Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wild & Wonderful Wednesday: The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm

The Trouble with May Amelia
written by Jennifer L. Holm
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4169-1373-3
Interest Level: Grades 3-6
Reviewed from purchased copy.

BLURB:  May Amelia lives in pioneer Washingon State in 1900, and she just can't act the part of a proper young lady. Working a farm on the rainy Nasel River isn't easy - especially when you have seven brothers and a Pappa who proclaims that Girls Are Useless. May Amelia thinks she may have finally earned her father's respect when he asks her to translate for a gentleman who's interested in buying their land and making them rich. But when the deal turns out to be a scam, Pappa places all the blame on May. It's going to take a lot of sisu - that's Finnish for guts - to make things right.

There are quite a few things that I really enjoyed about this book.  I enjoyed May Amelia's voice, she comes shining through loud and clear.  Within the first chapter I had a pretty good idea of May Amelia's personality, feisty and impetuous, which it was not hard to imagine could be pretty irritating to her family, especially her father who did not know what to do with her.  She wasn't like any of the other women that he knew.  After reading the first book (Our Only May Amelia) its clear that May Amelia's father grew up in an affection-poor home, and he struggles to show any affection. Plus, homesteading was a brutally hard way of life.  The vignettes that Holm shares provide glimpses into some of the challenges that these pioneers faced outside of the routine of everyday farm work.

I was able to visualize the setting easily.  I'm always amazed when an author is able to convey such a strong sense of place with relatively few descriptions.  I did notice when I went back and read Our Only May Amelia that that book had a lot more descriptions of the various settings, which makes sense since she was introducing the place for the first time. Holm gives the reader an immediate sense of both the beauty of the area and the challenges that come with geographic isolation.

The biggest problem I had was the cover, I mean the girl looks like she's 16 or 17 not 12 and a pink bra strap?!  Seriously? Other than that I just had a couple of minor issues with the lack of quotation marks and the number of capital letters used in the text.  Once I got used to it however, it was fine.  In fact, as I read the Capitals helped to show emotion and emphasis, which I am assuming is the intent.

Overall, a great book for discussion or just for plain enjoyment (not for teaching grammar :)) Highly recommended for those who enjoy genuine historical fiction with a strong female main character who inadvertently gets in trouble on a regular basis.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

YA/MG Fantasy Challenge & Marvelous Middle Grade Read-a-Thon

I've found some more fun challenges to participate in for 2012.  The first is the YA/MG Fantasy Challenge hosted by The Book Cellar.  To participate I will be doing the following:
- Read 10 YA or MG fantasy that are released in 2012
- Post a review on a personal blog or Goodreads
- The challenge runs from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2012
I already have a bunch of books that I am looking forward to reading next year.  I'm excited to be a part of this.

The Marvelous Middle Grade Read-a-Thon will take place Jan 2-Jan 8, 2012. This one is being hosted by Deb Marshall at Just Deb.  I hope to get a bunch of my middle grade books read during this week.  I will not be able to read all week though since I go back to work (school) that week, but I will do what I can.  For every book I read I will donate a book to my school library.

Book Talk Tuesday: Cloudy with a Chance of Boys by Megan McDonald

Cloudy with a Chance of Boys
(The Sisters Club Series)
written by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Pamela A. Consolazio
Candlewick Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-7636-4615-8
Interest Level: Grades 3-6
Reviewed from purchased copy.

BLURB:  As the middle sister in a family with three girls, Stevie Reel doesn’t know much about boys, and that’s always been just fine with her. But lately, things have been changing: kids at school are starting to pair up, and Owen, the new boy in her Earth Science class, seems to have his sights set on Stevie. The trouble is, Stevie doesn’t want a boyfriend- she’s not even sure she’s ready to have a boy friend. And her sisters, who know exactly where they stand on the issue of boys, are no help: drama queen Alex is busy trying to orchestrate a perfect, Romeo-and-Juliet-style first kiss from her heartthrob, Scott Towel (er, Howell), while Joey can’t understand why anyone would like a boy better than a frog anyway. If only figuring out boys were as easy as predicting the weather.

I quite enjoyed this series.  As the author of the Judy Moody and Stink books, Megan McDonald has already shown her grasp of elementary age children and how they think and act.  This third book in the Sisters Club series shows that she grasps equally well the challenges of middle school and the changes that make this time of life so confusing.

The format that includes regular chapters (Stevie's point of view), scripts (Alex's point of view), and notes from Joey's notebook (Joey is the youngest of the three sisters).  This design allows the reader to see how differently each of the three sisters see the world around them and their various experiences. Having several sisters myself I found I could easily relate to Stevie and her sisters and the ups and downs of their relationships.  It also brought back memories of my own middle school experiences, which I would not want to relive for anything (shudder, shudder).

Overall, this series provides some light reading for girls who are ready to move beyond the Judy Moody and Junie B. series.  The first book in the series is The Sisters Club.  Book two is called The Sisters Club: Rule of Three.

Head on over to The Lemme Library for some more great book talks.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Cities of the Dead by Denise Rinaldo

Cities of the Dead: Finding Lost Civilizations
24/7 Science Behind the Scenes Mystery Files (series)
written by Denise Rinaldo
Scholastic, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-531-18739-5
Interest Level: Grades 3-6
Reviewed from copy borrowed from my school library.

BLURBThere's a legend about a great empire that was swallowed up by the sea. Another tale tells of a beautiful city that was buried under ash and falling rock. Did these civilizations ever really exist? And if so, can traces of them be found? That's where archeologists come in. From the harshest deserts to the deepest oceans, they search the world for lost civilizations.

