Mock Newbery Mid-Summer Meeting

I hope everyone has been reading this summer. I have not heard from most of you so I trust you are having a busy summer. We planned to get together during the summer to catch up on the new books we have read. As promised, I will be at the Waukesha Public Library next Tuesday August 5 at 11:00AM. Please email me or leave a comment here if you are able to attend. I need to have numbers so I can find a good space for us. Be sure to bring the titles and authors of new books you have read this summer.

Here are 2 that I just finished:

Rain ReignRain Reign by Ann M. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was an incredible book! The protagonist has OCD and Aspergers. The story is told in first person and Rose is so endearing. She has a frank and vulnerable voice that makes us feel her struggles with the disease and her difficult life. She gives Aspergers a poignant voice and personality. The story revolves around the lose of her beloved dog and I must confess to shedding tears at several points while reading. Rose has a coping mechanism of discovering homophones(homonyms), thus the title Rain Reign. Very special book.

How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are UntiedHow to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied by Jess Keating
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think that students will enjoy this well enough. I had a difficult time connecting with the main character. For most of the book I found her to be kind of whiny. She is a middle-schooler who struggles with being awkward and unpopular. There are of course plenty of fellow students who bully her and exploit her fears. Ana happens to have parents who are zookeepers and there are several interesting animal references throughout the book.
I think the thing I liked the best was the moral at the end of the story. Ana finally recognizes the support and encouragement of family and friends and realizes that the best weapon against bullies is to be brave from within. This I know is a tough lesson when you are in the midst of the difficult years of adolescence. But the truth is that we seem unable to eliminate the presence of bullies no matter how we try to teach kindness. Perhaps it is time to teach kids to short circuit the bully’s power by moving away from them and towards the strong person we are meant to be. Yes as Auggie tells us “choose kind” but also choose strength.

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Glorious Summer

Tomorrow, July 23, is predicted to be the hottest day so far this year. A super hot day is perfect for lying around reading a “cool” book. I have a pile waiting for just such a day. I must admit that the past couple of weeks have been such wonderful weather that I have slowed down on my reading. Hours on my bike and in my kayak are taking my time.
Since July 1 I have read a wide variety of books. Several picture books, a couple of graphic novels and just one Newbery contender.

Picture books:

Graphic Novels:


Capture the Flag (Capture the Flag, #1)Capture the Flag by Kate Messner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a wonderful middle-grade mystery. The 4 young characters were diverse on many levels and had to learn the value of collaboration and cooperation. There was a very real crime, true bad guys and plenty of action. I picked this one up to read because I received and ARC for the third installment in this series. After this first one I can’t wait to read #2 and #3. I totally plan on buying all three for the 3rd grade classroom library I am working on this summer.

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Better Nate Than EverBetter Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I start many reviews with the phrase: “I wanted to like this….. ” But this time I am going to flip that. ” I wasn’t really sure I wanted to like this…
I had actually passed over it a number of times. I guess I just wasn’t sure how I felt about an LGBT story for my elementary grade students. Since I work mostly with younger elementary advanced readers I have to be discerning . They have the skills to read almost anything but not the maturity always.That being said, I chose this title for my road trip to nErDCampMI this week. I knew that Tim Federle the author, had narrated this audio edition himself, AND he had won an ALA award for this rendition. My need to have evidence before spouting too strong of an opinion won over and I plugged it in.
It was a contagious story with a sparkling character and Federle gave a wonderful performance. My fears were allayed as Nate himself tells us a number of times that he just doesn’t know and isn’t ready to know where he will land on the sexuality continuim. He is definitely a dramatic and one of a kind personality. Nate delves into his passion of Broadway while navigating the confusion of pre-adolescence and dodging the abuse of cruel middle school bullies. Federle gives him a voice that is driven by Nate’s energy but avoids becoming a cliche. Nate’s open and vulnerable sharing of his journey to New York and the confusion of emotions it evokes is precious and heartbeaking. It was perfect as an audio book and I miss Nate in my car!
I would hand this to some of my 4th or 5th graders without a problem.

