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.


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!

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

esperanzaMy teaching partner and I decided to squeeze one more book into our lessons this year and we picked Esperanza Rising, knowing that it was both old enough that our students had never read it before, but recent enough to not be outdated. Our district’s reading list needs a serious overhaul, so this book, published in 2002, seemed like a great choice. Out of my 29 sixth graders, only one had read it before, so our instinct was spot-on!

The book starts in 1924, in Mexico, where Esperanza’s father is the owner of a large ranch.  They live in a large house with servants, the family employs many workers, they are well-regarded in the community, and Esperanza is a spoiled only child. She is not a very likable character at the beginning of the story and my students had a hard time relating to her life. A tragedy occurs that rocks Esperanza and her mother’s world, and after some relatives threaten blackmail, they decide to leave Mexico in the hopes of a better life in America. They join a migrant farming camp where they are faced with having to do manual labor for the first time in their lives. Esperanza doesn’t even know how to use a broom to sweep! Life is very hard for Esperanza and she is quickly humbled by her new circumstances.  When her mother becomes ill, she must learn to step up and take care of business. A terrible plot twist left my students gasping out loud as they came across the gut-dropping moment themselves.

I took an informal poll of the kids after we finished up.  Girls liked this book more than boys, hands down. This is probably because it was written from a girl’s perspective and had so much to do with the mother/daughter relationship. One boy said it was “more boring than interesting” and another noted that there were “some places that didn’t have a lot of action.” One boy wished for “a chase scene” and a different ending! Many said that they thought it started out slowly and then got a little better. Reviews from the girls tended to have way more exclamation points, indicating that they were feeling strongly about the book. One of the girls wrote:

I think that the story “Esperanza Rising” was a great, amazing story. It gives you the history of how Hispanics work to get a little money to survive. People that are Mexicans come as immigrants to California to get a better life. That’s how Esperanza came with her mother to the immigrant camp because she didn’t have any papers. The story really got me because that’s how my grandparents came and I’m proud of it.”

We had looked at a legal case earlier this year that took place in our very own school district, called Mendez v. Westminster, which was an early school segregation ruling, and we looked at some of the laws and social rules that enforced discrimination in the pre-civil rights time. Esperanza Rising allowed us a look at the farm workers’ union and the impact of Cesar Chavez, and like the student above, gave some understanding as to why people take such risks to cross the border into the US.  Even though not all of the students loved the book, it provided them with a background on some of the parts of California history that is not covered in the fourth grade curriculum, and so I think it was a worthwhile read for my future social activists. When these topics come up again in their studies, they will be able to reflect back to this book and make connections to what they read and the images they saw this year.

Esperanza Rising was especially loved by my students who enjoy the historical fiction series, Dear America, which has a whopping 42 books to choose from, all in diary form. Boys who enjoy this type of story will also probably like the I Survived series. Esperanza Rising has an AR level of 5.3 and is worth 6 points.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

code-name-verityHappy new year! Did you meet your reading goal for 2013? Did you set a new goal to challenge yourself in 2014?  I missed my goal by just 3 books, but will challenge myself to fit in 5 extra books this year.  I use the website Shelfari.com to track the books that I read, and it’s pretty neat because it shows all of your reading statistics for each year.  For example I can see that my numbers were lower when I was back in school, that they went up sharply after graduation, and that I fell short last year.  It also helps me keep track of the books that I plan to read, and planning to read is almost as fun as the actual reading!

At the very, very end of 2013 I discovered my Book of the Year.  This book is a little higher than a “middle reader” book, though it is considered a level 6.5 in AR.  I would say this is more of a “young adult” book, towards the 8th grade and up end of things, but I wanted to note it here because it is so amazing.  Add it to your own TBR (to be read) list for when you have learned more about World War II.

Code Name Verity is a story of two girls who become friends while they are both working for Britain’s Royal Air Force.  One is a pilot and one is a radio/communication specialist and both are more than they seem.  The book is told by both characters after the girls are separated during a mission they undertake together.  Their story is complicated, sometimes graphic, and definitely surprising.  It’s a spy thriller, a mystery, an action/adventure book, and a book of deep love and friendship.  I can’t tell much more than this for fear of spoiling anything.  There is some technical information about various types of airplanes of the era that I found interesting, but I know others found dry and difficult.  When you get deeper into the story, you understand better why those details were included, but you don’t need to let them drag you down.  Just keep reading!

