Monday, October 8, 2018

Review: Skylark and Wallcreeper

Skylark and Wallcreeper Skylark and Wallcreeper by Anne O'Brien Carelli
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you enjoy historical fiction, then you must read this book. Having spent time in France during college and loving all things French, I will never turn down the opportunity to read a book that involves my favorite destination. Many people will tell you that this book is about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and World War II. Those two events don't seem to fit together, but O'brien has magically woven them together.

Lily's grandmother is evacuated from her nursing home during Hurricane Sandy to an armory. Lily decides to stay with her grandmother because it will be safer than returning home but also because she is worried about her. The story alternates from Lily's perspective to that of her grandmother, Colette, as a child living in the south of France during World War II. Colette is part of the French resistance and takes on very dangerous missions. During the chapters about Colette, we see a side of Lily's grandmother that she has never seen.

After Lily loses her grandmothers favorite pen, she goes on a search to find it. During this search, Lily discovers the truth about Colette's childhood. While this book takes place during two very important events, I would tell you that this book is about the love of family. It's about doing all you can to make sure those you love are happy and safe. While Lily has always loved and respected her grandmother, finding out about her grandmother's past makes her realize that Colette is the bravest person she's ever met; this frail old woman is truly a hero.

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Saturday, September 29, 2018

Review: New Kid

New Kid New Kid by Jerry Craft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This graphic novel will make an excellent addition to middle-grade libraries. Students who are in the minority in their school will certainly appreciate Jordan's experiences at his new school, but I truly think it will resonate with everyone. Most people have felt like an outsider at some point in their lives whether it be because of their race, socioeconomic status, intelligence, etc. New Kid will inspire conversations amongst students and teachers about racism and stereotypes.

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Monday, August 27, 2018

Review: Harbor Me

Harbor Me Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wish I could live in one of Jacqueline Woodson's books because they are so full of beauty. Even when she is writing about heartbreaking events, she finds a way to paint the most desperate situation with her magical lyrical brush. Harbor Me is a short quick powerful read, which will leave you believing that Woodson could find a way to solve all of our country's problems. This novel explores the way we view and treat each other in this country. She manages to explore all the hot-button political issues through the lens of fifth and sixth grade "special" students. These topics include racism, immigration, rich vs. poor, the separation of families, and having an incarcerated parent. How she managed to pack so much depth in such a small book is beyond me, but let me tell you, folks, she did!

What I love most about this novel is how Woodson tackles these important topics; six students spend an hour every Friday afternoon in a classroom talking to each other without any adults present. While one might think kids this age would talk about trivial things, these students truly open up to one another and talk about their preconceived notions of one another based on race, appearance, accent, etc. They find a way to break down the imaginary walls between them simply by honestly discussing their feelings. If only all adults could be so honest with one another, we would probably have a lot less stress in our lives. This book is a perfect spring broad into discussions about equal rights or the lack thereof in this country. Teachers should feel comfortable sharing this book with students in 4th grade and up; however, it would be an excellent tie-in to the fifth-grade curriculum (in South Carolina).

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Saturday, August 25, 2018

Review: Resistance

Resistance Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I finished reading this book last night, the first word that came to mind was WOW. This historical fiction novel follows Polish Jews who are part of a resistance movement against the Nazis during WWII. Chaya is a sixteen-year-old courier; her job is to sneak food and supplies into the ghettos, but she also sneaks people out of the ghetto. Thanks to her looks and language skills, she can easily blend in with Polish Christians, so German soldiers often don't think twice about letting her into the ghettos "to sell scarves."

When Esther joins Chaya's resistance group, Chaya is very unimpressed with her. She can't possibly understand what she will offer their group. Esther is timid and makes lots of mistakes. Eventually, Chaya learns to trust Esther, and they become like sisters. They take their fight to the Warsaw ghetto right as it is about to be heavily attacked by the Nazis. Their mission is to save as many Jews as possible while making the world take notice of their resistance.

