Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

Image from BarnesandNoble.com

Dial, 2012.
Outspoken rising sixth grader Moses LoBeau lives in tiny Tupelo Landing, NC (pop. 148) with the fabulous Miss Lana and the gruff amnesia-stricken Colonel, the guardians brought to her by fate and luck. Lost in a hurricane as a newborn baby, Mo has spent her life searching for her unidentified Upstream Mother. Mo’s ready to spend the summer fishing with her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, avoiding her sworn enemy for life, Anna Celeste Simpson, and helping out at the café. But Mo’s life changes forever the day trouble (and murder) comes to Tupelo Landing. The police arrive to investigate, but Mo knows they’ll need all the help they can get to solve this case. Luckily, Mo is not only a borderline straight-A student, she’s also an observant and quick-witted detective!   

This is one of my favorite books of 2012 and I was over the moon when it was named a Newbery Honor Book for 2013. Turnage’s unique characters, created with a generous dollop of southern charm, are believable, yet larger-than-life. Written from confident and spunky Mo’s perspective, scenes are described in a humorous, yet realistic manner, particularly those involving Dale’s alcoholic and abusive father. Although Mo's comebacks and observations are sharp, witty, and hilarious they never distract from the heart of the story. The carefully crafted murder mystery plot is full of surprising twists and suspenseful turns that will have readers enthralled right up to the satisfying resolution.

Listen to a clip of the audio book version read by Michal Friedman

*Mo spends her spare time writing her autobiography. Have kids write the introduction to their autobiography or the biography of a character from the book.

*Miss Lana likes to create different themes for the café, such as “1930’s Paris” and “Café circa 1968.” Have kids work in groups to come up with a theme and then create a menu and decorations to go along with their theme.

Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath
The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, Illustrated by Matt Phelan
Savvy by Ingrid Law

Age 10+ / Grade 5+


Friday, January 25, 2013

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, Illustrated by Brett Helquist

Image from Scholastic.com

Scholastic, 2004.

6th graders Petra and Calder are in the same class and live just a few houses from each other in Chicago’s Hyde Park, but they don’t become friends until they both start noticing an unusual number of coincidences. But are they really coincidences? The friends aren’t sure, but as they follow the trail of clues they realize it’s up to them to find the priceless Vermeer painting that has been stolen in a sensational art heist. Who is this audacious thief? Why did the thief send cryptic letters to three people in Hyde Park? And, most importantly, can Petra and Calder save the painting?

This book will not only introduce readers to the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, but it will also have them pondering big questions such as, “What is art?” and “Can art lie or tell the truth?” Balliett skillfully and seamlessly alternates between the workings of Petra and Calder’s minds. This allows information to be revealed quickly and the pace of the book gathers to the thrilling conclusion. In addition to a complex and compelling plotline, Balliett clever use of codes and wordplay keeps readers vigilant. Helquist’s stylistic illustrations not only provide context, they also contain a hidden message.

Ready to test your sleuthing skills? Read an excerpt from the book.

*Bring in books or look at pictures of Vermeer’s paintings online. Compare pictures and look for repeating themes/elements.

*Invite kids to do the assignment Ms. Hussey gives her class (page 36). Ask them to pick something they consider a work of art and then write a description for it without naming the object. Encourage them to think about how the object affects the five senses, as well the emotions it evokes.

*Write letters using Calder’s pentomino code (page 57). Encourage kids to come up with their own code using the letters in their name, the name of a famous person, or even a short phrase.

*Buy or make pentominoes for kids to play with while reading and discussing this book. If you’d like your pentominoes to last longer, try backing them with cardboard or laminating them.

The Gollywhopper Games by Jody Feldman
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

*Check out the sequels for more mysteries featuring Petra, Calder, and their friend Tommy:

*Other books by Blue Balliett:
Hold Fast (to be released in 2013)

Age 9+ / Grade 4+


Monday, January 21, 2013

Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park

Image from LindaSuePark.com

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2008

Maggie-O, named after baseball great Joe DiMaggio, is a devoted Brooklyn Dodgers fan. It’s the 1950’s and it seems like Maggie has been hoping and praying for the Dodgers to win the World Series for her entire life. But her devotion to baseball takes a new form when Jim, a new firefighter and a Giants fan, teaches Maggie how to score baseball games. Maggie’s world takes another unexpected turn when Jim is drafted into the Korean War. At first he replies to all of Maggie’s letters, but suddenly he stops. Now Maggie worries about two things: Jim and the Dodgers. She does everything she can think of to help, but what if nothing she does makes a difference?

