Saturday, March 15, 2014

Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales

If you are looking for books that will engage young readers, do you really need to look beyond the cover of Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales to know the book will do just that? Seriously. There’s a boy in his briefs, wearing a professional wrestler’s mask, standing on a banner that proclaims “NIÑO” in bold letters, surrounded by stars, in a champion’s pose. The cover illustration itself screams, “Winner!”

Rest assured the rest of the book is a winner as well. “Señoras y señores, put your hands together for the fantastic, spectacular, one of a kind . . . NIÑO!” comes an announcement as Niño laces up his mask. What follows is challenge after challenge from out-of-this-world contenders.

La Momia de Guanajuato! Cabeza Olmeca! La Llorona! El Extraterrestre! El Chamuco! None can defeat the mighty Niño and his creative wrestling maneuvers. Until . . .

Las Hermanitas! Fresh from their afternoon nap! They tackle. They hold. They tickle. They stop at nothing and nearly give Niño the ultimate in wrestling shame - an unmasking!

Ah, but Niño didn’t become amazing and mighty by giving up easily. Will the mighty Niño take a mighty fall? Could Niño’s final match turn out to be his greatest victory? Tune in next week . . .

. . . or get your own copy of Niño Wrestles the World.

At first I struggled with some pronunciations, but thanks to our resident Spanish II student (my daughter) and the book’s endpapers, reading the book like a true wrestling announcer is possible. The endpapers feature pictures of each of Niño’s opponents along with their name, pronunciation, and description.

I thoroughly enjoyed Niño Wrestles the World, and I’m pretty sure that a great many kids will too, and not just those masked marauders in their briefs ready to take on all comers.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt

Everybody gets tired of something, sometime. Teachers? Maybe it’s checking homework. Students? Maybe it’s completing homework. Kids get tired of cleaning their bedrooms while parents get sick of repeatedly reminding their kids to clean their bedrooms.

But does that mean that you can just quit what you’re doing? Shirk your responsibilities? Sure, you might take an occasional break, maybe delegate some responsibilities. But quit?

Yet that’s exactly what Duncan’s crayons decide to do in The Day the Crayons Quit. They’ve had enough. When Duncan goes to use his crayons, instead of finding them properly in their box he finds a stack of letters addressed to him. Each letter, one from each crayon, gives their individual complaints and reasons for quitting.

Red complains of having to work harder than all the other crayons - all the fire engines and apples for instance - in addition to all the Santas at Christmas and the hearts on Valentine’s Day.

Beige is tired of being mislabeled. It’s Beige. Not “light brown” or “dark tan.”

Gray complains that all he gets to color is big stuff - elephants, hippos, humpback whales.

All black gets to do is outlines. Nobody can even see white. Orange and yellow are in a snit over the correct color of the sun. Peach is embarrassed to be seen without a label, which Duncan tore off.

And who knew purple was such a neat freak? His complaint? Coloring outside the lines.

“Well, poor Duncan just wanted to color . . . and of course he wanted his crayons to be happy. And that gave him an idea.”

What could his idea be? What sort of creation could make all of Duncan’s crayons happy and still receive an A in coloring and an A+ in creativity? Don’t worry, Duncan’s got it covered colored.

As readers progress through the book, each page presents another letter, handwritten in the matching color, with illustrations that show each crayon’s complaints. The book could easily be used with students. What other things might cause a crayon to quit? Could we write our own letters? Would markers be different than crayons? What if everyone in your art box - scissors, glue sticks, rulers - quit? What would their reasons be, and what would their letters look like?

Even if you don’t use The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt as the basis for some creative writing, the book works wonderfully as a read aloud and kids will never want to quit reading and rereading it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld

Technically, I guess, the title of this book is !. That’s all there is on the cover, anyway. A picture of a smiling exclamation mark. (To be fair the spine of the book does say exclamation mark, but I like the idea of a book having just punctuation as a title.)

What do you do if you stand out? What if, in a lineup of periods, you stand taller than the rest? That’s the question facing our main character, an exclamation mark. At first his response is to conform. Can he smoosh that tall thing above him? Flatten it into, I don’t know, some sort of squiggly hat or home-perm-looking-hairdo? Can one change who they really are?

The answer should be clear to us all. No. We are who we are, and we should be happy with that. Unfortunately many of us - adults and children - aren’t satisfied with our uniqueness, let alone amazed and thrilled by it, choosing rather to fit in with those around us.

And sometimes it takes a question mark to help us see why our uniqueness should be celebrated, not hidden.

