Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Best Books I Read in 2011

I've been waiting until today to write this post because I didn't want to risk reading an absolutely fabulous book after writing it.  I'm glad I waited, because one of the best books I read this year is one that I finished just last night!

I looked through my Goodreads shelf of 5-star reads to see which books I should include in this post.  I discovered there were 39 from this year, and that is far too many for me to list here, so I'm going to try to narrow it down to the 10 (maybe 11 or 12) best.  These aren't necessarily books that came out in 2011, but they are all books I loved.

Mindi's 2011 Top Ten (in no particular order:

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
I wasn't sure how into this book I would be, given that it is about mythical man-eating horses that emerge from the sea each November.  Once I began reading, though, I fell in love with Steifvater's story.  The little bit of romance that grew between Puck and Sean helped, too.  Look for a longer post on this one soon,

Shine by Lauren Myracle
This incredibly powerful story of homophobia and hatred in a small town was difficult to read, due to the subject matter, but I'm so glad I pushed through. This is an important story for teens to read and talk about with their parents, teachers, or each other.  You can read more about Shine here.

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen
I picked up The Running Dream last March after hearing Becky Anderson talk about it at the Illinois Reading Council conference.  The story centers around 16 year old Jessica who loses her leg in a tragic accident.  It's a story of perseverance and the power of friendship, and I loved it enough to push for it to be one of the choices for summer reading for our incoming seventh graders.  You can read more about The Running Dream here.

Divergent by Veronica Roth
Buzz for Divergent was strong long before its release last May.  I was lucky enough to get my hand on an advance copy of the book and devoured it in one sitting.  It is often compared to Hunger Games, due in part to its dystopian story line, but Divergent is great enough to stand on its own.  The Chicago setting is a definite plus.  Can't wait for the sequel, Insurgent, to come out in May! You can read more about Divergent here.

Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt
Okay For Now is one of those rare companion novels that I liked even better than the original.  In this story, Doug Swietek is trying to find his place in a new town, one he didn't really want to move to, and one where he doesn't really fit in.  Schmidt crafted a story that was both a great coming-of-age story but also a love letter to the healing power of art.  You can read more about Okay For Now here.

The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon
This book is a nominee for the 2012 Rebecca Caudill Award for Young Readers here in Illinois.  Each year, I read as many of the twenty nominees as I can, and this year The Rock and the River was one of my favorites.  The story of Sam, his brother Stick, and their civil-rights leader father was so engrossing, I thought Magoon was writing about actual people who lived in Chicago during the 1960s.  It wasn't until I read the author's note at the end of the book that I discovered the main characters were all fictional.  This is a great read.  You can learn more about The Rock and the River here.

Want To Go Private? by Sarah Darer Littman
This was perhaps one of the most disturbing books I read this year, but also one of the most important.  In this story of a teenage girl who gets involved with an internet predator, Littman brought many of my deepest fears as a parent to the surface and forced me to think about the conversations I need to have with my daughters about staying safe in a risky world.  Every parent should read this book.  Learn more about Want to Go Private?  here.

The Watch That Ends The Night by Allan Wolf
This masterpiece is a novel-in-verse about the sinking of Titanic.  With the 100th anniversary of the disaster coming in April, we're going to see loads of books on the subject.  None will approach the brilliance of this novel.  Told in 24 voices, some real, some fictional, The Watch That Ends the Night is spellbinding. You can read my review here.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
This was another book that was getting lots of buzz among my Twitter friends.  I knew the story was about a young boy whose mother was undergoing treatments for cancer, and I kept putting off reading it because I knew it would take me back to the grief I felt when my mom died of cancer when I was 21.  I finally decided I couldn't let 2011 end without reading it.  This book definitely lived up to the buzz.  It's incredibly heart-wrenching and sad, but well worth the read.  You can read my review here.

Darth Paper Strikes Back by Tom Angleberger
I just looked back at the books I've included so far, and I realized that all of them are about pretty heavy subjects.  To round out my ten favorites, I'm including Darth Paper Strikes Back, the sequel to The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda.  This book is funny, touching, and true-to-middle-school.  If you've not read Origami Yoda or Darth Paper, get thee to a bookstore!  You can read my review of Darth Paper here.

So there you have it; 10 of the best books I read in 2011.  If you'd like to see all of my 5-Star books, you can find my Goodreads shelf here.

Happy New (Reading) Year!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Little Joe by Sandra Neil Wallace

Little Joe by Sandra Neil Wallace (Yearling, 2010)

Summary by publisher:
Knowing the newest calf at Windswept Farms is his makes Eli Stegner's heart beat faster than a butterfly's wings.  He dreams about winning the blue ribbon at the County Fair, just like Pa and Grandpa did.  First thing he's got to do, though, is befriend Little Joe.  the calf's so skittish only Spider the barn cat can get near him.  But Little Joe likes it when Eli hums polka tunes and with Grandpa training them for the fair, Eli and Little Joe become the perfect team and the best of friends.  But as summer turns into fall, Eli isn't so sure he wants Little Joe to fatten up.  All cattle get sold after the competition.  And Pa's boss at the sawmill pays top dollar for the meatiest calf.

