Friday, July 25, 2014

Kel Gilligan’s Daredevil Stunt Show by Michael Buckley

Kel Gilligan is the hero of my toddler self. He bravely takes on challenges that I would never have considered at his age. No way.

Broccoli. Yes, all of it and, yes, without complaining. In the end, he’s a bit weaker and greener, but unscathed. Me? Yeah, forget it. Even today.

There’s the potty. Even though it took longer than expected, and with no coloring book to help, he emerged victorious. Ta-Daaa! Me? Ask my mom about my potty experience (I was a two-year-old) the time we toured a house for sale. No victory for me, but thankfully it wasn’t a deal-breaker; we ultimately moved into the house.

Then there’s getting dressed. Kel Gilligan does it by himself. No net, no safety precautions, and no helmet (at least until he’s dressed). Spectators are amazed. Me? Shirt backwards. Shoes on the wrong feet. Fly unzipped.

Kel Gilligan allows Mom to talk on the phone uninterrupted. He takes on bath time with a brave face and comes out scrubbed and squeaky clean. He even takes on bedtime. The darkness, the monsters, no problem, right? Right?

In the end Kel learns an important lesson, despite his heroics. Some stunts are better left to the professionals. (But even professionals appreciate a little help.)

Michael Buckley captures the impossible tasks of childhood through the bravery of one unique, danger-loving adventurer, and Dan Santat’s illustrations support the daredevil vibe wonderfully. Kel dresses in red, white, and blue reminiscent of Evel Knievel. Some stunts are recorded on videotape, complete with battery levels and elapsed time in the corners. (Keep an eye on the time for Kel’s potty stunt.) Even Kel’s portrait on the wall features a scowl, and untamed lock of hair, and a t-shirt that reads “I ♥ DANGER.”

Kids will quickly understand how Kel takes on challenges many of them once faced themselves. With a little encouragement, and a little exaggeration, readers’ own stories might even rival Kel’s adventures.

And bonus points for reading the story in Don LaFontaine’s voice. Just because.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Revolution by Deborah Wiles

People don’t believe me when I tell them that much of what I have learned about history was from fiction. But let’s be clear - I’m talking about well-researched, factually based, historical fiction. Of course, one must carefully filter the fact from the fiction and do additional research where the separation is difficult, but fiction generally engages this reader more than nonfiction, so I’ll take the lessons where they come.

I could (and should) thank many authors, but here’s a heartfelt thank you specifically for Deborah Wiles for the lessons she’s taught me. First it was the Cuban Missile Crisis in Countdown. Now it’s Mississippi in 1964 - Freedom Summer - in her second of three documentary novels, Revolution.

Revolution takes place in Greenwood, Mississippi. Depending on who you ask, the summer of 1964 was when the invaders came from the north or it was Freedom Summer when volunteers worked diligently to help African-American residents to register to vote.

Sunny is caught in the middle of the disagreement. Her grandmother holds strongly to segregation. Her father runs a grocery store that welcomes and employs numerous African-Americans. Her stepmother sees inequality and injustice. But historical fiction would be, well, nonfiction if it didn’t include some fiction. Sunny also struggles with relationships within her new family. Should she trust and respect her stepmother? What about Gillette, her new stepbrother? How does the extended family accept the new family additions, and what factors in the family’s past affect that acceptance?

Again, like in Countdown, scattered throughout the novel are bits of image-dominated nonfiction. Photographs, pamphlets, song lyrics, newspaper excerpts, and signs are found throughout, usually in 5-10 page chunks every few chapters. Some are meant to specifically support the story such as images of volunteers working with unregistered African-Americans, Freedom Schools, and protesters being arrested. Other nonfiction parts help readers understand more about the time in history like “Whites Only” segregation signs, the Beatles, and soldiers in Vietnam.

There’s much to learn about our country from these three months in Greenwood, Mississippi, but know that the most powerful lessons from Revolution come from Sunny. As she wrestles with the changes happening in her family and her world, so do readers. And both come out changed at the end of Freedom Summer.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story by R. J. Palacio

Like most fans of Wonder, I was eager to read The Julian Chapter to see just what was going on in Julian’s head throughout the events of his and Auggie’s fifth grade year. I expected to learn how Julian explained and even justified his actions. Surely I would learn more about how Julian’s actions lead to the events in Wonder.

What I did not expect was to learn something about myself.

Next year will be my 20th year teaching. Most of that time has been spent with students in grades 4, 5, and 6 - Auggie and Julian’s age. There have been many students in that time who have challenged me. Disrespected me. Ignored, provoked, and disregarded me. (And others, of course.) But never once did I have a student who was just, simply, a bad kid. Every child has redeeming qualities. Some students just hide those qualities and make it more challenging for teachers to find them.

Yet after reading Wonder, I was more than happy to leave Julian as the antagonist. The bad kid. The source of all the problems in Auggie’s fifth grade year. As I told my fifth graders, “I’ve never known a fifth grader to be completely evil, yet I accepted without much thought that Julian was exactly that.”

It’s embarrassing. Never once did I wonder why Julian behaved the way he did or said the things he said. Could there be something behind the behavior? Might I be missing something about a character who, up until now, didn’t have a chance to share his perspective?

The Julian Chapter adds another layer to Wonder. On her website author R. J. Palacio has said that “[Julian] has nothing to add to Auggie’s story” and explains in great detail why Julian doesn’t have a section in Wonder. But Julian does have his own story, and readers of Wonder deserve to know it. Julian’s actions are never justified, and The Julian Chapter doesn’t explain away Julian’s atrocious behavior, but I’d be lying if I said I never felt empathy toward Julian.

Julian may not have had anything to add to Auggie’s story, but Julian’s own story is one worth telling, and it’s one readers deserve to know. Don’t miss it.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story Read Aloud Resources

Many, many classrooms have read Wonder aloud in their classrooms and rightfully so. This past school year (2013-2014) was no different for us. We started our fifth graders’ year by reading Wonder, and just like countless other classrooms around the country and the world, we used its lessons and themes as a basis for building a strong classroom community. When The Julian Chapter was released in May, 2014 we thought it would be great opportunity to revisit those lessons.

So just like I did for Wonder, I put together some online resources. Once again we used the songs, quotes, and images from the story - along with the occasional mini-lesson - to enhance our reading and understanding of the story. And once again, you are invited to use these resources with your students as well.

Below are links to the original Wonder resources and the added resources for The Julian Chapter. I hope they add to your enjoyment and understanding of both texts.

Thanks for reading and thanks for stopping by this little corner of the web. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions please feel free to share them. 

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.
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