Cities of the Dead provides a basic introduction to the field of archeology and some of the most famous sites that have been searched for and studied.  While not providing a lot of detail, Rinaldo discusses the interest in, search for, and study of the following sites: the City of Troy, the City of Pompeii, and the City of Vilcabamba.  Later in the book, she provides more detail about the searches for Ancient Ubar, Atlantis, and the lost civilization of Easter Island. Along the way, readers are introduced to vocabulary related to archeology, the various types of jobs related to archeology and brief descriptions of some of the people involved in the search and discovery of what are believed to have been the cities mentioned above.  I found it interesting that when she got to Vilcabamba, she writes about how interest was diverted from that city when Machu Picchu discovered.

This book would be good for readers who are interested in archeology or in the search for places of legend.  The book does not however provide a detailed explanation of what is required to become an archeologist or the details involved in searching for and studying ancient sites.  I found the part about using satellites to search for some of these sites.  Recommended.
Head on over to A Curious Thing for today's Nonfiction Monday.  You will find other great nonfiction reads for a younger audience. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Read to Me Picture Book Challenge: Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade
written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-547-19945-0
Interest Level: All Levels
Reviewed from purchased copy.

BLURBEveryone's a New Yorker on Thanksgiving Day, when young and old rise early to see what giant new balloons will fill the skies for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Who first invented these "upside-down puppets?"  Tony Sarg—puppeteer, illustrator and legendary prankster who once declared, "I never worked a day in my life."  In brilliant collage illustrations, award-winning artist Melissa Sweet tells the story of this puppeteer, capturing his genius, his dedication, his zest for play, and his long-lasting gift to America—the inspired helium balloons that would become the trademark of Macy's Parade.

I don't know that I can say anything about this book that hasn't already been said.  Except that I really enjoyed it and the first and second graders I shared it with really enjoyed it as well.  I really liked the emphasis on Sarg following his passion and turning it into a career.  I hope my students realize that work can be enjoyable.  I also appreciated that Sweet emphasized Sarg's persistence in solving the problems that he was presented with and how his creations got better over time.  The illustrations of this book are delightful.  The watercolor illustrations were bright and child friendly.  The collage illustrations provided an opportunity to show the students a different kind of art.  I also talked to them about how collages are created.  Not only does this book provide a fascinating story and great artwork, but it provided a great precursor to the students creating their own puppets.  Sweet has a great activity guide on her website. The students really enjoyed working on these and taking them home. I highly recommend this book.

WATERING LEVEL:  14 of 36 Completed.

Book Review: America: The Last Best Hope Volume 3 by William J. Bennett

America: The Last Best Hope, Volume 3
From the Collapse of Communism to the Rise of Radical Islam
written by William J. Bennett
Thomas Nelson, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-5955-5428-4
Interest: High school/Adult
Reviewed from copy received through the Book Sneeze program.

BLURB: Twenty years ago, John McCain was serving his second year in the Senate, and Colin Powell had just been promoted to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. There was no Fox News Channel, no American Idol. Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeni ruled Iraq and Iran, respectively. George W. Bush was the fairly unnoticeable son of the then-president. If you asked someone to "email me," you would have received a blank stare, and "Amazon" was a forest in South America. Finally, 20 years ago a young man named Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. The two decades from 1988 to 2008 have proved to be some of the most pivotal in America's history.

I really enjoyed reading this book for several reasons.  First, many of the things that Bennett talks about I remember, the coming down of the Berlin Wall, Desert Storm, election nastiness, and the war on terror.  He does provide details that I did not know however changing how I see some of these events.  His insider status allows him to discuss intelligently the ups and downs of the last twenty years.  I appreciated the fact that Bennett, in the footnotes, tells the reader of his own involvement in politics over the last twenty years.  He is clearly a Republican, but I think he still manages to discuss those he disagrees with in an objective way.  He talks about events and choices rather than motivations and thoughts, except where he personally knew what the motivations were because of his involvement.

The second thing I especially liked about this book is how clearly and concisely events are described.  Politically and socially events such as those discussed in this book have complex and varied causes and consequences.  Bennett provides a nice amount of depth without harping on different topics or discussing things to death.  This allowed me to get an idea of the impact of various events and choices over time, without getting lost in the details.

The third thing I appreciated was Bennett's honesty.  He discusses the elections and decisions of various President's, discussing both the pros and cons of some of those decisions.  He allows the reader to see both the strengths and weaknesses of different presidents without being overly judgmental.  I liked how he conveyed respect for the office of President even when the men who held the office did foolish things.  His discussion of the media reminded me of how disrespectful of our leaders we as a society, and especially the media, have become.  Of course, the foolish and sometimes scandalous choices of our leaders don't help.  I think, however, it is possible to thoroughly disagree with someone and still respect the office.

This book is best for readers who want an overview of the political history of the last twenty years.  The focus is primarily on past presidents and the events they dealt with while in office.  Bennett does discuss social events both American and foreign that had profound political implications, such as September 11, the shootings at Virginia Tech, the collapse of communism, etc. Despite the many mistakes made by America over the years, Bennett still expresses hope and belief that the United States of America can and does continue to have a powerful effect on the world around us and we need to take responsibility for this.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fantastic Friday: Janitors by Tyler Whitesides

written by Tyler Whitesides, illustrations by Brandon Dorman
Shadow Mountain, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-60908-056-3
Grades 3 and up
Reviewed from purchased copy.

