Sunday, July 31, 2011

Extra Credit by Andrew Clements

Extra Credit by Andrew Clements 
(Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2009)

Summary from publisher:  Abby Carson is failing sixth grade.  It isn't that Abby can't do her schoolwork, it's just that she doesn't like doing it. When a warning letter is sent home, Abby realizes that all of her slacking off could cause her to be held back--for real! Unless she meets some specific conditions, including taking on an exra-credit project:  find a pen-pal in a foreign country.  Simple enough (even for a girl who hates homework).  When Abby's first letter arrives at a small school in Afghanistan, Sadeed Bayat is chosen to be her pen pal...Well, kind of.  He is the best writer, but he is also a boy, and in his village it is not appropriate for a boy to correspond with a girl.  So his younger sister dictates and signs the letter-until Sadeed decides what his sister is telling Abby isn't what he'd like Abby to know. As letters flow back and forth between Illinois and Afghanistan, Abby and Sadeed discover that their letters are crossing more than an ocean.  They are crossing a huge cultural divide and a minefield of different lifestyles and traditions.  Their growing friendship is also becoming a growing problem for both communities, and some people are not happy.  Suddenly things are not so simple.

As with other books I've reviewed this summer, I picked up Extra Credit as part of my quest to read all twenty of the books nominated for the Rebecca Caudill Young Reader's Award. I looked forward to reading this one because my older daughter read it last summer and loved it.  It was a quick read, and had an interesting story line.

This book was just OK for me.  I found Sadeed's storyline more interesting than Abby's, but that could be because I am curious about day-to-day life in Afghanistan for children.  Sadeed's letters are full of details about his family, school, and village, and reading them makes Abby reconsider how she views her own.
One of the things that frustrated me happened when both kids get pushback from others about the pen-pal project.  A stranger threatens Sadeed while he is out walking, and Abby's school gets a complaint about the Afghan flag that is part of her bulletin board display.  In both cases, the adults tell the students to stop.  For Sadeed, I can understand-his life and those of his family were threatened, but in Abby's case the stakes are not as high.  This could have been a lesson in sticking up for what you know is right.

I didn't love this book, but I can see where younger readers would enjoy reading about this long-distance friendship that develops through old-fashioned letters.  It's a way into more sophisticated books about daily life in Afghanistan such as Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Wild Things by Clay Carmichael

Wild Things by Clay Carmichael 
(Boyds Mills Press, 2009)

Summary from publisher:
'I'd hoped for better, Henry's being a heard doctor.  A job like that, you'd think he might actually have a heart.'  Eleven-year-old Zoe trusts no one.  Her father left before she was born.  Her irresponsible mother left her mostly on her own.  When her mother suddenly dies.  Zoe goes to live with her uncle, former surgeon and famed metal sculptor Dr. Henry Royster.  She's sure Henry will fail her as everyone else has.  Reclusive since his wife's death, Henry takes Zoe to Sugar Hill, North Carolina, where he welds sculptures as stormy as his moods.  To Zoe's surprise, she and Henry have much in common:  brains, fiery and creative natures, and badly broken hearts.  Zoe confronts small-town prejudice with a quick temper and an open mouth.  She warms to Henry's odd but devoted friends, meets a mysterious teenage boy living wild in the neighboring woods, and works to win the trust of a feral cat while struggling to trust in anyone herself.  Zoe's fearless, questing spirit leads her to uncover the wild boy's identity, lay bare a local lie, and begin to understand the true power of Henry's art.  Then one decisive night, she and the boy risk everything in a reckless act of heroism.

This is not a book I'd probably pick up on my own, based on reading the first chapter.  I picked it up only because it was on the 2012 list of Rebecca Caudill Young Readers Award nominee list.  I am glad I read it, because it turned out to be much better than I thought it would be.

The book is told in alternating view points.  Zoe, a girl who has been abandoned by just about adult who has ever entered her life, and the feral cat she tries to befriend.  The cat's story gives background and history about the eccentric people Zoe meets in Sugar Hill.  At first, I wasn't sure of the purpose of the cat's story line, but as I kept reading, it  became clearer and clearer.

