Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Lions of Little Rock

This cover is way better than my copy!
This is such an important book to have in classroom libraries right now. It tells the story of friendship between Marlee, a shy white girl, and Liz, a black girl who gets caught "passing" as white at school. This is just one of the tensions in Little Rock in 1958, the year after the Little Rock Nine integrated schools. I had no idea that the public high schools were closed for a year in order to prevent integration.

I was charmed by Marlee, who is truly naive, but grows more vocal and brave throughout the book. I also liked that many of the 'villains' showed their humanity. I want young readers to discuss what overt racism looked like and learn to fight against it, especially with how often it occurred in this past election cycle. It would be a good talking point for how ugly it is in the book, and that hate speech is equally as ugly on social media.

Things wrap up nicely in The Lions of Little Rock, which makes it middle grade-friendly. I appreciate author Kristin Levine's research and will be eagerly book-talking this title.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Young World

When I learned that author Chris Weitz is a film director, a lot about The Young World made more sense. He is accustomed to presenting entertainment at face value, and may have to use shortcuts for the time allotted. What this translates to in novel form is stereotypical characters, lot of cheap thrills such as murders and animal abuse (I skipped that part), and rapidly changing narrators.

While all of this sounds negative, it was a good book to listen to on the treadmill at the gym. The action moved quickly and it reminded me very much of the movie "The Warriors." A group of teens make their way across a post-apocalyptic New York City, battling different factions. The Union Square hippie crew of the book could easily have swapped out for the Baseball Furies of the movie.

I won't be recommending this book to anyone and I'm not interested in the sequels, but it passed a few hours of cleaning and exercise.

Monday, January 9, 2017

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook

When I first heard about All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, it shot to the top of my TBR pile. I was really curious to read a story about a boy who was raised in a co-ed correctional facility, particularly since it is geared towards a middle grade audience. As an avid viewer of "Orange is the New Black," I wondered how author Leslie Connor would deal with the challenges of daily prison life. For the most part, she didn't. Perry refers to some of the residents as "cold ones" and avoids them, and he gives privacy to them when they seem sad, but otherwise, the book focuses on creating a family wherever you are.

I enjoyed the setting, which is unique for a middle grade novel, but sadly not unique to many readers. As Connor writes in her afterward, "one in twenty-eight school-aged children have a parent in the prison system." Kids need to see their lives in books, and while I don't know if this is realistic, it's a start. It could also help take away the stigma of prison for kids who are unfamiliar with it. There is a lot to learn from seeing the kindness in characters who have made a life-altering decision.

I have only one complaint, which seems to be a common quibble for me with recent middle grade novels. This book weighs in at 344 pages, which will intimidate many young readers. If Connor took 100 pages off, the audience for the book would expand so much.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Words in the Dust

Summer is my favorite season for so many reasons. One is that I have so much more time for reading. The Audiobook SYNC program helps with that: every week they offer two free YA audiobooks for download. I love audiobooks, but they are pretty expensive for just me. So I take full advantage of the program, which is how I was introduced to Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy. 

I was a bit hesitant to read a book about Afghan girl written by an American soldier, but Reedy explains himself well in his Author's Note. He says, "Of course, another problem I had in keeping my promise is that I have never been a girl and I am not an Afghan. Many would say that stories about Afghan girls should best be told by Afghan girls. I agree completely. I would love nothing more than to read the story of the girl who we helped in her own words. However, the terrible reality is that by some estimates, 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate." Knowing who the author is made me pay particular attention to how Americans are portrayed in the book. Yes, there are the savior bits where they give away gifts and selflessly help Zulaikha with her cleft lip. But the Americans also make huge mistakes by not learning enough about the culture, such as offering pork to Muslims. 

I enjoyed getting the background information on what life is like in a typical Afghan household, although I don't know if young readers will feel the same. I was rooting for Zulaikha to succeed despite all the odds stacked against her. And then, the book ended. I'm pretty sure that I just didn't download the final section of the audiobook, but if I didn't, it is the most abrupt ending ever. Some day, I'll have to check this out in a book store and see how it really ended. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Strong Girl Picture Books

Oh boy, can I related to Rosie Revere, Engineer. I really want to do things well the first time I try them, and when things go wrong, I can struggle to try again. Ask me about the second time I surfed...you can't because I haven't done it!

Rosie wants to be an engineer, but when her uncle laughs at her invention, she gives up. It takes some encouragement from her great-great-aunt (Rosie the Riveter) to get her back in action. Great message about perseverance that I should listen to.

Now I want to check out the author's other book, Iggy Peck, Architect.


Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova has huge buzz, so I was eager to check it out. I knew almost nothing about the life of the world's most famous ballerina, who grew up poor and was dedicated to sharing dance with the world.

Better than the story are the illustrations by Julie Morstad. They are in muted colors and feature so much beautiful snow. I know that young ballerinas will spend ages poring over the different costumes and deciding which they like best. Although it's a picture book, it feels elegant and mature and is worth including in a middle grade class library.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Seventh Wish

In her acknowledgments, author Kate Messner thanks her editor for supporting "a magical-ice-fishing-Irish-dancing-heroin novel for kids." It sounds insane, but that's exactly what The Seventh Wish is, and it is excellent. 

I wish that a book about heroin addiction in a family wasn't necessary, but it is. In the past ten years, heroin overdoses have skyrocketed and many people are affected by this epidemic. Messner has written a book that opens discussions and provides insight, which could help young readers be more sympathetic and less likely to get involved in the first place. 

The book isn't only about a dramatic addiction in the family. Protagonist Charlie catches a fish that gives magical wishes, which sets the whole story in motion. This touch helps temper the very serious family issues. She is also an Irish step dancer with wonderful friends. I love that they support each other and that there is no additional drama from them about Charlie's family problems. 

I've already got all my read-alouds planned for the year, but I will make it a point to read the first chapter aloud to the class to get them interested. The more people who read it, the better. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Rules

Nancy Holder and Debbie Viguie's The Rules took me back to my days of reading Christopher Pike novels on the beach all summer long. This is a trashy popcorn read that is self-described as a mix of "Saw" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer." That's an apt description for a book about wealthy teens getting killed off in ways that relate to their various flaws and vices.

One problem I had was the multiple perspectives made it difficult to keep track of the characters. Luckily, they were all massive stereotypes, so I just had to check the list in my head, "Is that the 'roid rage jock, the all-star athlete, or the druggy band member?" The characters weren't well-written enough to get attached to them, so it was easy to watch their gruesome deaths and wait to see who the actual killer is.

It's not a great book, but it hooks you in and I can see it being popular with developing readers who want some light horror.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Maybe a Fox

Oh, this is a sad one. Are middle grade books getting sadder? I'm not sure if it's because books about grief tend to get recognized for awards, but I don't know any young readers who love to cry when they read.

Still, Maybe a Fox is a great story about what happens when a beloved sister passes away. The twist is that we get the perspective of a fox who is connected to the girls. It all comes together in the end and had me bawling. That's why I think it would be better as a book that a parent reads a child than a book that a child picks up on their own.

There are some interesting choices. Maybe a Fox takes place in the past, but the only reason we know this is because the older sister Sylvie always wore a Florence Griffith-Joyner shirt. I don't know what this would add to the story, except maybe that there are no cell phones that might help during emergencies. I also thought it was strange that there are actually two devastating deaths in the novel. While they parallel each other, it feels like too much tragedy for a middle grade novel. I will book talk it and tell students why I enjoyed it, but I don't know how many students will pick it up.




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.