Wednesday, July 19, 2017

New things to discover in middle grade books

I'm taking a break from reading picture books.  I've been visiting my parents and my brother in NC and the picture books are too heavy to bring along!  Thank goodness I have my iPad loaded with middle grade fiction.  There are some great ones coming soon!

The first one is called "The Shadow Weaver" by Marcykate Connolly.  It's about a girl named Emmeline who can weave shadows using magic.  What that means is that she can use her magic to get the shadows to do what she wants them to do.  It's a very cool power to have but her parents think it's creepy and scary.  Emmeline also has a shadow friend who encourages her to use her power and kind of helps her along with the magic.  Dar has been her friend since she was little and really, Emmeline's only friend.  One day some people come to Emmeline's home and offer to take Emmeline to cure her of her magic.  Emmeline's parents think this is a great idea, since they think the whole shadow weaving is kind of creepy and weird things have happened to people that Emmeline has disagreed with.  So Dar encourages Emmeline to run away.  As they run, it turns out soldiers are chasing them and Emmeline comes across a boy who also has magic but his magic is light and his parents are supportive.  Emmeline stays with them and with Dar's encouragement, lies to them about why she's running away and about her magical powers.  When all of the plot elements converge, it's a pretty exciting ride.  I really liked Emmeline and her evolution as a character. I loved the idea of magic that was based on light and shadows (lots of great symbolism there!) and I'm really happy to see that this the first in a series!

The second one is called "From Ant to Eagle" by Alex Lyttle.  It's about a boy named Cal who tells you in the second sentence of the book that he killed his brother.  Cal's family has moved to a small town in the country from their big city digs and Cal is trying to figure out how to survive in the country.  His brother, Sammy adores his big brother, and will do anything to try to make Cal happy and proud.  Cal comes ups with a series of tasks for Sammy to do that are extremely difficult so that Sammy will leave him alone.  Cal has his eye on a beautiful girl who has also just moved to their small town but she is quiet and seems to want to spend a lot of time alone.  About half way through the book, there's a kind of a plot twist, or maybe just the real point of the book.  I don't really want to put a spoiler here, but since you already know Sammy dies, it's kind of a moot point.  What's interesting about this story is about how all the different characters deal with Sammy's death-how each of Cal's parents deal with it, how the community deals with it and ultimately, how Cal deals with it.  This is going to be a really good one to have in the library-Cal is a really likable character and his parents are very believable.  Dealing with the loss of a child is incredibly difficult and this book will be a great opening for conversations on dealing with anyone's death.

The last one is a non-fiction book.  It's called "Out of the Box" by Jemma Westing.  It's book full of projects to make out of cardboard.  In the spirit of full disclosure, my aunt, who was also a teacher, absolutely adores paper projects and instilled in me a love of crafting and particularly paper projects. She might be getting a copy of this book for Christmas!  The book has 25 different projects in varying skill levels.  The beginning of the book tells you about different kinds of cardboard and has lists of some of the different tools you might need to be able to successfully complete the project. It also has a little scale to show you how difficult the project is and bunches of photographic examples of the project.  I think this would make an excellent book for a makerspace resource.  The projects are easy enough that they could be completed in a fairly short amount of time (especially if you already had the materials gathered) and the steps are laid out so clearly that they would be easy for even some of the kids with limited reading skills would be able to follow them.  I think the kids are going to love this one.  

Sunday, July 2, 2017

My new favorite books

I just looked at my Goodreads profile and it says I'm 62 books behind schedule for reading 400 books this year.  Rats.  I guess I'm going to have to pick up the pace a bit.  Thank goodness summer's here so I can have some time to read!  Through Goodreads, I belong to a group called Mock Newbery and they try to pick which book might win the Newbery  and although we don't seem to have guess correctly yet, they have THE BEST suggestions for books.  This month we voted on 5 titles (See You In the Cosmos by Jack Cheng was the consensus for this month) but I read them all.  My new favorite is called "Crack in the Sea" by H. M. Bouwman.