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I am totally addicted to this series!
Insurgent (Divergent, #2)Insurgent by Veronica Roth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is proving to be an amazing dystopia. I found myself struggling a little with believability more with this second installment. However,as it drew to a close and Roth took the reader to the conclusion I was entranced again. As I process the story today I am impressed with how Roth uses the dystopia style to force reflection of our own personalities.
In this book there is still plenty of fast-paced action and romantic tension, but we get a much closer and insightful look at each faction. The factions; Amity, Abnegation, Candor, Erudite and Dauntless each showcase an essential and valuable attribute of society. I have always believed that when we consider our own personality traits we find that our strongest best trait is also the source of our worst weakness. So much of personality is a double-edged sword. Roth shows us the advantages and the pitfalls of each faction.
I think the story of these factions also has something to say about the value of diversity. We need a diverse society, that is willing to work in cooperation and collaboration in order to survive the future.

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This is the one Newbery Contender. I REALLY Liked this one!
Absolutely AlmostAbsolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So many great books to chose from this year!! I totally loved this one. It was a pretty quick read but full of heart. I think I want to make it my go to read aloud next year.
This newest offering from Lisa Graff has an entirely different feel from last year’s A Tangle of Knots. This one had far fewer characters and a gentle, less frenetic flavor. It reminded me a lot of Wonder.
Albie, the main character is a kind-hearted struggling student. Every teacher will want to reach out and hug him.

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Spring Break Reading

We have had a week of continued below average cold and prolonged winter for our Break this past week. So it was perfect to catch up on my reading (and knitting of course). I have shared some of my reviews:


I Kill the MockingbirdI Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was a mixed bag for me. It was the story of three friends the summer before starting high school. They are assigned a summer reading list with one of the choices being “To Kill A Mockingbird”.
Somehow, they decide to hype up demand for the book by making it appear to be disappearing. I had trouble buying into that part of the story. It just seemed to lose it’s focus as the story went along.
I did however, really enjoy the characters and their summer of learning new things about themselves. The whole hide/steal the books conspiracy was interesting from the point of view of the power of social media. The whole thing took on a life of its own and the kids had to find a way to justify what they had done and find a way to end the game.
I would be hard pressed to see this one as a Newbery but a fun read, that I think students would enjoy.

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West of the MoonWest of the Moon by Margi Preus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was actually very captivated by this little story. It read very quickly but had a lot to offer. I had so many personal connections to the story that it was really interesting for me. This was basically a historical fiction about 2 sisters and their perilous journey to immigrate from Norway to America in the 1850s. However, it was written like a fractured fairy-tale. The author brought in about a dozen different well-known Norwegian folktales. While their journey follows these tales, it is based in reality. I loved how the author worked in real life explanations for the superstitions of the time period.
My husband is half Norwegian with his grandparents immigrating in the early 1900’s. I have done some research into the history of this immigration into the Midwest (Iowa and Wisconsin) and found Preus’ research very spot on. I will for sure have to pass this on to my mother-in-law, she will love the folktales and little ditties that the girls sing.

Addendunum: As this book keeps rattling around in my brain, I decided I needed to add a few more comments. I think my initial review made it sound a little too fluffy. While this book uses folktales as it’s vehicle, they are the more “grim” style. While much of the grimness is eluded to, there are some tough topics, such as; death, disease, child abuse, threatened sexual assault, childbirth, and abandonment.

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Under the EggUnder the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As an adult reader, I love a good mystery. But in Juvenile literature I find them disappointing. Common problems for me are that the “mystery” to be solved is contrived and trivial, or the participation of children in the solution is too far-fetched. I really didn’t find I was troubled with either one of these issues with this middle grade mystery. I found the young detectives believable and engaging. Granted both girls are stuck with absentee parents which gives them the freedom and necessity to undertake this adventures.
Theo has lost her Grandfather to a car accident and is left with what seems to be a mentally ill mother. She teams up with Bodhi, a child of entertainment “Stars”, who lives with very little adult supervision. They embark on a search into Renaissance art history to identify a painting that may be Theo’s salvation.
The two characters play well off of each other, with Theo being old school- find answers in a book at the library-style and Bodhi being a techno geek.
The story has a lot of depth and good discussion of feelings good, bad and selfish. The descriptions of Renaissance art is well done. It is informative without being too tedious. Eventually there is another historical period that comes to play in the story but that would be a spoiler and I will leave that for you to discover.