To some degree, this is a story full of cliches often found in middle grade/young adult books.  However, because the story has so much heart, I was able to get past them.  I enjoyed getting to know Zoe and her uncle and watch both Zoe and the cat learn to trust others.  I think young readers will identify with Zoe and enjoy her journey.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Peak by Roland Smith

Peak by Roland Smith (Harcourt, 2007)

Summary from publisher:
When fourteen-year-old Peak Marcello's long-lost father presents the opportunity for them to summit Everest together, Peak doesn't even consider saying no--even though he suspects there are a few strings attached. And if he makes it to the top before his birthday, he'll be the youngest person ever to stand above 29,000 feet.  It's not a bad turn of events for a guy who's been stuck in New York City with only skyscrapers to (illegally) scale.  Here, in Peak's own words, is the exhilarating, gut-wrenching story of what happened on that climb to the top of the world--a climb that changed everything.  Welcome to Mount Everest.

Peak is another of the Rebecca Caudill Award for Young Readers nominees here in Illinois. Two years ago, another Smith book, Elephant Run, was also nominated.  I thoroughly enjoyed both of these books.  Smith has a way of telling a story that heightens the suspense and keeps the reader on the edge of his or her seat!

I'm not a mountain climber, nor do I especially like stories about climbing.  However,  the story of Peak and the relationships he forms with the other members of his climbing party are much more than a simple story of climbing a mountain.  Peak's relationships are.... complicated, and as a teenager, he's just learning to navigate his way through these tricky relationships.  Along the way, he figures a few things out about himself (of course, it is a YA book, after all) and the person he wants to be as an adult.

This book is not a new one, and over the past few years, I've had several students pick it up from my classroom library.  Without fail, they raved about this book.  This is a story that appeals to both boys and girls, and yes, even grown-ups!  I look forward to hearing what my students this year have to say about Peak.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Magnolia League by Katie Crouch

The Magnolia League by Katie Crouch (Poppy, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
After the death of her free-spirited mother, sixteen-year-old Alex Lee must leave her home in northern California to live with her wealthy grandmother in Savannah, Georgia.  By birth, Alex is a rightful, if unwilling, member of the Magnolia League, Savanah's long-standing debutante society.  She quickly discovers that the Magnolias have made a pact with a legendary voodoo family, the Buzzards.  In exchange for everlasting youth, beauty, and power, the women of the Magnolia League must remain in Savannah...forever.

The Magnolia League was a great summer read.  There's magic and mystery, and a little bit of romance; it doesn't require a lot of heavy thinking or soul-searching.  On top of it all, it's fun!

Alex is definitely a fish out of water when she arrives in Savannah, and as a reader I was glad that she pushed back against the expectations of her grandmother and the other Magnolia Girls.  Her friend Dex was an interesting foil to the perfection of the other kids at Alex's school, and I secretly hoped she and Dex would get together. 

Of course, like many young adult books today, this is the first book in a series, and Crouch has managed to keep me guessing about who are the "good guys" and who are the "bad guys".  I'm looking forward to reading book 2!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Forgiven by Janet Fox

Forgiven by Janet Fox (Speak, 2011)

Publisher's summary:
Kula Baker never expected to find herself on the streets of San Francisco, alone but for a letter of introduction.  Though she has come to the city to save her father from a cruel fate, Kula soon finds herself swept up in a world of art and elegance--a world she hardly dared dream of back in Montana, where she was no more than the daughter of an outlaw.  And then there is the handsome David Wong, whose smiling eyes and soft-spoken manner have an uncanny way of breaking through Kula's carefully crafted reserve.  Yet when disaster strikes and the wreckage threatens all she holds dear, Kula realizes only by unlocking her heart can she begin to carve out a new future for herself.

Forgiven is the companion to Faithful (which I reviewed here).  Both books are about girls who are trying to make new lives for themselves against a historical background.  In this case, pre-earthquake San Francisco.  One of the things I loved about this book was that besides being a historical romance, there was an element of mystery to keep the story moving along.  Kula has to find a mysterious box that may or may not prevent her father from being hanged for a murder she didn't commit.  As she digs deeper, she discovers that all the people she seems to trust in San Francisco (and many she doesn't) are involved in a human-trafficking ring.  Kula decides to get to the bottom of the mystery and try to save as many of the girls as she can.

