Friday, July 29, 2011

Fantastic Friday: The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann

The Unwanteds
by Lisa McMann
Aladdin, 2011.
To be released on August 30, 2011.
Grades 4-8
Reviewed from copy received through Giveaway hosted by Charlotte's Library.

Book blurb:
Every year in Quill, thirteen-year-olds are sorted into categories: the strong, intelligent Wanteds go to university, and the artistic Unwanteds are sent to their deaths. Thirteen-year-old Alex tries his hardest to be stoic when his fate is announced as Unwanted, even while leaving behind his twin, Aaron, a Wanted. Upon arrival at the destination where he expected to be eliminated, however, Alex discovers a stunning secret—behind the mirage of the "death farm" there is instead a place called Artime.  In Artime, each child is taught to cultivate their creative abilities and learn how to use them magically, weaving spells through paintbrushes and musical instruments. Everything Alex has ever known changes before his eyes, and it's a wondrous transformation. But it's a rare, unique occurrence for twins to be separated between Wanted and Unwanted, and as Alex and Aaron's bond stretches across their separation, a threat arises for the survival of Artime that will pit brother against brother in an ultimate, magical battle.
I am not a big fan of dystopia novels, most of them seem really dark and depressing,  But this year I've read two very good ones.  The first Blood Red Road is definitely young adult and is rather depressing, but the strength of the characters and the gripping plot make it hard to put down, if you can get past the way the narrator speaks.  The second dystopia book is the one I'm reviewing today and I have to admit, it's going on my favorites shelf.  Here's why.

I loved the characters.  McMann's characterizations are superb.  An author who can create characters so vividly that the reader almost feels like their friends is talented indeed.  The 'bad' characters create a mix of empathy and distaste, while the 'good' characters, especially Alex create a feeling of empathy and friendship.  At a couple of places in the book, I cried because the connection was so strong.  I appreciated the adult mentor, Mr. Today.  He reminds me of Dumbledore in Harry Potter.  He mentors Alex and all the students at Artime, but as a reader you know that he won't be around for always and he's trying to prepare the others for that day.

The plot starts a bit slowly at the beginning, but that is because the author needs to build a world and set the stage for what is coming.  McMann does a great job of this creating both a world that no one would want to visit (Quill) and a world that everyone would want to visit (Artime).  The contrast between the two highlights the difference between what is real and what we choose to believe is real.  The plot starts building from the page where Mr. Today lets the students know that conflict with Quill is a likely possibility and each of the characters must face their own weaknesses.  I appreciated the fact that not all the loose ends were tied up at the end.  As in real life, some things can not be fixed, and change takes time.  Highly recommended for those who love a gripping story and characters that you can't help but care about.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Extra Book Review: Mermaid Mysteries

Rosa and the Water Pony (Mermaid Mysteries, Book 1)
by Katy Kit, illustrated by Tom Knight
Albert Whitman & Company, 2011.
Grades K-2
Reviewed from ARC provided by publisher through NetGalley.

Book blurb:

The mermaid friends are excited about Mermaid Bay's annual carnival where the best performance wins a beautiful pearl necklace! Rosa uses magic to create a pony out of water, and she plans to perform amazing tricks on its back. But just before the carnival begins, the magical water pony is stolen. Who is trying to sabotage the friends' performance--and why? (Goodreads.com)

This is a cute book, aimed at readers just ready to start reading chapter books.  I think the chapters could have been a little shorter for this particular age group, but that is a minor quibble.  The illustrations are cute and perfect for beginning readers, balancing out the text nicely. The biggest problem I had with this book was the shallowness of the story and the blandness of the characters.  However, I don't think the girls who this series is aimed at will notice either of those things, they will simply be thrilled to have a mermaid book to read.  Mermaids are almost as popular at my school as princesses and fairies.  It will be nice to have something to hand them when they ask for mermaid books.  Strangely enough, there aren't a lot of mermaid books for this age group.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Wild & Wonderful Wednesday: The Year of the ...

The Year of the Dog & The Year of the Rat
by Grace Lin
Little, Brown & Company, 2006 & 2008
Grades 2-4
Reviewed from purchased copies.