As I started reading Little Joe, I immediately began making comparisons to Charlotte's Web by E.B. White.  Both books explore a deep connection between a child and an animal, but where White injected an element of fantasy with the talking animals, Wallace keeps her story wholly realistic.  White also adds layers to her story by contrasting Eli's relationship with his grandfather with the more complicated relationship he has with his father.

I truly enjoyed reading this book, though I did start to get a bit worried as the date for the county fair came closer.  As an adult, I know that animals shown at the county fair are auctioned off, usually for slaughter.  Normally, this does not bother me.  I know my beef does not magically appear at the grocery on a styrofoam tray, wrapped in plastic.  This time, though, I KNEW the calf. Little Joe had a personality.  I won't spoil the ending by revealing any more!

This book would appeal to both boys and girls in the middle grades who enjoy realistic fiction stories, especially those about animals.  It has a quiet, gentle feel reminiscent of Charlotte's Web that would draw many younger readers.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez

The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez (Yearling, 2010)

Summary from publisher:
In 1961, two years after the communist revolution, fourteen-year-old Lucia still leads a carefree life in Cuba, thinking mostly of parties and boys.  But this all changes on the day soldiers arrive in her small town and she is forced to face certain truths about her family, friends, and country.  As the revolution's impact becomes more oppressive, and more dangerous, Lucia's parents make the heart-wrenching decision to send her and her little brother to the United States -- alone.

I haven't read many fiction books about Cuba during the revolution, and certainly even fewer written for middle grade readers.  I was instantly pulled in to Lucia's world, and it was easy to see how Lucia as a child did not see the propaganda in the newspapers for what it was.  Luckily for Lucia and her brother, her parents did.  They tried to shield their children from the worst of what was happening in their country, even though it was dangerous for themselves.  When the danger go to be too close, they made the heart-wrenching decision to send their children alone to the US.

It was this part of the book that I thought was too good to be true.  While I was glad for Lucia and Frankie that they ended up with a wonderful family upon their arrival in Nebraska, I thought their situation was a bit too perfect.  When I got to the end of the book, however, and read the author's note, I found out that Gonzalez based this book on the real-life experiences of her parents and mother-in-law.  Knowing this made me reconsider the book in a different light.

This book is definitely worth a read, both for kids and adults.  I learned much about life in Cuba in the early years of Castro's dictatorship and the hardships families faced when they decided to try to leave.  Many of Lucia's experiences and troubles aren't all that different from most fourteen year old girls who are trying to become independent of their families and find their place in the world.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu 
by Wendy Wan-Long Shang (Scholastic, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
Lucy Wu is an aspiring basketball star and interior designer, and she is certain she's on the verge of having the best year of her life.  She's ready to rule the school as a sixth grader, go out for captain of the sixth-grade basketball team, and take over the bedroom she's always shared with her sister.
But her plans are shattered when she learns that Yi Po, her grandmother's sister, is coming to visit -- for a few months.  And she'll be staying in Lucy's room!  Lucy's vision of a perfect year quickly begins to crumble as her parents force her to attend Chinese School with the annoying know-it-all Talent Chang, and she faces the snobby bully, Sloane Connors, who wants to scare Lucy off the sixth-grade basketball team.  Lucy's year is ruined -- or is it?

With Lucy, Shang hit a home run for me.  Lucy's story was one that just about any sixth grader could tell, with just a few adjustments for the troubles their parents cause.  For Lucy it was Chinese School and Yi Po coming to visit.  I'm sure my daughter would cite her annoying little sister and my insistance she wear clothes that cover most of her body.  Lucy's insecurities and troubles felt real, and Shang told the story in a way that did not belittle or patronize.

Another thing I loved about this book was the glimpse into another culture. Once Lucy's great-aunt arrives for a visit from China, Lucy's home life becomes even more Chinese than it was before.  She has to speak more Chinese and eat more traditional Chinese foods. At first, Lucy is very resistent to these changes, but over time Lucy begins to appreciate how special her family traditions are.

This book is perfect to place into the hands of middle school girls who enjoy realistic fiction stories about girls who are not so different from them.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness 
(Candlewick, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
The monster showed up after midnight.  As they do.  But it isn't the monster Conor's been expecting.  He's been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he's had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming...
This monster, though, is something different.  Something ancient, something wild.  And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.
It wants the truth.