After being bombarded by questions from this new questions mark acquaintance, he finally has enough. “STOP!” he screams, providing the final punctuation himself. His exclamation is surprising. He tries a “Hi!” and a “Howdy!” followed by a “Wow!” This new-found skill - or newly appreciated uniqueness - was amazing.

“It was like he broke free from a life sentence.”

And off he goes, to share what he can do with the world, including his old friends, the periods.

Even if the title of the book isn’t clear (Is it words? Punctuation?), we are sure of the author and illustrator. It’s the dynamic picture book team of Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld. They’re the team behind books like The OK Book, Duck! Rabbit!, and It’s Not Fair!, and ! (or exclamation mark) is an equal addition to their impressive list of titles.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

When I picked up Dead End in Norvelt, I knew nothing about towns like Norvelt, Pennsylvania. What I did know about were books by Jack Gantos, especially his Joey Pigza series, a personal favorite. And after the first few chapters, I became more familiar with what I already knew. In the first six chapters alone there’s an accidentally fired Japanese WWII rifle, blood all over the place, an old lady cooking her hands and taking a bite, and a great fart scene*.

What’s not to like?

Then I started to learn about Norvelt, a town created to give disadvantaged people and families a chance for a new life during the Great Depression as part of the National Industrial Recovery Act. These homestead communities were championed by Eleanor Roosevelt and were built on the idea of cooperation between residents. The town’s name itself honors Mrs. Roosevelt, eleaNOR rooseVELT.

Don’t worry. Dead End in Norvelt did win the Newbery Medal and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, but it’s no history book.

Jack gets grounded during the summer of 1962. (His grounding has to do with the Japanese WWII rifle, among other transgressions.) His only escape is helping his neighbor, Miss Volker, an original Norvelter, write obituaries for the town’s original residents. Most of the men have died, victims of black lung disease, but now the ladies are dying, and dying rather quickly. When the town starts getting suspicious, readers quickly start to see numerous suspects.

What’s the motive? Could it be jealousy? Love? Greed? Could all the deaths be accidental? And what will Jack do now that he’s found himself in the middle of it?

I see three main parts of the book. The first third is all about Jack, his parents, and Miss Volker. The middle expands to include more about the other community members. The last third turns murder mystery. Now that you know, pay close attention as your read the first two-thirds, knowing there’s a mystery to solve. It makes everyone more suspicious and the book that much more enjoyable.

When you get your copy of Dead End in Norvelt, make sure to locate a copy of the sequel, From Norvelt to Nowhere, as well. This is one of those books that you won’t want to end, and one of the rare times that the sequel lives up to its award-winning predecessor.

*Ha! When I went back to edit what I wrote, I found that I had mistakenly typed scene as scent. This doesn’t affect my review in the slightest, but considering the context . . . Well, I thought it was funny. Thought I'd share.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

That Is Not a Good Idea! by Mo Willems

If you are one of those people who wait patiently for the next Mo Willems book release, wondering if it will be a welcome addition to children's libraries, stop it. Okay, keep up the waiting patiently part, but the whole wondering-if-it-will-be-good part? Stop that. His track record is pretty good, so until he releases a dud or two, just trust the man. He knows how to create books kids will love.

That Is Not a Good Idea! certainly continues the streak, and it's nice to be introduced to new characters (not that I wouldn't love more Pigeon or Elephant and Piggie).

Meet the players:

1. A slippery-smooth and hungry fox who politely uses phrases like "Excuse me..." and "Would you care to...?" He offers daisies to innocent victims pedestrians. He smirks a lot. He wears a suit, vest, and top hat. A top hat, people.

2. A kind and trusting plump goose who strolls innocently through the city, wide-eyed, carrying her basket. She wears a kerchief on her head. Kerchiefs are the distinct opposite of top hats. You've been warned.

3. A cautious bunch of baby geese who play the role of peanut gallery, sort of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 meets silent films in a children's book. Their main role is to point out the obvious. "That is NOT a good idea!"

When the fox invites the goose to go on a stroll, an invitation accepted by the goose, the baby geese point out how that's not a good idea. When he suggests the walk continue into a deep, dark woods - a suggestion once again accepted by the goose - they see how a bad idea is getting worse. "That is REALLY NOT a good idea!" they inform readers. What follows involves a kitchen, a pot of boiling water, and a close look at the soup in the pot, all of which is met by an emphatic, "That is REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, REALLY NOT a good idea!"

The ending is exactly what you'd expect. Except it's not. And I'm not telling. But it's awesome.