Book blurbs:
It's the Chinese Year of the Dog!  When Pacy's Mom tells here that this is a good year for friends, family and "finding herself," Pacy begins searching right away.  As the year goes on, she struggles to find her talent, deals with disappointment, makes a new best friend, and discovers just why the year of the dog is a lucky one for her after all.
Pacy has another big year in story for her.  The Year of the Dog was a very lucky year: She met her best friend, Melody, and discovered her true talents.  However, the Year of the Rat brings big changes: Pacy must deal with the possibility of Melody moving away, find the courage to forge on with her dream of becoming a writer and illustrator, and learn to face some of her own flaws in the process.  Along the way, Pacy encounters prejudice, struggles with acceptance, and find the beauty in change.
As realistic/contemporary fiction, these books portray the experiences of a Taiwanese-American girl, who struggles with the same sorts of things that many children do.  Things such as friends, school, and family are very important in Pacy's life.  What I enjoyed most about these books was the Taiwanese cultural traditions that Pacy and her family practiced and how they were and were not integrated with American cultural traditions (such as turkey at Thanksgiving).  The writing is easy and comfortable and the little illustrations throughout add a nice touch.  Recommended for those who enjoy realistic stories but also learning about another culture along the way.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Book Talk Tuesday: Troublemaker by Andrew Clements

Troublemaker
by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Mark Elliott
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, 2011.
Grades 2-6
Reviewed from e-galley provided by publisher.

Andrew Clements has long been known for his prowess in writing school stories.  I've read many of the books that he has written for the elementary crowd and liked all of them.  I liked some more than others of course, but still he is remarkably consistent.  Here's the blurb for his newest:
There’s a folder in Principal Kelling’s office that’s as thick as a phonebook and it’s growing daily. It’s filled with the incident reports of every time Clayton Hensley broke the rules. There’s the minor stuff like running in the hallways and not being where he was suppose to be when he was supposed to be there. But then there are also reports that show Clay’s own brand of troublemaking, like the most recent addition: the art teacher has said that the class should spend the period drawing anything they want and Clay decides to be extra “creative” and draw a spot-on portrait of Principal Kellings…as a donkey.  It’s a pretty funny joke, but really, Clay is coming to realize that the biggest joke of all may be on him. When his big brother, Mitchell, gets in some serious trouble, Clay decides to change his own mischief making ways…but he can’t seem to shake his reputation as a troublemaker.(Goodreads.com)
One of the things that I especially love about working at an elementary school is the variety of children I get to meet.  This can be both enjoyable and incredibly frustrating, but never boring, and I learn as much from them as they do from me (hopefully).  Clay is one of those students who is more than capable of doing well in school, but chooses not to.  In Clay's case, his admiration for his older brother, leads him into mischief, including the donkey drawing of his principal.  When Mitchell returns home changed, Clay is naturally confused and angry, he doesn't see any need to change.  But as Clay struggles to change and slowly realizes that one's reputation is not easily repaired, he starts to realize that his choices have consequences, sometimes serious ones.

Now, I admit, the story does seem a bit oversimplified.  In real life, changing one's behavior can be and often is very challenging and doesn't happen over night.  But I think Clements makes his point, that the choices we make follow us as we travel down life's road.  I can think of more than a few students whose behavior could lead them down some very painful roads and it makes me sad.  The writing is good, typical Clements, and the illustrations provide a nice compliment.  Recommended for readers who like a good school story.

Book Talk Tuesday is hosted by Lemme Library, head on over for some great book talks.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: National Geographic Readers

I'll admit right off the bat, that I'm a member of the National Geographic Society and as such tend to really like the stuff they produce.  But the fact is that a lot of the books they produce are very well done, both in terms of writing and photography/illustration.  Plus, their books usually include maps and I love a good map.  Another one of my pet peeves is when a story involves a journey of a some kind and their is no map to help organize all the different places.  After I read the Lord of the Rings the first time, I went out and found a map, it was just to confusing otherwise.

Sea Turtles (National Geographic Readers)
by Laura Marsh
National Geographic, 2011.
Grades 1-3
Reviewed from purchased copy.