I've been hearing nothing but great things about A Monster Calls since before its official publication date.  Several of my reading friends were able to read advance copies of this amazing book, and then once it came out many more read it and talked about it.  I put off reading it for a couple of reasons:  the amount of reading I have to do for my two book award committees is overwhelming right now, and I was afraid the subject matter of the book would dredge up memories that I didn't really want to deal with at the moment.

I'm so glad I finally read it.

This is a powerfully written story of a young boy dealing with the imminent death of his mother.  He does his best to care for his mother after her treatments and care for himself, too.  He is bullied at school, but he doesn't tell the teachers because he doesn't want them to pity him more than they already do.  The last straw comes when Conor is forced to live with his grandmother when his mom is hospitalized.  Through it all, Conor is visited by a monster, always at 12:07am.  The monster tells Conor three stories, and in return Conor must tell a fourth, and it must be true.  It turns out the truth is the one thing Conor doesn't want to face.

Patrick Ness wrote this book based on ideas Siobhan Dowd had for a book before her untimely death from cancer at age 47.  Ness did not try to write like Dowd, as he explains in the Author's Note at the front of the book.  Rather, he took those ideas of Dowd's and let them grow into A Monster Calls.  In some ways, I think knowing this story before reading makes the book even more powerful.

Another powerful element in this book is the artwork by Jim Kay.  The striking black and gray illustrations add to the somber tone of the book and help the reader to feel the despair Conor feels while dealing with his mother's illness.  Here's an example of one of the illustrations:
Can you imagine that knocking on your window in the middle of the night?

A Monster Calls is a must read.  I'd suggest this for kids in fifth grade and up.  Certainly different kids will connect with this book differently, depending on their life experiences.  I know I needed several tissues to get through various parts of this book.  I look forward to discussing this one with my students.

Monday, December 26, 2011

It's Monday... What Are You Reading?

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is sponsored by Jen and Kelee over at TeachMentorTexts.  Each week we tell what we've read the week before and give a preview of what's to come.

I read more this week than I thought I would, considering I was busy preparing for the coming holiday.  I found little pockets of time to read, and I read some really great books.  Here's what I read this week:

177.  Emmy & The Incredible Shrinking Rat by Lynne Jonell (finished 12/19)
178.  The Memory Bank by Carolyn Coman (finished 12/19)
179.  Queen of the Falls by Chris Van Allsburg (finished 12/20)
180. Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet (finished 12/20)
181.  Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin (finished 12/20)
182.  Dark Life by Kat Falls (finished 12/21)
183.  she said/she saw by Norah McClintock (finished 12/22)
184.  The Yo-Yo Prophet by Karen Krossing (finished 12/23)
185.  A Monster Calls by Patrick ness (finished 12/23)
186.  The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang (finished 12/24)
187.  Little Joe by Sandra Neil Wallace (finished 12/25)
188.  The Red Umbrella by Christina Gonzalez (finished 12/25)

By far the best book I've read this week was A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.  It was a powerful book about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer and the monster who visits him at night.  Honestly, I had been putting off reading this book, even though my reading friends had been raving about it, because I was worried about how I would react to it.  Just as I expected, I was devastated by it; I cried at several points in the book, but at the same time it was just so GOOD!  I definitely recommend this book.

My reading plan for this week:
  • All Good Children
  • Miracleville
  • Jasper Jones
  • A Plague Year
  • Queen of Water
  • The Scorpio Races
I should be able to squeeze these in, given I still have a week left of winter break, and I plan on relaxing and reading for a good part of it.

Happy reading!

The Yo-Yo Prophet by Karen Krossing

The Yo-Yo Prophet by Karen Krossing (Orca, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
Calvin lurks at the bottom of his high school's food chain.  His mother is dead, his father is long gone, and he lives with his ailing grandmother, who's getting too sick to run her dry-cleaning shop.  The only time Calvin feels in control is when he's working his yo-yo.  When Calvin takes up street performing, he becomes an overnight sensation as the Yo-Yo Prophet.  But can he really predict the future when he yo-yos, or is he making a gigantic fool of himself?

In The Yo-Yo Prophet, Krossing builds her story somewhat slowly.  It takes a while to get to know Calvin and all of the things that make him tick.  There are several predictable elements of YA literature in this book:  mostly absent guardians, bullying, trouble in school, an adult bad guy as well as a teen one.  This predictable structure would help a tangled reader to navigate this story.  The story is also easy to follow and fairly interesting, while not looking babyish, another element that would make this book appealing to dormant readers.