BLURBHave you ever fallen asleep during math class? Are you easily distracted while listening to your English teacher? Do you find yourself completely uninterested in geography? Well, it may not be your fault. The janitors at Welcher Elementary know a secret, and it s draining all the smarts out of the kids. Twelveyear- old Spencer Zumbro, with the help of his classmate Daisy Gullible Gates, must fight with and against a secret, janitorial society that wields wizard-like powers. Who can Spencer and Daisy trust and how will they protect their school and possibly the world? 

Maybe it's because I work in a school that I enjoyed this so much, janitors with special tools, critters that suck brain power from students, what great concepts.  I know the janitor at my school is a valuable ally and I think it's a great idea making them into fighters of not only mess and dirt, but loss of learning as well.  In the author description on the back of the book it mentions that the author (Tyler Whitesides) worked as a janitor at a middle school for a time.  It shows in the details about the different tools janitors use to do their jobs. 

I enjoyed the main characters as well, Spencer and Daisy are ordinary kids called upon to do extraordinary things.  I liked the fact that both Spencer and Daisy have their strengths and their weaknesses, and also how their strengths sometimes were their weaknesses.  Spencer is a bit OCD when it comes to cleanliness and this strength/weakness is what gets him involved with the janitors and the Toxites (invisible critters that run around the school sucking up children's brain waves) in the first place.  But once Spencer realizes what's at stake he faces his weaknesses for the betterment of all, even when doing to right thing comes at a heavy price.  Daisy is very trusting and believing, unfortunately, people use this against her, through the story Daisy starts to see that not everything she is told can be trusted. Both characters grow in ways that are very believable.

The story moves at a brisk pace allowing the reader to move swiftly through its pages. From Spencer's struggles with a bully to his run ins with various Toxites and his confrontations with his mother, the janitors, and other adults, the plot gives us much to think about and discuss as well as enjoy.  I appreciated the fact that while some of the problems introduced in the book were resolved, it's not a happily ever after story.  Serious problems remain to be solved, while still giving the reader some closure.  All too many series these days leave the reader hanging at the end of each book, which while acceptable, can be irritating at times.  While Whitesides clearly leaves the ending open for future books, there is a certain amount of closure.

I recommend this book to those who enjoy a good adventure with a dash of magic and a good dose of imagination thrown in.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Read to Me Picture Book Challenge: Fall Mixed Up by Bob Raczka

Fall Mixed Up
written by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Chad Cameron
Carolrhoda Books, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-7613-4606-7
Grades K-2
Reviewed from personal copy.

Fall is full of many enjoyable activities, carving pumpkins, raking and jumping in piles of leaves, or watching flocks of geese fly south for the winter.  Unfortunately, Raczka seems to be a little confused in this book.  Here we have red pumpkins and orange apples, bears gathering nuts for winter and squirrels flying south, while geese hibernate.  And the worst error of all, touchdowns are hit and home runs are kicked!? What a horrible mix-up!? (I hope you realize I'm being factitious, here). 

The kindergartners got a big kick out of correcting all the mix-ups in this book.  I also enjoyed reading it and pretending to be shocked at all the errors. The words are fun to read, but it's the glorious full color illustrations that showcase the silliness in this book.  Combine this with the Fall's Here series of books produced by Lerner for a fun discussion of what makes autumn, autumn.

Read to Me Picture Book Challenge

Watering Level: 13 of 36 completed

Monday, November 21, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Fall's Here series

The Fall's Here series, part of Cloverleaf books, published by Millbrook Press, a division of Lerner Publishing Group, consists of the following six books, all of which I recommend.

Animals in Fall: Preparing for Winter (ISBN: 978-0-7613-8506-6)
Fall Apples: Crisp and Juicy (ISBN: 978-0-7613-8507-3)
Fall Harvests: Bringing in Food (ISBN: 978-0-7613-8508-0)
Fall Leaves: Colorful and Crunchy (ISBN: 978-0-7613-8505-9)
Fall Pumpkins: Orange and Plump (ISBN: 978-0-7613-8509-7)
Fall Weather: Cooler Temperatures (ISBN: 978-0761385103)written by Martha E. H. Rustad, illustrated by Amanda Enright
Millbrook Press, 2012
Grades K-2
Reviewed from personal copies.

Each of these books covers a specific part of the fall season.  Animals is Fall discusses what animals do to prepare for winter including migration, hibernation, and camouflage.  Fall Apples covers the growth and development of apples from the planting of the seed to the harvesting of the crop.  It also mentions some of the different ways that apples are used (pies, cider, etc.).  Fall Harvests presents information about growing and harvesting various kinds of plants such as pumpkins, pecans, corn, and potatoes.  The author covers photosynthesis and harvest festivals as well.  Fall Leaves follows the changes that leaves undergo starting with budding in the spring and changing colors and falling in the fall.  Fall Pumpkins teaches the reader how pumpkins are grown including planting, weeding, and harvesting.  Fall Weather demonstrates the changes that occur in the weather during the fall season and how such changes are measured.

There are a number of things that make this series very good for both educational purposes and pleasure reading.  First, the design is attractive and easy to follow.  The organization works especially well for a teacher who wishes to cover certain aspects of fall in an orderly manner.  I also appreciated the use of a table of contents, glossary, index, and additional resources.  Each book also contains an activity that goes along with the information covered in each book. The second thing I like is the friendly and appealing illustrations.  The illustrations are very child friendly. I also enjoyed the text which is simple enough for younger readers, but also includes side notes for readers who want more information.  The text is written as a narrative which makes for a good read a loud.  I highly recommend this series for all those that want to learn more about fall.  I liked the fact that I learned some things from these books that I did not know previously.  For example, I did not realize that when apple seeds are planted the apples they produce are not the same variety of apple as the seed that was planted. Lots of interesting things to learn in these books.