This novel accurately depicts the atrocious living conditions in the Jewish ghettos. It is violent without being gory. While it may be difficult for students to stomach, I think Resistance is a necessary read. It seems that history is repeating itself far too often. Students and adults alike need to learn from the past so that there will be hope for a more peaceful future. In her closing, Jennifer A. Nielsen says that "love is the resistance." I hope this book will inspire students not to blindly follow or believe what someone tells them; I think one of the greatest takeaways from this novel is to stand up and fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, whether that be because they are too weak, too scared, or too hopeless. There is always hope. There is always a cause or a person worth fighting for. Don't be a sheep "who goes like lambs to the slaughter."

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Saturday, August 18, 2018

Review: Tight

Tight Tight by Torrey Maldonado
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I was reading this book, I was reminded of many students I've taught in the past. Those students really could have used a book like this in their lives. Many of them grew up in similar situations to the main character, Bryan: a home in the projects, a parent in and out of jail, and struggling to figure out where they belong. So often, I could see those students straggling an invisible line: they could be smart and well-behaved around certain classmates and teachers, but around peers from home, they had to be so hard. I think that many of those students probably worried about their friends and family thinking they were trying to be better than them by doing well in school and trying to have a different future. I hated seeing them have that internal struggle. I can only recall one student who was adamant that he was going to make a better life for himself, and I hope he did.

Bryan has a very similar internal struggle; he longs for peace and quiet in a very loud and unpredictable environment. His dad often lets his temper get the best of him, and it has put him in jail more than once. Bryan doesn't want to be like his dad, but at the same time, he doesn't want his dad to think he's soft. He pushes himself out of his comfort zone with his new friend Mike who encourages him to do things that aren't exactly legal. Bryan's parents think Mike is a good friend, but they don't see Mike's wild side. When Bryan befriends Big Will, he realizes that there are other kids like him who value peace and calmness. He has to make a difficult decision: stay friends with Mike because they've been so tight or bounce because Mike isn't who he thought he was.

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Sunday, August 12, 2018

Review: Nowhere Boy

Nowhere Boy Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nowhere Boy is the story of two boys living in Brussels, Belgium; Max is an American expat who is extremely unhappy with his parents for uprooting their family, and Ahmed is a Syrian refugee who has lost his entire family. Their story takes place during a tumultuous time in Europe, so readers will relive terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. With no family and no place to go, Ahmed finds himself living in the wine cellar of Max's family's basement.

While Max is miserable in his new school, Ahmed daydreams of being able to climb over the wall of Max's yard and walk to school like any other normal teenager. Max eventually discovers Ahmed in his basement, and they form a very unlikely friendship. Max risks everything to help Ahmed. He sneaks downstairs every night to bring him food and books to read. He even goes so far as to forge illegal documents to help Max attend his school. Unfortunately, a nosy police officer is constantly stopping by Max's house, so the boys live in fear that Ahmed will be discovered and deported.

The chapters are very short and alternate between Max and Ahmed's perspectives; however, the novel itself is fairly long: 353 pages to be exact. Students with low reading stamina may struggle to make it to the end of this novel. This book would pair well with Refugee by Alan Gratz; both novels compare the way Syrian refugees are being treated to the way Jewish people were treated during the Holocaust. Readers will see that even though it may be hard and scary to stand up for those who are being mistreated, doing nothing is not alright. This book will be more meaningful for older readers who are beginning to take interest in the world around them. If you know readers who are interested in current events or politics, I would definitely recommend this book to them. I would also put this book in the hands of any child who needs a lesson in empathy. Nowhere Boy is a worthwhile, meaningful read.

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Monday, August 6, 2018

Review: Grenade

Grenade Grenade by Alan Gratz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alan Gratz has historical fiction down pat. He makes events from the past come to life for his readers, and his latest novel, Grenade, is no exception. This story takes place on Okinawa during WWII and is told in the alternating perspectives of a young Okinawan boy, Hideki, and an American Marine, Ray.

Hideki is given two grenades and charged with using one to kill as many Americans as possible and using the other to kill himself. Ray is the son of a WWI vet, so he has seen what war can do to a man. He doesn't want to become used to killing Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians, but he has to in order to survive. Hideki doesn't want to become a monster like the Japanese and American soldiers that he is constantly trying to avoid.