Overall, Calvin's story was pretty good.  He is a typical teen boy, somewhat insecure and unsure of his place in the world.  He also has the added layer of responsibility for his sick grandmother, which ups the pressure on Calvin to perform.  There are definite things in this book for most young teens to relate to, and there is nothing objectionable that would keep this book out of my classroom library.  I did feel the ending was very predictable, but I think it is the ending most teen readers would expect and enjoy.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

she said/she saw by Norah McClintock

she said/she saw by Norah McClintock (Orca, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
Tegan was in the backseat when her two best friends were gunned down in front of her.  Was it an argument over drugs?  An ongoing feud?  Or something more random?  Tegan says she didn't see who did it and doesn't know why it happened.  Nobody will believe her.  Not the police; not her friends; not the families of the victims; and not even Kelly, her own sister.  Is she afraid that the killer will come back?  Or does she know more than she is saying?
Shunned at school and feeling alone, Tegan must sort through her memores and try to decide what is real and what is imagined.  And in the end she must decide whether she has the strength to stand up and do the right thing.

she said/she saw is definitely a page turner.  Told in two voices, that of Tegan and her sister Kelly, it examines the idea of truth and the reliability of a witness to violent crime.  Tegan and Kelly are not exactly close; because they were born in the same year, they are always together - in classes at school and at home.  Tegan and Kelly do not share the same group of friends, and seem to try to stay as far apart as they can manage.

When Tegan witnesses the shooting of two of her friends, she comes to rely on Kelly's support, even as Kelly begins to doubt Tegan's account of what happened.  As more and more questions unfold, the reader is brought deeper into the story.  I truly wondered if I would ever get my questions answered.  The resolution, though, is a satisfying one, and I considered going right back to the beginning of the book to reread it and see if I could trace the clues McClintock left sprinkled along the way.

This is definitely a book for older junior high students and high schoolers.  Drug use plays an important role in the story, and there are situations that may be inappropriate for younger readers.  Overall, though, I think both boys and girls would enjoy this story.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Dark Life by Kat Falls

Dark Life by Kat Falls (Scholastic, 2010)

Summary from publisher:
The oceans rose, swallowing up the lowlands.  Earthquakes shattered the continents, toppling entire regions into the rising water.  Now, humans live packed into stacked cities.  The only ones with any space of their own are those who live on the ocean floor, the Dark Life.
Ty has spent his whole life living deep undersea, helping his family farm the ocean floor.  But when outlaws attack his homestead, Ty finds himself in a fight to save the only home he has ever known.  Joined by Gemma, a girl from the Topside who has come subsea to look for her brother, Ty ventures into the frontier's rough underworld and discovers some dark secrets to Dark Life... secrets that threaten to destroy everything.

Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis have probably figured out that science fiction is not my favorite genre, but I know I have to read it in order to talk to my students about a wide range of books.  Dark Life is not a book that appealed to me based on the cover blurb, but several students raved about how good it was.  I decided to bring it home and give it a read.

I was pleasantly surprised.

It didn't really read like a science fiction book; rather it was more of a mystery/adventure story that kept me turning the pages.  Each time I thought I had the identity of Shade and the other outlaws figured out, there would be another plot twist that kept me guessing.

 Falls does a great job of world building, helping the reader to visualize what life on the ocean floor might be like.  The idea that the oceans could rise, wiping out costal cities is not one that is all that farfetched, so it was a bit scary to think about what life would be like in those circumstances.  Falls' vision seems possible, which added to the appeal of the story.

Middle grade and junior high students who like sci fi/mystery/adventure stories are sure to enjoy the twists and turns of Dark Life.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Anything But Typical by Norah Raleigh Baskin

Anything But Typical by Norah Raleigh Baskin (Scholastic, 2009)

Summary from publisher:
Jason Blake is an autistic twelve-year-old living in a neurotypical world.  Most days, it's just a matter of time before something goes wrong.  But Jason finds a glimmer of understanding when he comes across PhoenixBird, who posts stories to the same online site as he does.  Jason can be himself when he writes, and he thinks that PhoenixBird--her name is Rebecca--could be his first real friend.  As desperate as Jason is to meet her, he's terrified that if they do meet, Rebecca will only see his autism and not who Jason really is.  

This is a book that I've been meaning to read for a while, but just got around to this week.  Baskin's story of a twelve-year-old autistic boy was a touching reminder that each of us has challenges, and that part of growing up is learning to rise to those challenges.  As an English teacher, I loved how Josh used writing and reading to help him navigate a world that doesn't always feel comfortable to him.

I can see kids identifying with Josh on a variety of levels while at the same time learning about autism, which will help them to understand some of their classmates.  Students in my school are sometimes baffled by classmates who don't understand social cues or who have routines and behaviors that are outside those considered "normal" by the majority of the school population.  Reading a book like this one allows kids to see that their classmates aren't as different as they may seem.