I did use one of these books with some classes of kindergartners.  I found that the students wanted to stop and share everything they knew about the topic as well as stories about any topic.  Nonfiction seems to trigger this response in children of all ages.

For other great children's nonfiction recommendations, head on over to Books Together for today's Nonfiction Monday.

Read to Me Picture Book Challenge
Watering Level: 12 of 36 Completed

Friday, November 18, 2011

Fantastic Friday: The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright

The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale
written by Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright, drawings by Barry Mose
Peachtree, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-56145-595-4
Grades 3-6
Reviewed from copy received from publisher.

Skilley, an alley cat with an embarrassing secret, longs to escape his hard life dodging fishwives brooms and carriage wheels and trade his damp alley for the warmth of the Cheshire Cheese Inn. When he learns that the innkeeper is looking for a new mouser, Skilley comes up with an audacious scheme to install himself in the famous tavern. Once established in the inn, Skilley strikes a bargain with Pip, the intelligent mouse-resident, and his fellow mice. Skilley protects the mice and the mice in turn give to Skilley the delectable Cheshire cheese of the inn. Thus begins a most unlikely alliance and friendship. The cat and mouse design a plan to restore Maldwyn wounded raven and faithful guard in the service of Queen Victoria to his rightful place in The Tower, but first they must contend with a tyrannical cook, a mouse-despising barmaid, and an evil tomcat named Pinch. Will the famous author suffering from serious writer s block who visits the Cheshire Cheese pub each day be able to help?
I'll say right off the bat that I really enjoyed this book.  I enjoyed the characters, Skilley, the cat who loves cheese but considers it a shameful thing, Pip, the mouse who can read and right, and Maldwyn, the grumpy but duty bound raven. The setting is presented beautifully, the cellar with the marvelous cheese, the kitchen and its dangerous inhabitant Croombs, the edge of the roof where Pip goes when he needs time alone.  The insertion of Dickens and his writer's block, provides an interesting perspective on what is happening within the inn.  Moser's drawings show the emotions of the various characters beautifully.  They add a touch of humor to the drama as well, lightening the mood just a tad. 

The themes presented in the story are integrated naturally in the story.  Themes of friendship, mistakes, fear, forgiveness, and truth permeate the book.  I appreciated most the lesson that Maldwyn teaches Skilley after he betrays Pip's trust. Maldwyn tells him,
"...I am here to tell you that you cannot undo it any more than I can fly back to the Tower on my own and resume my rightful place.  Only worms and insects have no memories of past sins.  And only humans can choose to forget them.  We animals must live with our foolhardy choices....All one can do is own up to the truth." (pg. 119)
Truth, a powerful, and often painful thing to face up to.  I wonder what the world would be like if we humans were more willing to humble ourselves and face up to the truth as Skilley does in this book. A thought well worth discussing. One of my favorite books of the year, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Read to Me Picture Book Challenge: The Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmett

The Princess and the Pig
written by Jonathan Emmett, illustrated by Poly Bernatene
Walker & Company, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8027-2335-2
Grades K-3
Reviewed from library copy.

BLURB: There's been a terrible mix-up in the royal nursery. Priscilla the princess has accidentally switched places with Pigmella, the farmer's new piglet. The kindly farmer and his wife believe it's the work of a good witch, while the ill-tempered king and queen blame the bad witch-after all, this happens in fairy tales all the time! While Priscilla grows up on the farm, poor yet very happy, things don't turn out quite so well for Pigmella. Kissing a frog has done wonders before, but will it work for a pig?

I picked up this book thinking it would be the typical based on fairy tales sort of book.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it is not.  Many princess books, which little girls devour, show only the positive parts of being a princess, the beautiful dresses, the parties, the happily ever afters.  While this book does have a happily ever after for some of the characters, others do not have a happily ever after, which in and of itself is unusual.  The illustrations are darling, full of bright colors, and beautifully compliment the story. I especially liked the way the author and illustrator worked in bits of plot from other fairy tales (the illustrator gives big hints at which stories are being referred to), but the author makes clear that these plot devices don't apply to this story.  The ending I confess made me laugh out loud, it definitely came as a surprise.  But that is all I'm going to say about it.  Go find the book and discover this delightful read for yourself. The students enjoyed it and the surprise as well. Highly recommended.

Note for teachers, the book provides a great take on perspective and point-of-view.  The book would also be great to use for talking about comparing and contrasting.

Read to Me Picture Book Challenge
Watering Level Goal: 12 of 36 completed

Seasons Readings Challenge

I've decided to participate in the Seasons Readings Challenge being hosted by Maestra Amanda's Bookshelf.  I love Christmas books of all kinds, so this is a great chance for me to share my favorites, old and new. The challenge starts on December 1st, but for directions on how to participate see this post.  Basically, all that is required is to read and review books related to the holiday season, as many or few as you want.  I'm going to try to do at least one for every weekday.  Most of the ones I plan to read will be picture books that I will be sharing with my students, most will be Christmas related but some will be Hanukkah and Kwanzaa related. I am looking forward to a great reading season.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

2012 Debut Author Challenge

 I've decided to participate in this year's 2012 Debut Author Challenge hosted by The Story Siren.  I'm excited to get to read at least 12 middle grade or young adult books by author's new to these genres. 

