January 26, 2017
Annabelle is growing up in the shadow of two world wars. In spite of this, life in her small Pennsylvania town is pretty quiet. For a long time, the only signs of the war that she sees are the stars that represent the local men over sewn on the banner. Then Betty moves to town.
It’s an open secret that Betty is trouble. The adults all know it but they hope that a fresh start will do the girl some good. The grandparents that she lives with are friends of Annabelle’s grandparents so Annabelle is more than willing to give the girl a chance. But she’s a schoolyard bully who beats people who don’t pay up and soon focuses her attentions on Toby.
Toby doesn’t have a home. He shelters in an abandoned smoke house. He carries three rifles everywhere he goes and takes pictures of the outdoors using the camera Annabelle’s mother won in a drawing. With one scarred hand, people know he fought in the great war but they don’t know much more about him. Annabelle and her mother leave food for him and try to be what help they can.
But when Betty goes missing, suspicion quickly falls on Toby.
I’m not going to say anything more about the plot because I don’t want to give away all the marvelous twist and turns. Earlier in the week, this book was named as an honor book for the American Library Association’s Newbery Award. If this was an honor book, I definitely need to get my hands on the winner.
This is a book that needs to be in all school libraries. It tells a story about intolerance and prejudice and how people’s suspicions can spiral out of control. It is also a story about quiet strength and compassion and the fight to bring the truth to light.
We tend to think of the past and childhood as simple and innocent. This book shines a light into the shadows and shows us how nuanced and multi-layered people of every age, throughout time, truly are.
Read this with your class. Read it with your child. It will give you both something to contemplate.
January 23, 2017
Biggety Bat: Hot Diggety, It’s Biggety and Biggety Bat: Chow Down, Biggety
by Ann Ingalls
illustrated by Aaron Zenz
If you have a new reader in your home, look for this pair of fun early readers from Missouri author Ann Ingalls. In the first book, readers meet Biggety Bat who is coming out just as the sun goes down.
Biggety is on the lookout for a friend. As he explores the area around the bridge where he roosts, he finds egret, tortoises, beetles, mockingbirds and possum. It is only when Biggety find a family of raccoons that the kits invite him to play.
This is a Level 1 reader meaning that although most of the words are sight words there are also some that your young reader will have to sound out. These include words like tortoise and possum. Fortunately, the illustrations give your new reader the clues that he or she needs to decipher the text.
An author’s note tells about the colony of Mexican free-tailed bats that live under a bridge in Austin, Texas. It also lists the animals found in the book.
In the second book, Biggety is now making his home under a mangrove. Biggety is sniffing out supper but the foods that the other animals eat — shrimp, grass and fish — won’t work for the hungry bat. Finally a cloud of mosquitoes provide him with a meal. But not to worry. This book is also level one and Ingalls calls the mosquitoes bugs, an easy enough word for your new reader to decipher. Once again there is an author’s note that describes the ecosystem of a mangrove swamp.
It can take a while for new readers to build their skills but leveled readers like these can help develop the academic muscles needed to read independently. Ingalls’ Biggety books are light-hearted and fun but also teach new readers about the natural world. Aaron Zenz cartoony illustrations add to the feel. Biggety and his fellow animals are cute and silly so even the crocodile isn’t too scary to distract from new reading skills.
Share these books with your new reader and help them learn what they need to know to read with confidence on their own.
January 19, 2017
Alexandrina was 15 years-old when she realized that she would probably become Queen of England. Although she didn’t dread her fate, she did worry. What did she know about ruling? Would her Uncle George live until she turned 18? Because if he didn’t she would have to have a regent and Drina, as her mother called her, knew that it would be her mother’s advisor Lord Conroy.
Fortunately, King George didn’t die until after his niece had turned 18. In addition to ruling with only a handful of trusted advisors, she was able to choose the name that would be used at the coronation. Against the advice of Lord Conroy, she chose her middle name — Victoria.
Author Daisy Goodwin has crafted a novel of the first year or so of Queen Victoria’s reign. Yes, it is fiction but it is carefully researched and meshes with the nonfiction that I’ve read about the time period and the queen. Goodwin is also the author of the script for the Masterpiece presentation, Victoria.
Strictly speaking this is not a young adult novel but it has a lot to offer a young reader.