This is another in a line of great books with main characters who are on the autism spectrum.  It's on par with Mockingbird by Katherine Erskine and is a rung on the ladder leading to Marcello In the Real World by Francisco X. Stork and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Memory Bank by Carolyn Coman and Rob Shepperson

The Memory Bank 
by Carolyn Coman and Rob Shepperson 
(Arthur A. Levine, 2010)

Summary from publisher:
The Clean Slate Gang and The World Wide Memory Bank are at war.  Lollipops have been found clogging the great machines that take in and store all the memories being formed in the world.  Bonfires have been set.  Practical jokes are gumming up the works.  And the mischief is getting more serious.
Caught in the middle is Hope Scroggins, who's been summoned to the bank for failing to record New Memories. And THAT'S because her hideously awful parents told her to FORGET her beloved little sister, Honey, who is out there somewhere, needing her.
Somehow Hope figures out that the World Wide Memory Bank holds the key to finding Honey, and maybe even a chance at happiness!  But can she find it in time, before the Clean Slate Gang takes away her last, best shot at finding her sister?

The Memory Bank is an original, touching story about the power of sisterly love.  While the terrible parents were definitely Roald Dahl-like, the rest of the story and the charming artwork had me turning the pages, deeply part of Hope's world.  When her parents put Honey out of the car and then tell Hope to forget her, Hope does all she can to REMEMBER Honey, even though she drops out of life in every other way.  When she is summoned to the World Wide Memory Bank for not depositing new memories, Hope begins to live up to her name; she finds a way to reconnect with her sister, through Honey's one and only everlasting memory.

The artwork by Rob Shepperson adds to Hope's story, as we see the powerful bond between the two sisters.  I also really enjoyed his drawings of the gang of kids that rescues Honey and the inner workings of the World Wide Memory Bank.

I truly enjoyed The Memory Bank, and I plan on handing it to my fifth grade daughter as soon as she's finished her bookstack of 2012 Caudill nominees.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat by Lynne Jonell

Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat 
by Lynne Jonell (Henry Holt, 2007)

Summary from publisher:
Emmy was a good girl.  At least she tried very hard to be good.  She did her homework without being told.  She ate all her vegetables, even the slimy ones.  And she never talked back to her nanny, Miss Barmy, although it was almost impossible to keep quiet, some days.  She really was a little too good.  Which is why she liked to sit by the Rat.  The Rat was not good at all...

As a rule, I tend not to like books that involve talking animals, Charlotte's Web excepted.  I also do not like rats.  I was prepared NOT to like this book based on these two facts.

However, I am glad I went against my better judgement and red this cute story of Emmy and her rodent friends.  Emmy is a smart cookie and does not wait for others to solve her problems for her.  She takes matters into her own hands and solves the mystery of why her parents are acting so oddly lately and why nobody seems to remember she's even in the room.  Even when situations get dangerous, Emmy does not lose her head.

With a little bit of magic and a lot of friendships, Emmy finds her way into the world, and I'm sure she'll find her way into many readers' hearts.  She certainly did mine.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull

The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull 
(Shadow Mountain, 2007)

Summary from Goodreads:
Welcome to the Sweet Tooth Ice Cream and Candy Shoppe, where the confections are bit on the . . . unusual side. Rock candy that makes you weightless. Jawbreakers that make you unbreakable. Chocolate balls that make you a master of disguise. Four young friends—Nate, Summer, Trevor, and Pigeon—meet the grandmotherly Mrs. White, owner of the Sweet Tooth, and soon learn about the magical side effects of her candies. Then the ice cream truck driver, Mr. Stott, arrives with a few enchanted sweets of his own. The danger unfolds as the four youngsters discover that the magical strangers have all come to town in search of a legendary treasure—one that could be used for great evil if it fell into the wrong hands. The kids, now in over their heads, must try to retrieve the treasure first. And so, the war begins . . .

Sometimes I think I should not read other books when I've loved a series by a particular author.  In this case, the series I loved (well, at least for the three books in the series that I read) was Fablehaven.  I thought the world that Mull created in that series was truly magical.  I got completely swept up in the stories.

I was not as taken with The Candy Shop War, at least, not at first.  I had a hard time getting into the story and following the various characters and spells.  I didn't completely buy how quickly Nate and his friends went along with Mrs. White's plans, even when the tasks asked of them went against their better judgement.  As I kept reading, though, I wanted to find out how the kids would foil Mrs. White's plans to take over the town and rule with her white fudge.

The second half of the book went by much faster than the first, and I think that kids will enjoy this story, mostly because it is a story of kids taking their world and its problems into their own hands and solving them, mainly without the help of adults.  Like in many stories for middle graders and young adults, the grownups are conveniently out of the way, in this case put under a magic spell to ignore their kids.  I'm sure this fantastical element appeals to the young readers of this book.

I'm going to give this one to my fifth grader to read over winter break.  I'm eager to compare opinions!

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had by Kristin Levine

The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had by Kristin Levine (Puffin, 2009)

Summary from publisher:
The last thing Harry "Dit" Sims expects when Emma Walker comes to town is to become friends.  Proper-talking, brainy Emma doesn't play baseball or fish too well, but she sure makes Dit think, especially about differences between black ans white. But soon Dit is thinking about a whole lot more when the town barber, who is black, is put on trial for a terrible crime.  Together, Dit and Emma come up with a daring plan to save hin from the unthinkable.