Maggie is a genuine and enthusiastic protagonist and her observations and emotions will keep readers’ attention as she learns about baseball, friendship, and the world beyond Brooklyn.Park uses vernacular of the 1950’s Brooklyn to bring Maggie, her friends, and family to life. Readers will also learn about the Korean War as Maggie struggles to understand the events that change Jim. Written in 3rd person, this book is a compelling read for die-hard, as well as new, baseball fans. Maggie’s entire world revolves around baseball and the characters often give each other play-by-play details of a particular game. For readers who aren’t familiar with the rules of scoring (such as myself), illustrations are helpfully incorporated into the text. More information about scoring a baseball game is provided in the author’s note.

Read an excerpt of the book.

*Bring in photographs of the baseball players discussed in the book, such as Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, and Roy Campanella. If kids have a favorite baseball player, ask them to bring in a picture or baseball card to share with the class. 

*Check out the reader’s guide published by Houghton Mifflin for discussion questions and project ideas.

*Pair this book with baseball poems, such as those found in the following collections:
Extra Innings: Baseball Poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, Illustrated by Scott Medlock
Rules of the Game: Baseball Poems by Marjorie Maddox, Illustrated by John Sandford
That Sweet Diamond: Baseball Poems by Paul B. Janeczko, Illustrated by Carole Katchen

*Other middle grade books about baseball:
Mudville by Kurtis Scarletta
The Prince of Fenway Park by Julianna Baggott
Six Innings by James Preller
Summerland by Michael Chabon

*More books by Linda Sue Park:

Age 9/Grade 4+


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

Image from OpenLibrary.org

Penguin Group, 2004

It’s 1935 and 12 year old Moose is less than enthusiastic about his new home. His father has gotten a job at the maximum security prison on Alcatraz off the coast of San Francisco and the family has to live on the island. Moose wishes they could just move back to Santa Monica, but he knows that his father took these jobs so that Moose’s sister, Natalie, can go to a special school. Moose’s mother desperately wants Natalie to have a “normal” life and the rest of the family is swept up in the cause. The strict warden warns Moose that under no circumstances should Moose talk to or about the notorious gangster, Al Capone, or any of the other dangerous criminals imprisoned on Alcatraz. As if his life wasn’t complicated enough, Moose finds himself tangled in the money-making schemes of Piper, the beautiful, but mischievous and spoiled daughter of the warden. Moose doesn’t want to be responsible for Natalie. He doesn’t want to have to dodge Piper. All he wants to do is make friends, play baseball, and go back to his old life. Why can’t Moose have a life like everyone else? 

This coming of age story, named a Newbery Honor Book and American Library Association Notable Children’s Book, is written from Moose’s point of view, which deftly navigates between humor and heart-felt emotions. Readers will be lured by the sensational subject matter (gangsters and criminals!), but ultimately it is Moose’s realizations about life, love, and truth that provides the satisfying conclusion to this story. Employees and their families really did live on Alcatraz during the 1930’s and the information in the author’s note at the end of the book provides more information on the facts behind this fictional story. The note also includes information about Natalie, noting that today she would probably be diagnosed with autism. Sources are cited at the end of the book.

Listen to an excerpt of the audio book version read by Kirby Heyborne.

*Have each child choose a famous criminal who was imprisoned on Alcatraz and make a card for them as Teresa does in the book.

*Take a field trip to Alcatraz. If you don’t live close enough to take a tour in person, check out the National Park Service website to see pictures of the island. 

*Learn more about Alcatraz and Al Capone on Gennifer Choldenko’s website. Pair this book with non-fiction books about Alcatraz:
            Children of Alcatraz: Growing Up on the Rock by Claire Rudolf Murphy
            The Secrets of Alcatraz (Mysteries Unwrapped) by Susan Sloate, Illustrated by Josh Cochran

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
Holes by Louis Sacher

*Read more about Moose and life on Alcatraz in the sequels:
            Al Capone Shines My Shoes
            Al Capone Does My Homework (to be released in 2013)

*More books by Gennifer Choldenko
            If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period
            No Passengers Beyond This Point
            Notes From a Liar and Her Dog

Age 11+ / Grade 6+


Friday, January 11, 2013

Ida B…and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World by Katherine Hannigan

Image from BarnesandNoble.com
Scholastic, Inc. 2005. 
Only child Ida B Applewood has figured out a routine that allows her to maximize the good, fun things in life. But her happy life as a homeschooler is disrupted when her mother gets sick. Not only does Ida B have to go to public school, she is devastated because some of the family’s land, along with many of her beloved apple trees, is going to be sold to pay for the hospital bills. Ida B knows she has to come up with her best plan yet, one that will change everything back to righter than right once again. 