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The Journey of Hannah WoodsThe Journey of Hannah Woods by Helene Forst
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received this book in a Goodreads Giveaway. I was very eager to read this right after I had completed Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory. Both stories deal with the timely and urgent issue of PTSD. Anderson’s book dealt predominantly with the destruction and devastation of PTSD on the victim and their families. Forst’s book on the other hand focused more directly on the treatment process.
There are many theories regarding treatment modalities for this difficult psychological challenge. The story of Hannah Woods’ journey involves extensive psychotherapy, a carefully monitored detox program and an unbelievably loving and supportive environment.
All that being said, I found that in spite of the seriousness and difficulty of this topic, the book was not really gritty enough. The author gave very detailed descriptions of Hannah’s therapy sessions, experiences with Tai Chi and too good to be true grandparents and friends. But it all felt unbelievable and slightly contrived. I realize that the author was taking into consideration the tender age of her audience (teens) but the truth is that today’s teen is exposed to a level of gritty that would surprise most of us adults. I know that I would have a hard time selling this neatly wrapped up story to my very street smart middle schoolers.

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ThreatenedThreatened by Eliot Schrefer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Impossible Knife of MemoryThe Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love everything Laurie Halse Anderson writes. The problem with her books is that the world must stop once I pick one up. I mean STOP! The Impossible Knife of Memory was no exception. I bought the book on a Friday afternoon and finished by Sunday evening.
This story is about a teenage girl and her wounded warrior father. He suffers from PTSD and their life is rapidly disintegrating as he chooses all the wrong coping mechanisms. This is a very timely theme with so many of our men and women soldiers returning to civilian life and struggling to cope.
Each of the teens in Hayley’s social circle have some form of major crisis going on at home. They all struggle to support each other while being thrust into an unfair parental role in their families. Just like the parents, they fall into some destructive coping mechanisms. This theme of making poor decisions is common to Anderson’s YA novels. She is the master at drawing the reader into the angst.
I must say that although I enjoyed this book immensely, for some reason I didn’t find myself as completely consumed by the characters as I have in some of her other books. I suppose that is what accounts for the 4 stars instead of 5. The first book by Anderson I read will probably remain my favorite. Speak, published in 1999 still grips me. I also felt the angst in Wintergirls to such an extent that I felt physically ill.
Just as a side note, Laurie Halse Anderson also writes superb middle-grade historical fictions, I love these as well.

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Exciting New Releases

I have been remiss in blogging lately. However, I promise that I have been spending my time well. Since the announcements of the ALA awards in late January, I have been preparing for starting up the Mock Newbery club again. I needed to get a jump on some of the new titles so that I could have some book talks for our first meeting. There are some really great titles hitting the stores and shelves. I have included a couple of reviews below. Let the hunt for the best begin.

Half a ChanceHalf a Chance by Cynthia Lord
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved Rules by Cynthia Lord, so I was excited to receive this ARC from Netgalley. My every expectation was met with this wonderful story. Half a Chance explores moving away, moving in, moving on and moving forward. It also looks at friendships, the art of photography and the sadness of Alzheimers.
Half a Chance is about a young girl, Lucy, whose father is a professional photographer with a strong sense of wanderlust. Therefore, she has moved a lot and has developed concerns about making and keeping friends. Her family has just moved to a house on a lake in New Hampshire. She is befriended by the neighboring family who summer at the lake. The grandmother is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and the family is working desperately to capture and preserve the joys of this possibly last summer of memories. The story tells a gentle but gripping portrayal of the ravages of this disease.
Lucy is also a budding photographer and yearns for her nomadic, preoccupied father’s approval. She and the neighbor boy enter a photo contest and spend the summer seeking perfect photo ops. There are some wonderful descriptions of the art that is photography in the book.
I knew that Cynthia would not disappoint. I can’t wait to hand this to my Mock Newbery Club members. They will love this poignant and hopeful story.

