Sunday, June 22, 2008

Taking Care of Moses by Barbara O'Connor

"Randall Mackey has a secret". So starts this story. Randall's secret has to do with an abandoned baby that's tearing up his small community. Everyone is fighting over what should be done with the infant boy that was left in a box on the steps of church. But Randall knows who left the baby.

This book is a great little tale that discusses the balance between right and wrong. (This isn't a heavy book...the wrong isn't too dramatic here. And the characters aren't planning all out war or anything.) With lots of strong examples of voice, O'Connor takes the reader on Randall's journey when deciding what he should do.

"What would you do if some bad stuff started happening and you could make it stop if you told a secret? Only, if you told the secret, then something else bad might happen?" In one of the best scenes in the novel, Randall looks for guidance. And although he doesn't get an easy answer like he'd hoped, it certainly puts him on the road to doing the "right thing".

A quick and lighthearted read with just a dose of morality, Taking Care of Moses will certainly be popular in the nearby state for which it is a Children's Choice nominee.

I'm done!

I'm done with the State Award books! Yay, yay! Now on to the ones I want to read...

Wing Nut by MJ Auch

This is another book that I feel the students might pass over. It's a shame too because the characters are so likable and the story is very enjoyable.

Grady and his mom are moving on to yet another new town. Ever since his dad died, Grady's mom Lila, has been hopping from town to town with Grady. When they end up in rural Pennsylvania, a not-so-kindly older man takes them in. Charlie Fernwald's main objective by having Lila and Grady stay with him is to get his son off his back about having a caretaker. But in the end, Charlie, Grady, and Lila find much more in each other.

Of course, this is sentimental and pretty unrealistic. I think even most people in small towns today wouldn't be this trusting. But it gives you warm fuzzies anyway. And don't we all need those once in a while?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Satch and Me by Dan Gutman

I'm almost done with the state award books and then I can read the books I really want to read. Unfortunately, my class starts next week and there's a little thing about my dad getting married....sooooooo...we'll see where I end up with my reading list.

Just like the rest of the books in this series, Satch and Me has our main character, 13-year-old Stosh, traveling back in time to meet a famous baseball player. Stosh and his coach Flip decide to try and discover who the fastest pitcher in baseball ever was. After some research, they decide Satchel Paige is the one they need to focus on. Adventure and good historical information follows as Gutman takes Stosh ans Flip back to 1942 and the Negro League. A pleasant read, this book would catch any young sports fan's attention. While it's certainly not the book with the most bite, it will entertain many of my students.

I'm a purist and I was a little disappointed that Gutman allowed some of the ending to happen the way it happened. The whole time travel thing is a little messy and for someone who watched Star Trek TNG with my mother, I like a little more thought about what happens when messing with the world's time line. But that's also probably why I don't read the whole series of these! All in all, it was a good book though.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Out of Order by Betty Hicks

This is another of the state award books for this year. It was an o.k. book. Awfully predictable and a bit unrealistic about the kids, but nothing majorally wrong with it.

Perhaps I wasn't really in the mood to read the book, but I was trying to take my mind off the tragedy at the Boy Scout camp nearby. So I turned to my favorite escape, a book.

This story focuses on a family that has recently "merged". There are now four siblings where each had two. (Well, one had three before leukemia claimed the oldest brother.) Obviously, there are relationships that need to be worked out before harmony can exist. I feel slightly as though Hicks missed the boat on some of the harder hitting issues, just barely grazing over them. But, if she was going for a light-hearted look at step-families, than she achieved that. Some kids might feel though that the possibly unrealistic happiness that evolves in the family is something they should be able to achieve in a short time themselves. In fact, it may take some families a much longer time to feel like a close and true family, and certainly it wouldn't happen in a few short months.

Out of Order was an o.k. read. But it's not my top choice to win the award.

Midnight Ride: A Gates Family Mystery #2 by Catherine Hapka

I love the National Treasure movies. To this day, I'm conviced that's where we came up with the name for our son. I love mysteries, I love the idea of a treasure hunt, and when you put that with history, it makes it all the richer. So when I saw this book at Borders, I scooped it up right away.

It was very enjoyable. Nothing like the movie, mind you. I felt that the treasure hunt went along in the same vein for too long. Hapka could have changed things up a little here and there instead of having the characters find a piece of paper and solve a riddle every single time.

And while I enjoyed the riddles and mystery, the references were difficult enough that I would have had to sit and Google every clue and still would have had trouble figuring out what they meant. I like to be able to solve a little of the puzzle myself. (Perhaps if I'd paid more attention in American History class...instead of wondering how many years it took my teacher to work the groove into the floor where he shuffled his right foot back and forth while lecturing...I would know more of the details.)

All in all, I think this will be a good series, especially for those interested in the movies. I just hope that Hapka gets a little more creative and intricate with the clues and treasures.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan

I've come to accept that my students don't generally vote for the books that I seem to think should win the state award. Listening for Lions is one that I think will get missed by the students, but I really feel is an excellent book.

