Thursday, June 30, 2016

Book Review: Sticks and Stones by Abby Cooper

I am participating in a group of Twitter friends that are reading, sharing and responding to recent middle grade novels. Hopefully, we will be able to find books that will excite the young readers in our classrooms and help us to teach important literacy skills and concepts in the coming year. Our group's handle is #BookRelays if you would like to see what we're reading and how we respond to these books.

It truly is an awesome experience to be able to read and share with other enthusiastic teachers these books that I know will be able to help us help kids. Up until now, I would read books by myself during the summer and then by the time I got back to school in August, I would forget to talk to others about them.

Sticks and Stones by Abby Cooper will be a terrific book for anyone that struggles with self-confidence...which is most people! All of her life, Elyse Everett's arms and legs have displayed the words used to describe her. Positive words like "cool", "awesome", and "beautiful" feel pleasant and even soothing as they appear on her skin. But negative words like "dork" or "loser" are painful and itchy. This extremely rare condition is called cognadjivisibilitis, or CAV.  Elyse's family moved to Chicago so that they could be close to Dr. Patel, an expert on the condition.

While she was really young and in elementary school, this wasn't such a big deal. She was shielded from unkind comments by her mother and her best friend, Jeg. But now that she's started middle school, she's encountering more social challenges and a lot more words are showing up on her arm. Only now, most of the painful, itchy words are coming from her own negative self-talk. 

Elyse decides to put herself in the running to become the Explorer Leader for the sixth grade class trip to Minnesota. This highly coveted position would certainly make her very popular and important and solve all of her problems. Right?

But she still has problems. Jeg is drifting away from her, she's dealing with lots of new classmates who aren't aware of her condition, and she's receiving mysterious notes offering her helpful advice for becoming the Explorer Leader. 

Abby Cooper really has done a nice job writing middle school characters and situations that are authentic. She has tapped into how these kids interact with each other, their teachers and their parents. Relating to the stress and the self-doubt that Elyse experiences so acutely becomes easier for the reader because of her attention to all of the minutiae of the middle school experience. 

There is also the focus on the words we use to describe others and ourselves. Most kids and adults have been socialized to not speak unkindly or call people names, at least not in their presence. But how many of us take the same care to speak kindly to ourselves? The painful, itchy results of each occurrence of Elyse's negative thoughts about herself forces her to focus her attention on positive action. What a great lesson for all of us! 

Hardcover, 288 pages

Expected publication: July 12th 2016 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Book Review: Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin

I am participating in a group of Twitter friends that are reading, sharing and responding to recent middle grade novels. Hopefully, we will be able to find books that will excite the young readers in our classrooms and help us to teach important literacy skills and concepts in the coming year. Our group's handle is #BookRelays if you would like to see what we're reading and how we respond to these books.

It truly is an awesome experience to be able to read and share with other enthusiastic teachers these books that I know will be able to help us help kids. Up until now, I would read books by myself during the summer and then by the time I got back to school in August, I would forget to talk to others about them.

We had the opportunity to read  Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin  and I have to say that I am so happy that we did! We are coming up on the fifteenth anniversary of that world altering day. None of my fourth and fifth grade students were alive then, so to them it is history. And as history, it is very difficult for these kids to relate in a personal way to these events. This book is like a magical field trip that will give me the ability to transport them back to that day all those years ago. I know that this story certainly took me back!

Nora Raleigh Baskin starts her story a few days before September 11, 2001. On September 9, 2001 we meet four different kids at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. They all have their own lives and their own reasons for being at the airport, but this day at the airport starts the connectivity of everyone's lives as the timeline of events moves forward. My students will definitely recognize themselves and their own stories in these characters, which is the foundation for relating to the text and these events.

In the early part of the book, while it's still September 10, 2001, Aimee has just been uprooted from her home in Chicago and is moving with her family to Los Angeles, California. But her mother has to go to New York City for an important business trip. She has to meet with executives from the financial firm, Cantor Fitzgerald, whose offices are in the World Trade Center. Aimee has to deal with the stress of being a new middle school student a week after school has already begun.  

Will, who lives in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, is struggling to come to terms with his father's death the previous year. Will's father, who drove a truck for a living, was fatally hit by a car while trying to help another driver that had been involved in an accident. The authorities had described his father as a hero, and Will couldn't get his mind around that. As Ginger Healy, one of my #BookRelays teammates, noted: "The author establishes this theme of heroism beautifully here and Will's complicated feelings about it."