Here is a list of some of the books I'm interested in reading for this challenge.  This is of course just a preliminary list, it will undoubtedly change as the year progresses. I will undoubtedly discover other great debut books to read. Book descriptions and covers are from

 Storybound by Marissa Burt

In the land of Story, children go to school to learn to be characters: a perfect Hero, a trusty Sidekick, even the most dastardly Villain. They take classes on Outdoor Experiential Questing and Backstory, while adults search for full-time character work in stories written just for them.

In our world, twelve-year-old Una Fairchild has always felt invisible. But all that changes when she stumbles upon a mysterious book buried deep in the basement of her school library, opens the cover, and suddenly finds herself transported to the magical land of Story.

But Story is not a perfect fairy tale. Una’s new friend Peter warns her about the grave danger she could face if anyone discovers her true identity. The devious Tale Keeper watches her every move. And there are whispers of a deadly secret that seems to revolve around Una herself.... 

The Cabinet of Earths by Anne Nesbit

All Maya really wants is for her mother to be well again. But when her baby brother James goes missing, 12-year-old Maya has to take on the magical underworld of Paris, in which houses have bronze salamanders for door handles, the most beautiful people are all hooked on the sweet-smelling “anbar,” and a shimmering glass Cabinet of Earths has chosen Maya to be its next keeper. With the Cabinet’s help, Maya may be able to do for her mother what doctors cannot: save her from death, once and for all. But now that the clock is ticking for James, the price the Cabinet demands may be too high.

The Book of Wonders by Jasmine Richards

Magic, Djinn, Ogres, and Sorcerers. Thirteen-year-old Zardi loves to hear stories about fantastical beings, long banned from the kingdom of Arribitha. But anyone caught whispering of their powers will feel the rage of the sultan—a terrifying usurper who, even with his eyes closed, can see all.
When her own beloved sister is captured by the evil ruler, Zardi knows that she must go to any lengths to rescue her. Along with her best friend, Ridhan—a silver-haired, violet-eyed boy of mysterious origins—and an unlikely crew of sailors led by the infamous Captain Sinbad, Zardi ventures forth into strange and wondrous territory with a seemingly impossible mission: to bring magic back to Arribitha and defeat the sultan once and for all.

May B by Caroline Starr Rose

May is helping out on a neighbor's Kansas prairie homestead—just until Christmas, says Pa. She wants to contribute, but it's hard to be separated from her family by 15 long, unfamiliar miles. Then the unthinkable happens: May is abandoned. Trapped in a tiny snow-covered sod house, isolated from family and neighbors, May must prepare for the oncoming winter. While fighting to survive, May's memories of her struggles with reading at school come back to haunt her. But she's determined to find her way home again.
The Vanishing Game by Kate Kae Myers

Jocelyn's twin brother Jack was the only family she had growing up in a world of foster homes-and now he's dead, and she has nothing. Then she gets a cryptic letter from "Jason December"-the code name her brother used to use when they were children at Seale House, a terrifying foster home that they believed had dark powers. Only one other person knows about Jason December: Noah, Jocelyn's childhood crush and their only real friend among the troubled children at Seale House.

But when Jocelyn returns to Seale House and the city where she last saw Noah, she gets more than she bargained for. Turns out the house's powers weren't just a figment of a childish imagination. And someone is following Jocelyn. Is Jack still alive? And if he is, what kind of trouble is he in? The answer is revealed in a shocking twist that turns this story on its head and will send readers straight back to page 1 to read the book in a whole new light.

The Mapmaker and the Ghost by Sarvenaz Tash

Goldenrod Moram loves nothing better than a good quest. Intrepid, curious, and full of a well-honed sense of adventure, she decides to start her own exploring team fashioned after her idols, the explorers Lewis and Clark, and to map the forest right behind her home. This task is complicated, however, by a series of unique events—a chance encounter with a mysterious old lady has her searching for a legendary blue rose. Another encounter lands her in the middle of a ragtag gang of brilliant troublemakers. And when she stumbles upon none other than the ghost of Meriwether Lewis himself, Goldenrod knows this will be anything but an ordinary summer . . . or an ordinary quest.

If Only by Carole Geithner

Corinna's world is crushed after her mother dies of cancer. How does she get through the funeral, trays of ziti, a father who can't comminicate, the first day of school, Mother's Day, people who don't know what to say, and the entire eighth-grade year? Despite her alienation from many of her peers, including her best friend, she succeeds in finding support. She dares to bare her innermost fears, hurts, and wishes, and even allows herself to have a flowering crush on a boy in the school band. She also finds out deep secrets about her mother which she never knew. It's a year that will change Corinna's life forever.

Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood

A Mississippi town in 1964 gets riled when tempers flare at the segregated public pool. As much as Gloriana June Hemphill, or Glory as everyone knows her, wants to turn twelve, there are times when Glory wishes she could turn back the clock a year. Jesslyn, her sister and former confidante, no longer has the time of day for her now that she’ll be entering high school.  Then there’s her best friend, Frankie. Things have always been so easy with Frankie, and now suddenly they aren’t. Maybe it’s the new girl from the North that’s got everyone out of sorts. Or maybe it’s the debate about whether or not the town should keep the segregated public pool open.

Child of the Mountains by Marilyn Sue Shank

Growing up poor in 1953 in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia doesn't bother Lydia Hawkins. She treasures her tight-knit family. There's her loving mama, now widowed; her whip-smart younger brother, BJ, who has cystic fibrosis; and wise old Gran. But everything falls apart after Gran and BJ die and mama is jailed unjustly. Suddenly Lydia has lost all those dearest to her.

Moving to a coal camp to live with her uncle William and aunt Ethel Mae only makes Lydia feel more alone. She is ridiculed at her new school for her outgrown homemade clothes and the way she talks, and for what the kids believe her mama did. And to make matters worse, she discovers that her uncle has been keeping a family secret—about her.

