Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

ghostsI met Raina Telgemeier at the San Diego Comic Con a few years ago, and told her that her book Smile was the most frequently stolen borrowed (and disappeared) from my classroom library. Kids really love her work!

I got to see her speak again this past summer as well, and this time she was talking about her new book, Ghosts. I just knew I’d have to buy at least one copy (so far) for my class, and sure enough the very next day after it came out, I had a waiting list of students wanting to borrow it. I haven’t seen the book since, actually. I hope it’s okay and will make its way back eventually!

This story is about two sisters, and how their family has to move to a small seaside town in northern California because the younger sister, Maya, has a lung disease called cystic fibrosis. The cool, damp, salty air is supposed to help Maya to breathe better. Catrina understands this, but it is still difficult to make a big move to a new school, and having Maya’s illness on her mind is stressful. Thankfully she meets some good friends at her new school, and one boy is very interesting. His name is Carlos, and he reveals that their town is crawling with ghosts! Cat is scared by this, but Maya is intrigued, and wants to know more. Their town, Bahia de la Luna, has a big celebration for El Dia de los Muertos, and it is here that Cat has to face some of her fears about death and the possibility of her little sister dying. Are ghosts real, are they memories that we hold on to, or can they be both? Either way, this book is about learning to celebrate life.

As always, the illustrations are bright and colorful, and the characters are highly relatable. As an adult reader and mom, I really felt for the parents, too, as they tried to accommodate and assure both of their daughters. I loved the bigger message behind this book, and I’m thankful to be able to sit and reflect on it this rare, rainy afternoon.

This book has an AR level of 2.6 and is worth 1 point. A great one-sitting read, and extremely popular at our book fair last week.  (See, I knew it!)

El Deafo by Cece Bell

El DeafoHow about an award-winning graphic novel for today? it still feels like summer where I’m located, so I was looking for something that felt like an outdoor book, the kind you can read while sitting in the park. I happened to walk to the bookstore today and picked up El Deafo, a book I’d been meaning to add to my classroom since it came out last year. This book was a Kirkus Prize finalist in the category of young readers’ literature, it was a Newbery Honor book, AND it won an Eisner Award, which is a comic book award. I came straight home and read it straight through in one shot. It was such a relatable story; Cece Bell expressed all of the normal insecurities about growing up, but added on the extra personal layer of having a main character with a major hearing loss. This is inspired by her own personal story, drawn out here for you. (The characters are all represented as rabbits, but a childhood photo in the back assures me she is not actually a rabbit! I love this choice so so much, especially when you think about the significance of the ears in this book.)

When Cece was four years old, she became ill with meningitis. Meningitis is a fairly rare disease that causes swelling of the brain and spinal cord. Cece recovers, but a side effect she has to deal with is a hearing loss. Cece is scared because she doesn’t quite understand what is happening, or how to express to her parents how she is feeling. Once they get her sorted out, she gets her first hearing aid and goes off to kindergarten where she meets other deaf students. Their teacher helps them to learn how to lip read and prepares them for elementary school.

As Cece gets older, she worries about how other kids will see her and if they will treat her differently, or even want to be her friend at all. Will they notice the large hearing aid she wears under her clothes, the Phonic Ear? Will they ask questions? Will it be…weird? Will they think she is weird? Frenemies, sleepovers, moving, meeting new people, getting glasses, a first crush, and peer pressure at school are topics that are for every reader. Cece sometimes thinks of herself as a superhero– she has special powers that give her strength, but also make her different. She imagines herself in different scenarios as her alter-ego, El Deafo, which helps her gain the confidence she needs to work through her insecurities.

Gosh, this was good, a perfect sixth grade book. I recommend it to anyone. For El Deafo, Cece Bell did the writing and the illustrating, but another artist, David Lasky, did the color work. So think about that, my friends. That’s a job. Coloring. That’s a job that a grownup has, a job that YOU could have. See, you can learn a lot of things when you read! (Also as a side note, Cece Bell is married to Tom Angleberger, the Origami Yoda guy! They even made a book together, called Crankee Doodle, so that’s pretty cool.)

