Monday, October 29, 2012

Third Grade Angels

Jerry Spinelli can be counted to write heartfelt stories about good kids and their simple lives. Third Grade Angels, the prequel to Fourth Grade Rats, is no exception. This easy novel follows the adventures of Suds and his friends in their quest to earn halos from their teacher, Mrs. Simms.

While the premise is light, the novel brings up the question of if a child should do what is right, even if no one is watching. Ever the teacher, I am excited to see integrity being discussed in such a simple and relatable way. Speaking of teachers, I have to applaud Spinelli for always creating realistic educators in his books. Mrs. Simms is the third grade teacher that everyone deserves.

Third Grade Angels is a timeless story and could have been written thirty years ago, but for a few modern additions like Suds and his mom fist-bumping, and the new kid referring to a classmate as a “hottie”. These almost felt anachronistic in the story, but will be appreciated by young readers.

Although my sixth graders wouldn’t be caught reading a book with “third grade” in the title, I will be handing this book to my friend who teaches elementary school. I know her kids will gobble it up!

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Mutiny in Time

“History is broken, and we need your help to fix it.” With this appeal, Dak Smyth and Sera Froste are sent on a time travelling adventure to save the world from an evil organization that has changed history, while searching for Dak’s parents who are lost in time. A Mutiny in Time is the first in the planned seven-book Infinity Ring series. Think 39 Clues with a historical slant and sarcastic humor thrown in.

It’s fitting for the first time travelling adventure to send the heroes to Spain in order to assist Christopher Columbus prepare for his voyage. This is history that all kids learn early on in school, and while A Mutiny in Time is full of historical facts, it never feels heavy handed. Even better, there is enough action to balance out the story for readers who aren’t history buffs.

I had to let go of my tendency to eyeroll (of course one of these best friends is an expert on history, while the other is brilliant enough at science that she could finish a time travel device that adults with PhDs could not) and just enjoy the story for what it is. My students won’t have the same hang-ups and will instantly be plunged into the adventures of Dak and Sera, eagerly anticipating the next book in the series. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Eighth Grade is Making Me Sick

On a whim, I checked out MIDDLE SCHOOL IS WORSE THAN MEATLOAF from the school library. It disappeared from my desk immediately and has been making the rounds among the girls in my homeroom, who begged me for another book like it. I am so excited to be able to offer them EIGHTH GRADE IS MAKING ME SICK, a fantastic sequel about Ginny Davis.

Told through the ephemera of a young girl's life (IM chats, notes, report cards, etc.), we learn a lot about Ginny's rough year. Between her stepfather losing his job, her brother's constant trouble with the law, her mother's unexpected pregnancy, and a mysterious illness, Ginny has a year that I wouldn't wish on anybody. While there are many setbacks in the book, the tone remains hopeful and sweet. 

The girls in my homeroom are going to love this book, and will be eager for the next addition to the series.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Laugh with the Moon

Thirteen-year-old Clare Silver's world has been turned upside down: her mother recently passed away and her father moved them to Malawi so that he could work as a doctor for Global Health Project. Even on the other side of the world, her worries remain the same: will she fit in with her classmates? What will her life be like without her mother? How long does grief last?

I do some of my best reading at the salon, and was actually able to whip through Laugh with the Moon in one sitting, completely immersed in Clare's life in Malawi. Author Shana Burg has experience in this country, and it shows, from the language snippets, the daily life, and the cultural aspects. I loved all of the details, from the characters' names (Memory, Innocent, Special, Lovemore) to the cheese straws that are actually bugs.

Burg is a beautiful writer; I am eager to read more of her work. There are many sentences that I want to share with my students, such as "My heart is a hive of stinging bees...The bees fly out, dripping honey everywhere." I will be recommending Laugh with the Moon widely and frequently.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ashen Winter

In the ten months since a supervolcano obliterated much of the United States, society has fallen apart. The cannibalism that was hinted at in Ashfall has become the way of life for massive gangs who prowl the country, murdering and trading goods (namely: weapons, drugs, and women). Alex and Darla have lived fairly comfortably at his uncle’s farm in Illinois, but his parents have not returned from their search for him. When they set out on their mission, they learn that the road is far more dangerous than they remembered. Along the way, they make a few friends, many enemies, and need to be stronger than ever.