If only Lydia, with her resilient spirit and determination, could find a way to clear her mother's name. 

Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger

Twelve-year-old Sophie has always been different -- she's years ahead of the other kids in school and can read minds. She's always assumed there's some kind of logical explanation for her talents, but when she meets an adorable and mysterious boy, she finds out the shocking truth. She's never felt at home because she, well, ... isn't.

There are secrets buried deep in her memory, secrets about her true identity and why she was hidden among humans, that others desperately want and would even kill for. And she must figure out why she is the key to her brand-new world, before the wrong person finds the answer first.

Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen

Many readers know the tale of Robin Hood, but they will be swept away by this new version full of action, secrets, and romance. Posing as one of Robin Hood’s thieves to avoid the wrath of the evil Thief Taker Lord Gisbourne, Scarlet has kept her identity secret from all of Nottinghamshire. Only the Hood and his band know the truth: the agile thief posing as a whip of a boy is actually a fearless young woman with a secret past. Helping the people of Nottingham outwit the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham could cost Scarlet her life as Gisbourne closes in. It’s only her fierce loyalty to Robin—whose quick smiles and sharp temper have the rare power to unsettle her—that keeps Scarlet going and makes this fight worth dying for.

Remarkable by Elizabeth Foley

10-year-old named Jane Doe, the only "normal" person living in a town called Remarkable that is otherwise full of gifted people, stumbles on a long-buried town secret that leaves her in a position to decide just how remarkable she wants to be.

Lots of fun books to look forward to!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Talk Tuesday: Otis and the Tornado by Loren Long

Otis and the Tornado
written and illustrated by Loren Long
Philomel Books, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-399-25477-2
Grades K-3
Reviewed from personal copy.

Otis the tractor and his farm animal friends love to play follow the leader.  All the animals participate except for the big bull who snorts and growls at anyone (or anything) that gets too close to his pen or pasture.  Otis tries to befriend the beast, but with no luck.  The day a tornado arrives at the farm changes everything.  While the farmer and his family run for the cellar, Otis frantically releases the animals and they flee to the lowest lying land on the farm. When Otis realizes that the bull is not there he is determined to help the animals despite past unkindnesses.

I'll say right off the bat that I am a big fan of Otis.  I fell in love with him the minute I read the first book.  So much so that I ordered the stuffed toy.  I like this book even better than first.  The large, bright illustrations make this book perfect as a read-a-loud.  The picture of the bull does a great job of emphasizing his bigness and grumpiness.  The writing is clear and crisp and great for reading out-loud.  I found it easy to change my tone of voice with the changing emotion of the story.  The second graders I read this to enjoyed it also.  In fact, one class that usually cannot be quiet for any length of time, became silent when I started reading this book.  That to me is the best sign of a great book, when the students become so intently focused on the book. This book has the look and feel of a classic. I will note that some younger children may find the tornado frightening. Highly recommended.

Read to Me Picture Book Challenge
Watering Level Goal : 11 of 36 completed

Monday, November 14, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Wilderness Survival

Stranded! Amy Racina's Story of Survival
written by Tim O'Shei
Capstone Press, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-4296-0088-0
Grades 2-6
Reviewed from personal copy.

Amy Racina set out during the summer of 2003 on a 17-day hike through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  She went alone.  She felt comfortable doing this after developing a love of hiking following her first intense hiking trip with her father and brother in 1972.  Amy stayed on the main hiking trails for the first 11 days of her trip.  Then she decided she wanted more time alone and took to the more rarely used trails.  Unfortunately, she lost the trail and had to cross a steep hill to get back to the trail.  While attempting to accomplish this, the ground fell out from under her and she fell 60 feet.

Amy's injuries were severe, including broken bones and a crushed right knee.  She quickly put on a tourniquet to slow the bleeding and then fixed herself some hot soup to keep herself from succumbing to shock.  Amy decided to try to attempt to get closer to the main trail hoping this would make her easier to find. Her determination to survive helped Amy make good decisions that lead to her survival and rescue.
This book is perfect for reluctant readers.  The story is short but compelling.  The attractive illustrations help the reader visualize what it may have been like to be in the situation Amy is in.  There are also a few photographs taken after she was found.  The students I shared the story with were fascinated and had lots of questions and comments.  For those who prefer more detail, this book is not for you.  There is not a whole lot of detail here, just enough to get the story across.  But what is there is very well done. Recommended.

Better yet, combine it with the following book for a great discussion on surviving in the wilderness.  Both of these books are part of a series.  Stranded is part of Capstone's True Tales of Survival series.  The following book is part of the Prepare to Survive series.

How to Survive in the Wilderness
written by Tim O'Shei
Capstone Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4296-2281-3
Grades 2-6
Reviewed from personal copy.

The wilderness can be a fascinating, exciting place.  Mountains to climb, trees to admire, animals to spot, skills to learn, the wilderness provides many types of enjoyment for many people.  But for someone who is lost, the wilderness can become an obstacle that needs to be overcome.  Unless you are prepared for it, the wilderness can be dangerous.  Under these circumstances, the decisions one makes regarding shelter, food, water, signals, and animals become all important.  This book addresses some of the basic information that can make it easier to not only survive in the wilderness, but to be found as well.