"Everyone called his dad a hero, but it didn't make sense. Heroes did heroic things, they pulled people out of burning buildings. They risked their lives to save others, but they didn't die doing nothing. Of course he knew his father had done a good thing, or had tried to do a good thing. But what had come of it?"

Sergio is another character that just tugged at my heart. After winning a prestigious math award, for which he was flown from his home in Brooklyn to Chicago to attend the ceremony, his absentee father showed up at his grandma's apartment looking for money. Unfortunately, he's used to this sort of disappointment from his family. His maternal grandma loves Sergio and protects him from being hurt by his dad. As Lisa Kincer, another #BookRelay teammate, notes: "Such support from grandmother; love her fierceness!" 

And then there's Nadira. I got a bit excited when I saw that Nadira and her family live in Columbus, Ohio. That will certainly get the attention of my students! 

And I truly think, that because a main character in this book is experiencing these events from this city we call home, this will help my students connect even more! Nadira, a Muslim, is very conflicted about wearing her hijab as she's just starting middle school. She wants to fit in with her peers and she feels uncomfortable answering a bunch of questions about the customs and traditions of her religion. 

I also love it when characters and events remind me of elements from other books that we've read. It's so important to teach students to make connections and comparisons across different texts. In addition to dealing with his  and his family's grief over his father's death, Will is also worried about how his friends would relate to him:

"Ben helped himself, nabbing a handful of fries from Will's tray. The very familiarity of his bad manners was a relief, because for a long time after the accident had happened, even Will's best friends had acted differently around him. They wouldn't grab food off his plate. They didn't tease him, punch him in the arm or give him dead legs in the dugout. Like he was too fragile. As if he would break. Like he was different somehow. And he supposed that was true."

This reminds me of Wren's feelings about her dad's death in Be Light Like A Feather by Monika Schroeder.  There are many similarities between Wren and Will and that might be something to explore with students.

Sergio's perception of the police and other authority figures reminded Ginger of All American Boys by Jason Reynolds, Brendan Kiely :

"They (the police) were allowed to stop you for no reason. They could throw you up against the wall and pat you down, say whatever they wanted. And if you resisted, if you said one single thing, moved the wrong way, answered back, they could haul you in and that would be the end of that. That was the law." 

We learn so much from these characters and their experiences, and this is all on the day before September 11, 2001! As I prepared to start the section of the book for THE day, September 11, 2001, it was amazing to feel the chills and the sense of worry and dread for these characters that I had just gotten to know so well in the September 10th part of the book. I wasn't sure that I wanted to continue! But, while I felt like I knew what was going to happen, I really didn't! I love it when that kind of plot development compels me to move forward. If it were a movie, this is where I would put my hands over my eyes and watch through my fingers! 

Once I got to the events of the day, I was struck by how familiar it seemed and yet, it was fresh and also calmly informative. Ginger was especially struck by the description of the scene in Shanksville, Pennsylvania: "This might be my favorite scene. And I love how she (Baskin) explains key facts about the day through her characters."

Personally I couldn't stop connecting with Nadira's experience. On September 11, 2001, I was teaching in the very same school where I work now. Whenever I tell that to my students, they're always shocked that I'm so old!!! Anyway, the day unfolded exactly as Nadira describes it. Parents were coming in droves to pick up their kids, and just like in the book, "it felt oddly like a snow day, an in-school snow day on the warmest, clearest, most beautiful day of the year." It's because of such personal connections that I am really looking forward to sharing this book with my students.

As we approach the fifteenth anniversary of these horrible events, it's good that we have so many wonderful resources to help us talk about it. This book is beautifully, calmly, and very appropriately written for kids. This book is going to be an important part of my curriculum this fall.

Hardcover, 208 pages

Published June 28th 2016 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Book Review: Be Light Like A Bird by Monika Schroeder

