly impressive in this novel.
Kennedy is a natural junior agent while her brother struggles, and a girl named Beatrix is a gifted hacker. Looks are never what they seem: Hale gets teased mercilessly about his weight, but in the field he thinks fast and works better than fitter agents. There are several positive sibling relationships, as well, which is what I see a lot with my students' families.

I appreciate getting to read this ARC from NetGalley and look forward to purchasing a hard copy for my classroom library.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Codename Zero

Middle grade spy novels are huge--ten and eleven-year olds would love to be more powerful and equipped for every situation with gadgets and skills. Since that isn't the case, they get to live vicariously through literary spies. Loot, the Alex Rider series, and The Double Cross have all been popular titles in my class this year. Codename Zero is the latest spy novel to hit our shelves.

Carson is the school prankster who is suddenly in over his head. After a chance encounter, he's suddenly a member of a spy organization. His North Dakota town suddenly isn't so sleepy as he battles enemies and helps his friend evade capture.

My students aren't experiencing any "spy fatigue," they'll love this novel. It doesn't get much more aspirational than a prankster whose alter ego is a spy. It's less humorous than The Double Cross and about as intense as Loot. Sure to be a hit with the kids who are waiting for the next big mystery to solve.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Bone Gap

Bone Gap has huge buzz around it, and you could forgive me from thinking it would be similar to The Secret Life of Bees, based on it cover. It couldn't be further from that novel; it is completely its own interesting, twisted, surprising book.

It's a novel that defies a neat summary, so I am going to skip that and just say that I found myself reading as much as possible, including during my planning periods at school. I wanted to know what would happen, and although I found the ending strange and less satisfying than I wished, I still enjoyed it.

Laura Ruby is a gifted writer, crafting sentences like, "Funny how you notice how beautiful things are just when you're about to leave them." The quirks of Bone Gap won't be for everyone, but good writing cannot be denied.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Paper Things

Middle graders enjoy "problem novels" -- they teach them about the world and the issues that others face. In the case of Paper Things, the issue is homelessness, although our protagonist, Ari, doesn't think of herself that way.

Ari and her older brother Gage are "between homes." After their parents' deaths, things didn't work out with their guardian, so they drift between the apartments of Gage's friend, girlfriend, and the occasional shelter. Once a start student on her way to the middle school for gifted students, now Ari struggles to get her work done and to keep her uniform and herself clean. Through it all, she keeps a positive attitude and hopes that things will work out for her family.

Paper Things is a great novel for teaching empathy. At one point, Ari is teased for having greasy hair. If the students had known that it was because she was sleeping in a homeless shelter, they never would have said anything. I hope it makes readers put themselves in some else's shoes before lashing out with unkind comments.

I'll be passing this off to my students who enjoyed Rain Reign and Okay for Now. I think this thoughtful portrait of homelessness is worth sharing.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Make Lemonade

Wow, I really disliked this!

Our school librarian recommended it to me and I'm always excited to read novels in verse, but Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff did nothing for me.

Lavaughn takes a job babysitting for teenage mom Jolly's two kids, Jilly and Jeremy, and ends up getting more and more involved in their lives. I didn't find any of the characters likable, so did not care very much about their fates. Perhaps it's because I've known too many Jollys--people who don't take responsibility and say, "Nobody told me."

I only finished the book because I could read it in an hour. Now I have to think of what to say to the librarian when I see her again!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


Sweet was a fun one!

Laurel is excited when her best friend's father pays for them to travel on a cruise where a new miracle weight loss drug, Solu, is being debuted. What could be better than traveling with the rich and famous, while dropping a few pounds? Too seasick to take it herself, Laurel notices that Solu works. But then it seems like it's working a little too well, and everyone on board might be in danger.

I love a good zombie novel and reading People magazine is a guilty pleasure, so this was a perfect fit. It's upbeat and frothy, even when the froth is coming from the blood of Solu addicts. This would be a great book for fans of Libba Bray's Beauty Queens - satire, violence, humor, and pop culture all rolled into one.

It's too mature for my fifth graders, but I know many former students who will love Sweet.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

El Deafo

I feel like I have been waiting forever to read Cece Bell's graphic novel memoir, El Deafo. I even added it to our recommended summer reading list without reading it, which isn't usually a good idea, but in this case, it worked out. I loved this book.

Bell's deafness resulted from an illness when she was four years old; being preliterate ruled out writing to communicate. Eventually, she gets the Phonic Ear, a large device that helps her hear. When her teacher wears the microphone, Cece can hear what she says, anywhere in the school. This "superpower" inspires her alter ego, El Deafo, into acting braver than Cece really is.

I loved reading about a person with hearing loss, but think that my students will relate to Cece's struggles to fit in, which mirror their own experiences. On the cover is a blurb by Wonder author R. J.'s fitting because these two books are great complements. Readers who loved Wonder will also enjoy El Deafo. I have a big crew of male graphic novel readers in my class. It will be interesting to see if they embrace this novel as they have so many others. I plan on book talking this on Monday morning.

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.