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!)


Doll Bones by Holly Black

doll bonesDo you like creepy stories? Not scary or gross, but just creepy. And creepy in that kind of “this could be a true story” kind of way. Do you think that porcelain dolls are unnerving? They are fragile, too realistic, and a little bit unfriendly? They are clearly up to no good at all. I’ve got a book for you!

This is a story of Zach, Alice, and Poppy, three best friends who have grown up together. They have a long-standing game of pretend that involves a story they have clearly been developing for quite a while, and they use action figures to design sets and act out these adventures about pirates and thieves and heroes and quests. Ruling over all of these stories is the Great Queen, an old porcelain doll who lives in a glass-doored cabinet in Poppy’s house. The Great Queen is apparently very valuable and the kids are not allowed to play with her.

One night, Poppy and Alice come to Zach’s house in the middle of the night. Poppy reports that she is being visited by a ghost of a young girl who is connected to the Great Queen– her cremated ashes are actually INSIDE the doll. (Ohhhhhkay, no thank you, ghost girl!)  She needs Poppy to bury the doll so she can be at rest. Alice and Zach are not quite sure if they believe Poppy, but they agree to embark upon a journey to complete this task. Odd things happen while they travel with the haunted doll.

All the while, the three are trying to deal with their changing relationships, as can sometimes happen at this age. Zach’s father has thrown out all of his toys so that he can’t play the pretend game anymore, but he doesn’t know how to tell the girls. Alice has a crush on Zach, which upsets her BFF status with Poppy. Is Poppy even telling the truth about the ghostly messages she’s received? So much uncertainty!

I really enjoyed this book and it was a fast read. I think those dolls are slightly scary anyway, so it was not hard to believe that this could actually happen. (Like Zach, Alice, and Poppy, I also have an excellent imagination!) It reminded me of a kind of reverse telling of The Doll in the Garden by Mary Downing Hahn. This book was also about growing up, taking risks, speaking up for one’s self, and loyalty to friends. I also liked the change that Zach’s father went through, which I could relate to and understand, from the perspective of a child and a parent.

Doll Bones was a Newbery Honor Book for 2014.  It has an AR level of 5.4 and is worth 7 points.


The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Cover of "The Graveyard Book"

Cover of The Graveyard Book

This book was odd.  My experience reading it went like this:

Spooky! Interesting idea, okay, yes, yes, weird.  Weird.  Hmm, do I like this?  Who was the 33rd president of the United States? This book is weird and I’m not sure my students will get it.  Ohhhhkay.  Oh! Uh oh! Cool! Awwww. Happy/sad. The end.

I liked it, but I didn’t love it.  Until I read the afterword, which is actually the transcript of the speech Neil Gaiman gave when he accepted the Newberry Award.  And then, it was awesome.

So, the main plot is that in the first few pages of the book, a family is murdered by the man, Jack.  His work is unfinished though, as the toddler of the family manages to walk out the front door and escapes into the graveyard across the street.  The graveyard ghosts rally around to guard him from the killer and when the ghost of the baby’s mother shows up, they know they must keep him safe and protected.  A ghostly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Owens, adopts the boy and names him Nobody, or Bod for short.  Since they are ghosts, they cannot actually provide for him, so the caretaker of the graveyard agrees that he will bring food and clothes, and take care of the boy’s material needs.  Silas is a mysterious figure throughout the book; he can leave the grounds, but seems bound to it in some way.  (Can you guess his secret?)

Bod grows up with his ghostly family and he learns the ways of the graveyard.  He can see in the dark, make himself invisible by Fading, and pass through walls as if he was a ghost as well.  He is taught by poets and philosophers, meets witches, attends a ghostly dance ritual, travels to the underworld, and has an encounter with a real girl named Scarlett.  Unfortunately, the man Jack is still trying to fulfill the task of killing Bod, and he is constantly in danger from this mysterious man.

All in all, this is a book about finding one’s own way and growing up.  Bod must learn to walk among the living and the dead at the same time, and decide which life is preferable to follow.  Like any good hero, he is pushed to his limits at problem solving and cleverness, but he also gets himself into a bit of trouble along the way.