This is Bouwman's second novel and I missed her first one.  This one is so big that it's a bit hard to describe.  It starts with two main characters, a brother and sister-Pip and Kinchen.  They are orphans but live with a kind old man named Ren who has adopted them and cared for them on an island that is quite far away from other islands, so they rarely get visitors.  However, on the day the story starts, there are visitors from a place called Raftworld.  In particular, the visitors want to talk to Pip about his gift for talking to animals underwater.  It turns out the King of Raftworld has a plan for easing the overcrowding of Raftworld that involves Pip and his gift.  In addition to Pip's gift, he also has a problem recognizing faces, even faces of people he knows well, so his sister is very protective of him, so when the King is a bit insistent, she wants to walk away and take Pip with her and things really start to happen.  I don't want to give too much away because the unfolding of this story is part of what makes it so magical.  But let me tell you that there are historical touch points that will surprise you along with gigantic themes of finding yourself, trust, forgiveness and hope.  I loved this one so much!

My second new favorite is one I read as an advanced reader's copy from Netgalley.  It's called "Almost Paradise".  It's by Corabel Shofner and it's her first novel.  It has an array of very interesting characters-the main character and storyteller is Ruby Clyde Henderson.  She has led a tragically interesting life-her father was killed on her birthday in an armed robbery.  Her mother, who is not a strong person, has allowed people to steer her in different directions.  The latest person to do the steering is a man named Carl (who Ruby calls the Catfish) and he has a million great ideas on how to make money.  This doesn't end well for any of them, luckily, Ruby Clyde finds someone who will help take care of all of them.  It's a lovely story full of hope and love and funny things that happen in life.  I really liked all the characters in this story.  It would be great connected to another book that has similar themes - "The Honorable Perry T. Cook" by Leslie Connor.  Don't miss this one!

This last one is a YA book and it will be too big for my library, but I had a really hard time putting it down.  It's called "Fragile Like Us" by Sara Barnard.  It's told by a girl named Caddy who has a best friend since she was a little girl named Rosie.  They attend different schools (Caddy goes to a private all girls school and Rosie attends the local high school).  Caddy's parents have high expectations for and that's doubly difficult because Caddy's older sister has struggled with mental illness.  A new girl named Suzanne moves to their town and Rosie and Suzanne seem to becoming really good friends and Caddy is a bit jealous.  However, it turns out that Suzanne is struggling with some really big issues and Caddy really wants to be able to help.  Her family and Rosie try to tell Caddy to distance herself from Suzanne but Caddy keeps thinking things will get better.  It has a really interesting dynamic-you can see how people are drawn into difficult and enabling relationships.  I liked all of the girls and it was also possible to get some insight into the lives of English school girls-the English culture was very strong.  I thought it was a super compelling read and I think the high school kids would enjoy it a lot.  This one is coming out July 18, so look for it!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Sunshine State Young Readers 2017-2018

So we've got the new list for the Sunshine State Young Readers for the middle grades.  I'm starting with the 3rd to 5th grade, because those are for my students, but I'm hoping I'll have time to read the 6-8 as well, because some of my favorites are on there too!

The first one I read this summer is called "Castle Hangnail" by Ursula Vernon.  I just got a series of books by Ursula Vernon for my school library about Harriet the Hamster Princess which is hilarious so I was looking forward to "Castle Hangnail" and I was NOT disappointed.  Castle Hangnail belongs to a witches guild and is in transition.  The old witch is gone and they are looking for a new witch.  There is a cast of minions that includes the caretaker (who has no name), a haunted suit of armor, a stuffed doll named Pins who takes care of wardrobe and furnishings, a minotaur that is the cook, and the cleaner, Serenissima, who is a water spirit that steams every thing clean.  They are a bit worried about the new witch, as they have had some bad experiences in the past.  They are very surprised when a witch named Molly turns up.  Molly is an evil twin (her sister Sarah is very pink and sparkly) and Molly is magical (she can turn invisible by holding her breath) but she has a lot to learn-especially since she's only 12.  The minions are a bit taken aback by her youth, but they do their best to make it work.  Molly is a very likable character but there are many surprises along the way.  There is a bit of mystery, but what's really great about this one is the dialogue and interplay between the characters.  I thought it was terrific.

Here's a book trailer about "Castle Hangnail".

And here's a little interview with Ursula Vernon about writing "Castle Hangnail".

The second one I read is called "A Dragon's Guide to the care and feeding of humans' by Laurence Yep.  Ms. Drake tells the story.  She's a dragon and her favorite pet, Fluffy, has just died.  Except, it turns out that Fluffy, who's real name was Amelia was a human and in addition to being a dragon's pet,  also had a niece and a grand niece, and before Fluffy/Amelia died, she drew up a will leaving her house to her niece and a letter explaining to her grand-niece, Winnie, how to find the dragon.  Winnie loves the idea of having a dragon, but Ms. Drake is not so sure.  Winnie eventually wins her over and as they are getting to know each other, Ms. Drake buys Winnie a drawing pad.  Unfortunately, the drawing pad has some unexpected magical powers, so Winnie and Ms. Drake have to work together to try to fix the mess.  This is a very entertaining story with lots of great plot twists and interesting magical creatures.  I think the kids are going to love this one.  