Mullin has subtly developed his characters between novels. Alex is no longer a weakling who relies on Darla for everything. He is strong and self-assured, with a maturity beyond his years. Darla remains a role model, intelligent and practical. Their relationship has progressed and become a partnership similar to a marriage. The new characters are equally fascinating: Alyssa was held captive by a gang of flensers (cannibals) and her brother Ben is autistic, brilliant when it comes to anything military-related, but challenged by being touched and social interactions. I wanted to learn more about all the characters and appreciated the research that went into making them realistic.

While Mullin’s research was extensive, at times the descriptions of their tasks dragged on. For example, Mullin expounded for several pages about how the characters moved a heavy propane tank to another location. This helped emphasize the difficulty of everything they had to do, but it did not add to the story. Ashen Winter could have been a hundred pages shorter if repeat arguments and menial chores were not retold in such specific detail. On the other hand, this writing style pays off during the many action scenes, which Mullin does not feel the need to rush. Readers can rest assured that there will always be another chase scene, firefight, or gruesome discovery ahead.

The cover of Ashen Winter is perfect: it's dramatic, depicts a vital scene from the novel, and also resembles tendons and muscles when seen in miniature. With Ashfall, I felt the ending wrapped up fairly neatly and did not feel the urgency to read the sequel. This makes me laugh now, for as soon as I saw Ashen Winter was available, I snatched it up. Now I realize that Mullin is content with tying up one adventure while gently setting the stage for the next. I will be able to sleep easily until the third book in the series is released, but I will also be jumping to read it as soon as it is published. 

Monday, October 15, 2012


I haven't had much time for reading lately: I'm working with a new curriculum at school and my mother just came to visit me, not to mention moving to South America! Still, I have read a few books and jotted down some brief thoughts...

My first introduction to Scaredy Squirrel is sweet and too brief, much like the holiday season. This guidebook gives examples of many different things that one could worry about during Christmas, from crafting to tinsel garland. Author Melanie Watts is able to squeeze a decent amount of material out of the idea of being afraid of the holiday. I particularly enjoyed the lists of red things to avoid decorating with (dynamite, chili peppers) and green things to avoid decorating with (Martians, poison ivy). Fans of the series will love this new addition, first time readers will want to know more about this cowardly squirrel!

Infamous bully Niko Kaylor is back and the new student at a hippie school where the only rule is "no bullying". Rather than giving up his ways, he decides to go undercover and cyberbully his classmates.

I was really excited to get my hands on this book, as my students are greedy for anything that is written as a humorous confession: Big Nate, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, etc. And even though I didn't really enjoy Journal of a Schoolyard Bully, it doesn't matter because they will be clamoring to read it. Unfortunately, this felt like a cheap imitation of those other books; it wasn't as funny and the undertones were a lot darker. Niko's relationship with his father is especially sensitive, and goes a long way to explaining his pathos.

Still, my opinion doesn't matter because Journal of a Schoolyard Bully will never see shelf time. I won't be pressing it into the hands of my students, but they will find it anyway and probably love it. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

The One and Only Ivan

As I read the first half of Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan, I wondered how its intended young audience would make it through the book. Yes, this novel in verse is simply written and has appealing illustrations, but it is genuinely sad.

Telling the tale of a silverback gorilla named Ivan, we learn about his isolated life at Exit 8's Big Top Mall. Despite his friends, an ailing elephant and a homeless dog, Ivan is depressed and spends his days watching TV and wishing to go outside his 'domain', which he slowly realizes is just a cage.

I wanted to abandon this book many times. It made me feel guilty and hopeless. I'm happy I didn't, because Applegate offers redemption in the end, although I don't know that all young readers will get to that part.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Darkness Creeping

Moving to a new country and a new school undertaking a new curriculum hasn't left me much time for pleasure reading this fall, unfortunately. Aside from my book club selection (The Night Circus), most of my reading is devoted to short stories that I can use as mentor texts.