This book gives general information about sea turtles, where and how they live, the different types of turtles, and why they are endangered.  I confess, I didn't really think that I would learn anything new from this book, after all it is for beginning readers, but I did learn some cool new things.  For example, the leatherback turtle is not only the biggest sea turtle species (up to 7 feet long), but it doesn't have a hard shell, just rubbery skin with small bones underneath.  Here are some of the things that I loved about this book:
  • The book starts with a riddle, a perfect way to introduce the book (you'll need to hide the cover to do this). 
  • There are fun riddles/jokes throughout the book (kids love riddles and jokes).
  • The bright, clear illustrations match the text perfectly.
  • The captions that identify the kind of turtle in each photograph.
  • The glossary that defines key words and shows a picture to help the reader understand each term.
  • A fill-in-the-blank paragraph at the end that helps students use the new vocabulary.
I highly recommend this book and others in the series for students who love animals, jokes, and cool facts to share.  Here are some other titles in the series:



Visit Nonfiction Monday for some other great nonfiction titles for kids.  Today it's being hosted by Check it Out.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Fantastic Friday: The Mostly True Story of Jack

The Mostly True Story of Jack
by Kelly Barnhill
Little Brown & Company, 2011
Grades 3 and up
Reviewed from ARC provided by publisher.

When Jack is sent to Hazelwood, Iowa, to live with his crazy aunt and uncle, he expects a summer of boredom. Little does he know that the people of Hazelwood have been waiting for him for a long time. . . .
When he arrives, three astonishing things happen: First, he makes friends-not imaginary friends but actual friends. Second, he is beaten up by the town bully; the bullies at home always ignored him. Third, the richest man in town begins to plot Jack's imminent, and hopefully painful, demise. It's up to Jack to figure out why suddenly everyone cares so much about him. Back home he was practically, well, invisible. (Goodreads.com)
 When I started reading this book, I was impressed with two things.  First, the writing was excellent, it flowed smoothly allowing the reader to focus on the story rather than the writing.  Second, the story was kind of weird and I'm not really into weird, many of the kids I work with are into weird but I'm not.  So I was tempted to put the book down and go onto something else.  But then I decided that wasn't fair, especially since the book had been mentioned as a Newbery contender by one of my favorite bloggers, A Fuse #8 Production.  And I also have a hard time putting a book down without finishing it, I know that's silly, but that's the way I am.  So I finished the book.

The plot line is definitely unique, I can't say I've read another book like it, ever (and I've read hundreds of books in my lifetime).  I was really impressed at the way that Barnhill slowly revealed bits and pieces of the puzzle, which kind of makes the book a mystery, but it doesn't really feel like one.  This would be a great book to hand to kids who want a mystery, but not a formulaic one. 

Being a geography fan, setting is something I pay a great deal of attention to.  Here, once again, Barnhill excels.  The reader quickly gets a feel for this town that is in some ways like any other small town, but in other ways very unique.  Here's an example,
It was an old wooden farmhouse with a large porch, wide windows, and a small round porthole at the roof's peak.  And it was purple.  A deep, rich purple so intense it almost seemed to vibrate.  Jack squinted.  The front door was bright green and the trim of each window was painted a different color: red, yellow, orange, and blue.
You have to admit, that is a very intriguing description of the house that Jack comes to stay in.  The reader realizes almost immediately that this is an unusual house.  Barnhill has taken the regular world around us and given it a very interesting twist.

The characters I had a hard time with at first.  Jack, who has spent most of his life being semi-invisible, has little interest in this new place or the people who live there, at least not at first.  I found this hard to relate to, probably because I find the world a fascinating place.  But slowly as I read, I realized that Jack was doing what many of us do when faced with changes that shake the very foundations of everything we though we knew.  He was trying to ignore it.  Of course, he eventually realizes the futility of this. 

As I continued to read, I also began to connect with the other characters, Wende, the girl who is so determined to find out everything she can so she can protect those she loves.  Frankie, the boy with the scars, both inside and out, whom everyone underestimates.  Interestingly, I also started to feel compassion for the 'villain' of the story and his bully son.  There aren't a lot of books, where I feel sorry for the villain.  This happens to be one of them.

It turns out that this is one of the best books I've read this year and definitely worthy of Newbery consideration.  I highly recommend it for all who enjoy interesting characters, an interesting setting, and a willingness to accept the weird.  I'm thinking I might try it as a read-a-loud. There is certainly much that is worthy of discussion.