As I read The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, I was completely drawn in to the world of Dit - small-town (and small-minded) Moundsville, Alabama, is pretty much the only place Dit has ever been.  When Emma Walker comes to town, Dit begins to see wider possibility in his world, which grows even more once he begins driving to Selma with Dr. Griffith.  Dit and Emma's friendship grows in bumps and starts, much like a real friendship would, and the people in the town also felt real; very few of them were either all good or all bad.  It turns out it takes the whole town working together to get through several hard times.

I could see using The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had along with Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Watsons Go To Birmingham, and Flygirl during a study of diversity or segregation.  Bad Luck shows the problems inherent in Moundsville during the depression in a way that students can easily relate to.  Kids who read this book will definitely learn something about what it means to be human without feeling as if they've been preached to.

Historical fiction is definitely one of my favorite genres, and should Kristin Levine write another historical fiction novel, I would certainly read it!

It's Monday... What Are You Reading

My group of Twitter friends who are participating in this meme is growing.  It started with Jen and Kellee over at TeachMentorTexts.  Now Colby Sharp, Katherine Sokolowski, and Frankie Sibberson have all joined the party.

Last week was a slow reading week for me.  I got bogged down in a book, and only just finished it yesterday, but with winter break upon me, I plan to ramp up that reading and get some important things off my list.  Here's my reading plan for this week:

  • Several non-fiction books for the first ever Nerdies awards, since I am responsible for writing the blog post announcing those titles.
  • Emmy and The Incredible Shrinking Rat by Lynne Jonell
  • The Memory Bank by Carolyn Coman & Rob Shepperson
  • Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin
  • Dark Life by Kat Falls
  • She Said/She Saw by Norah McClintock
Last week I read:

  • Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
  • The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull 
See?  I told you it was a slow reading week.  I honestly can't remember the last time I read only two books in one week.  For winter break, however, I have some added incentive.  With no school, I can power through some of the books I need to read for my two book award committees, two books I need to read before my language arts classes begin their book clubs in January, and maybe a book or two that I choose to read.  A couple of years ago, my friend Donalyn Miller issued a challenge on Twitter to read a book a day over the summer, and ever since the challenge has been repeated over summers and school breaks.  You can follow the titles that people read by searching the hashtag #bookaday over on Twitter.  While I don't always achieve an entire book in one day, the challenge does inspire me to read as much as I can.  I set a winter break reading goal of 9 books for myself, and I shared that goal with my kiddos at school, so I am going to work as hard as I can to get at least that many read.

One last note... with just a few shopping days left until Christmas, don't forget that books make great gifts, especially when they are purchased from a local, independent book store!

Monday, December 12, 2011

It's Monday... What Are You Reading!

Happy Monday!  This is my last work Monday of 2011, and I am definitely ready for winter break!  I need to step up my reading in order to get caught up on the reading for the two book award committees I'm on PLUS read a few books that I want to read.  This has been a topic of much discussion between me and my students lately; how do you balance WHAT YOU WANT TO READ with WHAT YOU HAVE TO READ?
Here's what I read this week:
  • To Timbuktu by Casey Scieszka (finished 12/6)
  • Americus by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill (finished 12/7)
  • Into the Trap by Craig Moodie (finished 12/8)
  • Don't Stop Now by Julie Halpern (finished 12/9)
  • What Is Real by Karen Rivers (finished 12/10)
  • The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had by Kristin Levine (finished 12/11)

Of those six books, my favorite was by far Don't Stop Now. You can read my review of it here.

I'm not sure how much I'll be able to read this week, since I want to get a head start on my holiday baking, but here's what my plan looks like so far:
  • The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
  • All Good Children by Catherine Austen
Hopefully, I get more than three books read, but we'll see.

Happy Reading!

Thanks to Jen and Kellee of Teach Mentor Texts for spreading the What Are You Reading love.  Check out their blog here.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Don't Stop Now by Julie Halpern

Don't Stop Now by Julie Halpern 
(Feiwel and Friends, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
Lillian and Josh have just graduated high school.  They're planning a lazy summer.  Then a girl they know is kidnapped.  Well, maybe.  There's only one way to know for sure--even if it means a cross-country trip in a car without air-conditioning.
Lillian and Josh are best friends.  Maybe more.  Maybe not.  But they're about to find out.  About that, and a whole lot more.

Love this book.  Love it!  Don't Stop Now was just the kind of story I eat right up.  A little adventure, a little romance, all complicated by friendship.  Lillian and Josh are not perfect teens; they have their flaws, and because of that, they feel like real kids I knew when I was a teen.  The backstory on Penny, the girl who fakes her own kidnapping, reveals itself bit by bit, and as it does we not only learn about Penny, but about Lillian and Josh, too.

