Monday, January 27, 2014

A Few More Nonfiction Reads

My classroom library has four copies of Ninjas: Masters of Stealth and Secrecy, by Joanne Mattern. Somehow, none of the copies are checked out, which is something I need to rectify. This book is fantastic.
I used to live in Japan, so I am predisposed to enjoying this topic, but I think anyone would be fascinated by the lives of these mysterious people. I learned a lot of cool facts, like ninjas were trained to dislocate their jaws so that they could not reveal secret information. There were so many things that I was dying to share, the sign of a terrific nonfiction book.

Inspired by Ninjas, I picked up another book from the series, Vikings: Raiders and Explorers. While they don't have the same draw for me as ninjas, I did learn a lot about the Vikings. This is a book I would have to frame more for the reader, asking them to compare it to the ninja book: why would they be grouped into the same series? What is distinct about their fighting styles? Who would win in a battle? (This question provoked a little daydreaming on my part.)

My high school boyfriend was (and still is) Navajo. Although his father was a distinguished professor on the subject, I never learned much about their culture because we were very busy listening to Korn and hanging out in Harvard Square. Thinking of my childhood love, I selected The Navajo. I had read Code Talker, so knew a little about that period of time, but otherwise, I was starting fresh. There is a lot of interesting cultural information, presented with respect and admiration. We are working on big ideas and supporting details in my classes. With the big idea of "The Navajo were treated unfairly", I was able to make a giant list of supporting details. I want my students to read this book, as they don't learn about this culture in Colombia. Then, I want to hand them Code Talker and set them loose. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Three Quick Nonfiction Books

 As we dive deep into our nonfiction unit, I wanted to read more of the titles that I have on my classroom shelves. Students read nonfiction at a grade level about two years below their fiction reading levels. For this reason, many of the nonfiction books I have are very simple. Still, my students feel proud when they complete them, and they are practicing skills that transfer to their other classes.

The first one I chose was Natural Born Killers, by Linda Casterline. I definitely picked this one based on the title and cover. Instead of being about deadly snakes, as I suspected, it was about how poisonous animals and plants can be used to create medicine that helps people. A bit misleading, but the photos and facts involved will keep readers engaged.

Up Close, by Louise A. Gikow, is another book in the True Tales series. Similarly, its cover promises a book that it doesn't quite deliver. This book tells the history of microscopes. Still, the close images of items like goldfish skin and mosquito eyes are entertaining. I thought that Natural Born Killers was more reader-friendly, but maybe that's because poison is more interesting than microscopes!

As I read more nonfiction books, I realize how crucial the title and cover are. Burp, by Diane Swanson, is a perfect example. I decided to read this book because of the title, but it actually only features a short paragraph about burping. Instead, the book describes all aspects of digestion and food. The cover drew me in, but the information and layout kept me reading. Burp chunks information into colorful boxes, keeping the reader's attention. Trivia is mixed among substantial paragraphs about how the digestive system works. This is a book I'll be featuring in a book chat.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Jumping Off Swings

I read this book out of order.

I read Living With Jackie Chan, the sequel, before this one. So, I already knew what happened to the characters, but it turned out not to matter because Jumping Off Swings is fantastic whenever you read it.

Told from the perspective of four teens, the reader learns about how Josh and Ellie have one sexual encounter, which leads to pregnancy and many difficult feelings and consequences. Their best friends, Caleb and Corinne, struggle to support them, even when they don't agree with their decisions. While it's a short novel, the emotions are heavy and stick with the reader.

I found that the best friends were better written than the two young parents. I loved how Knowles portrayed their conflict, and how they were reluctant to admit their own romantic feelings in light of Ellie and Josh's pregnancy. So much of this book felt realistic to me: the small town where you can see the teenage boys turning into their fathers, the mother who refuses to believe her daughter isn't a "good girl", the slut-bashing of the teenage mother. At times, the language was crude, but teenage life can be crude, so that added to the authenticity. Knowles doesn't shy away from tough topics and unhappy truths. That's why I keep coming back for more of her books.

Friday, January 17, 2014


Persepolis is often held up alongside Maus as a graphic novel of heft. Both tackle memoirs from a tumultuous time period (WWII and the Iranian revolution, respectively) and present history through a personal point of view. I wanted to check out Persepolis to see if it was worth adding to my 6th grade nonfiction shelves. While I'm going to move it to the 8th grade classroom, I enjoyed reading it.