Here are some other reviews for you to check out:

Book Aunt
Publishers Weekly
The Boy Reader

And if you need a good laugh, check out Kelly Barnhill's blog.  If you need something to make your eyes pop out, check out this. Wow!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Read- a- Loud Thursday: The Trouble with Chickens

There are certain kinds of books that I especially love to read out loud.  While I love books that have characters from other countries and by extension, accents, I am not very good at accents and I find it really difficult to be consistent with them, so I usually don't bother.  What I can do well, is emotion, anger, fear, confusion, etc.  So when I find a book that has a lot of emotion of one kind or another, I like to look at it as a possible read-a-loud.  When I heard about this book I immediately thought it might be a possible read-a-loud.

The Trouble with Chickens: A J.J. Tully Mystery
by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Kevin Cornell
Balzer & Bray, 2011
Grades 1-3
Reviewed from purchased copy.
J.J. Tully is a former search-and-rescue dog who is trying to enjoy his retirement after years of performing daring missions saving lives. So he’s not terribly impressed when two chicks named Dirt and Sugar (who look like popcorn on legs) and their chicken mom show up demanding his help to track down their missing siblings. Driven by the promise of a cheeseburger, J.J. begins to track down clues. Is Vince the Funnel hiding something? Are there dark forces at work—or is J.J. not smelling the evidence that’s right in front of him? (Goodreads.com)
The strength of this book is the characters.  Tully, the former search-and-rescue dog turned detective, narrates the story.  His names for the chickens are oddly appropriate (Moosh, the mom, Dirt, and Sugar for the chicks).  The point-of-view of the story makes it good for a read-a-loud.  And while the villain is not hard to identify, there is lots of fun to be had using different voices to match the illustrations and tone of the story.

Plot wise there were enough twists and turns to keep me reading, but as other reviewers have mentioned the book is a spoof off of old detective shows and as such has more humor than tension.  While the book is certainly not for everyone, I think that I will try it with my second or third graders and see if they like it.

Here are some other reviews:

A Patchwork of Books
Bookends
Jean Little Library
5 Minutes for Books

And here's a review with the author, Doreen Cronin.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wild & Wonderful Wednesday: Which genre is it?

More and more books these days are combining genres.  You have historical fiction with science fiction or fantasy (Leviathan by Scott Westerfield), humor and mystery (The Trouble with Chickens by Doreen Cronin), or animal and realistic (Young Fredle by Cynthia Voigt). It's fun to see the many different ways that authors are finding of telling stories.  On the other hand, it makes it harder to teach genres because there is so much crossover in the books being published. I guess what it comes down to is helping the students learn to step out of their reading comfort zone and try something new once in a while.  I try to do this myself and I have discovered some new favorites (more about this is coming posts).  So, when I came across Ghost Messages, I was intrigued. 

Ghost Messages
by Jacqueline Guest
Coteau Books for Kids, 2011
Grades 3-6
Reviewed from purchased copy.

Thirteen-year-old Ailish, a feisty Irish fortune teller, is about to become part of history.  She becomes trapped on the mighty Great Eastern just as the ship sets off on its voyage to lay the very first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable.  Escape is impossible!

Ailish must pretend to be a boy to keep from being pitched into the ocean by the superstitious sailors, while dodging a dangerous ruffian who has stolen her golden treasure.  She frequently gets help from a pale young boy named Davy, who seems to know everything about the Great Eastern, but won't ever come up on deck.  

Will Ailish's wits, her determination, and her friendships help her to survive the trip, find her treasure and solve the mystery of her young companion?

That blurb from the book caught my interest.  The book was clearly historical fiction, but there seemed to a hint of the supernatural as well.  As a rule, I don't really like ghost stories, but the historical aspects sounded intriguing and the event (laying of the first trans-Atlantic cable) was not one I had read about before, so I picked it up and read it. 

There is indeed a supernatural aspect to this story, but interestingly it is the conflict between Ailish and the ruffian that takes center stage and moves the plot along.  At the same time, the author does a fabulous job of recreating the setting of the ship at sea and the process of laying the cable.  It was interesting to follow the development of Ailish's interest in the ship and the cable.  At first, she only cares about getting her treasure back, but as she observes the work and befriends one of the workers, she comes to care very much about history-making event of which she is inadvertently a part.