El Deafo has an AR level of 2.7 and is worth 2 points.

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

 

 “Once upon a time…” 

I love reading or hearing these words at the start of a story. They let me know that something incredible is about to happen, probably featuring some type of magic, or talking animals, or at least an epic adventure of some sort. They let me know it is time to suspend reality for a little while, and that whatever happens, it’s okay to believe it, no matter how UNbelievable it may be. 

My students and I read a few versions of Little Red Riding Hood the other day.  In one version, Red’s grandma gets eaten by the wolf, and in another, Red just goes home and nothing happens. Nothing! That was kind of a let down. So we talked about how these stories were supposed to scare children into doing what they were told. Red Riding Hood breaks all of her mother’s rules about 10 seconds into the story and as a result the wolf eats her grandma (and sometimes Red herself also gets eaten!) Don’t worry though, grandma has been swallowed whole, so when the woodsman comes to their rescue, she just steps right out of the wolf’s stomach untouched. Amazing, right?!?

So then we talked about how about how these fairy tales that have been Disneyfied over time really do have some very dark origins.  Grimm’s Fairy Tales are quite scary and gruesome. I mentioned that I had a book in the class library that addressed this darker aspect of the original stories, a book called A Tale Dark and Grimm that my previous students were really into. This launched a massive hunt through all of my books–“What color is it?” “What is the author’s name again?” “Which category would it be under?” A sign-up list was starting to form of who was reading it first and who it would go to next. An arm wrestling contest was about to break out to determine rankings.

We could not find it anywhere. Sad faces. However, because I am awesome, I jumped right online and reserved two copies at my neighborhood bookstore. How can I deny such a reading frenzy? I walked over to pick them up yesterday, plus a copy of book 2 for my speed readers, and then I started reading to be better prepared for Monday. A Tale Dark and Grimm follows Hansel and Gretel through several different fairy tales, while all along the narrator interjects with warnings about putting the book down, turning away, sparing the children from the bloody details, and overall lightening the mood so the book doesn’t go full-blown scary. I enjoyed it very much, it was a quick read, and watching the stories criss-cross each other was pretty cool. I will just say that Hansel and Gretel have a very rough start and ending, poor kids. Yikes! I can’t wait to pass these out in class tomorrow. 

A Tale Dark and Grimm has an AR level of 4.6 and is worth 6 points. It is quite violent and bloody, the author is very clear about this fact, so if you are easily upset these might not be for you, but the fantasy and magic aspect, along with the narrator’s humor, takes some of the edge off. There are three books in the series: the second is called In a Glass Grimmly, and the third is A Grimm Conclusion.  I also see that this book is in development for a movie, by the same director who made the Coraline movie. Exciting! 

Ida B. by Katherine Hannigan

Ida B.This is a book that my school librarian shoved into my hand and insisted that I read. She and I were talking about an idea for matching kids with books and making suggestions that were “just right” for particular students, and she commented on needing to go back and read a few older favorites. Ida B….and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World was one that she happened to re-read and then passed it straight on to me. When I used the verb “shoved” above, I wasn’t exaggerating!

Ida B. is a fourth grader. She lives in an apple orchard and has been homeschooled since kindergarten. Kindergarten didn’t quite work out, and honestly, even as a teacher, I shared some of her concerns! So Ida has been learning at home, spending quality time with her parents and pets, and exploring the outdoors, talking to trees and the brook that runs through their property. Ida B. (do not call her plain Ida, because that’s her mom’s name) has a great sense of who she is and a very positive attitude. Early in the book, she sets out for the day with enough paper to do “four perfect drawings and one mistake.” She likes to eat the same thing every day, she tells her dad, because her head is too full about other things to have to bother with thinking about what to eat. Ida B. is a very busy person!