Reading this book made me want to take my own road trip, albeit one in a car with air-conditioning and satellite radio.  It also reminded me of those days before I felt so grown up, when my friends and I could just pack a cooler and hit the road, figuring out where we were going to go once we departed.  Of course, I think our longest trip was just across the Poplar Street Bridge to Forest Park in St. Louis, but hey... we can't all have month-long road trips!

Lillian and Josh do some growing up of their own along the way and the strings of their relationship do NOT get all tied up in a nice neat bow by the end.  This was a satisfying novel that left me with a smile as I turned the last page.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Into the Trap by Craig Moodie

Into the Trap by Craig Moodie 
(Roaring Brook Press, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
Eddie Atwell's family has been trapping lobsters for generations.  Eddie knows the waters around the small Massachusetts fishing community where he live better than the roads of the island.  and someday he'll be a lobsterman just like his father.
But lately someone has been stealing their catch, threatening to put the family out of business and foce them off the island,  When Eddie comes across the thieves' trap, he suddenly realizes that it's up to him to bring in the culprits and rescue the lobsters--and his family.
His mission leads him to Briggs, a rich kid who has run away from sailing camp and also has reason to brin the thieves to justice.  Together his unlikely pair embarks on a high-speed adventure that puts their very lives at risk and takes all their courage not only o save the day but also to survive.

This is a good, old-fashioned adventure/survival story that moves at a fairly fast clip.  Eddie and Briggs manage to get themselves into quite a bit of trouble, to the point where the reader wonders if both of them will come out with their limbs--or lives--intact.  There's not much mystery to this story; you know from the first chapter who the lobster thieves are, but there is quite a bit of suspense as Eddie and Briggs try to figure out how to steal the lobsters back without getting themselves killed.

Kids who like adventure stories would probably enjoy Into the Trap.  It's fast-paced plot would probably hold the attention of those kids who are "serial abandoners" of independent reading books.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Americus by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill

Americus by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill 
(First Second, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
Life in the small town of Americus isn't easy for a bookworm like Neil Barton.  it only gets harder when his best friend is sent to military school, forcing Neil to face his freshman year of high school alone.  And to make matters worse, local activists are trying to get the town library to ban his favorite series:  The Adventures of Apathea Ravenchilde.  For the first time in his life, Neil is going to have to stand up and take action.  And it just might be the best thing that ever happened to him.

Americus is probably not a book I would have picked up just from the cover.  However, once I read the blurb on the back of the book, I was intrigued.  Over and over we hear stories of books being challenged in schools and public libraries across the country.  In fact, last year the #speakloudly movement hit Twitter after Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Twenty Boy Summer by Sarach Ockler were challenged in Missouri.  Americus brings the struggle to keep books available to readers despite vocal objections to life.

I enjoyed how the authors intertwined Neil's storyline along with that of Apathea Ravenchilde.  The two stories somewhat mirror each other.  Neil and Apathea both need to find their inner strength and fight for what they believe in.  Apathea fights dragons in her mythical world, and Neil has to fight the "dragons" of the people who would remove his beloved books from the library.

The topic of censorship is not always easy for kids to understand.  A book like Americus gives readers a lot to think about.

Monday, December 5, 2011

With A Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo

With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo 
(Margaret Ferguson Books, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
When Ollie's daddy, the Reverend Everlasting Love, pulls their travel trailer into Binder, Arkansas, to lead a three-day revival, Ollie knows that this town will be like all the others her daddy drags them through--it is exactly the kind of nothing Ollie has come to expect.  But on their first day, Ollie meets Jimmy Koppel, whose mother is in jail for murdering his father.  Jimmy insists that his mother is innocent and Ollie believes him.  Still, even if Ollie convinces her daddy to break his three-day rule and stay longer, how can two thirteen-year-olds free a woman who has signed a confession?  
Ollie's longing for a friend and her daddy's penchant for searching out lost souls prove to be a formidable force in this tiny community, where everyone seems bent on judging and jailing without a trial.

When I started reading this book, I wasn't quite sure what to expect.  I was pretty sure this was not going to be an action-packed adventure story, and I was right about that.  What I got was a sweet story about friendship and following your heart.

Hilmo crafted a story that pulls the reader in, bit by bit.  Reverend Everlasting Love and his family seem almost too good to be true at first, but as I got to know Ollie and her sisters, I learned that each member of the family has his or her own flaws that make them seem like much more rounded characters.  I was most interested, though, in the townspeople of Binder, Arkansas.  I wanted to know more about these people and what made them act the way they did, especially bitter Mrs. Carter.  What was her problem, anyway?  She annoyed me to no end, perhaps because she reminded me of other small-minded people I've encountered over the course of my life.