This witty and poignant book is set on a farm in present day rural Wisconsin. Imaginative, creative, and intelligent Ida B is an independent only child and a spunky narrator. Hannigan doesn’t shy away from dealing with the anger and frustration Ida B feels as she comes to terms with her mother’s illness and the changes in her formally orderly world. The characters are three dimensional and Hannigan realistically presents their virtues and faults. Homeschooling and public schooling are presented and discussed, with the positive sides of each rising to the top.

Step into Ida B’s world by reading an excerpt of the book.

Read other books with homeschooled protagonists. Compare and contrast the different methods of schooling. What subjects do the characters study? When do they study? How is it the same or different than your school?
Skellig & My Name is Mina by David Almond
Savvy by Ingrid Law
Nim’s Island by Wendy Orr
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

*Ida B’s father tells her it’s important to take care of the earth because it takes care of us. Tie this book in with a discussion about environmental issues. What are some of the ways Ida B takes care of the earth? What are some of the ways you take care of the earth? Check out Hannigan’s suggestions for (possibly) saving the world.

*Check out the reading group guide published by Greenwillow Books for great discussion questions. 

*More books by Katherine Hannigan:
            Emmaline and the Bunny
            True (…sort of)

Age 8+ / Grade 3+


Monday, January 7, 2013

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

Image from BarnesandNoble.com
Random House Children’s Books, 2003.
When citizens of the city of Ember turn 12, they eagerly await Assignment Day. Like their classmates, Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow can’t wait to find out what job they will pick out of the Mayor’s assignment bag. Swift and agile Lina hopes with all her might to be a messenger, while serious Doon wants to be an electrician’s helper so he can learn more about the mysterious generator that powers the city. No one, not even the Mayor, knows how the underground generator works, but somehow it powers all the lights of Ember. Without electricity the city would come to a standstill because it’s not just dark in Ember at night – it’s dark all the time with no sun, moon, or stars. Life in Ember is routine, but what happens when Lina and Doon realize that there’s something sinister about the supply shortages and power outages? Will Lina and Doon figure out a way to save their beloved city? And even if they do, will anyone believe them?

This book, named an American Library Notable Children’s Book, is a thrilling page-turner. Part science fiction and part fantasy, the story follows the revelations of two protagonists as they learn Ember is not the idyllic city they once believed. Set in a dystopian society this is a great recommendation for kids who want to read The Hunger Games, but aren’t quite ready for the violence/mature content of Collins’ series. The text is written in third person and DuPrau sets a fast pace by alternating between Doon and Lina’s perspectives. The story is full of narrow escapes, surprising twists, and cliff hangers. This is the first book in the Book of Ember series and the ending will have readers clamoring to get their hands on the sequel.

Intrigued? Read the first chapter of the book on the Scholastic website. Also, check out the recently published graphic novel version of the story.

In 2008 the book was made in a movie. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t say if it’s worth watching or not, but it could be interesting to read the book as a family, watch the movie, and then compare the two.

*Many times in the text DuPrau describes the precise route Lina or Doon take as they navigate the City of Ember. Have kids plot the route on the map that prefaces the story.

*The citizens of Ember know that the power for the lights comes from the generator, but they don’t know anything about electricity or fire. Doon tries to make his own “mobile” light in the book, but doesn’t succeed. Follow up by making your own mobile light source: a flashlight. Try a recycled soda can flashlight or a square flashlight. (SPOILER: Yes, I know they eventually find candles not flashlights in the book, but this is a great project to learn about batteries and electricity).

*Hold your own Assignment Day, as Corrina Allen outlines in her blog, Diary of a 6th Grade Teacher.

*Check out the teacher’s guide by Daphne Greene. Published by the School Violence Prevention Demonstration Program, the guide looks at the social, economic, and political issues in the book.

*Read more about the inspiration and creation of the book on the Random House website.