In some historical fiction books, the history can overwhelm the story, and I was afraid that might happen here, but it doesn't.  In fact, the book moves along at a good clip, as Ailish with the help of a shipmate and her new mysterious friend Davy tries to find a way to foil the ruffian's plans.  I liked the fact that Ailish doesn't just use her supernatural gifts but also her brain to defeat her enemy.  I love books where the heroine doesn't sit around waiting to be rescued, and Ailish fits the description to a tee.  I also loved the fact that the title of the book has more than one meaning in the story, I thought that was clever.  Highly recommended for those who enjoy great historical fiction with a large dash of adventure, and a small dash of the supernatural.

Note: for those interested in a SKYPE Author Visit with Laurel Snyder, whose new book, Bigger Than a Bread Box is coming out soon, head on over to her website and check it out.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book Talk Tuesday: Princess Posey

Princess Posey and the First Grade Parade
by Stephanie Greene, illustrated by Stephanie Roth Sisson
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2010
Grades K-2
Reviewed from purchased copy.

Posey is really nervous about starting first grade. Instead of getting walked to her classroom, her mom has to drop her off at the Kiss-and-Go Lane. Then she'll have to walk into school and face the Monster of the Blue Hall all by herself. Worst of all, she has to do it without the one thing that always makes her feel brave and special: the tutu that turns her into the Pink Princess. But when Posey inspires her new teacher to throw a first-day parade in which all the kids are invited to wear whatever makes them feel the most comfortable, first grade starts to look a lot more promising. (Goodreads.com)
Princess Posey and the Perfect Present
by Stephanie Greene, illustrated by Stephanie Roth Sisson
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011
Grades K-2 
Reviewed from purchased copy.
 Posey loves first grade, her two new best friends, and, most of all, her teacher Miss Lee. When Miss Lee announces that her birthday is the next day, Posey can hardly wait to give her the pink home grown roses from her backyard. But when her friend brings Miss Lee a big bouquet from a florist, Posey feels like her present isn't special enough. What's the Pink Princess to do? (Goodreads.com)
This series makes a great introduction to chapter books for kids in 1st grade. As a librarian, I am always looking for books that make the transition from early readers to chapter books a fun experience, and these books fit the bill. The illustrations do a fine job of breaking up the text, so it is not so intimidating to read. And the smooth writing makes for a great read-a-loud. I plan to use these with my upcoming first graders.

While these books seem to be girly books, Posey does like to pretend she is a princess after all, but there is much that boys can relate to as well, such as being teased and facing fears.  The questions for discussion at the back of the first book provide a nice way to get kids talking and the craft at the end of the second book is perfect for girls reading on their own to attempt (a magic wand).  Highly recommended for students who are ready for chapter books and a character they can relate to. (I doubt however, that many boys will pick these up on their own, the titles and covers are definitely aimed at girls.)

For other reviews check out NC Teacher Stuff, South Sound Book Review Council, Readatouille, and Jean Little Library, here and here.

Visit Book Talk Tuesday for more great book ideas.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: Ida Lewis

Picture book biographies have a difficult task.  They must take the life of a person and condense it into only a few words and pictures.  This is challenging in that people are complex, motivations and feelings can be hard to explain to a picture book audience in a way that they understand.  Marissa Moss does an excellent job in her newest book.

The Bravest Woman in America
by Marissa Moss, illustrated by Andrea U'Ren
Tricycle Press, 2011.
Grades K-3
Reviewed from purchased copy.

Ida Lewis loved everything about the sea, so when her father became the official keeper of Lime Rock Lighthouse in Newport, Rhode Island, she couldn't imagine anything better. Throughout the years, Ida shadowed her father as he tended the lighthouse, listening raptly to his stories about treacherous storms, drowning sailors, and daring rescues. Under her father's watchful eye, she learned to polish the lighthouse lens so the light would shine bright. She learned to watch the sea for any sign of trouble. And, most importantly, she learned to row. Ida felt ready for anything and she was. (Goodreads.com)

Moss does a great job of introducing us to Ida, whose greatest passion is the ocean, in all its forms.  Her eagerness is demonstrated through her determination to learn to row the boat that takes her father out to the island to check the lighthouse. It would have been nice to have a bibliography, but the author's note is adequate. U'Ren's illustrations beautifully compliment Moss's descriptions by showing the reader Ida's love of the sea and her determination to do whatever it took to help her father run the lighthouse.  I love how Moss shows us Ida's determination and courage in gradually taking over the lighthouse keeping duties and rescuing people in trouble. 

