Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Trouble In Me

"The Follower" and "The Bloody Souvenir" are my go-to read alouds for middle school students. They are funny, disgusting, and relatable. I once heard TCRWP Goddess Mary Ehrenwerth say that if kids weren't begging for more at the end of a read aloud, you picked the wrong text. That was never the case with those two short stories. Kids were dying for more misadventures with Jack and the Pagoda brothers. This book is the answer to that desire.

The Trouble In Me is a preface to Hole In My Life, a sneak peek at how Gantos got set on the path that led to imprisonment for drug smuggling. This would be an awesome pre-high school summer reading book, with Hole In My Life read and discussed in class. When does lighthearted mischief go too far? What are the possible consequences for being too much of a follower? There is so much to discuss.

As for the casual fan of the Pagoda brother stories, they should stick to the shorter version. This memoir is written with the wisdom of adulthood; the short stories are in the moment, and therefore, more humorous. The longer version is colored by the fact that these events led Gantos to prison. The short stories could be any reader. It was interesting for me to read about the same events through a darker lens, but I will be keeping the short stories in my rotation, as opposed to the memoir.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Another Day

It's been three years since I've read Every Day. I've read many books since then, which helped me read Another Day with fresh eyes. In the first book, we met A, a soul who wakes up in a new body every day. A falls in love with Rhiannon and tries to find a way to make it work. David Levithan's newest novel tells the same love story from Rhiannon's perspective.

In the sequel, we get to see more of Rhiannon's life, which she has shrunk to suit her difficult boyfriend, Justin. Her best day with Justin was really when he was inhabited by A. While the story on A's side is fairly straightforward (must find Rhiannon, must declare love), Rhiannon has a life and entanglements that are more difficult than A can understand.

Although I vaguely remembered what happened, I wasn't able to put the book down. I spent the day reading, wondering where it would leave us and what would happen to the couple. The end was a combination of satisfying and desperation-inducing--I want more!

David Levithan is one of the best authors for YA readers, hands down. I love how these books challenge our idea of a typical romance and have me rooting for A and Rhiannon to find a way to make it work.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Circus Mirandus

I spend so much of the year thinking of which books I should add to the suggested summer reading list. When it's summertime and I find a book like Circus Mirandus, I have to decide whether it becomes a class read aloud or on the summer reading list. It's just so good!

Micah was raised by his Grandpa Ephraim's stories of the magical Circus Mirandus. Now Ephraim is sick and wants to call in the miracle he was promised as a child, but he needs Micah's help to be sure that it comes true. Along with his new friend Jenny Mendoza, Micah must use all his belief in magic to save the person he loves most.

I have found that many middle grade fantasy novels are bloated and intimidating to students who dislike huge tomes. Circus Mirandus is the perfect length for readers who want to take a dip in the fantasy pool without committing to months of reading. The best solution for my quandary? I'll read a chapter of the book aloud to hook everyone, then recommend they add it to their TBR piles!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell

My students love to write "their version" of their favorite books. It's not quite fan fiction because they create their own characters, it's more like them telling the same plot in their own way. Chris Colfer's The Land of Stories series is highly imitated in our class.

It's easy to see why. Colfer created a land where all the fairy tale characters live together, ready to be explored by twins Alex and Conner. My students are at an age where they are able to play with these familiar tales, so they appreciate how well Colfer does it. I loved that Snow White's Evil Stepmother got a backstory that explained her behavior. It's good for kids to see a more fleshed out character.

While I found the book overly long, I enjoyed it and have already been given the second in the series by a student. So it goes on my summer reading pile and I'll see what other adventures Colfer has written that are worthy of homage.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Space Case

I intentionally chose Space Case as the read aloud to end the year, as I knew we wouldn't have time to finish. That way they would already know the first book they wanted to read over the summer. Anything by Stuart Gibbs is a guaranteed winner for 5th graders.

Dashiell's scientist parents are recruited to live in the first colony on the moon, which seems like the most exciting prospect in the universe. The reality is not as thrilling: nothing to do, disgusting food, and sparse accommodations is what life is like for the "Moonies." Until a famous doctor dies in an unplanned moonwalk, the morning after Dash overhears him talking excitedly about a discovery. Dash is convinced it's a murder, but no one else seems to believe him, so he decides to investigate on his own.

Gibbs has mastered the modern middle grade mystery. The problems in his books are complex and have serious consequences, rather than the stolen lunch money in typical mysteries geared to this age group. The lack of condescension is refreshing and appreciated by my students.

Like all of Stuart Gibbs' books, I highly recommend Space Case.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Fuzzy Mud

After having written Holes, Louis Sachar  doesn't have to do anything for the rest of his life. Instead, he has written Fuzzy Mud, a middle grade biological thriller. Not the obvious choice, but a welcome book to my classroom library. I'd love to include it on the summer reading list, but the August publication date makes it late for my school. I received a copy to review through Net Galley and have been waiting for months to share.

When Tamaya throws some mud in the woods at bully Chad, she thinks she is just trying to protect her friend, Marshall. That's before her skin starts blistering and bleeding, and before Chad loses his vision. That's when the government gets involved, and things get really dangerous.

Between Fuzzy Mud and The Fourteenth Goldfish, I hope there is a trend of science-minded books for young readers. There are lots of discussion points here, from overpopulation to biological engineering. Another bonus is that it will appeal to boys and girls, who will be able to relate to one of the three main characters.

I plan to read this to my class as a treat, a sneak peak at a book before it is published. It will make a great read aloud.

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.