Friday, March 29, 2013

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

Image from
Clarion Books, 2011

It’s 1968 and life is rough for 14 year old Doug Swieteck. His unhappy father takes his frustrations out on the family physically and verbally and Doug’s older brother never misses a chance to torture him. So Doug isn’t exactly optimistic when his father gets a job at a paper mill in upstate New York. In fact, Doug is pretty sure that his new home in “stupid” small town Marysville is going to be horrible. And it is, at first. But then little things, good things, begin to creep into Doug’s life. He meets an annoyingly smart girl, becomes a deli delivery boy, and discovers the public library. But it’s what he finds on the second floor of the library that connects the jumbled pieces of Doug’s life. What does he find? A breathtaking artic tern painted by John James Audubon. Although his new life in Marysville is sometimes rocky, filled with school bullies, the return of his soldier brother from Vietnam, and his father’s questionable friend Ernie, the good things in Doug’s life slowly begin to outweigh the bad.

This book, named an ALA Notable Children’s Book and listed as an ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults Pick, strikes a delicate balance of emotional highs and lows. It is at times laugh at loud funny and at others heartbreakingly sad. So many bad things happen to Doug, this book could easily wander into a depressing mire, but it doesn’t. This is due to the captivating first person voice of Doug.  Doug’s transformation from an uninterested tough kid to a vibrant and curious individual is believable and engaging. Schmidt handles serious subjects including abuse, family problems, the effects of the Vietnam War on soldiers, and bulling in a candid, but age appropriate way. Each chapter begins with a greyscale picture of a single John James Audubon painting that relates to Doug’s life in often unexpected ways. The ending was a bit disappointing, as it seemed to come out of nowhere and was a little too good to be true. However, Schmidt’s ability to weave a fascinating story overshadows this minor fault. This book is a companion to Schmidt’s earlier, The Wednesday Wars, in which Doug is first introduced as a supporting character. However, readers can enjoy this book with or without previous knowledge of Doug.

Read an excerpt of the book or listen to a clip of the audiobook and get drawn in by Doug’s unique and honest voice.
*Bring in books that feature birds painted by John James Audubon. Have kids pick a bird and practice contour drawing as Doug does in the book. The book that Doug looks at is Birds of America by John James Audubon.

*Doug and his classmates read Jane Eyre and Doug makes many references to the plot and characters. Talk about the plot of Jane Eyre, have kids read sections from the book out loud, or have kids read an abridged or complete version of the story.

*Check out the educator’s guide from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for discussion questions, activities, and trivia questions.

*Other chapter books by Schmidt:
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

Age 11+ / Grade 6+

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

Image from
Simon and Schuster, 1983.

Alanna and her twin brother, Thom, know that their father wouldn’t listen if they tried to tell him they didn’t like the futures he has chosen for them. So the two redheaded 11 year olds hatch a plan. Thom, not Alanna, will go to the convent to be a priest and learn to use his magic and Alanna will go to the big city of Corus to be a page and train to be a knight. With her hair cut short and dressed in her brother’s clothes Alanna becomes Alan of Trebond and throws herself into the grueling work of learning to be a champion of Tortall. Will Alanna be able to hide her secret from her new friends? Will she figure out why she’s had visions of a city made of shiny, black stone? Is it in her destiny to become a knight?

This book is the first in a quartet of books that follow Alanna’s adventures from page to knighthood. It’s also the first book to take place in the fantastical world of Tortall. As the story unfolds Pierce fleshes out the details of this world of knights and dukes, thieves and magicians. However, the descriptions are a natural part of the narrative and the focus remains firmly on the story of good versus evil. The characters are diverse and well-rounded and Alanna is a likable, spunky protagonist. Pierce also deals with Alanna’s discovery of her menstrual cycle in a very direct, yet story-specific manner. Alanna’s story is one of female empowerment in a male dominated world. A great recommendation for readers looking for a wonderful fantasy story with a strong female character.

Read an excerpt of the book and get pulled into this great adventure.

*Alanna’s story is continued in the other books in The Song of the Lioness quartet:

*Finished all The Song of the Lioness quartet books? These series by Pierce follow new characters, but are all set in Tortall:

*If you want to move beyond Tortall, try the following fantasy books, also by Pierce:

*Check out Pierce’s website for a list of her books in the chronological order in which they take place.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine

Age 11+ / Grade 6+


Friday, March 15, 2013

Shiva’s Fire by Suzanne Fisher Staples

Image from
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000

Parvati has been singled out as different and possibly dangerous by the villagers of Anandanagar in Nandipuram in southern India. Parvati was born on the first day of the terrible cyclone that took the lives of many and devastated all of Nandipuram. The villagers blame her for this horrible event and to make it worse Parvati has extraordinary abilities that are seen as unnatural by those in her community. Animals gravitate toward her, from the fish in the river to the birds in the sky, and when she lights even the smallest candle beautiful music ripples through the air. But most of all, Parvati is filled with an innate knowledge of music and dance. After the cyclone her family, along with all the other villagers, struggle to survive, but when Parvati is twelve she is given the opportunity to give her beloved mother and brothers a better life. The Guru Pazhayanur Muthu Kumara Pillai notices Parvati’s talent for dance and invites her to study Indian classical dance. However, the program requires complete dedication to the study of dance, music, meditation, and spirituality. Parvati is torn between her love for her family and the feeling that it is her dharma, her fate, to dedicate her life to dance.

This coming of age story brings southern India to life with wonderful descriptions that incorporate all five senses. Written in third person, this story reads like a contemporary folktale because of Parvati’s mysterious gifts. Although the young dancer’s life is shaped by external incidents, the focus is on her internal struggle to understand the world, her talents, and her dharma. Staples incorporates Tamil, Hindi, and Sanskrit words (written phonetically) into the text. Although some words are contextually defined, all terms can be found in the glossary and pronunciation guide included at the back of the book. This book also includes an honest and age appropriate description of Parvati’s shock when she experiences her first menstrual cycle.

