Friday, August 31, 2012

Reaching for Sun

Growth is the major theme in Tracie Vaughn Zimmer's novel in verse, Reaching for Sun, and it is beautifully expressed through the metaphor of  flowers in a garden.

Josie is thirteen and the seedling in a family which includes a horticulture student mother and a wildflower gardening grandmother. Her cerebral palsy has made it challenging for Josie to make friends with her peers, so much of her interactions are limited to her family, until a new neighbor named Jordan comes around. The development of their relationship is the best part of the book--they fill a need in each other, yet there is a messy and complicated side to their friendship. It feels so realistic for two kids who haven't had many friends in the past.

I've never met anyone with cerebral palsy, but this book serves as a good introduction. Most important for readers is learning that while Josie's speech and walk may be different, her thoughts are clear and beautiful. The pressures that Josie faces are similar to those experienced by my students. In "Despite," she says:

"Mom wants me
to love school like she does,
follow her lead to college,
make my mark:
the first astronaut with
cerebral palsy,
or at least
a doctor or lawyer,
something with a title or abbreviations, I guess.
But Mom's dreams for me
are a heavy wool coat I
wear, even in summer."

While they may not have cerebral palsy to contend with, at one time or another, all readers have felt like Josie in the last few lines.

Tracie Vaughn Zimmer is a talented writer, weaving descriptive language throughout her poems. I look forward to more novels in verse from her.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tales for the Midnight Hour

It seems like I'm only reading scary books these days. Hmmm.

There are probably very few libraries that don't have a copy of one of J.B. Stamper's books from the Tales for the Midnight Hour series. They have been kicking around since the 1970s and I remember reading this volume when I was in middle school. I decided to revisit it to see how it holds up.

The answer: not that well! I found myself shaking my head at most of the stories; the characters have generic names, several of them have identical endings (including the first two--I wondered if all the books were going to end with decapitation!), and going insane seems to be Stamper's favorite way to end a story.

Still, my sixth grade students will enjoy sharing these stories. The plots will be new to them and they will feel accomplished because the book is a quick, low-level read. Since the cover is so 80s, it might be worth having students who read the book design their own covers, as a means to attracting other readers.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Skeleton Man


Skeleton Man was selected by my colleagues for our pairwork during training from Columbia University Teacher College Reading and Writing Project. When I saw the cover, I was excited because I am eager to read more “boy books”. Wasn’t I surprised when I learned that the protagonist is a sixth grade Native American named Molly? Growing up, she had heard the folklore of a man who ate his own body and then all of his relatives. She thought the Skeleton Man was just a story until her parents didn’t return home one night and she was adopted by a mysterious ‘uncle’ who she had never met before and who had skin so thin that his bones were visible. As things get stranger and stranger, Molly realizes that she needs to be clever in order to defeat the Skeleton Man and not be devoured herself.

I loved Skeleton Man for its relatable and strong heroine, authentic inclusion of Native American culture, and constant suspense. It’s the last attribute that will hook the readers in my class. Most of the chapters end in a way that will have them clamoring to read just a few more pages and find out what will happen next. Although it isn’t the “boy book” that I expected from the cover, it is a book that most boys will enjoy, particularly 5th and 6th graders who are developing their abilities to make inferences and predictions. It’s a quick read that would be a fun read-aloud or literature circle selection. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie

"I had a bad August.
A very bad August.
As bad as pickle juice on a cookie.
As bad as a spiderweb on your leg.
As bad as the black parts of a banana.
I hope your August was better.
I really do."

So begins Julie Sternberg's sweet Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie. Eleanor's beloved first babysitter, Bibi, has moved to Florida, and she is preparing to start the third grade. These changes are overwhelming and make our charming narrator uncomfortable. Fortunately, Eleanor is surrounded by adults who take her feelings seriously. From her parents to Val the mail carrier to her new teacher, Eleanor is respected in a way that I wish for all children. My favorite character is her new babysitter, Natalie, who understands Eleanor and grows to be loved by the girl in her own way.