I found U'Ren's illustrations interesting.  The use of ink and watercolor works well.  I thought the use of outline especially effective in showing the solid shapes of people, land, and things, and the lack of outline on the ocean gives the reader a sense of the wildness and openness of the ocean. The use of framed illustrations provides a feeling of solidity and safety after the dangers of the ocean.   All in all, I'd say this is one of my favorites this year.   I look forward to sharing it with my students.

Check out Nonfiction Monday, a weekly listing of children's nonfiction, for more great nonfiction recommendations.  Today's host is Chapter Book of the Day.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wild and Wonderful Wednesday: Gary D. Schmidt

 I am delighted today to highlight one of my favorite writers.  Gary D. Schmidt not only has a remarkable way with words, but his characters almost seem to leap from his books they are so real.  I first came across his books when I picked up Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, which won a Newbery honor.  I was stunned at the power of his words.  For those of you who haven't read it, the story revolves around Turner, the son of a minister, who befriends an African American girl who lives on an island off the coast of Turner's hometown and struggles to live up to his father's expectations.  Unfortunately, this friendship causes trouble for Turner and his family and he has to decide where he will stand. A very thought-provoking book about discrimination, courage, friendship, and family. 

Another book of Schmidt's that I loved is The Wednesday WarsHolling Hoodhood is the only student in his seventh-grade class who doesn't go to religion classes on Wednesday afternoons, as a result his teacher, Mrs. Baker has to come up with something for him to do.  At first, she has him help clean the classroom and the chalk board erasers, but finally she sets him to reading The Merchant of Venice, one of Shakespeare's plays.  Holling starts out believing his teacher hates him, but gradually learns otherwise.  Holling also deals with struggles regarding his family and friends and bullies.  Another book that leaves a strong impression and a character the reader can really connect with.

 The book I especially want to highlight today though, is Schmidt's newest book, Okay for Now.
 Okay for Now
by Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion Books, 2011.
Grades 5 and up
Reviewed from purchased copy.
Midwesterner Gary D. Schmidt won Newbery Honor awards for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boys and The Wednesday Wars, two coming-of-age novels about unlikely friends finding a bond. Okay For Now, his latest novel, explores another seemingly improbable alliance, this one between new outsider in town Doug Swieteck and Lil Spicer, the savvy spitfire daughter of his deli owner boss. With her challenging assistance, Doug discovers new sides of himself. Along the way, he also readjusts his relationship with his abusive father, his school peers, and his older brother, a newly returned war victim of Vietnam. (Goodreads.com)
This book has received a lot of hype this year in regards to the Newbury, so I was eager to read it myself.  And I quickly realized why there has been so much talk.  The book is told in first person, as was The Wednesday Wars, which is perfect because it allows the reader to see and understand why Doug does and says the things he does.  If the books was told from a third person point-of-view, the book would not be as powerful as it is.  The writing suits a thirteen-year-old with a somewhat limited vocabulary, who has learned to hide his true self because of his difficult home life and the assumptions people make based solely on his appearance and family.  The inclusion of Audobon's paintings is a wonderful touch, as the reader gets a glimpse of how art can be seen in many different ways and how artists make deliberate choices about style and organization in order to influence the viewer.

As always, Schmidt's characterizations are spot on.  The book is like an emotional roller coaster, as the reader vicariously experiences the ups and downs of Doug's life.  There were times I cried.  Times I was so angry I wanted to jump into the book and face off with one of the characters who refuse to give Doug a chance (the principal and the coach, especially).  Then there is Lil, who is willing to give Doug a chance, and Mr. Powell who tutors Doug in his drawing, and Mr. Ferris and Miss Cowper who encourage Doug to let his talents shine.  I love books with good adult mentors.  They are so important in children's lives, especially when the children don't get that at home.

