Thursday, May 17, 2018

Picture Book Biographies

Do I have a sudden urge to read picture book biographies because good ones are finally available, or are there more available because the audience has a thirst for them? Either way, students who have to do book reports have a wider range of options than ever before.

I'm a big fan of Meghan McCarthy's picture book biographies; I always learn so much and her illustration style is fun and unique. McCarthy had the odds stacked against her with the subject of Charles Atlas. In the author's note, she admits that Atlas is a modern "Paul Bunyan"--all stories have been twisted and exaggerated. I wonder why she followed through with him as a subject, rather than choosing someone easier to research. The result is a book that is weaker in information, but still entertaining.

Fans of McCathy's work will breeze through this title and readers interested in health will enjoy reading about the founding father of the fitness industry. Still, if you only have room or money for one McCarthy title in your library, stick to Earmuffs for Everyone.

Author Jess Keating did something incredibly smart with Shark Lady: she wrote a picture book that could be accessed on many levels. The first is that of a simple picture book, telling the story of Eugenie Clark's lifelong passion for sharks. The youngest readers (or students listening to a read aloud) can enjoy and take information away from this book.

Keating then included two sections for the more advanced reader: two pages of interesting facts on sharks and a timeline of Clark's life. These pages add some meat to the bones for readers doing their first biography projects for school. Finally, Keating writes an author's note that whets the older reader's interest to learn more about Clark that couldn't fit in the book and includes the resources to find that information. That's where Shark Lady finds its middle grade sweet spot. When framed like this, it's a worthwhile purchase for any library.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Sun is Also a Star

If I was a young adult author, I would feel dejected reading Nicola Yoon's The Sun is Also a Star. Man, this is good! So smart and romantic with incredible plotting that ties everything up.

Natasha is independent, scientific, and about to be deported back to Jamaica. Daniel is dutiful, poetic, and on track to being a success. Neither is looking for love when their paths cross, but sometimes the universe has other plans.

Do yourself a favor and listen to the audiobook. The accents by actors Bahni Turpin and Raymond Lee are amazing and add so much to the story. Having lived in both South Korea and the Caribbean, I loved that the protagonists came from these underrepresented areas in YA fiction. And I'm happy to add this book to my too short list of novels with male Asian love interests. Daniel might even be too perfect, but that is a ridiculous quibble. This is an awesome book.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

There's Someone Inside Your House

Stephanie Perkins stepped way outside of her usual YA romance fare with There's Someone Inside Your House. A tribute to teen slasher flicks, this novel worked for me because the horror and gore was balanced with Perkins' typical great writing.

Makani Young moves to Nebraska to escape a tragic secret from her native Hawaii (that is hinted at ad nauseum throughout the book), but feels haunted by violence when her new classmates are killed in gruesome ways. Everyone feels like a suspect and it's only a matter of time before Makani is a target.

Fans of horror films will see where this novel is going from the start, except for one twist: the killer is revealed about halfway through the novel. This is a controversial choice, but I think it was appropriate in this era of school shootings. The surviving students spend a great deal of time speculating about the motivations of the killer, which, unfortunately, is a common occurrence. Along with the diversity, this felt like a modern touch on what could be a tired plot idea.

As a sixth grade teacher, this isn't an appropriate novel for me to recommend to my students, too much sex and gore. As a reader of YA fiction, I enjoyed the novel but still prefer Perkins' romances.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Connect the Stars

Marisa de los Santos, please let me read your grocery lists. Or anything you jot down throughout the day.

I love her writing and gobble up anything I can find, so I was shocked that I somehow missed Connect the Stars, written with her husband, David Teague. As usual, de los Santos' writing is fantastic and I think this novel will be more enticing to young readers than the pair's previous novel, Saving Lucas Biggs.

Aaron and Audrey have "super powers" that are making middle school miserable. He is a walking encyclopedia with no social skills and she is a human lie detector who would rather distance herself from everyone than be hurt again. They meet when their concerned parents send them on a wilderness trip with other adolescents who are working on issues. Things go wrong, and Aaron and Audrey learn that their abilities are actually the gifts that will keep the alive in a harsh desert.

While there are many scenarios that are a stretch, I'll recommend this novel to readers who liked Moonpenny Island and other books with sensitive narrators coming to grips with the challenges of adolescence.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

More Books About Women Who Persisted

In January, I wrote about picture books about women who persisted in the face of challenges. Little did I know that it was just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many nonfiction picture books featuring extraordinary women. I'm writing this post as a way to share with readers but also to keep track of them for myself!

Mary Nohl was a born maker; she saw art where others only saw feathers, driftwood, glass, and trash. Marching to the beat of her own drum, Nohl created massive sculptures of art in her garden, and even when vandals destroyed them, she used the pieces to make more. Eventually, her home became known as "The Witch's House" and her Wisconsin garden remains a gallery brimming with her work, even after her passing.

What I like best about this biography is that the subject isn't a well-known person, just someone who followed her passion and cerated something beautiful. I love the idea that picture books can be about 'regular' people who do interesting things. I hope that more follow.