Written in verse, it would be a good introduction to the genre for young readers. It is the youngest-skewing and least traditionally poetic novel in verse I've read, but the tangibility of Sternberg's writing broadens the appeal to developing readers. Matthew Cordell's appealing illustrations draw the reader in to Eleanor's finely developed world. Share this book with the early elementary students in your life.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Wednesday Wars

I adored Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now, so was thrilled to learn that it was actually a sequel to The Wednesday Wars, a Newbery Honor book from 2007. It’s hard to say if I loved Okay for Now more because I read it first, but it doesn’t really matter because the original book is still brilliant.

As the only Protestant in a class full of Catholics and Jews, Holling Hoodhood must remain after school on Wednesdays while the rest of his classmates leave early for their religious classes. His teacher, Mrs. Baker, doesn’t want him there, and the year is spent with her punishing him by making him read Shakespeare. If this sounds like a simplistic setting that is more appropriate for an Andrew Clements novel, don’t worry, because The Wednesday Wars addresses many of the major themes of growing up, using Shakespeare and the Vietnam War to add depth to the plot.

There are many similarities between the two novels, apart from the setting and characters. Both involve the surprise revelation of a character’s name, both feature the same conversational tone, and both emphasize the development of sibling relationships during adolescence. Also, they are both simply awesome.

I love that Schmidt can have me laughing over lines like, “Teachers don’t reckon time the way normal people do” and then welling up over a bittersweet moment. Most of all, I love that his writing can be used as a model for the work I do in my classes. Descriptive sentences like, “Think of the sound you make when you let go after holding your breath for a very, very long time. Think of the gladdest sounds you know: the sound of dawn on the first day of spring break, the sound of a Coke opening, the sound of a crowd cheering in your ears because you’re ahead.” These are the kinds of passages that I hold up to my students as a model for how to connect to readers. My students and I will aspire to write something as meaningful as The Wednesday Wars

Monday, August 20, 2012


1. Because I am Furniture - This novel in verse is hard to track down!

2. Long Lankin - I am dying to read Lindsey Barraclough's newly released horror book.

3. Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses - Ron Koertge's latest is a novel in verse ode to fractured fairy tales.

4. Stoner & Spaz - I just discovered Ron Koertge and am now trying to track down all his work. 

What books are topping your To Be Read pile?

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Firefly Letters


I wish every country had an author like Margarita Engle representing it. I would be so much better informed if Paraguay or Laos had an author who was dedicated to telling the unknown history of their nation, while using the most beautiful lines of poetry. We are fortunate to have Cuban-American Margarita Engle to teach us about her beloved homeland.

In The Firefly Letters, Engle explores Sweden’s first female novelist, Fredrika Bremer and her 1851 visit to Cuba. Based on Bremer’s actual letters, the reader gets access to the thoughts of an advocate of women’s rights who also had a poetic soul. We also get the perspectives of two fictional characters: Elena, a wealthy Cuban who is locked away in a mansion until she marries, and Cecilia, a character based on the African slave who serves as translator and companion to Fredrika.

The friendship between the three women is the heart of the story. Each is forever changed by what they experience together during Fredrika’s three month visit. Cecilia is able to make strides towards freedom for her unborn child, Elena begins a quiet rebellion, and Fredrika finds a cause to rally behind.

As always, Engle’s poetry is full of evocative imagery. She gives us the picture of Elena, wishing she could experience life the way Fredrika does, saying:

"I sit alone in my room
at the ornately barred window,
embroidering curlicues
like the fancy ironwork
that separates me
from the rest of the world."

My favorite pieces were when Fredrika battled her feelings about Cuba, a gorgeous country where many were living in tragic circumstances:

"I cannot understand 
how people who live surrounded
by so much beauty
can shut themselves up indoors
like Elena, and her mother.

Can it be
that they are afraid
of hideous truths
that will be revealed 
by the lovely sun
as well as the dangerous
moon?" 

I will be recommending to students who have just completed Lynn Joseph’s The Color of my Words and fans of historical fiction and novels in verse. This one shouldn’t be missed. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


These are the books I've loved best during the second quarter of 2012. There aren't as many books as in the first quarter, but they are all seriously good. Think of them as deep cuts. 

