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!)


Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander

Just about every morning in my classroom, I have some sort of welcome message on my board for when the kids walk in the door. It could be an interesting photo from the news, a quote to think about, a silly meme, or just some instructions for the morning. One of my students and I bonded quickly over cat memes, such as this one: IMG_2046 He’s a cat person, I’m a cat person= insta-bond! Somewhere in the dark corners of my classroom library he was able to located the book Time Cat. I didn’t know I had it; it has the previous teacher’s name written across the front, so it was apparently abandoned when she switched schools. Being a cat fan and a history buff, he immediately read it. And then I think he read it again. All year, he asked me to read this book, and I know at least one other student caught on and read it, too. I packed it in my big box o’school stuff to bring home for summer vacation and I just finished it the other day. This was not a book I’d ever heard of before, older than me even (!), but when I picked it up and looked inside I discovered that this author wrote The Prydain Chronicles, which includes The Black Cauldron. Now, I may be a cat person, and I may be a Harry Potter person, but first and foremost I am a Disney person! The Black Cauldron is an animated Disney movie. I had no idea that this was the same author! Now we are in familiar territory, and now I have new books to read. Always read that little list in the front of your books, people. You can gather interesting information and new things to add to your To Be Read list. time catSo, Time Cat is about a boy, Jason, and his cat, Gareth. The book begins with Jason having a terrible, rotten, no good, very bad day in which he gets in trouble, fights with his brother, ruins the project he was working on and gets sent to his room. As you do, presumably to think about what you have done, right? Jason is having his own little pity party when suddenly Gareth, who has been napping, looks over and basically says, “Do you want to get out of here for a while?” Guess what? The cat can travel through time and space to nine different places (or nine separate lives, get it?) and he can bring a friend along. You know you’re reading a fantasy book because Jason’s immediate response is “YES!” Obviously, anyone who has owned a cat knows they are at least a little bit magical–

“Where do you think cats go when you’re looking all over and can’t find them?” Gareth replied. “And have you ever noticed a cat suddenly appear in a room when you were sure the room was empty? Or disappear, and you can’t imagine where he went?”

There are rules of course: Gareth can only talk to Jason when nobody else is around, so they won’t be able to communicate most of the time. They get no special protections as they time travel, so they can get hurt or worse and there is no way to prevent that, so being careful is really important. Lastly, Jason must stay with Gareth the whole time because if they get separated there is no way for him to get home by himself. That seems fair, right? So off they go! They visit ancient Egypt, where cats are worshipped. Then they visit Rome, Ireland, Italy, Peru, and Japan, just to mention a few different places. They run into a some recognizable figures from history as well, so watch for those to pop up. They end up in colonial America where they participate in sounding an alarm against the Redcoats. Very exciting stuff. But for me, not quite exciting enough. The tension between Jason and Gareth never built up enough to make me worry about them getting lost. Jason can magically speak the language of whatever country they go to, so communicating with people is not really an issue either. Also, because the book is older, it’s not exactly culturally correct anymore. An old man they meet in Japan is described as having a face “the color of a pale lemon” and one of the characters actually says the words, “Ah so!” which is an old caricature  of an Asian person. The individual stories are pretty short, and the lessons are unclear, though Gareth reveals he has brought Jason on this trip so he can learn how to grow up. The sacrifice for this trip? Jason will no longer be able to talk to his cat again. I was a little mad that Gareth did not disclose that as one of his rules at the beginning. Despite the things I did not like about this book, it was perfect for my student because he was not a big reader, and the small stories-within-a-big-story format made this very approachable for him to tackle. I think it fit well into our silent reading time because it was easy to pick up and put down as time allowed. For this reason, Time Cat would also make a nice read aloud book as well. Time Cat has an AR level of 4.7 and is worth 5 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! 

Breadcrumbs/The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

breadcrumbs real boyHere are two very different books by the same author, presented for your consideration. They are similar and yet not at all, and I am still trying to decide if I liked one of them. Let’s investigate…

I had read about The Real Boy before it even hit bookstores and I was intrigued, especially by the cover art. I read this article about how the cover evolved and I knew I had to read it right away. When I went to purchase it, I also ended up buying another book by Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs, and I actually ended up reading that one first.