The queen was a teenager when she took the throne. She had never been able to choose her own friends, her own clothing or her own studies. This was a huge shift for her. It was interesting to see how she met the various challenges. I’d love to say that she met them all with grace and wisdom but . . . not really. Still, she was a well-meaning person and she often learned from her mistakes.
Because this is an adult novel, the emphasis is somewhat different from it would be if it was written for teens. But that isn’t what may seem the strangest. There was also a big push for Victoria to marry. The concern was that an unmarried girl would be too frivolous to rule. Her head and her thoughts would be too easily swayed. A husband would settle her right down. I know, I know. It seems asinine today but this story is written true to the time.
It is a quick easy read that would make a top-notch introduction to this amazing woman. A woman who gave her middle name to an era.
January 16, 2017
One day, George’s teacher passes out a new assignment. Her class will be combining their pen pal and poetry units. Each student has been assigned a pen pal to write in rhyme.
George writes a letter to Blaise all about how it is to write a letter when you don’t actually know the person yet. He talks about the fort that he and his dad built as well as playing catch and soccer.
Blaise writes back and talks about sky diving and how much he loves attacking castles.
Letter by letter, George and Blaise get to know each other. In the illustrations, when George imagines all that Blaise does, he images a boy much like himself. George imagines someone who resembles him in every way. But readers know something that the two boys do not. George is a boy human. Blaise is a boy dragon.
Toward the end of the assignment the two classes get together. Will the new friendships they’ve developed be enough to overcome their fear of someone who is different?
I cannot overstate just how much I loved this book. First of all, it is clever on a level that is there just for the adult reader. George’s full name is George Slair, reminiscent of St. George. He is natural enemy of Blaise Dragomir. That makes the ending all the sweeter.
This is a terrific book about prejudice and human differences without ever saying that it is about prejudice and human differences. Because of that, young readers are allowed to discover the message as they hear the story. That’s what keeps it from being preachy or over stated.
Montalvo’s watercolor, ink and graphite illustrations are cartoony enough to make the story fun without the imaginings of either boy getting too scary. Blaise is just to cute and fun looking to strike fear.
Share this book in your classroom or any place else that you want to launch a conversation about differences, prejudice and fear.
January 13, 2017
Squirrels certainly are busy little creatures, scampering and jumping, barking and hiding food. Author April Pulley Sayre’s gives a poetic look at an animal most of us know relatively little about.
First Sayre introduces readers to the most common types of US squirrels — the red squirrel, the grey squirrel, the fox squirrel and the flying squirrel. She then focuses on the fox squirrel showing us what it does from down to dusk. Readers learn common behaviors including what they eat and how their food-storing habit affects their environment. An author’s note following the main text discusses the squirrel’s life cycle as compared to that of the trees they inhabit as well as giving more information on how they impact their habitat.
As with many of Sayre’s books, Squirrels Leap would make an excellent read-aloud. The rhyming text is short and straight forward while simultaneously presenting the reader with a great deal of information. The text is short enough to be read quickly which would give a class or other group time to discuss squirrels, habitat, animal movement and more.
Complimenting Sayre’s text are Jenkins illustrations. Jenkins is well-known for his combination of cut- and torn-paper collage and the illustrations in this book do not disappoint. A wide variety of papers lend the illustrations a host of textures including making the squirrels look fuzzy as they scamper among crisp, shiny leaves.
This book is an excellent introduction to squirrels or the topic of how animals interact with and impact their environments. A must for the classroom and the library.
January 9, 2017
It is 42 days into monster madness and Jack Sullivan is ready for some changes. Sure, he’s a monster fighting maniac with a tricked out tree house but he’s also alone. All around the thirteen year-old are zombies, dozers and Blarg, a strangely intelligent monster that seems determined to track Jack down.
It isn’t that Jack misses his family. How do you miss what you’ve never had? Jack is an orphan and a foster kid and when the zombies showed up his “family” took off without him. But Jack does miss his genius best friend. And he’s ready to check some more feats off his list.
Yes, Jack gets that this is serious stuff. Zombies do eat people after all. But Jack doesn’t get why he can’t have fun. So he’s made up a series of feats such as outrunning zombies, stealing their hats and rescuing damsel in distress, June del Torro. June just happens to be Jack’s crush and he watched from the school bus as she locked herself in the middle school. If he can team up with his best friend, he knows that they can save her.