I am definitely a sucker for a book with a pretty dress on the cover.  Historical romances call me like sirens, and at least a few times over a summer I will answer their call.  I'm glad I did in this case.  The story is sound and believable, and the descriptions of turn-of-the century San Francisco made me wish I had been there to experience it.  I can't wait for Fox to write another!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Pearl by Jo Knowles

Pearl by Jo Knowles (Henry Holt, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
Pearl (aka Bean) and Henry are best friends--and they have the strangest mothers in their hot, sleepy town.  Henry's mom, Sally, never leaves the house.  Bean's mom, Lexie, if she is home, is venting to her friend Claire about Bean's beloved grandfather, Gus--the third member of their sunny household.  But Gus's death unleashes a host of family secrets that Bean isn't sure she wants to confront.  They threaten to change everything--including Bean's relationship with Henry.

Pearl will be released next week, but I was able to get my hands on an ARC through the generosity of Kate Messner, who shared her copy with a circle of people who passed it from one reader to the next.  I have already pre-ordered a copy of the book for my classroom library. 

I fell in love with Bean almost right away.  She's a fifteen year old girl who has some real struggles with her family.  She lives with her mom, who works in as a waitress and is often out 'till the wee hours, and her grandfather, a stern man who keeps to himself and is often fighting with Lexie.  Bean can't understand why Gus and Lexie can't get along, and when the tension in the house gets too bad, Bean escapes to her best friend Henry's house. 

The events that unfold after Gus's sudden death are heartbreaking.  Bean loved her grandfather- he was her rock, the person she leaned on and took comfort in at home-and she feels as if she isn't being allowed to grieve.  Bean can't figure out why Lexie seems to be celebrating and why her mom's friend Claire is ALWAYS around.  The emotions Bean feels as she begins to navigate the new family landscape feel true, and I wanted to reach out an give her a hug; to tell her that things WILL get better, just perhaps not in the way she might like.

While I probably wouldn't use this book as a read aloud with my seventh graders, I will definitely be booktalking this one at the beginning of the year.  I think many of the kids in my class will identify with Bean as she tries to figure out her place in the world.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge

Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge 
(Amulet, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
Paige Turner has just moved to New York with her family, and she's having some trouble adjusting to the big city.  In the pages of her sketchbook, she tries to make sense of her new life, including trying out her secret identity:  artist.  As she makes friends and starts to explore the city, she slowly brings her secret identity out into the open, a process that is equal parts terrifying and rewarding.

I thoroughly enjoyed Page by Paige.   I knew before I started it that many of my twitter friends had read and loved it, and I find that my reading tastes are very similar to theirs.  I was not disappointed!

Not only is the artwork fabulous, the book deals quite realistically with the challenges artists (and writers) face when looking at a blank page or deciding when to go public with a piece of work.  I look forward to using parts of this graphic novel in beginning-of-the-year writing minilessons.  There's one page in particular that really resonated with me.  In this panel, Paige is questioning whether or not anybody even cares about what she has to say or if she is even any good at her art.  I face these same issues every time I sit down to write.

Besides being insecure about her art, Paige is also getting used to a new school and making new friends.  She manages to find a group of arty friends who accept her for who she is and encourage her with her art.  Paige also learns how to give back to her friends in return.

As I've mentioned in previous blog posts, I'm taking time this summer to explore graphic novels, and I'm finding that I like some more than others.  Page by Paige is definitely in the "keeper" category!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Happyface by Stephen Emond

Happyface by Stephen Emond 
(Little Brown, 2010)

From School Library Journal

Grade 7–10—Happyface is a shy, artistic sophomore, awkwardly coping with life from the sidelines. When horrific tragedy tears his family apart, he finds himself living in a ratty apartment with his newly sober mom and attending a new high school. Bottling up his grief and fear, he pastes a big smile on his face and makes a fresh start as the class clown. It works for a while and, surrounded by popular friends who know nothing of his real story, Happyface pursues the enigmatic Gretchen, struggling to interpret her mixed signals. Inevitably, the suppressed inner feelings build until Happyface blows up, finally giving him the chance to come clean and make an authentically fresh start without hiding behind a mask. Emond tells the story via the teen's illustrated journal, authentically capturing his up-and-down emotions. The pencil-and-ink sketches, comics, and doodles, paired with a disastrously small handwriting font, lend an intimate stream-of-consciousness feel to a story by turns funny, wrenching, quirky, and redemptive.—Joyce Adams Burner, National Archives at Kansas City, MO