All in all, this book is definitely one of my favorites this year and tops of my list of Newbery hopefuls.  Highly recommended as both a class read-a-loud and a story for teachers to read for themselves. I'm going to go read Schmidt's book Trouble now, the one book of Schmidt's that I haven't read yet.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: How They Croaked

How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous
by Georgia Bragg, illustrated by Kevin O'Malley
Walker and Company, 2011
Grades 4-8
Reviewed from my school library copy.

I debated for quite some time about whether to read this book.  There is after all a warning at the beginning that the book contains "the blood, sweat, and guts of real people."  And I've never been one for grossness.  But in the end I decided that in order to share it with my students, many of whom I knew would be fascinated by this book, I needed to read it.

This book specifically looks at the lives (briefly) and unpleasant 'ends' of some of the worlds most famous people.  Included are King Tut, Cleopatra, Henry VIII, Pocahontas, George Washington, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Darwin, etc.  I confess that I didn't really expect to learn anything new.  I love history and most of the people Bragg talks about are well-known.  But I did learn things that surprised me.  For example, I had no idea that Charles Dickens struggled with mental illness or that Albert Einstein's brain was stolen from his body before it was cremated.  And I seriously had to wince reading the details of Christopher Columbus's numerous physical maladies.

This books is definitely not for the squeamish, but Bragg's light-hearted take on the subject keeps things moving while convincing the modern reader to be very grateful for modern medicine.  For example, George Washington came down with what modern doctor's think was a throat infection that today could be cured by antibiotics.  But his doctors used the following 'remedies,' bloodletting (numerous times, they took over a third of his blood), blister-beetle treatment (you don't want to know!), a dose of calomel (contains mercury, which is highly poisonous, tartar emetic (to make him vomit), and a variety of different poultices.  No wonder he died!

Kevin O'Malley's illustrations provide a nice compliment to Bragg's style of writing and the sidebars provide extra tidbits of information.  For example, did you know that July, Julian Calendar, Roman leaders, Czar, Kaiser, and C-section were all named after Julius Caesar.  Also the first known autopsy was performed on Caesar.  One would doubt the need for that because with 23 stab wound, the cause of death should be obvious, but it turns out that only ONE of the wounds was actually fatal.  Apparently the assassins need to work on their aim.

I'm going to stop here because I wouldn't want to deprive you of the 'delights' of reading this book for yourself.  Even if it doesn't work for you, I guarantee that someone in your life will be delighted to read it and share all the cool facts they learn with you! :)

Other reviews may be found at:  NPR, Practically Paradise, Bookends, and The Book Maven's Haven.

Also head on over to proseandkahn for today's Nonfiction Monday round-up.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Fantastic Friday: Animal Fantasy

I like animal stories as a rule, whether realistic like Jim Kjelgaard's dog stories or humorous like Dick King-Smith's or fantasy like Brian Jacque's Redwall series or The Mistmantle Chronicles by M. I. McAllister or TumTum and Nutmeg by Emily Bearn.  I could go on and on.  Obviously I am not the only one who likes these kind of stories, because they keep getting published.  One thing I find interesting and ironic, is the prevalence of  mice as main characters in many of these kind of books (Redwall, TumTum and Nutmeg, Ralph S. Mouse, A Mouse Called Wolf, Bless this Mouse, Mouse Guard, etc.) yet in the real world, few of us are thrilled to see a mouse. The book I'm reviewing today is, of course, about a mouse.  But this book combines both realism and fantasy.

Young Fredle
by Cynthia Voigt
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
Grades 3-6
Reviewed from purchased copy.

