Friday, November 16, 2018

Review: The Third Mushroom

The Third Mushroom The Third Mushroom by Jennifer L. Holm
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Third Mushroom is an excellent sequel to The Fourteenth Goldfish, but it also works as a standalone book. I love Jennifer Holm's novels because they tackle important topics while still being funny and appropriate for young readers. As an elementary librarian, I often worry about putting books out in the library that have profane language in them because I work in a very conservative community.

This story is all about friendship in its many different forms: the current best friend, the old best friend, a pet, and a family member that becomes a friend. I completely agree with the main character Ellie; someone needs to create a "friendmance" category of books "because friendship is as important as love" (p. 212*). I love that Ellie learns that failure is normal and acceptable if you learn from it. In our "everyone gets a trophy" society, students seem to be destroyed by failure. When they fail, they want to find someone else to blame instead of seeing the chance to learn from their mistakes.

I will definitely be recommending this heartfelt story to all of my third through fifth-grade students. I can't wait to get it in our school library.

*Quoted from an ARC

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Monday, November 12, 2018

Review: The Bridge Home

The Bridge Home The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The cover of this book is stunning, but the words inside will captivate your heart. I'm struggling to find the best words to describe this book. Each time I type a few lines, I realize they don't do the story justice, so I just delete them. Instead of trying to summarize the story, let me just say why I love it. I love books that show the world as it truly is, even when the truth is ugly and hard to swallow. I want my own children and the students I teach to appreciate every gift they are given; sometimes those gifts are as simple as being born in the United States. The only way to appreciate the things we often take for granted is to see into the lives of others.

Children who are suffering in abusive homes or living in poverty will read this book and realize they aren't alone. They may even feel like they are doing well compared to the suffering the four homeless children in the book endure. My hope is that students will read this book and feel hopeful for their future. Despite all that Viji loses, she still finds a way to hope that she can create a better life for herself.

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Review: The Once and Future Geek

The Once and Future Geek The Once and Future Geek by Mari Mancusi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book totally took me back to 10th grade English and my love for The Once and Future King. After reading it, I found myself searching Netflix and Prime video for movies and shows about King Arthur and Merlin. Mari Mancusi's fun tale of gamers being transported to the day that young Arthur is meant to pull the sword from the stone will delight MG readers. This book is perfect for fans of fantasy and those who dream of living out their video game triumphs. I look forward to reading the next installment in this series when it is published.

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Review: Mostly the Honest Truth

Mostly the Honest Truth Mostly the Honest Truth by Jody J. Little
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jane isn't thrilled when Officer D, her foster mom for the next 12 days, brings her to Three Boulders. There isn't anywhere for her to longboard; no one has a TV, but the worst part is she can't see her Pop. Pop has gotten himself another twelve day stint in rehab. He's an alcoholic, and the last time Jane was with him, she suffered a severe burn to her hand. It's not really clear if Pop did something to cause Jane's injury; the adults around Jane seem to believe there was some foul play, but Jane is adamant that Pop loves her and would never hurt her.

As Jane's next twelve days unfold in the rural community of Three Boulders, Jane befriends Gertie (or G as Jane likes to call her). Gertie is straight-laced and knows everybody's business because she is the town recorder. She keeps detailed journals of their softball games, garden produce, and everyday life. G feels like something big is going on because people keep leaving the community. Jane helps her uncover the truth, while Gertie helps Jane survive the next twelve days without her father.

This book takes an honest look at what it is like to be the child of an alcoholic. Jane often has to fend for herself, but she knows that her dad is her "matching sock," and she doesn't want to be without him. Jane is willing to do just about anything to be with her father again, until she realizes that being with him might not be most healthy for her. This book will tug at your heart strings.

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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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