I read this book in 2 days over winter break, opting to stay in my pajamas ALL day because I was so involved in the story.  It was that good and I didn’t want to stop reading just to get dressed so I could continue reading.  That didn’t make sense to me!  Teachers like to enjoy their vacations, too, so I made sure that I got one full and complete day that was just for me.

Code Name Verity has an AR level of 6.5 and is worth 15 points.  The point value gives an indication that this book will have a complicated plot, and it does require some basic knowledge about WWII, though it will also explain some things along the way.  It is very dense reading, and not a book that you will be able to read casually, so be prepared to dedicate the necessary time and care to this title.  It does have a sequel, Rose Under Fire, that came out in 2013, but I haven’t read that one…yet.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Wanna see something cool?  Watch this.

Think about social studies.  What is the number one thing people need to live?  Stable food supply, right. And what is the number one thing they need to establish that stable food supply? Water.  It’s kind of a big deal. Did you know that the Earth is over 70% water, but less than 1% of that is available to us as drinking water?  Most of us have it pretty easy in that we can turn on our sinks and get water like it’s magic.  Or we can go to the store and just buy a bottle of water, no problem.  We are very lucky.  The video above is just one example of how people struggle to collect water, each and every day.  The book I just read, A Long Walk to Water, is another example of what life is like in another country.

a long walkA Long Walk to Water tells the stories of two children from Sudan: Salva, whose story starts in 1985, and Nya, who is a child in 2008.  The book goes back and forth between their stories, but it is not confusing to read.  Nya spends her days walking to and from the pond to collect fresh water for her family.  It takes two hours to get there, and longer to get back because she must carry the heavy water back to her home. She does this twice a day, every day.  She cannot attend school and her family depends on her to complete this task.  Salva’s family is fairly well-off in their village, compared to others, and he does get to attend school.  However, Sudan is in the middle of a civil war* and one afternoon the fighting comes to Salva’s village.  The teacher tells all of the boys to start running, just start running away so they don’t get caught up in the crossfire.  Salva is separated from his family and joins a large group of people who set out walking towards a refugee camp that will hopefully take them all in.  It is very dangerous to walk across the desert, having to face lions and crocodiles, not to mention the threat of soldiers at any time. The adults in the group are reluctant to help Salva because it is not safe to invest energy and resources into someone who could hold them back.  

*A civil war is when a country is fighting with itself, and the people are divided against each other.  Here in America, we often refer to The Civil War, which took place in the 1860s between the northern and southern states.

Meanwhile, Nya notices some activity going on her village.  Strangers have appeared and they seem very busy.  They bring in a large drill and say they will find water and build a well, but the people of the village do not understand how this is possible.  They are very skeptical about this new situation, and life continues on as usual, with Nya making the long walk to water every day.  In his sections of the book, Salva continues to face many challenges.  He becomes a leader of a group of boys, who became known as The Lost Boys of Sudan.  They walk and walk and walk.  For years.  YEARS.

Eventually the two timelines catch up to each other, and you will be truly humbled by these stories.  Salva’s story is true; Nya’s character is fictional, but based in fact.  She is what we call an amalgam, or a combination character based on many different sources.  I remembered the story of The Lost Boys of Sudan from the news, so I sort of knew how this story would end, and it still moved me to tears.  The book tells a tale of a life that we can barely imagine from the comfort of our homes where water flows freely, our toilets flush, and our refrigerators are stocked with fresh food.  This is why we read, and this is why we travel– to open our eyes to different possibilities, to be thankful for what we have, and to help those in need when we can.

Salva is now an adult, and here is a link to his project if you’d like to know more about what he has accomplished: http://www.waterforsouthsudan.org/

A Long Walk to Water has an AR level of 5.0 and is worth 3 points.