I love Neil Gaiman’s other writings.  I read a lot of British authors.  I hope to be British when I grow up!  My concern as I read this, since it is in my classroom library, was that I was not sure who I would pass this book off to next.  Normally I finish I book and then hand it directly to the next reader.  This one stumped me.  Would my students get the references?  Would they figure out the clues about Silas?  Would it feel stiff and formal to them? I spoke to our school librarian who confessed that she hated the book and didn’t finish it!  She also confessed to not liking Coraline either, so she agreed that perhaps she just didn’t like this author.  A couple of students saw me reading it and also gave it a shot, but I’m not sure if anyone finished it.  I’ll have to ask after vacation.  This book proved to be a bit of a conundrum, and the more I talked people, the more I realized it was a love it/hate it book.  As with any book, I say try it.  If you don’t like it now, try it again later.  You just never know!

At the end of the story is the speech Neil Gaiman gave when he won the Newberry Award in 2009.  In it, he talks about growing up in the library, getting lost in the stories he found there, and how reading allows us to escape and try to experience things outside of ourselves.

I had forgotten what fiction was to me as a boy, forgotten what it was like in the library: fiction was an escape from the intolerable, a doorway into impossibly hospitable worlds where things had rules and could be understood; stories had been a way of learning about life without experiencing it, or perhaps of experiencing it as an eighteenth-century poisoner dealt with poisons, taking them in tiny doses, such that the poisoner could cope with ingesting things that would kill someone who was not inured to them. Sometimes fiction is a way of coping with the poison of the world in a way that lets us survive it. 

And I remembered. I would not be the person I am without the authors who made me what I am–the special ones, the wise ones, sometimes just the ones who got there first. 

It’s not irrelevant, those moments of connection, those places where fiction saves your life. It’s the most important thing there is.

…..We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort.

And then I loved this book.

The Graveyard Book has an AR level of 5.1 and is worth 10 points.

The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Apologies for my lack of posting! I’ve been on vacation to -get this-  a place with NO television.  For a week! (And my son said he loved it and would have liked to stay longer, go figure!)  I did manage to get quite a bit of reading done while I was gone, but I read a few grownup books in between getting to my stack of kid stuff.  I read a teenage book, too, but I didn’t feel it was appropriate for blogging here.  There are a ton of great older teen books out there, but I try to be particularly focused on middle school reads.  They may still address difficult topics about growing up, but are maybe more age-appropriate in language choice and some of the more graphic details might be more toned-down.  So when I post about a book, I try to choose carefully with the focus being on the story and the message, and if there is some questionable content, I’ll always warn you up front so you can choose what is best for you.

On that note, the book I have for you today was written by one of my favorite adult authors. Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a writer from Spain and all of his books are first published in Spanish and then translated into English.  It turns out that his first  four books were actually young adult books.  I had no idea!  These books were stuck in some legal dispute, probably with the original publisher, but recently became available for us to read here (and in English, which is a bonus.  Interestingly, he said that while his translator is amazing, if something doesn’t quite come across the same in the translation, he will completely rewrite that section in English so he can get the tone absolutely perfect for our version of the book. Cool! Be sure to read the interview at the end of the story because he has some fantastic ideas about reading and writing.)

The Prince of Mist is a spooky tale that takes place in a non-specific setting, but it seems to be England during World War II.  A family leaves the city as the war is becoming more intense, and they move to the seashore.  There are three children in the family: Alicia, Max, and Irina.  Irina finds a cat immediately when they arrive at the train station, and brings him to their new house on the beach.  The house has been unoccupied for a while, so it is dusty and full of large spiders.  Out behind the house is a curious garden.  In this locked and gated area, Max discovers a bunch of statues, all representing a variety of circus characters.  Max could swear he sees the clown move and runs back to the house, understandably scared out of his wits.  As the family is busy moving in, the father finds an old movie projector and reels of films.   The youngest sister, Irina, has a shocking accident…could the cat be involved?