Happyface  is part prose/part comic book, much like Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. The difference, though, is that it's a book about an older teen, with the issues an older teen faces, rather than those a sixth grader would face.  I read this book from the vantage point of a 42-year-old woman, which is definitely not the target audience.  As I read, I kept wanting to offer advice to Happyface, and I did get tired of his incessant fixation on Gretchen, a girl in one of his classes.  Just as much, though, I wanted to lecture his mother, to tell her to pay attention to her son.

I can see why teens would enjoy this book.  It is engaging, and the artwork is amazing.  There is a big reveal about half-way through the book, and I gasped audibly when I read it.  The issues the kids face in this book are issues real teens face, and the language is language real teens would read.

I can see putting this book into the hands of kids who have outgrown Wimpy Kid but still enjoy the journal/notebook format. 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Amulet Books 1 and 2 by Kazu Kibuishi

Amulet (Book 1:  The Stonekeeper) 
by Kazu Kibuishi (graphix, 2008)

Amulet (Book 2:  The Stonekeeper's Curse) 
by Kazu Kibuishi (graphix, 2009) 

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to attend the All Write Summer Institute, where I heard Terry Thompson present a session on using graphic novels to teach comprehension skills.  After the conference, I had the opportunity to talk with Terry for quite a while about how to become more familiar with the genre of graphic novels and comic books.  He suggested I start with the Amulet series (among other titles).  I know that graphica is underrepresented in my classroom library, with only three titles that I can remember off the top of my head, and that it is growing in popularity with teen readers.  

Book 1:  The Stonekeeper tells the story of how Emily discovers the powerful amulet in her great-grandfather's house and eventually solve a mystery involving her great-grandfather's unfinished business.
Book 2:  The Stonekeeper's Curse continues Emily and Navin's adventures as they try to outwit The Elf King's minions. 

I thought it was very interesting that the protagonist in this series is a girl.  When I think of graphic novels, I tend to think of action-adventure story lines with  male protagonists.  I was glad to be wrong in this case.  Emily is smart and brave, certainly a role model for tween girls!  Her brother Navin, also smart and courageous, helps Emily solve the mystery and get out of some pretty precarious scrapes.  Yes, there is some violence in both books, but it's pretty mild compared to what most kids see on TV.  

Reading graphic novels is somewhat difficult for me.  As a reader, I tend to create little movies in my head, and this format takes that away from me.  The pictures are there to support the text, but I found myself forgetting to slow down and examine the artwork.  I also had to remember to think about what might be happening BETWEEN the panels, as not all of the action is shown.  I did miss the narrative readers get in regular novels, but I think as I read more and more graphic novels, I'll get used to these changes.  Like anything else, I'll have to learn how to be a good reader of graphic novels.  I might just have to ask my students to help me with that!

Overall, I'm glad I read the first two books in this series, and will be purchasing them to add to my classroom library! 

Greetings From Nowhere by Barbara O'Connor

Greetings From Nowhere by Barbara O'Connor (Frances Foster, 2008)

Summary from publisher:
Aggie isn't expecting visitors at the Sleepy Time Motel in the Great Smoky Mountains.  Since Harold died, she is all alone with her cat, Ugly, and keeping up with the bills and repairs has become next to impossible.  The pool is empty, the garden is overgrown, and not a soul has come to stay in nearly three months.  When she reluctantly places a For Sale ad in the newspaper, Aggie doesn't know that Kirby and his mom will need a room when their car breaks down on the way to Kirby's new reform school.  Or that Loretta and her parents will arrive in her dad's plumbing company van on a trip meant to honor the memory of Loretta's birth mother.  Or that Clyde Dover will answer the For Sale ad in such a hurry and move in with his daughter Willow, looking for a brand-new life to replace the one that was fractured when Willow's mom left.  Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that Aggie and he guests find just the friends they need at the shabby hotel in the middle of nowhere.

Greetings From Nowhere is one of the twenty books chosen as finalists for the 2012 Rebecca Caudill Young Reader's Award here in Illinois. Each summer I try to read all twenty of the finalists so that I can discuss them with my students during independent reading. 

