Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Escape! The Story of The Great Houdini

One of my continuing goals is to find nonfiction books that excite my students the way that fiction does. There are some topics that fascinate children; books about sharks, Titanic, and Houdini are almost never on the shelf. I really enjoyed Sid Fleischman's Escape! The Story of The Great Houdini, but I don't know if it will be as popular with young readers as the picture book I read about him earlier this year.

Fleischman was a magician, which adds to his passion for the subject. He actually met Houdini's beloved widow, Bess, who gave him some of the photos published in the book. That personal touch is evident in the care that Fleischman takes with his subject. Still, the audience was unclear to me. If it is young readers, why use so much convoluted language and such meandering sentence structure? If it is for older readers, why is the font so large and why doesn't it go more into the gritty aspects of Houdini's childhood?

This confusion leaves me wondering what to do with this book? My best idea is to use passages from it as practice for standardized tests. The students will be interested in the topic, but will have to work hard to decipher the complex vocabulary and sentences. Definitely not what the author intended, but better than having the book languish unread on a shelf.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Drowned City

Graphic novels are such a powerful tool for teaching history. They appeal to readers of different levels, share indelible images, and round out a reader's knowledge of an event or time period. When I read that Drowned City had won the 2016 Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children, I know that I had to check it out. I have a class of graphic novel devotees and I am always looking for nonfiction to add to my collection. This is the perfect fit.

Drowned City details how Hurricane Katrina built up at sea and then ravaged New Orleans. Since the hurricane was in 2005, it is not an event that my middle graders can remember, so it's important for them to learn that devastating history doesn't just take place far in the past. I hope this book motivates students to use the source notes and bibliography to learn more about the tragedy.

Most harrowing are the descriptions of the aftermath and the poor government response. I know I will be haunted by the illustrations of bodies floating in the water while others swim around them. The book ends with hopeful optimism, featuring the rebuilding of New Orleans. Still, the overall feeling of the book is one of gloom and helplessness. This feeling is created by Don Brown's illustrations, color palette, and the fact that all the speech bubbles feature actual quotes that are documented at the end.

I teach fifth grade, and that is the lowest age level I would go with this text. Even at this age, I would scaffold it heavily with discussions, because many questions are sure to arise. But that's the point of historical graphic novels: provoking readers to ask questions and want to know more.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Moving Target

My students are going to go wild for this one! They don't know how lucky they are to have so many action packed adventure books available to them, from Loot to Storm Runners to Eye of the Storm and now Moving Target...this is a golden era for middle grade adventure novels.

Cassie Arroyo and her art historian father live peacefully in Rome, until her father rushes her away from school to keep her safe. Before she knows it, he is shot, and she is on the run, along with her best friend and a strange boy who was raised in a monastery. The book is full of cliffhangers and surprises that I saw coming, but my students won't.

I love that Cassie is Cuban and speaks Spanish with her father, but it doesn't dominate the narrative. Hooray for characters who are casually Latino; this is a genuinely diverse book that I can't wait to share with my students. I am eager to read it aloud to my class, even though they are going to lose their minds to learn it is the first in a series and we will probably have to wait a long time for the sequel.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Ice Dogs

This has been a great year of growth for me as a teacher, particularly because my students are mostly boys. Many of my tried and true tactics just don't work for their wiggly bodies. They also came in with a proud aversion to reading. Luckily, that has changed and it has kept me on my toes, finding books to recommend to them.

Ice Dogs is a book I would never have considered in the past, but my students love Gary Paulsen and this feels like a more modern version of his novels. Victoria is an accomplished dog sledder who finds Chris, a recent Alaskan transplant, after a snowmobiling accident. Together, they must fight their way through a blizzard to make their way home.

There is terrific action and tension in the novel that the pages flew by. This is exactly what my students need. I love the subtle challenges to gender roles, with Victoria being an athletic outdoorswoman and Chris being the one who can sew booties for the dogs. There's so much to learn from Ice Dogs. This will be my next book talk, for sure.