Complete with an orphan, tragedy, villains, love, and redemption, this book reminds me of a very Dickens or Austen sort of tale. The portion of heroine Rachel's life that takes place in England certainly ensures the tone echoing these great authors. However, over a third of the book takes place in Africa and the quality of the writing and character development still make me think of great classic literature.

Rachel's story is sad and touching; satisfying and full of vivid description. I can easily see why this book was an International Book Award winner.

If you like historical fiction, Dickensian literature, or just good stories of a soul triumphing over adversity, than this will be an excellent read.

The Name of the Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch

An intriguing cover, this was another one of book fair reads. Lemony Snicket impersonations are fairly common nowadays (as mentioned in the last post). But this book takes a pinch of Snicket and a good dose of Blue Balliett (Chasing Vermeer) and mixes it into a great story.

As in most good stories, an unlikely friendship drives the action when two kids set out to solve the mystery behind the "Symphony of Smells" that the heroine's antique collector uncles have purchased. Adventurous and humorous with themes of friendship and courage running throughout, this book was an enjoyable read. And it looks like No. 2 (If You're Reading This It's Too Late) will be out in October. Hopefully, carried at the book fair again!

The Silver Spoon of Solomon Snow by Kaye Umansky

This was one of the books that I picked up at our book fair. I put off reading it for a while, not prepared for another bad Lemony Snicket imitation. Although I don't think kids will jump on this book, it wasn't as bad as I feared. Umansky has a fairly pleasant writing style and doesn't try to bog it down with the quirky observations that no one but Snicket can seem to pull off.

Ten-year-old Solomon Snow lives a pretty paltry existence. We find out in the opening scene that Solomon was abandoned and the home of the washer woman and her drunk husband. Content, and not very bright, his parents live their life hand to mouth, literally, slurping their pottage straight out of the bowl without even a spoon to call their own. Soon after finding out about his abandonment Solly meets Prudence, whose family has its own world of problems, and they embark on a journey to find more than what's offered to them in their little village.

Of course, Umansky plans a series of these books, but as of now, there are only two books. It isn't something that I would bump to the top of my To Read pile, but if I got my hands on the second one, I would certainly read it to find out what becomes of Solly, Prudence, and others they meet on their journey.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

When everyone is raving about a book, I usually put off reading it and then end up loving it when I finally do read it. That's what happened with this book. I actually listened to most of it on CD on the way to and from Tennessee and within the first 5 minutes I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued.

Lilly's mother died several years ago in a tragic accident and her father is a harsh, abusive man. Set in the tumultuous civil rights era, Lilly goes to town with her African American nanny and ends up in a disastrous situation that sets her off a quest to find more about her mother. She ends up at a bee farm with some of the most motherly figures she's ever had in her life.

This book was heartfelt and cleverly crafted with a lot of the charm of the south, but the unrest that fits the time period. (Be aware that some of the language in the novel would not be appropriate for school settings, although young adults would certainly enjoy this novel.) Although my husband said the narrator sounded like Dolly Parton and he wouldn't be able to stand it, I enjoyed the story so much, I had to stop myself from going out to buy the book when I already had it on CD. I picked up another Sue Monk Kidd book, but this one sounds like more of an adult story, with a woman a monk and a longing for love. We'll see if it can hold a candle to Lilly's story.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander Mccall Smith

I picked up this book in a bargain bin, and although it wasn't horrible, I can see why it ended up there.

The "lady" in question is an African women who has started a detective agency in the bush of Africa after her father's passing. The biggest mystery she sets out to solve is who the daughter of a wealthy Indian man is seeing. Much more time is spent on that than on the story of the kidnapped child or, for that matter, the emotional development of the characters. Sometimes, an author surprises you with their ability to write a character of the opposite sex so well. Smith didn't succeed in doing that here. Although it wasn't bad enough for me to put it down, (I was stuck in a dorm room in Tennessee looking after a bunch of junior high students), when I saw that there were three or four more books written about the same characters I almost groaned. There is no way this book would hold itself in a series. But at least I had something to do in the dorm, even if I won't ever read the rest of the books.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Children's Choice State Award Books

Our state nominates 10 books in each of 3 categories for the state awards. My building covers two of those categories, picture books and intermediate chapter books. I try to read them all every summer. I won't subject you to the picture book reviews, unless one really hits me as good, but I've summarized the first several intermediate books that I've read. (Six down...four to go!) Here we go...

Anna's Blizzard by Alison Hart

I'm not really big on historical fiction. For some reason, I don't seem to get into it as much as other types of books. But once I started Anna's Blizzard, I couldn't stop. Anna is a very likable character. Not that great at school, but has a lot of spunk and spirit. She is also pretty smart about life on the prairie. When a blizzard hits her town while she and several other students are at their one-room school, Anna ends up in more of leadership role than she ever had before. There was enough action to keep me interested and plenty of character development to keep me rooting for an upbeat end to the disaster.