This book was not at the top of my favorites list of the Caudills I've read so far.  It is very much a story of characters with not much action.  As an adult, I can appreciate the character development, and I thought quite a bit about Kirby and why he was the way he was.  I kind of wanted Aggie to take Kirby in and help him grow into the young man he deserves to become.  I think though, younger readers might lose patience with this book.  Each chapter alternates story lines, and that, too, can cause confusion with younger or tangled readers.

That being said, I do see uses for this book in my classroom.  O'Connor has a way with words, and I see potential writing mini-lessons in several chapters of the book.  Once I start planning my specific mini-lessons, I will go back into this story to find examples of the craft moves I'm teaching.  Using books as mentor texts in this way helps kids see what I'm talking about, so I try to have as many examples as possible.  I might also use parts of this book with one of my reading intervention groups if I have a group that needs to work on inferring, since understanding the characters and their actions requires quite a bit of inferential thinking.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Chime by Franny Billingsley

Chime by Franny Billingsely (Dial, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
Briony has a secret.  She believes her secret killed her stepmother, destroyed her twin sister's mind, and threatens all the children in the Swampsea.  She yearns to be rid of her terrible secret, but risks being hanged if she tells a soul.  That's what happens to witches:  They're hanged by the neck until dead.  Then Eldric arrives--Eldric with his golden mane and lion eyes and electric energy-- and he refuses to believe anything dark about Briony.  But he wonders what's been buried beneath her self-hatred, hidden in Rose's mangled thoughts, and whispered about by the Old Ones.  And Briony wonders how Eldric can make her want to cry.  Especially when everyone knows that witches can't cry.

I first heard about Chime while attending a session on the best new YA books at the Illinois Reading Council Conference.  Becky Anderson, owner of Anderson's Bookshops in Naperville, IL, does these sessions every year, talking about the latest and greatest books for various age levels.  She is usually right.

I had some trouble getting into the story of Chime.  I'm not sure if it was the writing style or the story itself that kept me from becoming completely engrossed right away.  One of the problems was that I was trying to get the time period in my head, since I tend to visualize the books I read, as if I have a little movie playing in my head.  At times, I felt as if the book was set in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century, and at other times I was certain it was the early twentieth century.  But were villages really still burning witches in the early twentieth century?

I also was at first annoyed by Briony's character.  She seemed kind of whiny at first, but as the novel went on and I learned more and more about Briony's character she grew on me.  By the end of the book, I enjoyed her spunk.  I also really liked Eldric.  He accepted Briony (and her sister Rose, who seemed to be on the Autism spectrum) for who they were, even though they weren't "typical" girls of the time. 

Overall, I enjoyed Chime.  I liked the bit of mystery and possibly magic.  I enjoyed the romance between Eldric and Briony, and I was happy and satisfied with the ending.  I can see recommending this book to my girls who like a little romance with their fantasy novels. 

Friday, July 1, 2011

All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg

All the Broken Pieces by Ann Burg (Scholastic, 2009)

Summary from publisher:
Two years after being airlifted out of war-torn Vietnam, Matt Pin is haunted: by bombs that fell like dead crows, but the family--and the terrible secret--he left behind.  Now, inside a caring adoptive home in the United States, a series of profound events force him to choose between silence and candor, blame and forgiveness, fear and freedom.

This novel, written in free-verse, is a quick read.  Matt's story is an engaging one.  Because of his early childhood in war-torn Vietnam, Matt has many issues to work through.  He finds solace in baseball and in practicing his music, as well as attending meetings of Vietnam vets at the invitation of his piano teacher, Jeff.

Things are not all rosy for Matt, though.  He encounters prejudice and bullying from other members of his baseball team, and no one really understands what it's like to be him.  It's not until his beloved coach is diagnosed with lung cancer and Matt and his tormentor Rob finally reach an understanding that Matt's life seems to settle down.

In a way, I felt that this story did not go far enough in exploring the problems a child such as Matt would have faced.  The resolution to his problems were too easy; they tied up in nice, neat packages that took away a bit from the credibility of the story.  I do realize, however, that the target audience of this book is middle grade readers, so I can understand why Burg made the choices she did.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and look forward to talking about it with my students in the fall.