Max and Alicia quickly make friends with Roland, the lighthouse keeper’s grandson.  Roland takes them around town, to the lighthouse, and out diving to see a shipwreck.  When Irina is sent to the hospital, and the parents are gone for a few days, Roland hangs out with the kids and they begin to share stories.  It quickly becomes evident that these new friends are now connected in a history involving the previous residents of the beach house, the lighthouse keeper, and Roland himself, though he does not know it.  While Max and Roland have a best friend relationship, Alicia and Roland become much closer and settle into the beginnings of a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. (Yep, there’s some kissing, but you can handle it.)  The lighthouse keeper’s tale is chilling, there are clues to be found in the old movie reels, the kids are tested by a dark force, and the climax of this book is intense!

Zafon is an expert at creating a dark, dusty, creepy mood in his writing and he truly succeeded here, even though the book is much smaller than his adult novels.   I read this one while on vacation at a house on Tomales Bay in northern California, where you can sit and watch a thick blanket of fog roll in every afternoon and where water lapped at the shore right underneath our house.  I was very much on edge as I read this book because it matched my situation perfectly.  I definitely recommend this book if you like a scary story where the author doesn’t solve all of the problems for you at once.  This one gets inside your head and haunts you for a few days.  The Prince of Mist has an AR level of 6.5 and is worth 7 points.

43 Old Cemetery Road (#1 and 2) by Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise

This is a little series of books written by two sisters; Kate is the writer and Sarah is the illustrator.  I read both of these books on Saturday morning before my family woke up.  They are small in size, but packed full of cool stuff.  The books are in the format of letters that the characters write back and forth to each other and newspaper articles that fill in the rest of the information.  The characters have very clever names, all very punny.  There are lots of pictures, too, and that is what first caught my eye because the first thing you see in the first book is a drawing and a map of a house, cut open like a dollhouse so you can look inside.  Who could resist that!?!  I was hooked!

A children’s author named Ignatius B. Grumply (I.B. Grumply, get it?) needs a place to hide out and write for the summer, so he rents a house in Ghastly, Illinois.  He hates everything, but especially children, even though he is a children’s author.  When he gets to his new house, he discovers that there is a boy already living there! His name is Seymour.  Seymour Hope.  (See More Hope? Awesome!) Seymour has a cat, and naturally Grumply is allergic.  Also, a ghost lives there as well, and she was a writer back in her day, too.  Her name? Olive C. Spence. (I Love Suspense…they just keep coming, and I’m only giving you three examples here.)  She has vowed to haunt the house until her work is published, and as a ghost, she’s not happy with Mr. Grumply because his own book series is called Ghost Tamer.  Pffft, as if a ghost could be tamed!  She’ll teach him a thing or two…

These three roommates are learning to live together when trouble befalls them, and they have to figure out what to do next when facing various roadblocks, such as saving their haunted house, getting Mr. Grumply’s next book published, and keeping poor Seymour from being abandoned by his terrible parents! Book #1 is called Dying to Meet You in which our characters become acquainted with each other, and Book #2 is called Over My Dead Body in which they become separated and go on a hunt to find Olive’s old manuscripts in order to save their house and Halloween!  I’m on the hunt for #3 and 4 now because these were such an enjoyable read! I immediately passed these on to my fourth grade nephew because I know he will get a kick out of the jokes and funny names.

Read these if you have read any of the other similar books by this author, Regarding the Fountain, and the rest in that series.  Those are also told all through letters and newspaper articles, making them great fun and easy to read.  If you like those big books that are interactive, like Dragonology or Pirateology or Spyology where you pull out little notes and get to solve puzzles or touch a dragon scale, then these are also for you.  (Even better, with these there are no pieces to lose!)  And of course, if you like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid-style books, where it is half-written and half-illustrations, you’ll probably enjoy this series as well.  Book #1 has an AR level of 4.9 and is worth 2 points.  Book #2 is at level 5.6 and is also worth 2 points.