The author covers all the basics, different types of shelter, how to find food and water, how to avoid injury from animals, how to signal for help, how to cross streams/rivers, navigation, and the importance of not panicking.  The experiences of Amy Racina and Brennan Hawkins are briefly highlighted.  There is a table of contents, index, and short list of other books on similar topics.  The book refers the reader the the Fact Hound website for kid-friendly sites on this topic. This is a children's book especially aimed at reluctant readers. As such, the book is short (32 pages) and concise.  The book does only provide basic information.  But I have read other books on this topic and the information here matches that given in more detailed sources. I recommend the book to readers fascinated by or interested in learning about survival in the wilderness.

Check out Nonfiction Monday for more great children's nonfiction. Today it is being hosted by Playing by the Book.

Mix N' Match Monday: Triangle Waist Company Fire of 1911

There are some events that are forever etched in a person's memory.  Some of these events are individual, some of them involve a community.  And some events reside permanently in a country's memory.  These events may be tragedies like September 11th or triumphs like landing on the moon or bringing Apollo 13 home safely.  One such event occurred on March 25, 1911. A building fire. Now fires occur every day, what makes this one unique is the number of lives lost, needlessly lost one might say.  The 146 people (123 of them were girls) who died that day needn't have died if some simple precautions had been taken.  At the time however, laborers had few rights and in fact were treated in many cases like dirt.  The following books take a look at this event and the circumstances that preceded it and what happened afterward.  The first two books I highlight below are nonfiction, the final two are fiction.

Garment workers in the early part of the twentieth century had few rights.  They were paid poorly and treated poorly.  Forced to work twelve or more hours a day for barely a few dollars a week, they were regularly fined for mistakes both real and imagined.  Most of these workers worked in poorly lighted, accident prone environments.  These conditions resulted in workers facing disease, disability, or in some cases, death.  Many workers finally had enough and decided to stand together and form a union.  Leaders from organizations such as the American Federation of Labor, the Women's Trade Union League, as well as various woman's suffrage organizations got involved.  A general strike was called for and thousands of workers walked off the job. After months of negotiations, arrests, beatings, and meetings the strikers received promises of better working conditions, wages, and hours.  Unfortunately, many of the bigger factories soon went back on their word.  Some strikers did not even get their jobs back.  While things improved for some workers, the changes were small.

The Triangle Fire changed the labor movement forever.  The fire is thought to have started in a basket of fabric castoffs, caused by a careless smoker.  Regardless, the conditions on the top three floors of the Asch building where the Triangle factory was located were such that the fire spread rapidly.  Most workers on the eighth floor were able to escape down stairs and the still working elevators.  Most on the tenth floor also escaped by climbing to the roof and across to the neighboring building.  Many on the ninth floor, however, were trapped.  The heat from the fire disabled the elevators.  The fire escape collapsed. And one of the only two sets of stairs were inaccessable because of a locked door.  Some workers were burned to death, others desperate to escape the fire, chose to jump out the windows.  The firefighters were unable to assist, their ladders were too short and the height of the building too much.  All who jumped died on impact. This all occurred in only a half an hour.

The families of those who died received no real compensation and the owners of the factory were not found guilty of neglect.  The horror of the event did lead to governmental investigations into factory conditions and new laws being passed requiring fire drills and other safety practices to be implemented.

We Stand as One: The International Ladies Garment Workers Strike, New York, 1909
written by Laura B. Edge

Twenty-First Century Books, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-7613-4609-8
Grades 9 and up
Reviewed from personal copy.

This book covers the beginning of the large strike and the dangers that led to the strike in the first place. The fire is touched on in the last chapter, detailing the facts and the results.  The writing is superb and well organized.  The great writing creates a vivid and tension-filled account of an important time in U.S. history. The photographs really add to the presentation.  There are quotes from individuals involved in the strike.  Generally the quotes and experiences shared come from the better educated and wealthy individuals who got involved, which makes sense since they were better educated and more likely to be interviewed in the newspapers.  A great resource on the power of unity and women and an important time in U.S. history that still resonates today.

Flesh & Blood so Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy 
by Albert Marrin
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-375-86889-4
Grades 7 and up
Reviewed from personal copy.

 In this National Book Award Finalist, Marrin provides a thorough overview of the conditions and events that lead up to and contributed to the Triangle Waist Company fire.  He also discusses what happened afterwords and how it might have been prevented.  He goes on to highlight the fact that such sweatshops and factories are still with us today, both inside and outside the United States.  He makes it clear that the labor movement is far from over. He also looks at both sides of the issue, those who support such shops and those who do not. This can leave the impression that sweatshops do have a place in society, but I don't think that is what he was trying to say.  I believe he was just showing why people work in such factories and shops.  I did find it a bit jarring to leap from the early 1900s all the way to present day.  It would have been nice to have more information on what happened in between the two time periods.  I appreciated the numerous quotes and stories of real people who were there.  In fact the most powerful part of this book are the quotes from eyewitnesses.  

written by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-4169-1171-5
Grades 7 and up
Reviewed from personal copy.

One of the nice things about fiction is that it allows the writer to insert emotion and depth into the story they are telling.  Haddix does a great job of that in this book.  The story follows three young women living in New York in 1911, whose lives slowly intertwine. Jane is the daughter of a wealthy businessman and has been sheltered and pampered her whole life, but she finds going to tea parties and wearing fancy clothes does not satisfy her.  When she finds out about the garment workers strike it catches her attention. Eventually she runs away and finds out what life is really like for the garment workers.  Yetta and her sister, Rahel, are both garment workers involved in the strike.  They are immigrants from Russia trying to save enough money to help their families come to the United States.  Yetta stands firmly with the strikers even when it results in beatings and arrest.  Bella is a recent immigrant from Italy, come to the United States to earn money to save her family from starvation.  Only when she meets Yetta and Jane does she start to understand that there are some things worth fighting and sacrificing for.  All three girls are caught up in the fire.  What makes this book so powerful I think is how real each of these characters becomes.  It is easy to visualize each of the three girls very distinctly.  The setting is so real one can almost see the crowds and smell the sewage.