That Is Not a Good Idea! very much imitates a silent film. There are full-page pictures of the fox and goose followed by solid black pages with white text showing the characters' conversation. Interspersed throughout are the baby geese sharing their opinion, as if the reader turns from the screen to see what others in the theater are thinking. It's a perfect opportunity for readers - or for the grown-ups reading with youngsters - to stop and wonder together with the baby geese. Is that a good idea? Why? Why not?

And of course, there's that ending that will have you wondering even more.

Monday, September 2, 2013

One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt is a book that climbs off the page, sneaks up your arms, slides into your head, and then sits on your brain for a good, long time. After finishing the book I went online in search of mindless distraction and ended up searching for tweets and reviews about the book. It. Sticks. With. You.

Isn’t that what a great book does? It makes you think? (*See below.)

But all that thinking makes for reeeeeally long reviews. I can’t begin to explain how this book made me . . .

- angry yet joyful
- frustrated yet hopeful
- heartbroken yet joyous
- defeated yet victorious

One for the Murphys is certainly powerful, but for me it is all too personal to write more. It would take another book. So here’s the deal. Take my word for it. Get to know Carly and Mrs. Murphy, two wonderful characters, and let their strong spirits enter into your brain and sit a while.

* I also believe there are great books that don’t make you think, but there’s a time and a place for both.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett by Tom Angleberger

I’m a big fan of the Origami Yoda books (as evidenced here and here and even though I haven’t reviewed it, I liked The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee too) so you know I was eager to read the latest entry as soon as it was released. And it was not disappointing.

Rather than write a traditional review outlining the plot, you know, without giving too much away, I’ll just say one quick thing and then get to the really cool stuff I loved. Jabba the Puppett continues the seventh grade adventures of Dwight, Tommy, Sara, Kellen, their friends and their Star Wars origami cohorts. And it’s really funny.

But what I really love is this stuff . . .

Believe it or not, I missed this one the first time through:

 : : 

When I read "Queen Origamidala," I laughed out loud. (And had no one near me to appreciate the humor.)

 : : 

That's some sandwich:

 : : 

Not sure if it was the whole idea of a "pizza boat" or the Death Star comparison, but funny nonetheless.

 : : 

Every rebellion needs a symbol.

 : : 

Were the students right with this comparison?

 : : 

Or this one?

 : : 

Can you see a seventh grader waving his hand in front of a teacher or something?

Even in middle school kids know rude when they hear it:

Where's your hope?

And finally, my unquestioned favorite from the book, especially when you know that "Kiss This Kiss," the worst song in the history of music, could be about half of the songs currently playing on the radio in real life.

Oh, and Soapy. Naughty little monkey.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Patrick Eats His Peas and Other Stories by Geoffrey Hayes

It’s good to know that literature imitates life. Or life imitates literature. Or is that art? Isn’t there a phrase something like that?

Whatever. I don’t know. But what I DO know is that on the day I got Patrick Eats His Peas and Other Stories - that very same day - THIS was cooking on the stove before dinner:

No kidding. “Little green balls of MUSHY POISON” as Patrick sings. My family heard everything around our own dinner table that Patrick tried at his. “I don’t like them,” and “I’m not hungry,” and “I’ll be sick.” There were attempts at bargains: “Could I eat just a few?” Peas were even hidden in napkins, just like Patrick.

There was one difference between our two families, however. While Patrick’s solution involved ketchup, jelly, and a good amount of stirring, the solution in our family was one Patrick simply could not use. “I’m the father, and if I don’t want to eat my peas, then that’s the way it is!”

Geisel Award winning author Geoffrey Hayes is back with a new book of short stories about Patrick, a follow up to Patrick in A Teddy Bear’s Picnic and Other Stories. In this latest installment, Patrick again shows what it’s like to be a kid. Try as he might to be a help to Dad, he just can’t seem to stay out of the way. Patrick’s bath time, which Mom won’t allow him to skip, of course, includes toys, splashing, “too hot,” more water, burbles, bubbles, and puddles. And bedtime includes all the reasons why it should NOT actually be bedtime according to Patrick. Just like kids everywhere.

Art imitates life. (I googled it.) And Patrick is an excellent mirror into the lives of the kids we know, kids who will love reading this new release from Toon Books.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Hold Fast by Blue Balliett Journal Entry

Dear Mr. W,

In Hold Fast I see three main parts in the story. There is a family that is homeless, the missing person mystery, and the diamond mystery. All of them connect in some way. For example if Dash, the dad in the family, hadn't disappeared then the family wouldn't be homeless. And somehow Dash has been connected to the missing diamonds, which makes no sense to me, but there it is. Finally, because of the Dash-diamond connection, maybe Dash can’t come back to his family, which makes them stay homeless.