I am participating in a group of Twitter friends that are reading, sharing and responding to recent middle grade novels. Hopefully, we will be able to find books that will excite the young readers in our classrooms and help us to teach important literacy skills and concepts in the coming year. Our group's handle is #BookRelays if you would like to see what we're reading and how we respond to these books.
It truly is an awesome experience to be able to read and share with other enthusiastic teachers these books that I know will be able to help us help kids. Up until now, I would read books by myself during the summer and then by the time I got back to school in August, I would forget to talk to others about them. 
To help us out,  Monika Schroeder very generously donated an ARC of her upcoming middle grade novel, Be Light Like A Bird for us to read, discuss, and review.  I really enjoyed reading this novel. The book tells the story of Wren, a twelve-year-old who is having a difficult time coming to terms with the sudden death of her father. Wren hasn't had closure because her father dies in a plane crash over the Atlantic Ocean and his body was never recovered. 
Before Wren has even had the chance to grieve, her mother packs everything they own into the car and they're leaving Atlanta for good. After a few false starts in towns along the highway, Wren and her mom settle into a town in the upper peninsula of Michigan. It is in the town of Pyramid that Wren has a chance to sort things out, let go of the hurt, and learn what really makes a family.  

The author does a terrific job telling this story from Wren's point of view. This will help the students in my class relate to these characters, because the author has tapped into the turbulent emotions and energy of the adolescents for whom she is writing. Students will also be able to relate to the issues of peer pressure, bullying, and the everyday pressures kids today face: 

"Being the new girl at school was hard. Not that I used to have a lot of friends back home. Fitting in at school had been hard for me even before Dad died. I had never hung out with the popular crowd, and I didn't have a best friend. It was more that I tried hanging out with different girls, rather than just one group, but it never came easy to me." 

Because bird-watching had been a special hobby that Wren shared with her father, she found comfort spending time sitting by herself at a nearby pond with her father's binoculars and her bird-watching journal. Through this activity, she makes a new friend and gets swept up in a local controversy when she finds out that the expansion of the landfill will require the draining of the pond. 

The story that Monica Schroeder tells has several good messages kids can take away. Printed on the inside of the bird journal Wren's father had given her were these words: "Be light like a bird, not like a feather." (a quote by Paul Valery): 

"When Dad had given the journal to me, I'd asked him what that meant. He'd said, "It means you don't want to just float around in life like a feather. You want to determine your own direction - fly and soar like a bird."  

Later on, Wren is listening to the song, "Anthem" by Leonard Cohen and it  has deep meaning for her: 

"I relaxed as Iistened. It sounded as if he was performing a slow poem to music. He spoke the words more than he sang them. There was this pain in his voice, but I found it soothing. And I loved the refrain:     
                                         Ring the bell that still can ring
                                         Forget your perfect offering
                                         There is a crack, a crack in everything
                                         That's how the light gets in."

I like this book a lot. I plan to get a copy of it for my classroom library. I think it's important to have books like this, especially for kids who are struggling to cope with the death of a parent or loved one. And for those who haven't experienced a loss like this, it might help them have more empathy towards someone who has.

Hardcover, 240 pages

Expected publication: September 1st 2016 by Capstone Young Readers

Monday, June 27, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is a meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey as a way to share what you have read and/or reviewed in the past week. It's also a terrific way to find out what other people are reading.

Jen Vincent, of Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye of Unleashing Readers have given this meme a children's literature focus: picture books, middle grade novels, etc. They "encourage everyone who participates to support the blogging community by visiting the other bloggers that link up and leave comments for them.


This has been a week of just kicking back and enjoying summer! I love having time to stay up late and watch the Cleveland Cavs win their first championship ever, trying new recipes that I'm usually too busy for during the school year, watching our community's fireworks show and of course, READING!
Hopefully you've had a chance to slow down a bit and enjoy your summer as well! 
Here's what I've been reading this past week:
Middle Grade Novels/Chapter Books

Because The Crossover was very popular in my classroom, I very enthusiastically purchased this novel-in-verse. Booked is just as good, maybe even better! It has something good for everyone - kids and grownups.

Before I even started reading it, the cover had me hooked. A darkly shadowed photo of a soccer player about to kick a ball. The soccer ball is reminiscent of the basketball on the cover of The Crossover - the ball is actually made up of words from the book. Underneath the dust jacket, the front and back covers are printed with the black and white design pattern of a soccer ball.

I especially love that all readers will be able to recognize themselves in this novel: reluctant readers who would rather do just about anything else except read a book, grownups who will persist and insist that kids work hard and do their best, and people from all types of families.

This book has lots of treats for book nerds as well! Mr. MacDonald, the rapping librarian with a great sense of humor, is awesome! He always has a smile and a great book for Nicholas (the main character) to read!