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The Mark of the DragonflyThe Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received this from Netgalley as an ARC. I thoroughly enjoyed this story. It is a fantasy with a hint of steampunk. The main character is a spunky heroine ( my favorite kind) with a special talent for fixing mechanical things. She is surviving on her own, when she stumbles onto a fragile young girl who she feels compelled to protect. Together they embark on a spectacular journey where they meet some wonderful friends and some terrible enemies. As with all good journies, they also find some self discoveries along the way .
Oftentimes, I struggle with fantasies. I find myself plunked down in a world with weird characters and unknown culture and societal rules. It takes some quality writing to build a fantasy world that will grab me and engage me. I frequently feel like I am in a foreign land with no map or understanding of the language. Jaleigh Johnson did a great job of building this world and developing the characters. My students also struggle with these issues. So I am excited to find a book I can put in their hands that will give them an engaging new world.
The Mark of the Dragon fly has all I could ask for. There was an adventurous journey, great battles, scary monsters, hidden magical talents, valued friendships and a hint of romance (culminating in holding hands). My students have been eagerly watching my progress in this book. I have a line of students impatiently waiting for their turn to read this. I hate to tell them it hasn’t been released quite yet.

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Ophelia and the Marvelous BoyOphelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received this book on Netgalley and wanted to get a jump on the books published in 2014. This book was a wonderful surprise. I read it straight through on a short plane ride. It was a fantasy that was reminiscent of “Night in the Museum” rolled in with “The Lion,the Witch and the Wardrobe.
There were wizards, a Snow Queen, an absentminded father and endangered sister and most importantly an endearingly strong, courageous underdog of a heroine. She even has to stop to puff on her inhaler at every turn.
Stories in a museum have the potential of becoming bogged down in description and minutia. But Karen Foxlee handles this masterfully. The setting provides a fascinating maze for the adventure and a rich format for the author’s rich use of language. She uses some very interesting writing techniques to give the story life. She repeats the description of the path our heroine takes through the museum. It makes us feel as if we are running through these same rooms in search of hidden keys, magical swords and a Marvelous Boy.
Karen Foxlee gives us a retelling of the Snow Queen tale, but underlying is a deeper story of the crippling power of grief. She gives us a glimpse of how we can allow the clouds of sadness can leave us frozen and lost.
I can’t wait to put this in students’ hands.

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See You at Harry’s

See You at Harry'sSee You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to love this book and then part way through I wanted to be disappointed in it and in the end it won me over. I find that my reaction to a book can be colored by the surrounding books I am reading. This book came on the heels of “Wonder” and “Out of My Mind”, which are pretty tough acts to follow. There is a sense that currently all children’s lit must tackle the issue of Bullies.
Each story seems to cover a different subject of persecution but the theme is consistent. In this case the topic is homosexuality. My issue with this is, believing that early adolescents can be so certain about their sexuality at this stage in their development. Sadly, I believe that the bullying often forces kids into a stereotype simply because they seem different. Adolescence is all about finding ourselves and our walk in life, I hate to see any kid pigeon-holed for the sake of an axe society has to grind. Although the topic of sexual orientation was carefully dealt with in this story I would not hand this book to middle-grade readers.
The rest of the story, was quite a tear-jerker. At the risk of being a spoiler, I will leave it at that. It took me a large portion of the book before I really engaged with the characters in this family. I liked the children, but the parents irritated me. I suppose they were intended to to some extent. didn’t think I had connected with the characters enough to empathize with the sorrow I knew was coming. But in the end I did. All the character flaws became more real within the context of grief.

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6th grade Book Club

Out of My MindOut of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My sixth grade advanced readers were assigned this book for an end of the year book club. The teacher graciously invited me to facilitate the group. I have had an absolute blast with this group of girls. It has really enhanced my reading experience with this book to follow their reactions. I have had several 4-6th grade girls read and enjoy this book so I was eager to read with them and discover the buzz.
The storyline is that of a 5th grade girl with severe Cerebral Palsy who also has highly gifted intelligence. In the GT world, we call that “twice-exceptional”. The book is written as if it was an autobiography by this young girl. In many ways it reminded me of “Wonder” (although I think that is a superior book) with the theme being how the world reacts to disabilities.
Although, there were times when we felt the writing was a little simple, the overall result has left a strong impact. The author forces us to a level of self-awareness when it comes to how we respond to others around us. We had some interesting sessions imagining what it would be like to lose all forms of communication. These very bright, articulate girls were strongly affected. Thanks Girls for a great group!!!!

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