One day, Ida hears a rumbling amongst the trees when she is out exploring. Something is about to change, and it turns out to be true. Her mother becomes ill with cancer, and as a result, Ida B. has to return to public school. They have to sell part of their property to pay for the medical treatments, the land that her father has always promised will be hers, and new people move in. Ida B. feels betrayed in the worst way. She begins to act out in negative ways and tries to harden her heart against her mom and dad. The author captures all of Ida B.’s conflicting emotions so well that it is easy to forgive her meltdowns. I think that everyone can relate to feeling stuck in between being mad and feeling stubborn about it, but at the same time wanting to just give in and apologize, or even to just drop your guard so the other person can apologize to YOU.

I would recommend this realistic fiction book to anyone who has been faced with a family illness, or a major life change, or for a quirky-smart kid like Ida B. Or to someone who has a special calling to be a teacher. This book is about family, friends, school, nature, pre-teen emotions, and the Big Idea about life not always being fair.

Ida B. has an AR level of 5.3 and is worth 5 points.

 

A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban

crooked perfectI read A Crooked Kind of Perfect this morning. One shot, straight through. I can tell you that it made me very weepy, which surprised me while I was sitting on my patio, drinking a cup of coffee. Who knew?

Zoe Elias is ten-going-on-eleven and all she wants to do is be a piano prodigy.  She wants to sit down at a piano and master it immediately. She wants to play like her piano hero, Vladimir Horowitz, and give a concert at Carnegie Hall. Her father, who means well, sets out to find her a piano so she can realize her dreams. Because he suffers from severe anxiety and a condition called agoraphobia, he rarely leaves the house.  He becomes overwhelmed easily and instead of a piano, he returns home having purchased a Perfectone organ instead. (An organ is kind of like a piano, but creates the sound you hear at church or a baseball game. It’s electric so it doesn’t have strings and hammers inside, and has two keyboards, one above the other. So it’s kinda-sorta the same idea, but a different animal in the musical world.)

While Zoe is now stuck with this awkward piano-substitute, she’s also having a rough time with school. Her best friend has found herself a newer best friend over summer vacation. (The ex-BF kindly tells her she can sit with them at lunch until she finds a new BF, so at least there’s that.) Zoe doesn’t relate to the other girls, but strikes up a friendship with Wheeler Diggs, the boy who never does his homework and never takes off his jacket. Wheeler connects with Zoe’s dad, surprisingly, and they end up baking together in the afternoons while Zoe practices her organ lessons.  Since Zoe’s mom is a workaholic, Wheeler often ends up staying for dinner and does his homework there, too.

Zoe’s music teacher signs her up for a competition where she will have to play in public for the first time. She starts to freak out over it and wants to quit. Her mother gives her a pep talk by pointing out that Horowitz, renowned pianist, also makes mistakes. And that’s okay because

“Horowitz wasn’t about perfection. He was about joy and art and music and life. And those things have mistakes in them.”

How brilliant and how true!

So, I don’t want to tell you all of the plot details and the conflict, but this is the main idea. Life is messy and confusing and that’s okay. Everything is still fine. Everything is a “crooked kind of perfect.”

I loved all the characters and I am amazed that the author was able to generate such strong feelings for each of them in such a short book.  Could we have been given more information on a few of the backstories? Sure, but it’s just not necessary in a story that is about overcoming your obstacles and moving forward, despite the past. Zoe has a very positive, resilient attitude; she makes the best of what she has and works hard on reaching her goals. The book was uplifting and sweet, as well as age appropriate.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect might be the book for you if you 1.) think you don’t like reading or 2.) think you don’t like reading loooong books. My edition had 210 pages and the chapters are very short, ranging from a few sentences to a few pages in length. This would be a great book for a reluctant reader, or for a student who wants to read about someone their own age, but without getting into books about dating and heavier teenage issues.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect has an AR level 3.9 and is worth 4 points.

 

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

endangeredThe Democratic Republic of Congo is a country in Africa. (Remember Africa is not just one giant country; it is a continent made of many countries.) Congo is a very unstable country, with almost constant warring between different political groups. It is a country of great mineral wealth, though the people are poor. Most children do not attend school because they must work to support their families. Some children end up as soldiers. Congo also has bonobos, endangered members of the great ape family. This is the real setting where the fictional story, Endangered, takes place.