And also, those that pick up this book to read about soccer won't be disappointed! The action on the soccer field is exciting, even for those who aren't necessarily big sports fans.
This book was awesome! I loved it, but it was definitely more emotional than I expected it to be. The author has a terrific narrative style that brings the reader right into the story from the very first page. I loved the character development, especially since the main character is a robot! I am really looking forward to sharing this with my students! I think we could have great discussions about what life truly is, how friendship and helping others played an important part in Roz's ability to adapt to her surroundings and survive, and the role robots and technology should play in our world.
This is a fun book for middle grade kids, sort of a beginner's chapter book. The story is told from the perspective of the family dog. Spunky loves his family dearly, even though they don't understand him. He shares all of his doggy-wisdom with them, and all they ever hear is "Yerf!"

The family decides that Spunky needs a playmate, and so they all go down to the local animal shelter and come home with...a cat. Fiona turns Spunky's life upside down. It's fun to read all of the adventures these two have in the house - in places like The Eating Room, The Lie-Around Room, and the White Pond Room (where Fiona falls into the tallest White Pond and becomes trapped).

The language and the messages are adorable. Here's one of my favorites: "A Dog's way is not a cat's way. A Dog's way is to be loyal, make promises, and keep them. A cat's way is to never promise anything to anybody. A cat's way is to live continually considering and reconsidering its pleasures - so when it pounces on them, it never misses."

This book would work well in a study of point-of-view, along with books like Fenway and Hattie by Victoria Coe.
Picture Books
This is a nice rhyming picture book that would be great as a bedtime story. As the day is winding down and the moon starts to rise, all the animals are getting ready for bed. The soft palette illustrations by Tomie de Paola are terrific, but I'm not sure young readers will appreciate the mime Pierrot.  
Young readers will have lots of fun playing along with the brother and sister in this cute picture book. It's a cold night under a pale moon and these intrepid children go exploring in a dark, dark cave. This would be a great way to talk about making predictions as readers try to guess what they'll find inside this cave. The illustrations were rendered in watercolor, pencil, colored pencil, and ink and assembled digitally.  
This picture book is a fun twist on the classic fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel. I love that the story has tough girl chickens fighting Ninja-style to save their parents from being eaten by a fox. The colorful, action-packed illustrations are perfect for this story. I'm sure this book would be a big hit in my classroom library!
I really liked this picture book that tells the story of a royal family that includes seven princesses. The girls got along wonderfully and did everything together. One day they got into a big fight, and things changed dramatically. The story has a great message for young readers about getting along together. The illustrations are very colorful and detailed and simply beautiful. Fans of princess stories will enjoy this book.
What a cute picture book that reminds us that things could always be worse. Barnacle is sooooo bored! Day in and day out are always the same. He envies the freedom and fun that he imagines the polka dot fish must enjoy. Something happens that makes him rethink is boredom complaint!  
This is a cute picture book about a boy who desperately wants to have a beard. Everyone around has a beard, and most importantly, so does his dad.

This is a lovely picture book that takes readers on a walk on a beautiful day. As you take this walk on Bird Hill, not only do you see the things mentioned in the rhyming text, you see exquisite details painted into the illustrations: sailboats out on the water, families picnicking and playing together, all sorts of animals, etc. I find myself staring at these pictures, wishing I could climb into the book. The last page tells more about The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and how you can help them help birds.
This is a nice story with a good message for young readers. Raccoon has always been very good at everything thing he does. He loves being first at everything, and so he works very hard to be the fastest and the smartest. When a fox moves into the forest who's better and faster than Raccoon, he doesn't want to play with the other animals any more. Kids will enjoy reading to find out what happens when one of Raccoon's friends needs help.
This is an adorable picture book about a little boy, Sam, and his best friend and favorite stuffed animal, Jump. Sam takes Jump everywhere and they do everything together. One day at the beach, Sam makes a new friend, Thomas. After a day of fun, Sam goes home and, to his horror, realizes that he's left Jump at the beach. Anyone who has ever lost a beloved toy will be able to relate to the sadness Sam experiences. The illustrations, which were done in watercolor and pencil, are just gorgeous. I absolutely love the paintings of the ocean and beach!
What a wonderful picture book to inspire creativity and imagination! The little girl in this story makes the best dollhouse out of a box: she's painted bricks on the outside of it, divided the inside into rooms and made wallpaper with her markers. She's made a TV, a rug, and a stove. The family has a paper cup elevator and a pool on the rooftop. When she goes to Sophie's house and plays with her "perfect" dollhouse, it's not nearly as much fun. Wait until Sophie comes to visit! I want to come and play with this dollhouse!

