Wednesday, September 28, 2016

All the Bright Places

As far as grabs for readers thirsty for more John Green go, All the Bright Places is a well written book. All the hallmarks of Green's books are there: endangered love, quirky misfit teens who love to read, parents who don't impede with the teens' lives, a weepy ending. Fans of The Fault in Our Stars will love it, the same way fans of The Hunger Games enjoyed The Testing: it's not as good as the original, but it's better than nothing.

I listened to it on audiobook, so it went slower than just straight reading. As we built to the finale, I wondered, will the author really have our manic depressive protagonist commit suicide? What does this mean for young readers with the same issues who read the book? While there was plenty of hope for Violet, our heroine, I wish that there could be a happier ending for Finch. I don't wish it for Finch, so much as for young readers who are grasping for a way out.

It's too mature and dark for my students, but with a movie starring Elle Fanning coming out, I bet some of them will be interested. I'll tell them to wait a few years so that they can enjoy it.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Hugely Anticipated Nonfiction Picture Books

I am on a mission to get fun, quality nonfiction in the hands of my students. These are picture books that I begged our school librarian to order, and I'm so happy she did!

Ben Franklin was really amazing, wasn't he? Mesmerized tells a story which would be the centerpiece of most biographies, but for Franklin, it's a little known aside. 

It recounts how Franklin used the scientific method to disprove a charlatan, create the placebo effect, and coin the word 'mesmerized.' There are so many different subject areas covered, all in an appealing book about how a brilliant man was a buzzkill for Marie Antoinette. What could be more fun that that?

Iacopo Bruno's illustrations draw the reader in and add to Mara Rockliff's engaging writing. 

There are so many ways to pique students' interests about Tricky Vic: tell them it's a story about a
man who conned Al Capone and lived; who escaped from prison; who impersonated a count to swindle people on a cruise ship. All of this is true, and more, about Robert Miller.

Nonfiction books don't always have to be about heroes. Miller was a con man who spent his life tricking people in a variety of ingenious ways. That's what makes Tricky Vic so much fun: the reader has no idea what will happen next, which is even more incredible when you consider that it's all true.

The mix media art and color scheme lend to the "cool" mood of the book. I especially love that Miller's face is always just a fingerprint. Since he spent so much of his time under various aliases, this is the only way the reader knows it's really him. This should be in every 4th and 5th grade library.

Inventors seems to be a standard unit theme for upper elementary students. Most kids learn about Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone, or our man Ben Franklin and the lightning rod. I love the idea of taking it further and learning who invented the small trivial items that make our life easier. Nothing earth shattering, but people who gave us more comfort. Meghan McCarthy had the same idea when writing Earmuffs for Everyone!

As we learn in the book, Chester Greenwood wasn't the first to invent earmuffs, but he innovated and made them easy to use and fashionable. Innovation is such an important skill for kids to learn and is far less daunting than "invent something." Readers will come away inspired to think of how to improve ideas that already exist. I want to read more of Meghan McCarthy's books.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Pivot Point

My students are desperate for dystopian novels. Since I am looping with my same students from last year, they already read my usual suggestions. This means it's time for me to branch out in my dystopian reading so that I can make better recommendations. This led me to Kasie West's Pivot Point.

There's a reason why this is in my second swoop of dystopian reading: it's not quite as suspenseful or action-packed or well-written as the first round picks. Still, it's clever and I think readers will enjoy it.

Addison lives in a community where everyone has paranormal powers; her mother has powers of persuasion and her father is a "human lie detector." Addie is divergent (an unfortunate power now, due to the far more popular series), which means she can see both outcomes of a potential choice. I love "Sliding Doors" scenarios and was excited to see it applied to a YA novel. When Addie's parents separate, she must decide whether to stay in her community with her mother, or move to the normal world with her father. From there, we get to see both consequences of her decision, thanks to Addie's divergence.

I love the idea, especially living in an X Men style community where everyone has powers. One of my favorite parts of all X Men movies is when they are just showing off their powers, so I could have used more of that in this novel. Unfortunately, we don't see much of them, and when we do, they are kind of confusing.

There is a fairly large plot point surrounding a friend's drug addict father and several characters use their powers to get ahead romantically, so those place it firmly in the middle school category of books. Still, I think my students would enjoy reading this at the end of sixth grade. I'll keep it in my back pocket for a book talk at the end of the year.

Friday, September 9, 2016


I enjoyed The Crossover and was even more excited to read Booked, because soccer is life for my students. While this will be a hit, the cover alone will suck in half my class, I don't think it is as strong as Kwame Alexander's previous book.

The main complaint I will hear is that there isn't enough soccer in the book. There are references to teams and stars, but really only two actual soccer games. They go by quickly and will leave my readers wanting more, especially since this is a novel-in-verse, since they'll be filling in a lot of the blanks on their own anyway.

There's a lot of drama in the book: divorce, bullies, crushes, teachers, parents, injuries...a bit much for the average young adult, but I think my readers won't mind that. For me, I didn't get to know the main character very well as there was always something else that seemed to pop up.

It's worth adding to the library, but I hope Alexander's next book is truly excellent.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

A Single Shard

A Single Shard is a book I've been avoiding for years. Every classroom library I've been in has had it, but there was nothing appealing to me about the cover nor the idea of a novel about 12th century Korean potters.

And yet.

I now have more access to audiobooks thanks to my US library's Overdrive accounts. Their selection is still growing and all the audiobooks that appeal to me are frequently checked out, so I thought I would give Linda Sue Park's novel a try. It couldn't hurt to listen to it as I folded clothes or cooked, I thought.

I'm torn by A Single Shard. I enjoyed it and thought it was a sweet story. It somehow won a Newbery medal. I also don't know any young readers who would make it all the way to the end, since it is so simple and spare. Yet, I wouldn't want to read it aloud to a class because I think they would find it boring. So who should read it? I'm not sure. I think it is worth reading but I won't be recommending it. This wishy washy review isn't very helpful, but is the only way to sum up my feelings about A Single Shard. I guess this is the true definition of a 3 star review.

If you're going to read it, the audiobook is the way to go. I love a British accent and it's always nice to get your laundry folded!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Professor Gargoyle

I have a very boy-heavy class this year and the Tales from Lovecraft Middle School series is perfect for them. The books are short, engaging, and the lenticular covers are the best, changing from regular yearbook photos to scary monsters.

The redistricting of Robert's neighborhood means that the only person he knows at the new Lovecraft Middle School is his longtime bully Glenn. Then rats start exiting lockers, creepy teachers seem to spy on the kids, students start disappearing, and Robert is wondering exactly what he's signed up for. He has to team up with unlikely friends to solve the mysteries of his new school, before he is the next to disappear.

I read this on my kindle, but recommended that the school librarian buy them in hardcover. The covers will suck them in, but the action and strange creatures will keep them hooked.

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.