The third one, is called "Maxi's Secret" by Lynn Plourde.  I almost didn't read it, because it starts off, in my opinion, rather badly.  Here's the first line "Let's get this part over with-it's no secret.  My dog Maxi, dies."  Uggghhh.  Really?  I HATE this kind of book, you totally fall in love with the dog and then at the very last possible moment, the dog dies.  Gaaaahhhh.  Big ugly cry.  So really?  I want to spend my time reading this?  The answer is YES, yes, you do want to read this, because Timminy, Maxi's owner, is worth knowing, and actually, even more so, Timminy's friends are worth knowing.  

So Timminy starts telling this story, he's short, he gets picked on all the time.  His dad has taken a new job as an assistant principal in a school far away, so they have to move.  Timminy will be attending the same school where his dad is the assistant principal (so no pressure there).  Timminy's parents agree that he can have a dog, since they are going to be living more out in the country.  Timminy chooses a Great Pyrenees, which are these giant fluffy white dogs, bred in the mountains of France.  They have amazing personalities.  Timminy's dad thinks Maxine would be a great name for the puppy, but Timminy shortens it to Maxi.  They adore each other from the get-go, and Maxi helps Timminy meet some of the other kids in the neighborhood, including Rory, who is big and loud and starts teasing Timminy immediately as well as Abby, the girl next door, who was adopted by her parents (who are white, she's African American) and is blind.  One thing that's pretty interesting is what a negative thinker Timminy is.  But the more he is surrounded by positive thinkers, like Abby, the more he starts thinking positively.  This book as a lovely climax.  It would also be great connected to some of the other great dog stories for kids, like Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo or Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds  Naylor or, Wish by Barbara O'Connor  and yes, it's totally worth reading, even if the dog dies.  

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Picture this... New picture books to look for

Summer vacation is almost upon us!  And how lucky to have some wonderful books to read!  This one is perfect for a stormy day.  It's called "Shelter" by Celine Claire.  It's about a community of animals that live independently.  One day a storm blows up.  The animals are secure in their homes, but some strangers come, seeking shelter and comfort.  They have cookies to share, but no one is willing to let them in.  A little fox gives them a lantern and the strangers go and create their own shelter.  But suddenly, the foxes' shelter is compromised.  Will they be able to find a safe place?  The soft watercolor paintings make this one really inviting.  This is a nice story about empathy and helping others.  It's going to be a good one to start the year with, when we are trying to create classroom communities.

The second one is a super cute book about dealing with a new baby.  Leon has a new baby at his house and he's not too sure about how that's going to work.  In Leon's way of thinking, there really isn't room for a new baby, until Leon has a really great and loving idea of where the baby can go.  The pictures are black crayon and oil, which gives them a lot of texture and interest, in spite of a limited color palette.  The penguins have more human faces than you might expect.  This will be a nice addition to all the books about dealing with babies like "The New Small Person" by Lauren Childs or "Peter's Chair" by Ezra Jack Keats.  

The last one is a circle story called "Leap!" by JonArno Lawson.  It starts off with a flea who takes a leap and sets in motion a series of actions, involving a large array of animals leaping.  The story is written in rhyme and it has  the most amazing array of language-such lovely words and descriptions of what the animals are doing and how that leads them to end of the book, (I don't really think this is a spoiler but it you don't want to know the ending before you read it, skip to the next paragraph please) where the dog and the flea finally go to sleep.

The art is watercolor and collage and the pictures are modern and exuberant and lots of fun.  The horse looks REALLY scared, which might make for a good conversation about understanding others feelings and body language.    I liked this one a lot.  

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Terrific new middle grade fiction

I can hardly believe that the school year is almost over and yet it is.  It seems like only yesterday we were just starting and now we're starting to put things away and dream of long days with less structure and MORE READING.  Some people have started to count down the days, but I don't do that until we are in the single digits.  So, here are a few books to put on your summer reading list!