This is a book I will revisit when I have more time to savor the way its written.  I know there are things I can learn as a writer from Hilmo, such as how to craft language that's lyrical, yet real and how to evoke the feeling of a place without filling the page with flowery adjectives.  This will be one task I undertake next summer, I'm sure.

Girls who like stories of friendship and family will enjoy With A Name Like Love.  I'm hoping my own daughter will pick this up over winter break and enjoy it as much as her mom did.

It's Monday... What Are You Reading

This is my first time to participate in It's Monday!  What Are You Reading?  I got the idea from my friends Jen and Kellee over at Teach Mentor Texts (a great blog to check out, by the way).  The idea behind this meme is to recap the books you read the previous week and to make a plan for the books you plan to read and review in the current week.

I'll admit.... holiday prep is getting in the way of my reading, and considering the fact that I am on the Rebecca Caudill Young Readers Award selection committee and the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award selection committee, I really need to step up my game.

Last week I read:

  • The Girl Is Murder by Kathryn Miller Haines
  • If I Could Fly by Judith Ortiz Cofer
  • With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo 

This week I plan to finish/read:

  • To Timbuktu by Casey Sczieska 
  • Don't Stop Now by Julie Halpern
  • Into The Trap by Craig Moody

Hopefully, I'll be able to meet my goal of finishing three books this week by stealing reading minutes wherever I can!

Have a great week everyone!

Friday, December 2, 2011

If I Could Fly by Judith Ortiz Cofer

If I Could Fly by Judith Ortiz Cofer 
(Farrar Strous Giroux, 2011)

Summary from publisher: 
Fifteen-year-old Doris is the daughter of salseros, a father who is a musician with his own band and a mother who is a singer.  Her parents have always spent more time performing in nightclubs than watching her and have expected her to take care of herself while they have traveled.  But after her ailing mother goes home to Puerto Rico to get well and her father finds a girlfriend, Doris is more alone than ever.
Disconnected from her family, Doris turns to her best friends, Arturo and Yolanda, only to discover that both are mixed up in a relationship with a violent classmate and can offer her no support.  Doris seeks refuge in taking care of the homing pigeons on her apartments' roof.  As she tires to make sense of friends, family, and how quickly life changes, she learns that, just like the pigeons, she will have to fly far distances before she finds out where she can make a home for herself and feel that she belongs.

This is a quiet book about a girl trying to find her place in the world.  Though she loves her parents, she is resentful of the fact that she never comes first in their lives.  Both her mother and her father are largely absent, and though she is used to her family situation, Doris knows that something is missing.  It's not until her father's girlfriend enters the picture that Doris really gets a feel for what a typical mother is like.  I have to say, I did not like the characters of the parents much.  They were supremely selfish, putting career goals and personal desires before the emotional and physical needs of their daughter.  

Doris, though, works hard to find her own place, whether it is on the roof with the pigeons and Dona Iris, the woman who cared for her when she was little or performing in her school's choir.  It takes a trip to Puerto Rico and spending time with her mother and grandmother to help her realize where her true roots are.  Doris learns to become more confident in herself over the course of the book, just as many teenagers gain confidence as they begin to have more and more independence.

Girls who enjoy stories of family and friendship would like If I Could Fly.  It's worth a read.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Girl Is Murder by Kathryn Miller Haines

The Girl is Murder by Kathryn Miller Haines (Roaring Brook Press, 2011)

Summary from publisher:
It's the fall of 1942 in New York City, and Iris is dying to help out at her father's detective agency, especially when she discovers that one of Pop's cases involves a boy at her new public school.  But when Pop adamantly refuses her help, Iris quickly realizes that it's much easier to lie than to ask permission.  Suddenly, this once-obedient former private-school girl is sneaking out of the house, double-crossing her friends, and dancing at the Savoy till the early-morning hours.  There's certainly never a dull moment in the private-eye business.

This is the first book I've given five Goodreads stars to in a long time.  When I started it, I thought it was going to be a nice little mystery, but it was so much more.  Through Iris's eyes, readers get a glimpse at class differences in the 1940s, racial and ethnic discrimination, the effects of World War II on the homefront, and more.  Admittedly, I am a big fan of historical fiction, so it wasn't much of a leap for me to fall into Iris's world and live her life with her.  I did learn things, though, too.  For example, I had no idea that boys who wore zoot suits were often jumped and beaten because their flashy suits were seen as wasteful and unpatriotic.

At first, I didn't like Iris much.  I felt she was whiny and a bit of a baby.  As Iris adjusts to her new life with her father, though, I liked her more and more.  She was determined, and while she sometimes acted without thinking the consequences through, her intentions were always good.  She was usually thinking of helping someone other than herself.

The one disappointment for me was the unanswered questions surrounding Iris's mother's suicide.  I just found out today that there is a sequel to this book, so I wonder if this will get resolved in the sequel.

Girls who like mysteries or historical fiction will definitely find something to love in The Girl Is Murder.