1. Code Name Verity - A story of friendship in World War II

2. Okay For Now - I adored this, against all odds.

3. Every Day - David Levithan challenges and delights, as always. Check it out on September 18th.

4. Anna and the French Kiss - I read it (and reviewed it) in Spanish, now I want to read it in English!

5. Pinned - Sharon G. Flake is the queen. All hail her again on October 2nd.

6. The Darkest Minds - Come December, this is going to be the book everyone is speaking about. Fans of The Hunger Games, get ready. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Chosen Ones

In Kyra's community, men have multiple wives and many children, and nobody questions the word of the Prophet. She has been taught to obey, even if it means hiding her visits to the bookmobile and her crush on a boy in the community. When the Prophet has a vision that dictates that Kyra must marry her Uncle Hyram, fifty years her elder, she realizes that she needs to escape. The Chosen One is a violent and intense look at life in a polygamist sect.

I've been wanting to read something by Carol Lynch Williams for awhile, and this was an excellent introduction to her dark novels. She perfectly captures the paranoid and insular feeling of living under the Prophet's eye. I was especially affected by the frightening descriptions of discipline and couldn't look away until the novel's resolution. I was left with some questions, but justify them by saying that I am invested in the characters.

The Chosen One tackles heavy subjects, but is written in a way that is appropriate for middle and high school students.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl

Every school has one. That bad boy who all the girls disdain until he turns his considerable charms in their direction. Unfortunately for Josie, Nicolette, and Aviva, TL has decided that they should be next on his list.

In A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl, author Tanya Lee Stone takes a frank look at the sexual pressure involved in three very different relationships. Our three heroines come from different worlds: Josie is a freshman, Nicolette is an outsider who uses her sexuality to feel powerful, and Aviva is a "Criss-Crosser", someone who has friends in every circle. Despite their differences, none are immune to TL's attempts to win them over.

It is only after Josie is empowered to write about her experiences in the margins of Judy Blume's Forever that she is able to give up some of the negative feelings TL has raised in her:

"Of course, in the actual Forever
the boy, Michael I think his name was, wasn't a total jerk
so in real life, my life,
it's not only the good parts I intend to hold on to
but also how totally
nothing
he made me feel.
I'm hoping that by remembering that,
as much as I'd like to forget it,
it'll help keep me from ever
letting a boy
make me feel like
nothing
again."

It's fitting that Forever plays a key role in this novel, as I can see A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl getting passed from friend to friend, much like Judy Blume's classic still is. Every year, my students discover that book and spend a few weeks secretly reading it to each other. ABBCBGFAG is steamier than Blume's novel, with more modern situations and is written in verse, so it won't intimidate struggling readers. All these factors leave me surprised that it wasn't already checked out at my local library. Too mature for my middle school classroom, teenagers will be clamoring to read this book.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Code Name Verity

I couldn't wait for Code Name Verity to end, and I mean that in the best way. There is so much slow building tension in the novel that I was dying to find out what would happen to our heroines, Maddie and Queenie.

This book has gotten lots of buzz, all positive and deserved. I avoided most reviews because this is a book that should not be spoiled. The barest plot summary: two best friends serve as a pilot and wireless operator in WWII and the novel is an epistolary account of their experiences during the war. I really don't want to say any more of the actual details because my experience reading the novel was so much richer from being unspoiled.

Apart from the intrigue and war, this is a story of friendship. Author Elizabeth Wein explains it, "It's like being in love, discovering your best friend." It's even more simple than falling in love, since there is less risk involved. I love the relationship between Maddie and Queenie and the tribute that each pays to the other. Maddie describes Queenie as, "Gloriously daft, drop-dead charming, full of bookish nonsense and foul language, brave and generous." Nobody knows us like our best friends.

Code Name Verity is nearly perfect; yes, it starts a bit slow, but otherwise it is clever, sad, beautiful, and a book that I wanted to read again immediately after finishing. A must-read.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer

I just realized that there is a guy on the cover of The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer. It still doesn't make the cover (or the novel) make sense to me! This is a novel with serious buzz, so I picked it up without reading the synopsis. Sometimes that works out in my favor, but in this case, I read the cover blurb when I was halfway through the book and still was confused. Part thriller, part supernatural, part romance, part mystery...somehow all these parts didn't add up to a full novel that I enjoyed. 