I've learned that there are many ways a family might become homeless. Losing a family member is one. Dash disappeared, which left his family with no money and they lost their home. In the Helping Hands shelter, Early also meets a family who had a house fire where kids died. The mom is very depressed and has a hard time keeping a job. One person even became homeless by helping others. Most of the story is set in a homeless shelter. Sum, the mother, has a hard time getting a job. She can’t take the kids to an interview, but doesn't have money to pay for childcare, but can’t get money without a job.

Another big part of the story is a missing person. Dash disappears after a car accident, but when the police arrive all they find is his bike and his journal. Much of the book is about the family’s desire and efforts to get him back. Some people think he’s dead, but they refuse to believe it. Early dreams about him and imagines that he is giving her advice. She is even doing research to try and get him back. They constantly say things like, “Stay strong for Dash,” and “Hold fast to dreams. For Dash.”

More and more the diamond mystery comes into the story. When the the police tell Early and her family about the diamond found in their apartment, they learn that there’s a warrant for Dash’s arrest. They agreed not to talk about the missing diamonds, but Early does. “Sometimes Early felt kind of queasy about having lied, disobeying her mother about sharing the diamond news. First, one version . . . and then the truth . . . but both felt necessary.” The diamonds have caused Early to disobey by telling the truth about the diamonds and to twist the truth into a lie to someone else.

Brian Sixth Grader

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Bomb: The Race to Build - and Steal - the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

Dear Mr. W,

I just finished Bomb by Steve Sheinkin. It is about the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. There are four parts to the story. Part 1: Three-Way Race, Part 2: Chain Reactions, Part 3: How to Build an Atomic Bomb, and Part 4: Final Assembly.

The Three-Way Race introduced in Part 1 is about who would be able to build the first atomic bomb. The United States, working with the British, were fighting against the Nazis from Germany. The USSR was fighting against the Germans too, but even though the Soviets and the Americans were both fighting the Germans, the two countries weren't friends. That’s who was involved in the three-way race: the United States (with the British), the Germans, and the Soviets.

The United States hired the best scientists in the country to develop the bomb. The Germans were doing the same thing with their country’s best scientists. The Soviets wanted to develop a bomb, but most of their resources were spent fighting the Germans. Instead of trying to create their own bomb, the Soviets tried to steal information from the Americans.

While the Americans were working to develop their own bomb, the British were helping by trying to stop the Germans. The British had spies in countries that Germany occupied. They discovered that a major factory working on materials for the bomb was in Norway. Working with Norwegian underground fighters, they successfully destroyed the factory by sneaking in at night. They pulled off the mission, and none of the Norwegians were ever caught. The factory was soon put back into operation. Later, many of the same people successfully sank a boat transporting materials for the Germans. Even though the first attack was temporary, in the end the British and Norwegians basically stopped the Germans from creating their own bomb.

The Soviets were the Americans’ allies in the war, but they also were spying on the Americans. Soviet scientists were eventually able to build a bomb of their own but only by using information stolen by spies in the United States. They had spies who talked to American scientists and sometimes convinced them to help the Soviets. The Soviets were communists, which is another form of government, and they convinced some Americans that even if they were able to develop their own bomb, it would be important for another country, the USSR, to have the bomb too, to keep the Americans from becoming too powerful. Even loyal Americans sometimes agreed with the Soviets’ ideas about communism, which encouraged them to share American secrets.

Brian Sixth Grader

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Fourth Stall Part III by Chris Rylander

This sample journal entry is actually three entries in one. After the introduction paragraph, the following paragraphs were written to meet different expectations. Sixth grade is to explain how the author shows a character's perspective. Fifth grade explains how a character's perspective affects how story events are told. Finally, fourth grade is to tell how a story would change if it is told from a different character's perspective. Rather than post three sample journal entries on the library wall, which is getting quite full, this one entry includes all three, and each seems to naturally lead into the next.

Dear Mr. W,

I just finished The Fourth Stall Part III by Chris Rylander. It is the final book in the series. The main character is Mac. He and his partner Vince are now seventh graders. The problem-solving business they started in kindergarten is now closed, and life is simple. Mac talks about how awesome the word simple is. He loves it.