Breadcrumbs is twist on the fairy tale story of the Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, in which a boy is hit with a shard of glass from a terrible, magical mirror that makes everything he sees look ugly and hideous. Breadcrumbs takes place in a modern setting, with two best friends, Hazel and Jack as neighbors and best friends.  Jack is the mirror’s victim in this version, and he suddenly stops hanging out with Hazel at home and at school.  Hazel’s mother tries to explain that perhaps they have just reached an age where boys and girls don’t play together anymore and relationships tend to be awkward, but Hazel knows that there is something else wrong. When Jack vanishes into the woods, she decides to go after him because she has read too many books to let Jack’s strange disappearance go without investigation. Hazel enters into a new world, marked by a clearing that features a ticking clock, and embarks on a classic journey to find and free Jack. This world is wholly magical and wonderful to read, and I loved how Hazel knows how to negotiate through this world, something that imaginative kids do quite naturally. Of course her quest is to free Jack from the Snow Queen, but will that be enough? This is a powerful story about growing up and I highly recommend it.

Then I read The Real Boy, and I will be honest and tell you that it took me much longer to finish than I had anticipated. It is also a story about magic, but I had to work a lot harder at this one. Oscar is the main character, working for one of the land’s last magicians. He has a gift for working with plants and herbs, but he is very aware of how different he is from the other people in his town, preferring to work behind the scenes and befriending a score of cats who live in the workshop.  At one time, the land was seething with magic, but it seems to be dwindling and the children of the city are becoming ill. When the magician’s apprentice is mysteriously (and gruesomely) killed, and other awful things happen, Oscar and his very kind and patient friend Callie begin to search for the truth. There were a couple of gasp-out-loud moments as I read this story, as it has a very twisty plot. It is also beautifully written, as is Breadcrumbs. I found this magical world to be much more chaotic though, and it left me feeling unsettled at the end. The magic felt ominous, or maybe I was supposed to experience Oscar’s point of view of not fully fitting in with the world around him. (In that case, it worked!) The story I really wanted to know more about was the history that Oscar and Callie spent so much time researching. Perhaps that tale will show up as a prequel one day!

Naturally read these books if you like magic and fairy tales and friendship. Read Breadcrumbs for sure if you’ve ever grown apart from a best friend because Ursu absolutely nails what that particular sense of loneliness feels like, and then you can read it and not feel so alone. And that, kids, is why we read.  Enjoy!

Breadcrumbs has an AR level of 4.8 and is worth 9 points. The Real Boy has an AR level of  4.9 and is worth 10 points.

Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger

etiquette and espionageSophronia Temminnick is a tomboy living in Victorian England in the 1850s, a time when young ladies are expected to dress appropriately, learn to be a proper hostess, always be fashionable, have excellent manners, and associate with the correct people in order to land themselves a fine husband.  Long story short, Sophronia does not exactly fit in, and when she is recruited to a finishing school for girls, her mother is all too happy to ship her out with no questions asked, in the hopes that someone will finally be able to tame her spirit and make her presentable in society.

Little do they realize that Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality is not exactly what it seems.  The setting is an alternate England all together anyway, where vampires and werewolves lead normal lives alongside everyone else, so the idea that this school is held in a giant airship (or blimp, if you can imagine that better) and that the main focus of the instruction is about teaching the young ladies how to be spies, makes complete sense.  Also of note are the household mechanicals, or robot servants, so suspend your reality and wish that someday you might have a mechanimal pet dog, too! This book is an introduction into the world of steampunk, where the old-fashioned and the futuristic overlap, leaving the possibilities endless as to what kinds of technologies are available (and have yet to be invented!)

So, in this story, Sophronia goes off to school and immediately becomes entangled in some intrigue when her carriage is robbed by some “flywaymen” who attack from the air, and who are looking to steal a prototype of….something.  We don’t know what yet, but Sophronia makes it her mission to find out.  She meets the other girls at school, makes friends and enemies, takes classes from both a werewolf and a vampire, learns to dance and how to faint on cue as a distraction method, and befriends the crew of young lads who work under the airship as “sooties”, shoveling coal into the boilers to keep the whole school aloft.  Naturally she gets into some fair amount of trouble along the way.

Etiquette and Espionage is the first book in the Finishing School series, so it has a lot of set-up and a fairly simple plot to get things moving along.  I picked up book two, Curtsies and Conspiracies, at ComicCon this year and I’m hoping to read that one before winter break is through.  I love getting lost in this world that Gail Carriger has created, a mashup of everything I love– fantasy, mystery, adventure, a strong and smart heroine, a smidge of science fiction, and the writing is so witty, especially the dialogue. So clever, I wish I’d thought of it myself!  Here is the website if you’d like to learn more:

Etiquette and Espionage has an AR level of 5.5 and is worth 11 points.