At one point, Mara says, "I was on antipsychotic medication for hallucinations and possibly, probably delusions. " I felt the same way! I love unreliable narrators (Liar forever! Ugh, I hate my old reviews.), but Mara just didn't click with me. 


There are some reasons it is worthy of the buzz: the cliffhangers are exciting and when there is action, it is fantastic. Unfortunately, the novel feels overly long and the development of the world's most chaste relationship (between Mara and the resident bad boy, natch) deserves a back seat to the spooky occurrences in Mara's life. This is the first in a series, but I won't be reading the second one. I just don't care enough.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Hurricane Dancers

Quebrado is a slave on a pirate ship, named "the broken one" for being the son of a native islander and a Spanish army deserter. He has worked on ships on the Caribbean Sea for his entire life, and made himself useful because he can speak the native language of Ta√≠no and also Spanish. When his ship is destroyed in a hurricane,   he washes up on Cuba, along with pirate captain Bernardino de Talavera and brutal conquistador Alonso de Ojeda. Suddenly, Quebrado has the power and is able to decide the fate of the two men who have imprisoned him and countless other Indians.

I will read anything Margarita Engle writes, so was eager to check out Hurricane Dancers. Although it won the 2012 Pura Belpr√© Award, I did not love Hurricane Dancers as much as Engle's other works. In addition to poems from the perspective of Quebrado, Bernardino de Talavera, and Alonso de Ojeda, it also features the poems of young Cuban lovers Narido and Caucubu. The multitude of narrators dilutes the story; I wanted to learn more about all of them, so felt unfulfilled at the end of the book. The story of star-crossed lovers Narido and Caucubu would have been better as its own book, possibly a sequel where Quebrado makes a guest appearance. 


Despite these complaints, I always appreciate Margarita Engle's writing. One example of her beautiful verse is written from Quebrado's perspective:


"The life of a ship's slave
is hard labor and fists,
or deep water and sharks.


When I sleep, I belong to the land.
In dream, I work in a field,
planting roots in rich soil. 


In dreams, I feel like a spirit of the air,
riding my father's leaping horse.


In dreams, I feel free,
until the sun rises and my eyes open, 
and once again I must struggle
beneath the weight
of flapping sails
and heavy ropes."


Hurricane Dancers would have been a fantastic accompaniment to my class' study of Shakespeare's The Tempest. I wish I had read it a few weeks ago! I admire Engle's commitment to exploring her Cuban heritage and sharing it with young readers. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty is a haunting story, and unfortunately, not uncommon. G. Neri's graphic novel explores the life, death, and media hoopla that surrounded the final days of eleven-year-old Robert "Yummy" Sandifer. In 1994, he murdered a fourteen-year-old girl in order to appear tough for his gang, the Black Disciples. When the attention surrounding Yummy grew to be too much, his own gang pulled him out of hiding and executed him. Then they moved on to the next group of shorties who were willing to commit a crime and receive the light juvenile sentencing.

Yummy's life was a tragedy, full of abuse and neglect, which led to his delinquency. One of the lawyers in the book states, "Yummy averages a felony a month for the last year and a half. 23 felonies in all by the time he was 11. Now you got over 1000 Black Disciples like him, all younger than 13. All with guns. In this country, 15 kids under the age of 19 die by guns every day." This is a shocking set of statistics, and one that adolescents probably wouldn't pay attention to if it weren't couched in a graphic novel.

The book doesn't only focus on how sad Yummy's life was; his victim, Shavon Dean, receives a tribute as well. Her face pops up many times and serves to remind the reader than Yummy took an innocent life, adding to the complicated feelings that he inspires.

Illustrator Randy DuBurke takes Yummy's devastating mugshot and turns it into a cover that grabs the reader. Inside, his black and white artwork show the duality of Yummy: a cold killer behind a gun and a little boy clutching a teddy bear and eating candy. DuBurke's use of shadows on faces and in the streets as Yummy hides are particularly affecting.

Reluctant readers will be drawn to Yummy's story. Although it occurred almost twenty years ago, it feels recent and urgent. It's not an enjoyable plot, but an important one, and it belongs on your library's shelves.