*Learn more about bharata natyam, the sacred Hindu classical dance that Parvati studies in the book:
Note: These websites have a lot of information, so I suggest reading them and then sharing the information with young readers, as they can be a bit overwhelming

*Read about the research and inspiration behind this book in this interview with Suzanne Fisher Staples.

*Although the world of the book is realistic and contemporary, there are elements that create a magical, folktale-like atmosphere. Follow up by reading Indian and Hindu tales and discuss themes, motifs, or animals that also appear in Staples' book:
The Elephant-Headed God and Other Hindu Tales by Debjani Chatterjee, Illustrated by Margaret Jones
Indian Tales: A Barefoot Collection by Shenaaz Nanji, Illustrated by Christopher Corr
Tales from India: Stories of Creation and the Cosmos by Jamila Gavin, Illustrated by Amanda Hall

*Parvati’s father was a mahout, a driver and keeper of elephants. Learn more about how elephants are trained and kept in southern India in this non-fiction book:
Balarama: A Royal Elephant by Ted and Betsy Lewin

Aria of the Sea by Dia Calhoun
Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman 
Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan

*Other books by Suzanne Fisher Staples:

Age 11+ / Grade 6+


Saturday, March 9, 2013

Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge

Image from
Harper Trophy, 2005

12 year old Mosca Mye knows she needs to get out of the soggy rural town of Chough. Partly because she is hungry for more words than the tiny town can offer and also because she’s just burnt down her harsh uncle’s mill. Small and crafty, Mosca flees to the big city of Mandelion with an escaped con man, the lyrically verbose Eponymous Clent, and her loyal goose friend, Saracen. Very soon the trio find themselves caught up in a complicated web of spies and schemes, nobles and locksmiths, blackmail and mistaken identities. Through it all, Mosca continues to yearn for more words, a perilous desire in a world where the printed word is considered to be dangerous and maddening.

Hardinge’s powers of description and detail bring Mosca’s world to life in all its gritty and lively glory. According to Hardinge, the Fractured Realm is a “distorted, fairground-mirror version of the eighteenth century.” This is not an idealistic world; the characters have personal motives that are not altogether nice. Therefore it’s fitting that orphaned Mosca, although cunning and brave, is not always honest and must constantly question the trustworthiness of those around her. In addition to a gripping story, Hardinge addresses issues including religion, intellectual freedom, freedom of expression, the power of the printed word, class structure, politics, and war. Not for the faint of heart, I would recommend this to a strong reader with a great love of words and language who is ready to question the world around them. A great choice for readers straddling middle grade and YA fiction.

The edition I read included an insightful interview with Hardinge at the end of the book.

Read an excerpt of the book and fall into the language of the Fractured Realm.

*The printed word and the use of the printing press features prominently in this book. Research the history of the printing press and how it changed literacy. Demonstrate how a printing press works by using rubber stamps or create artwork with Styrofoam trays and ink.

*Many books are banned in the Fractured Realm because the printed word is considered dangerous. Use this book as part of a display or program for Banned Books Week.

*Read more about Mosca, Clent, and Saracen in the sequel:
            Fly Trap (US title) / Twilight Robbery (UK title)

City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

*More chapter books by Frances Hardinge
The Lost Conspiracy (US title) / Gullstruck Island (UK title)         
Well Witched (US title) / Verdigris Deep (UK title)

Age 11+ / Grade 6+


Monday, March 4, 2013

The Misadventures of Maude March, or, Trouble Rides a Fast Horse by Audrey Couloumbis

Image from
Random House, 2005.

Set in 1869, this rollicking, rip-roaring story follows the adventures of 11 year old Sallie and her 15 year old sister Maude as they go from respectable citizens of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to range riders on the run. When their guardian, Aunt Ruthie, is killed by a stray bullet the sisters find it necessary to disguise themselves as boys and set off to find their long lost Uncle Arlen in Independence, Missouri. Along the way they find themselves in the middle of bundles of trouble, from bank robberies to blizzards, mountain lions to mistaken identities. Sallie can’t believe her luck. It’s like a story out of one of the dimers she loves to read! But even Sallie has to admit being a real range rider isn’t quite as glamorous as the stories make it out to be. Will the sisters make it to Independence? What will they do if Uncle Arlen has moved farther west? And what should they do when they find themselves traveling with the notorious Joe Harden, Frontier Fighter?

This story is humorously told from tomboy Sallie’s point of view. Short, episodic chapters combined with colorful descriptions and lively language make this a great book for reading aloud. Although Sallie as a character has a tendency to exaggerate, Couloumbis crafts a cast of realistic, yet memorable characters. A map at the beginning of the book allows readers to trace the sisters’ route and the markings are intriguing, “Willie’s Gang!” “The Rattler!” The acknowledgements that follow the story provide information on the resources used to find the historical details that make this story come alive.
Read an excerpt and get hooked on this adventurous story.
*Figure out how many miles Sallie and Maude traveled by looking at a map. How far would that be from your present location? How long would it take by car, train or bus?

*Write a short story in the style of the dimers Sallie loves so much. Use a character from the book as the hero or have students create their own protagonist.

*Read more about Sallie and Maude in the sequel:
            Maude March on the Run!: Or Trouble is Her Middle Name by Audrey Couloumbis

            Ballad of Lucy Whipple by Karen Cushman
            Emily’s Fortune by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
            Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson
            Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

*More chapter books by Audrey Couloumbis:
            Getting Near to Baby
            Say Yes
            Summer’s End

Age 9+ / Grade 4+