6th - The author helps readers understand a character’s perspective by showing the character’s words and actions. The Fourth Stall Part I is all about Mac trying to shut down a business like his own, run by an older kid named Staples. Mac and Staples have disagreements and arguments, threats are made, and some violence even occurs. In the end Mac thinks he won’t have to deal with Staples again. In the prologue of Part III, Mac explains how happy he is to not be running his business. He says, “School was a piece of cake when that was all that was on your plate and you didn't also run a huge business operation with multiple employees and a healthy cash flow.” But then Staples returns and wants to hire Mac, and Mac is not happy. First, he doesn't ever want to get involved with Staples again for any reason. Second, if Staples hires him, that means he’s back in the business. Staples wanting to hire Mac makes the two things he doesn't want - dealing with Staples and the business - to come back.

5th - Since we know how Mac feels, it’s easy to see how it influences how events are told. He is and always has been scared of Staples, and he describes Staples’ shadow as cold and enormous and says it engulfs him. He says that Staples “was so legendary that someone would have seen him lurking about and said something. Right? Right?!” That shows Mac’s panic at seeing Staples again. When Staples smiles, it’s a “smirk” and it’s “evil.” Staples’ eyes are dark, but Mac says they are “so black that even nighttime was afraid of them.” Mac even says that Staples eyebrows are mean. Finally, Mac gives a hint of what is to come. He says, “If I’d seen the warning lights right then, maybe I could have avoided some of the insanity that followed. Stuff like swimming pools full of blood, guts, and body parts, crazy third-grade Japanese assassins with precise, near-deadly hit man skills. . . Maybe I would have stolen a car, swung by Vince’s place, and gotten us both the heck out of town.” It’s easy to see that Mac is freaked out by the visit from Staples, and his feelings for Staples show up in Mac’s telling of the story.

4th - If Staples was telling this story, he would probably mention how he doesn’t want Mac to be scared of him. If Mac is scared of him, then Mac probably won’t help him. Staples thinks he needs to be nice and get on Mac’s good side so he’ll help him. In the scene where Staples puts his hand on his forehead, Mac thinks how scared he is of getting punched. Staples, on the other hand, is likely thinking, “Must stay under control! Don’t punch this punk! If I hurt him he won’t help me! I need Mac to see that I have changed.” If Staples narrated this scene, readers would see how much he cares for his sister and wants to help her, even though his past actions might not look like a helpful person. Staples said that he learned his lesson about behavior. He knows that punching Mac will land him in jail where he can’t do anything for his sister.

Brian 4/5/6 Grader

Monday, March 18, 2013

Melvin Beederman: The Curse of the Bologna Sandwich by Greg Trine

Dear Mr. W,

Melvin Beederman is a superhero. The first book in the Melvin Beederman series is The Curse of the Bologna Sandwich. Melvin graduated from the Superhero Academy at the top of his class. He beat out Superhero Carl who is stronger than him because Melvin uses his brain. “Your brain is your greatest weapon,” Headmaster Spinner tells him. That’s also in the Superhero’s Code.

The world in the Melvin Beederman book is the same as ours. Superhero Carl goes to the Fiji Islands while Melvin goes to Los Angeles. But even though the author doesn’t say so, I can infer that in the book superheroes are considered normal. People just accept that there is such a thing.

First, there is a superhero academy that recruits children who then are allowed to attend. When Melvin has to fly 3,000 miles to Los Angeles, he flies next to a jet window and asks the pilot if he can catch a ride. Instead of being like, “Ah! There’s a little dude flying outside the plane!” he calmly asks, “Are you the new superhero?” and then says, “Have a seat on the wing. We’ll be there in a jiffy.” Flying superheroes must be something normal to him.

When Melvin stops his first crime by picking up a car and shaking the bad guys and the stolen money out of the window, people celebrate what he’s done. They don’t freak out. Melvin says he is the new superhero. New means that there must have been an old one sometime. Then a man asks, “Los Angeles has a superhero?” and another says, “We haven’t had a superhero since . . .” That shows that people know about and accept superheroes as normal.

Finally, word spreads quickly in the media. Melvin was on TV and in the newspapers. Headlines say “There’s a superhero in town. Welcome!” They don’t say, “Tiny kid picks up huge car! That’s impossible!” Everyone is glad that he’s in town and they aren’t amazed at what he does. They must know what superheroes do and aren’t surprised to see it happen. They’re happy to see it.

Brian Fourth Grader

The Melvin Beederman series currently has eight books. Other titles in the series include The Revenge of the McNasty Brothers, The Grateful Fred, and Terror in Tights. The books will serve as a great introduction to superheros for early chapter book readers. Melvin can fly, has super strength, and x-ray vision. (Although the x-ray vision makes him rather uncomfortable. He sees too much underwear.) Melvin also has a weakness. His kryptonite is bologna. Put the Melvin Beederman books in your young readers' hands. Let them exercise their own superpower: reading.
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