This novel truly shows war for what is: death, death, and more death. There are scenes of Okinawan civilians committing mass suicide, body parts being blown off, etc. It's certainly not a lighthearted read. Know your younger students before handing this book to them. Grenade would be a great addition to WWII text sets. I would recommend this book for mature 5th grade students and above. I can see high school history teachers using this book to highlight a battle that students don't typically learn about (at least I didn't).

I loved the alternating perspectives in Refugee; they were so necessary for that book because they helped hammer home the point that history keeps repeating itself. I honestly would have preferred for Grenade to be solely from Hideki's point of view. Ray's story serves a purpose; it shows that both sides really don't want to be fighting and that they all had identities separate from being a soldier. However, I felt like his chapters disrupted the flow for me; I read part two much quicker because it was only in Hideki's point of view. While Grenade may not be as thought-provoking or self-convicting as Refugee, it does offer a front-row seat to the destructive nature of war.


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Thursday, August 2, 2018

Review: The Reckless Club

The Reckless Club The Reckless Club by Beth Vrabel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you loved The Breakfast Club, you will love this book. If you are too young to know what The Breakfast Club is, ask your parents. Five extremely different students find themselves spending the last day of summer vacation volunteering at a local assisted living facility as punishment for things they did on the last day of school. At first, each student seems like a cliche; there's the drama queen, a flirt, an athlete, a rebel, and a nobody. As the story unfolds, we learn there is much more depth to each character. They are all suffering in their own ways. From the outside, each character may seem to have their stuff together or like they don't care about anyone else's opinion, but they are all just trying to hide their insecurities. These kids have parents who have walked out on them or who are verbally abusive. They feel pressure to be perfect, liked by everyone else, and to be someone other than who they actually are.

After first meeting the characters, readers may be annoyed with their behavior or lack of empathy, but they will quickly fall in love with each character when they learn more about "the Reckless Club's" backstories. This book will provide readers with a chance to think more deeply about bullying and how one's actions affect others. It would work well in an empathy unit or text set. Vrabel's novel could be a perfect mentor text to use in a writer's workshop on character development as she does an excellent job at slowly unraveling their personalities. This book is a must-read for students in 5th grade - 8th grade.

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Monday, July 30, 2018

Review: Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess

Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess by Shari Green
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Macy McMillan is accustomed to being a team of two: just her and her mom, but her team is growing by three people, and she isn't quite ready for that. Macy's mom is about to marry Alan who has twin daughters. The upcoming marriage means that Macy has to move into Alan's house, which means leaving her garden, her reading nook, and being in close proximity to her best friend.

In an effort to take Macy's mind off all these soon-to-be changes, Macy's mom encourages her to help their elderly neighbor, Iris, pack up her belongings before she moves into an assisted living facility. Even though Macy is very leery about helping out her neighbor, Iris ends up becoming a great friend who shares many life lessons with her.

Throughout this free verse novel, Macy learns the importance of discovering other people's stories. She realizes that there is always more to a person than what you see on the surface. Through Macy's experiences, readers will see the value in listening to the stories of their elders. As a child, I was always enthralled by my grandparents' life stories. I hate that none of their stories were ever written down for me to share with my children so they would be able to see how their story came to be.

Shari Green's verse is beautifully lyrical. This novel is perfect for readers who are going through life changes. It would be a great suggestion for kids who might be anxious about starting a new chapter in life, whether that be a new school or expanding family. Readers will find comfort in Macy's story by seeing that change can be good and "finding home is about following your story."

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Sunday, July 29, 2018

Review: Where the Watermelons Grow

Where the Watermelons Grow Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm so glad to see that authors aren't watering down difficult topics for the children reading their books. Mental illness has such a negative stigma in our country, and the only way to diminish that stigma is to have open, honest conversations about this topic with those who live with it every day. I'm sure many children who have a parent with mental illness may feel like the main character, Della; she believed she was responsible for her mother's schizophrenia because it became apparent after she was born. I'm guilty of feeling responsible for my son's autism, and I'm an educated adult, so certainly children are more likely to feel responsible for a parent's sickness that they absolutely have no control over.