We sure saw our share of snow this winter and this book will get students talking about their own adventures in the wintery weather. I think this book will appeal to many different types of students and has the potential to be a dark horse in the kids' voting.

Rules by Cynthia Lord

Everyone knows that in life there are rules you have to follow. But for some people, following those rules is difficult. Like Catherine's brother. David has autism and Catherine is living with all the difficulties that presents not only for a family, but for a junior high student. One day, Catherine meets Jason, who has difficulties of his own. And Catherine begins to recognize that sometimes following the "rules" means you compromise yourself.

I really liked the message in this book. Catherine is a real student trying to balance her own wants and desires with her family's responsibility for her brother. Although she sometimes is nicer than I would imagine some kids would be, she gets angry, gets selfish, makes mistakes, but also learns her lesson. This story is great to share with classes to bring up the topic of people who are "different" from them, in many senses of the word.

Whittington by Alan Armstrong

A cat book! Several of my students were very excited to see a book with a cat in the mix of Golden Sower books. Whittington certainly provides a good mix of animals to entice some of the kids, but I don't know that the story will hold their attention all that long. Whittington, the cat, moves into a barn full of discarded animals..."...". The animals are often visited by Ben's grandchildren, who are being raised by Ben and his wife. Tim struggles with school and if facing some difficult prospects in school. Whittington (the cat again) tells the story of his relative who made his own way in the world. While this portion of the story is interesting and has enough adventure in it, the present day situation doesn't really develop much. And the transitions between stories could confuse some struggling readers.

While I enjoyed the book enough to read all the way through, I don't know how well it will hold the attention of intermediate age students.

Gossamer by Lois Lowry

Have you ever wondered how your dreams make their way into your mind? Why do we sometimes have nightmares instead of pleasant images? The answer, according to Lois Lowry, lies in the beings that are responsible for our night time thoughts.

Gossamer is a very different novel in typical Lois Lowry fashion. It doesn't have quite as much meat to it as some of her books, but there is an undercurrent of seriousness to this book. Littlest One is one of the beings that move around our homes at night and touch the items that we keep around us. These items are filled with memories that are absorbed by the beings. Littlest One and her mentor gather happy memories and use them to create dreams that they breathe into us while we sleep. But not all the beings are so benevolent. Some make it their duty to bring nightmares. And for one little boy and his guardian, the nightmares are coming. Littlest One needs to try as hard as she can to make them stay away.

I enjoyed this book, but I wonder how my students will react to such an abstract idea. I forsee my higher ability students getting more out of this book than the others. There is a lot of wonderful visual imagery though, and I could see some great writing prompts beginning here.

Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles

I admit it. I cried. Hard.

This book is so bittersweet. And it really struck a chord with me.

Comfort Snowberger's family runs the funeral home in small tow Snapfinger. Comfort understands death pretty well and has a tremendous family to support her. But at the beginning of the story, she faces it a little closer to home when her Great-Great Aunt and Great Uncle, who are the matriarch and patriarch of the family, pass away.

Comfort faces many hurdles over the next several months, including dealing with a best friend who is suddenly not the same person she was before.

The AR reading level on this book is a 4.5, but it does deal with death which could be overwhelming for some kids, especially if they've lost a loved one recently. Comfort's feelings are so real though, they provide a great chance to talk about how that separation makes you feel. "I longed for all that I lost," said Comfort.

There is also a very strong voice in the book. With sayings like "tuner fish sandwiches" and "all the messy glory", the text might be a little harder for some students to grasp. Although the words are readable, the meaning behind these phrases might take them longer to figure out.

This was only the second nominee I've read, but I loved this book. Although it doesn't wrap things up in a nice neat little package, it resonates so truly with life while maintaining a colorful and interesting voice, that it is irresistable.

One warning: Have a box of tissues ready!

Room 1: A Mystery or Two by Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements always has fun and exciting books. From being lost in the woods to taking on the entire school system, his characters are always ready to do the right thing, no matter what it means for them.

In this book, Ted is no different. When he sees a face in the window of a supposedly deserted house, he's bound and determined to find out the story behind it. What Ted gets himself into is a little bigger than he ever expected.

The action in this story isn't as exciting as some of Clements's other books, but it is an enjoyable read. I was a little disappointed with the ending; I wanted more action and resolution. But the ending is certainly realistic.

The obvious opportunity here is to talk about one room schools and small town communities. If you live in a more urban part of the world, these concepts might be sort of foreign to your students. The story in this book opens up a different world to many people. It also gives students a chance to talk about the war and supporting soldiers regardless of your view on the war. Although Clements barely touches on the issue, dealing with death is definitely a topic that many students in this age range are just starting to grasp. This book would allow them to see some of the effective and ineffective ways to deal with loss.

A quick and fairly satisfying read, Room 1: A Mystery or Two is a solid choice to include in this year's nominees.