Our main character is Sophie, who lives with her father in the US during the school year, and in Congo with her mother in the summer. Sophie’s mom runs a sanctuary for the bonobo apes, raising and protecting them so they can eventually be released into the wild on a reserve that is protected from hunters. On her way into town, Sophie sees a man on the street, dragging around a baby bonobo. She buys the ape from the man, trying to save the poor creature from being sold for food. Her mother is furious, and the reason why becomes clear very quickly. This one simple decision creates a bigger dilemma, and as a result, Sophie is tasked with taking care of her new bonobo, now named Otto, for the summer. Sophie’s mom must leave on a trip, but shortly afterward, a rebellion breaks out. The story follows Sophie and Otto as they must flee the sanctuary and trek through the war-torn countryside, facing real threats to their survival. Some scary stuff happens along the way. It is an interesting comparison between apes and their social structure to humans and our societies, when we are so closely related by genetics. What makes them so different, yet so relatable? Other questions come up as well, concerning animal welfare v. human welfare issues. Here is a clip from the author, Eliot Schrefer:

This book made me think and I learned a lot. Sophie is smart and calm under pressure when faced with difficult situations.  Who is more endangered in this story, the girl or the bonobos?  Or is it all of Congo? Would you be able to survive?

If you read The One and Only Ivan, this book would be the next step up. It is more scientific in how it presents information, and it is definitely written at a higher level, both in language and content. 

Endangered has an AR level of 6.2 and is worth 12 points. The author plans to write a book for each of the great apes; the second one is called Threatened and is about chimpanzees, and book three will be about orangutans. Also, Mr. Schrefer is writing a book in the Spirit Animals series, which were very popular in my classroom this past year, so now we have more things to add to our TBR (to-be-read) lists!

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

snickerMagic, music, words, ice cream. Magical ice cream! If ever there was a perfect read to start off your summer, this might be it! I had to buy two copies of this book because the first one was claimed by a student as soon as I unpacked it from the Scholastic box, and I knew I was never going to get it back until June. For a teacher, that’s a pretty great problem to have, so the very next month I ordered another one for me.

Felicity Juniper Pickle is a special girl. She sees words, literally SEES them floating around, shimmering, buzzing, twirling in the air. She keeps them in a notebook, and they give her an extra insight when it comes to reading people and situations. This comes in handy for her because her mother has their little family constantly on the move, never settling down in any one place for very long. As a result, Felicity, or “Flea”, and her little sister are always on the edge, always prepared to pack up and move along, never getting to set down roots anyplace. At the beginning of the story, they are on their way to visit their Aunt Cleo who lives in Midnight Gulch. It was a magical place and it happens to be their family hometown. Most people in town have some sort of special ability, though only a “snicker” of magic remains. Felicity makes her first best friend and is reunited with her musician uncle, but also finds out that her family is part of a long-time town curse…could this be the reason her mom can’t seem to stay settled or find happiness? It’s a mystery, which might have been a tad too complicated, but it’s a great story of how people can work together to support each other. Watch out for a character called The Beedle, who orchestrates random acts of kindness throughout the town. Felicity must untangle all of these connections, which is no easy feat being the new girl in town, but with a few scoops of Blackberry Sunrise ice cream people remember and share their perspectives on the multi-faceted back story. Felicity might be able to fix what is wrong, but only if she can face her past and her own fears as well.

Wow, this book just made me happy when I read it. It is fitting that a story about words be so carefully written. You just know that each sentence was constructed to unfold in precisely the right way, not to mention the invention of  “new” words that Felicity often sees. I wish I had written this one!

A Snicker of Magic has an AR level of 4.7 and is worth 10 points. Therefore it’s easy to read, but has a more complicated story. This would be an excellent book club selection or read aloud. Like the ice cream on the cover, it is definitely meant to be shared.