This book is important for both children living with mental illness in their family and those who do not. For the latter group, this book will help them have a greater understanding of mental illness, but it will also help them empathize with peers who have the same struggles as Della. For children like Della, reading this book might help them realize there are plenty of adults who are willing to step in and love on them when their parents are unable.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review: Hey, Kiddo

Hey, Kiddo Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This graphic novel memoir is rough and not advised for young readers (high school appropriate unless the student will be upset by the profanity). I say that it's rough because the author is brutally honest about his upbringing. His mother was addicted to heroin. He didn’t know who his father was. He was raised by his grandparents who used lots of profanity around him and could be aggressive. But one thing saved him from becoming like his mother, and that was art.

His grandparents encouraged his artistic ability by paying for him to take art classes at the Worcester Art Museum. His art gave him an outlet to explore his ghosts rather than run from them. The detailed author’s note at the end was my favorite part. He recognizes that he became who he both in spite of and because of his mother. He learned from her mistakes; while she squandered her artistic talent, he was determined to make a career out of his. Despite a life full of turmoil, Krosoczka is a successful author & illustrator; his story will be inspirational to students being raised in similar homes. Recommended for mature students.

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Monday, July 23, 2018

Review: The Colors of the Rain

The Colors of the Rain The Colors of the Rain by R.L. Toalson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! This novel-in-verse from R. L. Toalson is a must read. Paulie's father was killed on a rainy evening, and ever since that day, his mom hasn't been the same. She's started drinking and is rarely home. Since his mother can longer take care of them, Paulie and his older sister, Charlie, go to live with their Aunt Bee who happens to be the principal of Paulie's new elementary school. It's 1972 in Houston, and the community is boiling with protests over school desegregation. At his new school, Paulie meets Mr. Langley, the art teacher. Mr. Langley is different than any other teacher Paulie has had before because he is black, but Paulie quickly feels a connection to him. Paulie also meets a black student named Greg who has a special connection to Mr. Langley as well. Unfortunately for Greg, he becomes the target of Paulie's repressed anger over losing his dad and his mom. Eventually, Paulie realizes that he and Greg are more alike than he could have ever imagined.

Aunt Bee has the nicest house Paulie and Charlie have ever seen; she cooks for them and provides for them in ways their mother never could. Paulie and Charlie are loving their new life until their mom throws a wrench in it. She wants them back. The children are faced with the dilemma of disappointing their aunt if they leave and disappointing their mom if they stay. There is an amazing surprise in the plot that unfolds near the end of the book. This twist will leave readers in tears (both happy and sad), and they will be rethinking all of Aunt Bee's prior actions.

Novels-in-verse are quickly becoming one of my favorite genres. They are such quick reads and beautifully lyrical. This book is no exception. I snapped four or five pictures of lines that I didn't want to forget because they were too special to just keep reading. I love when an author writes such beautiful lines that I just want to savor them, and there were many lines worth savoring in The Colors of the Rain

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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Review: Echo's Sister

Echo's Sister Echo's Sister by Paul Mosier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

El has high expectations for her seventh-grade-year; she transferred to a private school for the arts, and by the end of her first day there, she thinks it will be her best year ever. When her dad shows up at the school to walk her home, she knows something is terribly wrong. El's dad breaks the terrible news: her little sister, Echo, has a cancerous tumor in her mouth. Echo's cancer suddenly defines El's family. In El's mind, people only see her as the older sister of the girl with cancer. It seems that everything is about Echo. No more tennis for El. No more being honest with her best friend. Possibly no more private school. Just when El is beginning to lose hope, her friends, both new and old, come together to show her they are supporting Echo and El's family every step of the way.

I'm not going to lie; this book is sad. Reading about a kid with cancer is always difficult, but I was surprised by which narrative brought the most tears to my eyes. El thinks that her classmate Sydney despises her, so in turn, El doesn't like Sydney. When Sydney reads aloud an English assignment to her class, El realizes that Sydney is nothing like she thought she was. This honest and emotionally-vulnerable scene gutted me. For those of you who are old enough to have seen the movie, 10 Things I Hate about You, remember how gut-wrenching it was when Julia Styles' character read aloud a poem about Heath Ledger's character? Yeah, it's a lot like that.

If you have a student who asks for a book that will make them cry (because kids ask me that all the time), suggest Echo's Sister by Paul Mosier.

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