Marjane Satrapi writes about her experiences during the revolution, starting when she is six years old, and ending this first volume at age 14 (three more follow). The events of the revolution are always present in Marji's life, even when she is doing simple things like purchasing cassette tapes or trying to hang out with older friends. I appreciated that Satrapi gave the reader a good sense of her personality and what childhood rebellion looked like in an increasingly oppressive society.

The illustrations are simple, but they fit. It is powerful to see all the women in the book transition into looking like black triangles because of the garb forced upon them by the government, and later, by each other. Keeping the book in black and white is also effective, as Satrapi uses patterns to draw the reader's attention.

I don't feel very compelled to seek out the rest of the series, but that's more because there are so many other books I want to took me so many years to get to Persepolis. Maybe one day I'll get to Satrapi's life after age fourteen.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Wig in the Window

My students love mysteries and I have a dearth of them in my classroom library. I usually fall back on The Westing Game and The Puzzling World of Wilson Breen. One of my goals is to read more mysteries so that I can make better recommendations. I'd heard great things about The Wig in the Window and was so excited to find a novel that is appropriate for sixth grade students and is also genuinely suspenseful.

Best friends Sophie and Grace have active imaginations and enjoy looking for mysteries and possible spies in their neighborhood. One night, they they see their creepy counselor, Dr. Agford, murdering someone. While that was a mistake, it sets off a real mystery that puts the girls in danger and tests their friendship.

The suspense is fantastic, but even better is the realistic relationship between Sophie and Grace. Author Kristen Kittscher beautifully describes the awkward shift in friendship that happens in middle school. One friend will mature faster, or they realize that proximity does not guarantee friendship. I appreciate the girls' struggles to maintain their relationship when they have fewer things in common.

If The Wig in the Window is an example of the mysteries I'll read this year, 2014 is going to be an enriching one for me and my students.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Looking Forward

Also known as Books I Want To Read This Year

After the disappointment of Never Fade, I decided to make a list of books I am looking forward to reading this year. Sure, I already have the "To Read" section of Goodreads, but it's fun to keep track here as well. 

Hooray for Jenny Han and covers with POC featured! To All the Boys I've Loved Before comes out on April 22nd and is the galley I have been trying to get my hands on. Tick Tock, is it April yet?

E. Lockhart is the author of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, my all-time favorite YA novel. That alone makes her novels an automatic read. Add to it the dark cover blurb, and I can't believe I have to wait until May to read this one. 

Stephanie Perkins' novels are amazing. Anna and the French Kiss remains the only book I've ever reviewed in Spanish (and ugh, now that I live in Colombia, that Spanish is haunting me) and Lola and the Boy Next Door charmed me completely. I, and the rest of the YA world, look forward to how Perkins will end the series. Between this and We Were Liars, May is shaping up to be an exciting month for me.

How will Laini Taylor wrap up Karou's story? I have sent copies of Daughter of Smoke and Bone to many friends, and although the second book in the series wasn't the best, I have faith that Taylor will give us a satisfying ending. 

One of these things is not like the other ones…Yes, most of my anticipated books are YA novels, but I really want Donalyn Miller's Reading in the Wild to be my first professional development book of 2014. I loved her first book, The Book Whisperer, and look forward to incorporating strategies from this book into my classroom this year. And it's already been published, so huzzah for no waiting!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Never Fade

I loved The Darkest Minds. It was one of my favorite books last year and the one that I recommend to my Pre-AP students who loved The Hunger Games and Divergent.

My thoughts on the second in the series, Never Fade? TL;DR.
For those who don't read the comments sections of websites, that stands for "Too Long; Didn't Read". It's not exactly true…I read the whole book, but I wish I hadn't. The last 40% (thanks, kindle) were a real struggle for me.

Was Alexandra Bracken rushed to get the sequel out within a year of the original? That's the only excuse I can think of for the lazy writing in this novel. At least five chapters end with Ruby getting knocked unconscious, as if Bracken couldn't think of another way to finish a scene or transition. It also drags and rehashes the same arguments over again: Vida fights with everyone, Ruby worries about what she did to Liam, the same characters continue to betray the others. I'm disappointed that this was my first book of 2014.

Will I recommend it to my students? Definitely not. I'll recommend that they read the first in the series, and then move on to something more worthwhile.