Jack’s in luck. Not only does he find Quint but he survives an encounter with a bully, and even recruits the big guy for their team. Monster dog, every boy needs a dog, in tow, they set off to rescue the damsel and discover a capable girl whose hanging at school waiting for her parents, but might be willing to come to the tree house.
Yep. They’re letting a girl into the tree house.
In some ways this reminded me of the Wimpy Kid books but with teeth. The voice is just as funny but the adventures are less innocent. No, that doesn’t mean the kids are dabbling in substances or anything else too teen-after-school-special. But they are battling zombies. Silly zombies, goof ball zombies but deadly zombies nonetheless.
These are the perfect books for kids who want to read the zombie books written for the older kids but who just aren’t ready for the blood, gore and grief. Part of the levity comes through Brallier’s voice which sounds like a young teen trying to talk tough but still has a great sense of humor. Holgate’s illustrations, which look cartoony, add to the fun feel. A good choice for the older grade school reader who isn’t ready for serious teen books.
January 6, 2017
Without the local mine feeding metals to the factory in Dustwalk, no one knows how much longer the factor will remain open. But that’s not why 16-year-old Amani Al’Hiza wants out. She’s female and she’s an orphan. That means that she relies on the generosity of her aunt and uncle to cloth and feed her. And the nature of that “generosity” is about to change.
Her uncle has decided to make her his next wife.
Amani is desperate to avoid marriage. She saw what it got her mother — life with an abusive alcoholic who mocked her for being raped by occupying soldiers. How else could Amani have their blue eyes?
Amani may be the only blue-eyed girl in the Last County but she’s a girl whose good with a gun. So she takes her skills to the gun pits, determined to gamble her way out of Dustwalk. Unfortunately she pitted against a handsome foreigner who may be as good as she is. That’s a big enough problem even before she finds out that the whole set up is just that . . . a set up. There’s no way she can win. Now how is she going to escape across the desert?
My Dad grew up in the alpine deserts of West Texas and maybe it’s something to do with his tall tales but I’ve always been drawn to desert stories. Unlike Dad’s stories, Armani’s is full of djinn and ghouls and other creatures of magic that inhabit the far corners of the desert. As she travels into the desert with the reckless foreigner, Armani discovers a connection to these beings, a connection that she never dreamed was possible.
It was no surprise to me to discover this is a New York Times best seller. There’s adventure, romance and danger as well as magic and mystery. The setting is 1/2 Wild West and 1/2 Arabian Nights and entirely enthralling.
Share it with your teen and settle in for a great read.
January 3, 2017
Chloe Cho and her best friend Shelley are two of the best students in the school. They begin every assignment early, put in extra effort and rock the curve.
But seventh grade is going to be tricky. Yes, for the first time ever they have a Korean teacher. Chloe is used to being one of three people of Korean descent in her small town. Her parents are the other two. And she’s excited to meet her new teacher right up until the teacher hands out her first assignment.
Interview a family member and write down a family story you’ve never heard before.
The problem is that Chloe knows more of Shelley’s family stories than she does her own. Whenever she asks about Korea, her parents shut down. They claim they want to live in the present and not dwell in the past but Chloe is about to lose her cool. She can’t let them blow her grade.
Chloe does finally get a story about an uncle who was in a camp but when she gets her grade the teacher has given her an F. Chloe Cho does not get Fs! Then she talks to the teacher and discover that the story her father told her is straight out of a book. She’s plagiarized and her father tricked her into doing it.
Chloe is really mad and she isn’t going to stop until she has the answers. What she finds out is that she isn’t Korean, but something far more unusual. She is so shocked that she pulls away from Shelley, quits doing her school work and retreats into her room. Who is she if she isn’t the only Korean girl in town?
Yes, yes. I know. I’m not filling you in but you really do need to read this for yourself. Jung does a top-notch job creating a character who starts out sure of herself and her place in the middle school pecking order only to come to question everything that she’s believed her whole life. It is a must read story about self, about identify and about what it is to be a true friend.
I suspect that part of the reason that I’ve latched onto this book are my own writings on race and racism. Throughout the story, Jung insinuates acts of micro-aggression — those phrases and actions that feel racist to the recipient even if the person doing them is unaware of the implications.
A must read for the diverse classroom.