Threads and Flames
by Esther Friesner
Viking, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-670-01245-9
Grades 7 and up
Reviewed from personal copy. 

While not quite as emotionally  powerful as Haddix's Uprising, Friesner still creates characters and setting that are believable.  I became quite attached to Raisa, Brina, Gavrel, and the rest.  Raise comes to America to escape her Jewish Shtetl.  She plans to meet up with her sister, Henda, in New York.  But when she gets there with a young girl she has taken under her wing, she finds her sister missing.  Frantically, Raisa looks for her sister, but first she must find a place to live and a job to support herself and Brina.  She meets Gavrel, a garment worker and a rabbi in training.  She moves in with his family and finally finds work in a sweatshop.  With her dreams of an education and finding her sister, Raisa must find a way past the terrible conditions and mind-numbing, exhausting work at the Triangle Waist Company.  And then the fire occurs and the life Raisa's has dreamed about hangs in the balance.  Friesner does a fine job telling Raisa's story.

All four of these books provide a look at a time period that has heavily influenced not only the position of labor unions but the status of women. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Fantasy Friday: 43 Old Cemetery Road by Kate Klise

43 Old Cemetery Road (series)
written by Kate Klise, illustrated by M. Sarah Klise
Harcourt Children's Books, 2009-2011
Grades 2-5
Reviewed from personal copies.

This series revolves around the experiences of three characters, Ignatius B. Grumply, a famous author of children's books, Seymour Hope, an 11-year old boy who has been abandoned by his parents and his cat, Shadow, and Olive C. Spence, an unpublished author and resident ghost.  Book one, Dying to Meet You, begins with Ignatius looking for a house to rent for the summer while he wrestles with writing a new children's book in his Ghost Tamers series.  Unfortunately, or so Ignatius thinks, he discovers that the house that he rents has other residents, namely Seymour and his friend Olive.  Ignatius becomes increasingly frustrated with what he believes is Seymour's pranks and references to his ghost friend, Olive.  But when Olive inserts herself into his increasingly frantic efforts to overcome his writer's block, he is forced to admit there is more to this house on 43 Old Cemetery Road then meets the eye.

Book two, Over My Dead Body, finds Seymour Hope, placed in an orphanage after it is discovered he is not living with his parents, Ignatius ends up in an insane asylum because of his recurring references to a ghost, and Olive must find a way to get her new found family back together, before Seymour's parents return to claim their son.

In Book three, Till Death Do Us Bark, Seymour runs away after being told by both Ignatius and Olive that he can't keep the dog that followed him home from the grocery store.  Ignatius and Olive clash over the dog and the disappearance of Shadow, the cat.  It seems the unusual family may not last.  The death of a local citizen who happens to be a millionaire adds mystery to the story.

Things I like about this series:
  • the humor--with the variety of interesting names that Klise comes up with, the reader can't help but smile (examples include: Anita Sale, a real estate agent, Paige Turner, Ignatius's publisher, Les and Diane Hope, Seymour's Parents, etc.)
  • the format--the story is told through brief newspaper articles, letters, memos, Seymour's drawings, lists, and various other documents (I love this kind of format)
  • plot--rather nonsensical plotting makes for an entertaining light read
Things I don't like quite so well:
  • plot--plot twists and turns that are not very believable or even possible 
  • don't really work as read-a-louds
  • shortness--the stories are too short for me :)
Overall, a fun series for those willing to suspend belief and just enjoy the humor, wordplay, and affection between the characters. Recommended.  Other books by the Klise sisters include:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Read to Me Picture Book Challenge: Billy & Milly Short & Silly by Eve B. Feldman

Billy & Milly Short & Silly
written by Eve B. Feldman, pictures by Tuesday Mourning
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-399-24651-7
Grades K-2
Reviewed from personal copy.

Follow Billy and Milly through thirteen adventures in these funny and simple short stories. Through very basic storytelling, these brief narratives are told in only three or four words apiece. For example, "Stoops (Billy and Milly sit on their front stoops as the ice cream truck drives by.), Hoops (Billy shoots his basketball...), Scoops ( Milly licks her ice cream cone...), Oops (...until the ball hits the cone and squashes her ice cream!)."
I used this book last week with my first and second grade students as an introduction to story elements.  I explained to them that to be a story there needs to be at least three things: characters, setting, and plot.  The short stories in this book worked perfectly to emphasize my point that a story doesn't need to have 100 pages to be a story.  By the time I got to the last story, the students were reading the words with me (a clear sign of engagement).  Whenever a book captures the attention of my often restless first and second graders, I am always relieved.  Not every book is a success after all.  But this is a book that I will definitely use again.  Maybe next time I'll work with the students and see if we can come up with short stories of our own.

One of things that makes this book work so well is the way the illustrations and the words compliment each other perfectly.  Since each story is only three or four words, the illustrations become a vital part of helping the students see the story.  Mourning's illustrations do this perfectly. I also appreciated the organization of some of the stories, where the story starts on one double page spread, but finished on the next page.  This allowed me to ask the students where they thought the story was going (prediction), another important skill for young readers to develop.  The design of the book (short stories, few words) makes this a great book for struggling readers as well. Highly recommended for teachers to use with their students or for private reading time.

Read to Me Picture Book Challenge:

Watering Goal: 10 books completed
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