Not all picture books about strong women can be winners. That's my thought as I finish Bertha Takes a Drive, about Bertha Benz, who drove her husband's invention, the automobile, against the law. She and her two sons drove sixty miles and received acclaim for what a motorcar could actually accomplish.

Although it was her husband's invention, Bertha shows ingenuity throughout the book to solve various problems that come up along the way. I liked that part, and I found some humor in how amazing they felt to be traveling at seven miles an hour. But, unfortunately, the story didn't grab me and I found the illustrations unattractive. Still, there are definitely some young readers who are interested in the minute details of how cars work. This would be a good recommendation for them.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Fish Girl

I'm working my way through my Goodreads "To Read" list and can't remember when or why I added Fish Girl, but I'm glad I read it. This strange middle grade graphic novel was an interesting read.

A nameless mermaid spends her life obeying what Neptune tells her to do: give the tourists a glimpse but never a full look and collect the coins they leave. It's all she knows until one day she makes a friend with a regular girl. This opens her eyes to the reality of her situation and makes the mermaid decide to escape her tank and see what the world is like.

The relationship between Neptune and the mermaid is worth discussing; in order to stay safe, she must do what he says. This is clearly a commentary on abuse and power, written in a way that can be discussed with young readers on a variety of levels.

There is so much the reader doesn't know--why can't the mermaid speak? What happens to her fins out of water? How can the octopus change shape? What happens at the end of the novel? These questions could be frustrating to readers, but could also be the catalyst for speculative writing. I hope to nudge my students who read this book towards the latter.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Real Friends

Thanks to authors like Cece Bell and Raina Telgemeier, young readers have a wealth of autobiographical graphic novels to cling to when adolescence gets rough. I love that these books provide hope for readers who feel awkward and friendless; that they all grew up to become authors and accomplished people is highlighted at the end of the books.

Shannon Hale's Real Friends details how she falls in and out of the group of popular girls throughout elementary school. It is such a common occurrence: sweet and slightly immature girls who are constantly on the razor's edge of acceptance. As a teacher, I see it and want them to know how special they are. Handing them this book could be one way of doing so.

There is a happy ending, but enough stays unresolved that it feels realistic. Some girls will always be mean and some friends aren't worth giving up what's special about you. Being true to yourself is a theme that bears repeating over and over for middle grade readers. 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Chasing Secrets

Gennifer Choldenko is the author of Al Capone Does My Shirts, which features my least favorite character ever in an otherwise good book. I'm happy to report there is nobody truly vile in Chasing Secrets.

Lizzie loves science and wants to be a doctor, which makes her an anomaly in San Francisco in the 1900s. She thinks she knows it all, but when rumors of the plague begin to spread, Lizzie realizes that she isn't quite as informed as she'd like. She and some new friends set out to uncover the secrets that the adults in power would like to keep hidden.

There is so much to unpack in this novel; it would make an excellent literature circle selection for 6th or 7th graders. There is a lot to discuss about race relations and feminism in the novel, but I was most interested in the issues of medical care in Chasing Secrets.  Is it ethical to hide medical information that could incite panic? Who deserves the best medical care and why? Although this is historical fiction, there are so many links to today. I haven't seen this topic covered in a middle grade novel before and I can imagine it would lead to great classroom debates.

This is excellent historical fiction with mystery mixed in to appeal to a variety of readers. I'm glad I got over my old prejudice against Choldenko's characters and tried out Chasing Secrets.

Saturday, March 24, 2018


Lifetime has been on my GoodReads list for three years and my school finally added it to the library. It is such a quality addition to our collection.

Telling the story of numbers and animals, readers get to learn cool facts, like, "In one lifetime, a giraffe will have 200 spots." The facts are fascinating and I actually hadn't heard any of them before. The illustrations are gorgeous and had me wondering if they were the actual number; are there really 550 eggs in the alligator drawing?

At the end, author Lola M. Schaefer goes into more information about each animal and teaches about averages. Reading this section could lead to more inquiry on students' part, trying to figure out some lifetime facts of their own.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Lawn Boy

If I couldn't see Gary Paulsen's name on the cover, I never would have believed he wrote Lawn Boy. It is such a departure from his boy vs. wild novels. Instead, Paulsen decided to teach about capitalism and the stock market in a slim volume.

When the nameless narrator inherits a lawnmower, he gets asked by a few neighbors how much he would charge to mow their lawns. Things snowball pretty quickly from there and he ends up investing in the stock market, sponsoring a boxer, and earning more money than he ever dreamed.

Lawn Boy could definitely be categorized as a "STEM novel." There is a lot of math done in the book, mostly calculating the amount of money earned. I know many students who would be intrigued by how the money multiplies through the stock market. It could be the provocation for a lucrative passion for a young reader.

This reminded me a lot of Toothpaste Millionaire; both books are very simple stories about teen entrepreneurs. While there are a few challenges, things work out fairly easily for the protagonists. I hope that Lawn Boy inspires readers to try to start their own businesses, but don't want them to be discouraged when they aren't millionaires after a few months. Still, it would be worth pairing these two novels for summer reading or in lit circles.