This book reminds me of when I used to play with my Barbie dolls as a kid. I collected odd assortments of stuff from garage sales and around the house. Usually the store-bought stuff got broken right away!

I would love to get my own copy of this book for my classroom library! Who knows what kind of writing or artwork this story might inspire?!
This picture book is a beautiful celebration of all immigrants through the history of our country. This looks like a good book to have in the classroom and at home during this election year, as there is a lot of talk about who should be able to come to our country and who shouldn't.  
This awesome nonfiction picture book would be a great starting point for discussions about what "going green" and sustainability mean. The author uses a kid friendly narrative style to tell about a small Kansas down that was devastated by a tornado. In the effort to rebuild, citizens and leaders decided to build a "green city." The book presents fascinating information and a list of resources for further research. I definitely want to get my own copy of this for my classroom library.
This is a very interesting and creative picture book, although I wouldn't show it to very young or sensitive readers. Samira's teacher shows the students a skeleton and tells them that everyone has one. This freaks Samira out as she really starts seeing all the people around her has walking, talking skeletons. The illustrations were created using pencil drawings on paper, and then digitally colored and enhanced.  
This is a terrific picture book that I need to share with my students at the beginning of the year. It's got a great message about how listening to rumors only leads to misunderstandings. The little girl in the story hears a rumor about something her best friend said about her that wasn't very nice. Instead of talking to her friend about it, she gets angry and gives him the silent treatment. The 4th and 5th graders I teach are so into spreading rumors about each other and not talking about their misunderstandings. I think this book would be a good way to start a conversation about conflict resolution and appropriate ways to solve misunderstandings.
When I first brought this book home from the library, it appeared as though some naughty person had defaced it. But then when I read it, "Alex" made some awesome and hilarious changes. Alex took a nice picture book about a surprise birthday party for a bunny rabbit, and made it into an action-packed adventure with a supervillian and his enemies in the forest. The "changes" might be a fun way to talk about revising a piece of writing. I would love to get my own copy to share with my students.
This compilation of fairy tales include a good variety that includes " a lot of Grimm tales, a majority of well-known stories, a good sampling of non-European traditions, and a balance of boy and girl heroes." These stories were turned over to a group of popular cartoonists to come up with this volume. I'm sure this book would be very popular in my classroom!
This is a very creative mix of fractured fairy tale and writing mentor text that I think would be a fun addition to my classroom library. Little Red is a pencil in Pencil School and she has been given an assignment to write a story. She travels through the pages of this school, dealing with the perils and pitfalls of story-writing: overuse of verbs and adjectives, run-on sentences, and straying off the story path. Then she has to face the biggest danger of all: the Wolf 3000 pencil sharpener. The story is very clever, but I think in the attempt to make an allegory of the writing process that includes lots of grammar and usage elements, the book might be a bit confusing for elementary students.
This picture book is hilarious! The authors imagine a crazy conversation between Yankee Doodle and his pony as an explanation for how the famous song came about. The pictures along with the text will have readers of all ages smiling. I think it would be fun to use this as an opportunity for students to imagine the origins of other traditional stories and songs.
This is a cute picture book that has a great message about saving and sharing. Lola never saves anything: she eats her lunch before they even leave for the zoo, she uses up all the film in her camera right away, and she spends all of her pocket money so she can't afford the toy she wants to purchase. She has a really sweet older brother that helps her learn how to save.
This is a fun rhyming story that teaches about fractions. Fractions are a difficult concept for many of my students. This book with a cute story about Miss Bloom and her Strawberry Inn and terrific illustrations would be a great one to share at school.
This adorable story was Deborah Freedman's picture book debut and it's an awesome way to spark creativity and imagination in young readers. Emma draws a very detailed picture of Princess Aurora sleeping and waiting for true love's kiss. Her younger sister, Lucie draws a big picture of a cat, which Emma says doesn't look anything like a cat and that she should make triangle ears for it. Lucie gets angry and scribbles all over Emma's princess drawing. While Emma is off to tell on her, some magical happens that will captivate all readers. According to the title page, the illustrations were created using pencil with watercolors, Magic Markers, and digital coloring. This would be a great book to have in my classroom library!
This is a fun picture book that is a terrific play on The Night Before Christmas. This family of four is packing everything into the car for their summer vacation. Young readers will have a great time finding out if anything gets left behind!