The first one is called "The World's Greatest Chocolate Covered Pork Chops" by Ryan K. Sager.  It's a very funny story about a girl named Zoe who is the arguably with world's greatest chef.  She is, at the very least, the world's best young chef, as she is only 12 years old and already has her own restaurant and a large group of very loyal patrons.  Zoe wants to open her own restaurant and convinces her parents that she should be allowed to apply for a business loan as well as choose the location and then open the restaurant.  Her parents, who are jazz musicians, agree.  Once Zoe opens her restaurant, she is hoping that a local food writer will come and taste her food and then write about it in a positive way and that she will be named the best chef in San Francisco.  This book is heavy on the fun and the food but there is also a bit of a mystery.  I think kids are going to like this one a lot.

The second one is a more serious story.  It's called "Caleb and Kit" by Beth Vrabel.  I read Beth Vrabel's first book, "A Blind Guide to Stinkville" about a girl with albinism who moves across country to a small town in SC.  THAT one was awesome.  (Here's the review for Blind Guide to Stinkville).  This one is at least as good, maybe even better.  Caleb is 12 and has cystic fibrosis.  If you don't know what cystic fibrosis is, this book goes into great deal about the symptoms as well as some of the treatments and side effects of cystic fibrosis (and parts of it go into greater detail than you would hope).  But what's great about this book is the character development- the story is told from Caleb's point of view so you get to hear about what's rotten about being chronically ill (and possibly only living a short life) but through the arc of the story, Caleb also comes to understand his (nearly perfect) older brother Patrick, and his parents (who have two very different ways of dealing Caleb's condition). He also meets a girl who is living the life he wishes he could live-Kit is allowed to do what ever she wants-walk in the woods, take a dip in the creek, sleep outside, eat whatever she wants.  It all sounds pretty awesome, until he finds out why she's allowed all this flexibility.  This year, my students really seem to love stories where people are sick so I think this one is going to be very popular.  

This last one is already in print because I checked it out of my local library and it's SOOO wonderful.  It's called "Princess Cora and the Crocodile" and it's written by Laura Amy Schlitz and illustrated by Brian Floca.  Laura Amy Schlitz has written a number of awesome books, like "The Hired Girl" and "Good Masters!  Sweet Ladies!" which won the Newbery a few years back.  Brian Floca won the Caldecott a year or two ago with "Locomotive" so you might expect that this is going to be a terrific book.  Well, let me tell you.  IT IS.  It's about a princess named Cora.  When she's born, her parents take one look at her and fall completely in love with her-she's so pretty and so sweet looking.  They then start thinking about what a difficult job it will be to be queen so they set out to train her to strong (by jumping rope), smart (reading lots of books), and clean (taking lots of baths).  Cora is a good sport about this for awhile, but she gets to a point where she's looking for a way out.  So she asks her godmother for a dog.  Except the godmother sends a crocodile.  Their plan to solve Cora's problem is absolutely hilarious and the story comes to a lovely conclusion (which I am SO not going to tell you).  What's also great about this one is the art work.  The pictures are lovely soft water colors which will evoke old fashioned fairy tales, but they add so much to the story... the expressions on the characters' faces are wonderful and you almost feel like you're a part of the story.  I loved this one.  Don't miss it!

Monday, May 8, 2017

Awesome new YA

I've been rooting around in Netgalley for something good to read and I have been rewarded for my patience!  I found some really great YA books that will be published soon.  Check these out...

The first one is called "Shooter" by Caroline Pignat.  It's told from the point of view of 5 very different high schools students.  Isabelle, or Izzy,  is the class president but worries about not being enough.  Hogan is a former football player who has some big issues surrounding his temper.  Xander is a photographer who struggles with social skills (the author never names his diagnosis but you could assume it was Asperger's or possibly high functioning autism).  Noah is definitely autistic and has limited self control.  Alice is his sister who worries about him and tries as much as she can to protect him.  They all end up in a boys bathroom at the school during a lockdown, which the kids initially assume is a drill, but it turns out, it's a real emergency.  I really liked each of these characters for lots of different reasons.  Each has a distinctive and remarkably likable voice.  They are each dealing with their own demons and this crisis brings many of their problems to a place where they can deal with them.  The writing was very fast paced and super hard to put down.  I really liked this one a lot.  It's too big for my elementary school library but this one will be great for high school students.