            The House of Power by Patrick Carmen
            Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
            The Giver by Lois Lowry

*Find out what happens to Lina, Doon, and the citizens of Ember as the Book of Ember series continues:
            The People of the Sparks
            The Prophet of Yonwood
            The Diamond of Darkhold

Age 10+ / Grade 5+


Friday, January 4, 2013

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

Image from NobodyButCurtis.com
Scholastic Inc., 1995
Set against the background of the Civil Rights Movement, this story focuses on 10 year old Kenny’s experiences growing up in a middle class African-American family in Flint, MI.  Kenny deals with new friends and bullying, but it is the road trip his family takes to visit Grandma Sands in Birmingham, AL that changes his life. Book-smart, but gullible Kenny uses frank humor to tell readers about the members of the “Weird Watson family.” From his “cut-up” father and “Southern-style talking” mama to his tattle-tale little sister, Joetta. And then there's his older brother, Bryon, who has just turned 13 and thinks he is Daddy Cool. Unfortunately, Bryon has been cutting school and getting into too much trouble lately. So Mama and Dad decide it’s time to take a family road trip to leave Byron with Grandma Sands for the summer. Kenny expects strict Grandma Sands to change his brother’s attitude, but the lives of all the Watsons are affected when the church near Grandma’s house is bombed.

Based around the facts of an actual church bombing in Birmingham in 1963, this Coretta Scott King Award Winner and Newbery Honor Book addresses racial tensions, violence, and the Civil Rights Movement in a straight forward, yet sensitive and age appropriate way.  Young readers will identify with Kenny’s tribulations as he learns about friendship, bullying, and the world beyond his beloved Flint. Although the siblings squabble, there’s no doubt that the weird Watsons are a tight-knit and loving family. The book ends with an epilogue that discusses the historical setting of the story and provides more information about the church bombing.

Get a taste of Kenny’s humorous way of looking at the world by reading an excerpt of the book or listen to Levar Burton read a portion of the audio book.

*Before reading this book, set the mood by playing music popular from the 1960's. Songs mentioned in the book include Yakety-Yak by The Coasters and Under the Boardwalk and Save the Last Dance for Me by the Drifters. Other artists mentioned are Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington.

*Bring in a road map and figure out the route that the Watsons take from Flint to Birmingham. Learn about the differences in weather and climate in the two locations. Talk about other ways the two locations are similar or different.

*Read more about the family road trip that inspired this book in this author’s note by Curtis. Ask kids to write about a road trip or vacation they’ve taken with their family. Questions to get creative juices following include: Who sits where? Who drives? What do you listen to (the radio, music, books on tape, etc.)? What do you eat? What do you do to pass the time?

*After you read the book, read Dudley Randall’s poem, “Ballad of Birmingham,” about the church bombing that is featured in the book. Be prepared to discuss the civil rights events that led up to and surrounded the bombing.  

*Check out more connection ideas in the reader’s guide written by Amy Griffin and published by Scholastic.

Compare the ways the Watsons are affected by the events of the 1960’s to the characters in another book set during the same decade. Discuss the different attitudes toward race, war, and politics, as well as sibling and family dynamics.

           Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood
           Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
           Countdown by Deborah Wiles
           One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

*More by this Author
           Bud, Not Buddy
           Elijah of Buxton
           The Mighty Miss Malone
Age 9+ / Grade 4+


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Image from RebeccaSteadBooks.com
Wendy Lamb Books, 2012

When twelve year old Georges (the “s” is silent) moves into a new apartment his life changes and not just because his family had to sell the house he grew up in. His father is busy building his own business and his mother is picking up extra shifts as a nurse at the hospital. Georges endures constant bullying at school, but he tries to ignore it, reminding himself that his time in school is just a small dot in the impressionist painting that is his life. In the midst of all of this, Georges finds himself the newest and only recruit in a spy club, run by the enigmatic homeschooled twelve year old, Safer, and his younger sister, Candy. He finds himself keeping watch on the mysterious Mr. X, but as Safer demands more of Georges he begins to wonder if there really is a Mr. X. In this story of truth, lies, reality, and spying Georges learns about the complexities and joys of friendship.

Set in present day New York City, Stead’s story is equal parts mystery and philosophy. Written in first person, Georges’ voice is sensitive, observant, and informal. Although readers may realize Georges isn’t telling the whole truth, the book concludes with a twist that is both surprising and endearing.

Interested? Read an excerpt from the book.   

*Georges’ science class is studying taste and they discuss the five basic tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. Bring in foods that represent each of the tastes and hold a taste test. Encourage kids to write a short description or a poem about their favorite taste.

*Georges is named after the French painter, Georges Seurat. Bring in a photograph of the painting that hangs in Georges living room, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Talk about pointillism and follow up by creating art in the style of Seurat.

*Other middle grade books about bullying:
Blubber by Judy Blume
Indigo’s Star by Hilary McKay

Harriet the Spy by Louise FitzHugh
The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg

*More books by Rebecca Stead:

When You Reach Me (2010 Newbery Award Winner)

Age 9 + / Grade 4+