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

the milkHello, my fellow readers! Long time, no post.  I’ve been on the run since school started last month and haven’t had time for much of anything extra lately.  Are you all tired? I am tired! It’s always hard to settle into a classroom full of new students, and I bet if you are a student, it’s got to be difficult for you as well.  Luckily I was able to pick up the perfect-sized book and read it over the weekend, so now I have something to share!

Do you have a silly dad, a wacky grandpa, a zany uncle?  You know, one of those grownups that can’t ever just answer a question, but instead has to tell you some crazy story about something that may not have actually happened (or did it…?), and now you’re never sure if you should believe them or not because they might just be messing with you for fun? Yeah, that’s what this story is like!  Fortunately, the Milk is written by one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman.  He wrote the super creepy books Coraline and The Graveyard Book, which you may have come across at school.  This book, however, is completely hilarious and not spooky at all.

One day a dad goes to the store to get some milk.  The kids, a brother and sister, wait at home for him to return.  He is gone for a very long time, longer than he should have been gone, so the kids start to wonder where he went or who he must have run into at the store.  When dad finally returns, he has an amazingly absurd story to tell about UFOs, aliens, pirates, vampires, piranhas, volcanoes, a stegosaurus in a hot air balloon, time travel, and of course, the milk.  It’s a very silly book.  When you read it, just know that it is ridiculous.  Don’t question it, just roll with it and go along for the ride. This book would be an excellent one to share with your family as a read aloud because it has great opportunities for doing lots of crazy character voices.  Also, the illustrations by Skottie Young are a perfect match for the story.  At first glance, they are plain ink sketches, but when you look closely, they are whimsical and intricate and the details bring all the characters to life.  

Read this book if you like Roald Dahl’s fantastic books, or if you’ve ever read the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, because this totally reminds me of Calvin’s dad.  (If you don’t know Calvin and Hobbes, you NEED to go check it out–  Fortunately, the Milk has an AR level of 4.3 and is worth 1 point.  Enjoy this one!


Throwback Thursday: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene duBois


It’s Thursday for just a few more hours, so hopefully I can qualify for my own blog post with this one! The Twenty-One Balloons won the Newbery in 1948, so at least I’ve got the throwback part correct!

At my old school, back in the teacher stacks, there were about 50 copies of this book.  I had never seen it before, but every time I went down that row of books, I stopped to examine the cover. I didn’t have time to introduce a new book into my curriculum, so I never got to read it.  I rediscovered this book again at the public library this year and I decided it would be the perfect thing to take to science camp.  It was light to pack and short in length, which was important because I knew I’d be really busy and really tired (and I was correct on both counts!)  This little book really took me by surprise!

The story is about Professor William Sherman who retires from teaching math and decides to go adventuring for a year on his own.  To make sure nobody can bother him, he chooses to travel by hot air balloon.  He has a giant balloon made and a wicker house to be the basket.  His little house has different rooms, furniture, and a porch where he can fish or do laundry while floating over the ocean! Unfortunately his journey comes to a crashing halt and he lands on the island of Krakatoa, home of the famous volcano. Sherman is amazed to discover a whole community of families from San Francisco is already living there! They have set up their civilization as a “restaurant government” and the whole thing is funded by a giant diamond mine on the island.  They have decided that their island lives are so perfect that they  keep their diamonds a secret to the outside world for fear of ruining their value.  The island’s inhabitants also invent many nifty devices to pass their time and make their lives easier, but also as a backup plan in case the volcano ever erupts.  The tremors that are caused by the volcano make the ground rise and fall in waves like the ocean, so much so that Professor Sherman gets seasick on land!

This book was absurdly delightful! I’m surprised that this hasn’t been made into a movie at this point.  (I’m picturing something very fanciful like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” If you haven’t seen it, check it out.  Yes, it’s old and it has singing, but it’s weird and clever!)  The Twenty-One Balloons is told as a story-within-a-story, so it can get a little wordy at time, with lots of expository details.  Don’t despair though, because the author has given lots of detailed sketches to capture your imagination, as if Professor Sherman had kept a diary or journal.

This would be a great book for summer vacation, a read-aloud, or a read-along with the book on tape (perfect for a road trip!)  The Twenty-One Balloons has an AR level of 6.8 and is worth 6 points.