This next one is from a terrific author, Carol Weston.  She has written several other books that I've enjoyed very much (like Ava and Pip)   I'm writing about her latest book, "The Speed of Life" here in a YA post, because to me, it felt like it was too big for the small end of middle grade fiction.  That's where I live-deep in the dark heart of an ELEMENTARY school library.  I think it's too big for third graders.  There might be some fourth graders who need it, but really-5th grade and up.  It's about a girl named Sofia.  She lives with her dad in an apartment in NY City.  Her mother died the year before and its been really hard on Sofia and her dad, but they are muddling through.  Like many teen age girls, Sofia is worried about dating (she isn't yet, should she be?) and body issues (like periods!  And bras!  and chest sizes!).  An advice columnist comes to their school and speaks very frankly about all of these topics and Sofia starts emailing her and the columnist responds!  The author does an amazing job of weaving lots of social issues into this one-coping with death, multiculturalism, puberty, dating, premarital sex, abortion, gay relationships, and friendship, just to name a few.  Sofia is a terrific character, but the other characters are awesome as well-her dad, the advice columnist, her best friend KiKi, her new stepsister, Alexa.  I was really sorry when this book was over!  

Here's the author, Carol Weston, talking about the book.

The last one has a really great art connection.  It's called "Piecing Me Together" by Renee Watson.  It's about Jade who is a very talented collage artist and loves making art pieces.  She lives with her mom and her older brother.  Her mother works hard and has made it possible for Jade to attend an exclusive private school in another part of Portland, Oregon, where they live.  Jade has to ride the city bus a long way to get to school and she feels like an outsider there, not just because of her appearance but because of where she lives, what she likes to eat, what she likes to do, everything is different.  She notices another girl riding the same bus every day and strikes up a friendship with her.  Jade also has a mentor that she is somewhat ambivalent about-she's not sure exactly why Maxine wants to be her mentor or even if Maxine is really that interested in her.  I really liked Jade and her voice-I could really feel her emotions and understand what her life is like.  One of the big themes that I think a lot of kids will relate to is the idea that you want to leave home for all sorts of reasons, but leaving is hard and scary and will it be any better some place else?  I loved all the different struggles Jade was having and was sorry when this one was over too.  I think lots of kids are going to enjoy getting to know her too!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Awesome new picture books!

I just finished the book fair at my school and there were some great new books there but there are    are also some amazing new picture books coming out in the next few months.  Here are a few you might want to look for!

The first one is called "Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean's Most Fearless Scientist" by Jess Keating.  I was already a big fan of Jess Keating's work (you know, Pink is for Blobfish?) AND a big fan of Eugenie Clark.  I can remember reading Ann Martin's version of "Shark Lady" with a group of second graders and having one of my little girls hug the book to her chest and say "When I grow up, I'm going to be an ichthyologist".  So a picture book version of this one is bound to be awesome and it is.  The pictures (in my e-book advanced reader's copy version) are a bit cartoon-y but in a friendly way.  You can completely feel Eugenie's energy and curiosity shining through them.  The text is amazing too-with lots of little details to make you really feel like you're right there with Eugenie, swimming with the sharks.  Kids are going to love this one and I think teachers are going to love it too-as a mentor text for writing narrative non-fiction as well as role models for young women.  I can't wait to get this one into my library.

Here's another one my kids will love.  It's called "Baking Class" by Deanna F. Cook.  It's a picture book and a recipe book.  Unsurprisingly, it's all about baking.  The recipes are rated from one rolling pin (super easy) to three rolling pins (more complicated).  There is a nice piece at the beginning that helps to develop the vocabulary of kitchen skills and tools and the recipes are organized in a way that makes finding what you want to make really easy.  There are also lots of super fun ways to serve the recipes in funny and unexpected ways, like using banana bread as a base, spreading it with nut butter and decorating it to look like monkey face with fresh fruit.  The recipes are very clearly written and the photographs offer excellent support.  I can't wait to put this one in my library too!

This last one is a graphic novel AND a biography of Pele, the famous soccer star, so it's hard to see how this one could miss!  It's a very interesting story of his life and the graphic novel presentation makes the story move along very quickly.  Lots of kids will be interested in this one.  The only disadvantage from my standpoint is that it's probably too big for an elementary library.  There is a small amount of what my students say is "bad language" but there is also some sexual innuendo that I would not feel comfortable presenting to my little kids, who are bound to pick this up, since it's a graphic novel.  Having said that, it's probably not too big for middle school and certainly, it's fairly tame for high school.  The book also has a nice mix of both personal as well as historical references and if you are like me, it will send you to do some research to find out more about this very interesting sportsman.  

Here's the cover. 

And here's one of the pages so you can see some of the terrific artwork.