In celebration of my favorite month, I am trying to read my students as many scary stories as possible. I was excited to find Neal Shusterman's Darkness Creeping in our school library, as most of my students have read Scary Stories You Can Tell in the Dark more times than I have! The best part of these twenty short stories is that they aren't gory or terrifying, they just have the ability to creep the reader out.

My two favorite stories are "Black Box" and "Screaming at the Wall". Both slowly build in suspense, until my students were clutching each other with panicked looks on their faces. It was the incredible ending of "Black Box" that had all my students clamoring to borrow the book and asking me if we could write scary stories for Halloween. If you're looking for genuine horror, look elsewhere, but if you want to freak out a little, pick up Darkness Creeping.

Friday, October 5, 2012


My first experience reading Ellen Hopkins was extremely negative. I thought that Identical was ridiculous and exploitative, but found Crank to be much better. This may be because this book is based on Hopkins' daughter and the central issue is limited to drug abuse. It may also be because I read it on my kindle and was spared the gimmicky formatting of the poetry. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed Crank enough that I am interested in reading Glass and Fallout, which follow the characters in the story.

This isn't to say that Crank is perfect. The story hinges on Kristina being a good girl who visits her worthless father in New Mexico and becomes a bad girl named Bree, tattooed, promiscuous, and addicted to meth. Kristina's mother is controlling and determined to have a perfect family, so why would she let her go visit her ex, who is clearly a loser? Also, how did all of this happen to Kristina in ten days? Does every Ellen Hopkins novel feature characters with multiple personalities that require different names? That feels like weak writing that makes it easy to blame misbehavior on the "other" personality, rather than having a character actually make conscious decisions.

Hopkins balances her descriptions of Kristina's drug use well. She expresses how amazing the drugs feel to Kristina, yet doesn't glamorize them (except maybe ecstasy), and shows the aftereffects. I wish she had focused a bit more on how meth destroyed Kristina's looks, because I find the famous meth user mugshots to be useful at emphasizing the destructive qualities of the drug, particularly how quickly it works.

This is a novel worth reading with your adolescent children. It will be an uncomfortable experience, but will bring up topics that need to be discussed, such as quotes like, "What if the ride was worth it? I mean, who wants to trudge through life, doing everything just right? Taking no chances means wasting your dreams." Crank has joined Go Ask Alice in the canon of cautionary tales of drug use and, after reading it, I feel more informed about what information young people have about meth.

Monday, October 1, 2012


I am greedy for books by Sharon G. Flake. The Skin I'm In is one of the books I recommend most, and also one of the books that most regularly "disappears" from my collection. I consider this the highest compliment to an author--that a book speaks so much to a reader that they need to keep it forever. I need to set aside some of my budget for purchasing extra copies of Pinned because I know my students will want to read this one again and again.

Autumn and Adonis both have admirable strengths: she is the only female wrestler on the school's team and on her way to being the best in the state, he is brilliant and destined for success. Unfortunately, they are also both held back by something which haunts them. Autumn's reading difficulties have followed her through life and now threaten her wrestling career. Adonis, born without legs, keeps his distance from his classmates as he tries to forget how they exposed his helpless side. Lucky for both of them, Autumn is in love with Adonis and could be persistent enough to move both of them forward together.

Autumn is an incredible character, full of complexities and realistic details. Flake takes care to note that even though she has academic shortcomings, Autumn will have success in the future, particularly as a baker and businesswoman. It is a gift to the reader to see Adonis through Autumn's eyes: "I wonder about his brain more than about his legs: how a boy can be so smart, holding things in his head the way sugar holds sweet, making people think they know him when they don't...I want my kids to be born that way. Smarter than everyone else." Although Flake is careful to explain the vulnerability behind his attitude, Adonis can be off-putting and Autumn's adoration goes a long way to temper that.

Flake shines when writing in the voice of African-American adolescents and teachers. She captures the nuances of speech and the heart behind her characters' actions, and makes me want to read her work over and over again. Buy several copies for your library, you'll need them.