Fredle is an earnest young fellow suddenly cast out of his cozy home behind the kitchen cabinets—into the outside. It's a new world of color and texture and grass and sky. But with all that comes snakes and rain and lawnmowers and raccoons and a different sort of mouse (field mice, they're called) not entirely trustworthy. Do the dangers outweigh the thrill of discovery? Fredle's quest to get back inside soon becomes a wild adventure of predators and allies, of color and sound, of discovery and nostalgia. And, as Fredle himself will come to understand, of freedom. (Goodreads.com)

Fredle is a character that readers can connect with as he faces his fears and uncertainties in the outside world.  His growth comes naturally from the situations he faces such as cats, raccoons, gathering his own food, the unfamiliar,  etc.  The other characters add to the story, especially the amusing, but dangerous raccoons.  The writing is superb, as would be expected of an author of a Newbery winner (Dicey's Song) and a Newbery honor (A Solitary Blue). The plot flows naturally and easily. The story is more thoughtful than action packed, which will turn some students off, but for those who persist, the lessons learned are very thought-provoking.  This book would make a good read-a-loud for teachers who wish to encourage students to think about what they are reading.  Recommended for all who love a good animal story.

Some other good animal stories:

Warriors series by Erin Hunter
Seekers series by Erin Hunter
Bad Kitty series by Nick Bruel
The Cricket in Times Square by George Seldon (has several sequels)
The Black Stallion series by Walter Farley
Wild Girl by Patricia Reilly Giff

Feel free to add other great titles in the comments! Thanks.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Wild & Wonderful Wednesday: Animal Rescue Team

 Today I am highlight the Animal Rescue Team series by Sue Stauffacher.  There are currently four books in the series,

Gator on the Loose 
Special Delivery
Hide and Seek
Show Time
Knopf, 2010-2011
Grades 2-4
Reviewed from purchased copies.

Each book follows the adventures of Keisha and her family who run an animal rescue organization.  The book covers do a good job of showing what animals are highlighted in each book.  In addition to the animal parts, the books follow the pretty normal life of a young girl and her friends and family.  One of the things I especially liked was how easy it was to relate to Keisha and her family and friends.  I also really enjoyed the multicultural aspects involving Keisha's mother who is from Nigeria.  While these books may not be high-class literature, they are fun and I plan to add them to my library.  Recommended for students who love animals (which is almost all students at my school).  Below, I've included a brief synopsis of each book.


 Meet the Carters: Mr. and Mrs. Carter, 10-year-old daughter Keisha, five-year-old Razi, baby Paolo, and Grandma Alice. Together, they run Carters' Urban Rescue, the place you call when you've got an animal where it shouldn't be. In their first adventure, there's a baby alligator at the city pool, which will seriously interfere with opening day, especially Keisha's cannonball practice. So it's up to the whole family to figure out what to do with the poor guy who has no business hanging around Michigan. Luckily for all of them, and thanks to some serious ingenuity from Keisha, the answer is closer than they ever could have imagined. (Goodreads.com)


Keisha and her family are just sitting down to Saturday-morning breakfast when the phone rings. Uh-oh! There seems to be a skunk at the community garden, and it's dug a hole under the shed. At the same time, Mr. Sanders can't deliver the mail to a certain house: crows keep dive-bombing him when he gets near the mailbox. Time for the Animal Rescue Team to spring into action! This time they've got two mysteries to solve: What could crows have against mail delivery? And what really dug that hole at the community garden--as Mama knows, it's too big to have been dug by a skunk. Once again, it'll take the whole team, along with help from some new friends, to sort out what, and who, is creating all this mayhem around town. (Goodreads.com)

It’s autumn in Grand River, and as Keisha and her pals prepare for Halloween, a phone call comes in to Carters’ Urban Rescue: a deer has been spotted in the neighborhood . . . with a pumpkin on his head! The deer was enjoying the birdseed treat inside when, somehow, it got stuck. The Animal Rescue Team has a problem to solve: how do you get a pumpkin off a deer’s head when you can’t catch him? (And how can Keisha concentrate when the newest animal at Carters’ Urban Rescue is howling his way into her heart?) (Goodreads.com)

The squirrels at Mt. Mercy College are getting too friendly—they're frightening the students, making the nuns jumpy . . . and they're super messy. It's time to call the Animal Rescue Team!  Meanwhile, Keisha's got a problem of her own. The Grand River Steppers jump rope team has a chance to win first place in their school district this year, but Keisha's so nervous, she keeps messing up! When she and Daddy go to the Veteran's Facility to check out their squirrel situation, Keisha meets Sergeant Pinkham, who's learning how to use his new prosthetic leg. Could Sarge be just the person to help Keisha stay calm, do well, and have fun at the competition? (Goodreads.com)
 
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