Wrapped by Jennifer Bradbury

wrappedRemember a few weeks ago when I posted about the book The Egypt Game?  I picked up another Egypt-themed book the other day and found the reading experience I had been hoping for– adventure, mystery, archaeology, the Rosetta Stone, The British Museum, London…and a tiny bit of romance.  This book met my summer reading requirements!  Did you know that during the late 1830s and 40s, rich people used to have parties where the entertainment involved unwrapping mummies? True!  And, creepy!  If there were any charms or amulets or jewelry wrapped inside the mummy, they would be given away as party favors! Check it out: http://www.history.com/videos/mummies-mummy-unwrapping-parties#mummies-mummy-unwrapping-parties

Egyptology was quite trendy, but was also becoming a serious science all of its own, especially after the Rosetta Stone was deciphered in 1822.  The Rosetta Stone was the key to reading Egyptian hieroglyphics, and you can see it in the British Museum, where it has been on display since 1802.  More info on the stone here:  http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/writing/rosetta.html  And more info about Egypt from the British Museum:   http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/galleries/ancient_egypt/room_62-63_egyptian_mummies.aspx

Wrapped is a story about a young lady named Agnes Wilkins, who lives in London in 1815.  She comes from a well-to-do family and is preparing for her “debut”, or her presentation to society as a woman now eligible for marriage.  In these days, marriages were carefully arranged so that they would be a good match between families, much more like business deals to achieve security and status. Agnes’ mother has her eye set on Lord Showalter as a husband for Agnes, though he is a typical rich, show-off type.  (When I read about him, I pictured Gaston from Beauty and the Beast!)  Showalter has one of these mummy unwrapping parties at his mansion, and Agnes is asked to participate.  When she unwraps a piece of iron in the shape of a jackal’s head, she keeps it.  

Apparently this mysterious item is being hunted down by Napoleon and the French army, which sends Agnes on a mad dash around London to figure out its significance.  At the British Museum, she meets a young man who is a scholar studying the Rosetta Stone.  Of course, he is poor and lower class, not an appropriate match at all, so naturally like in all good romances, she develops feelings for him.  Add in some extra twists and turns, and this book had my full attention!

Wrapped was fast and fun, even if it was slightly predictable.  The ending was left open for possible sequels, which I would definitely read.  The writing is a little more formal to reflect the timeframe of the story, but it is not difficult.  Read this book if you like strong, smart female characters, mysteries, historical fiction, Egypt, or museums.  Wrapped has an AR level of 5.9 and is worth 11 points.


Since my last update, I have prepped report cards, taken 44 sixth graders to science camp for a week, led a flashmob dance at our trimester awards ceremony, hosted Open House, and attended approximately 800 meetings.  So without any further ado, here are the two book reviews I promised!


The first book is called The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, which all by itself is an awesome title!  Doesn’t that make you want to find out more? The author is Kristen Levine, who also wrote The Lions of Little Rock, which I blogged about earlier this year.  Best Bad Luck is also about an interracial friendship, this time between a white boy and a black girl.  The setting has rolled back in time, too, taking place in 1917.  The main character, Dit, has heard that the new postmaster has a son his age, and he is looking forward to getting a new friend.  The postmaster and his family live right behind Dit’s house, and so he waits at the train station imagining the baseball games and fun they will have together.  Much to his surprise, the new postmaster has a daughter instead.  Also, the family is black and from the North and from a big city.  Emma is well dressed, smart, and always has a book in her hand.  She doesn’t know how to swim or play baseball and she probably won’t want to get dirty anyway!

Except, she’s a surprising one, that Emma.  She might seem different, but she turns out to be really fun.  Soon though, Dit has to deal with the two issues this brings up with his old buddies:

1.)  She’s a girl.  2.) She’s black.  (Also, she’s a GIRL!)

Eventually Dit has to take a stand, which leads to the kids working together to solve an even bigger problem in town later.  This book was a fun read with some serious and scary moments, reminding me of a mashup of  To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn.  Even though Levine’s two books stand alone and are not connected to each other, I’d recommend reading Best Bad Luck first, just to put the stories in chronological order.  (It seems the younger my students get, the harder time they have imagining a world without television and PlayStations. They can’t quite wrap their brains around the idea that this is not ancient history-type stuff!)

DeadEndinNorveltNewberyThe second book I read is the Newbery Award winner for 2012, called Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos.  Jack Gantos becomes his own main character in this story that is partially based on his real life.  It is described as “entirely true and wildly fictional,” just so you know what you are getting into, which at that rate could be anything! Because the character is real and the history of the town is real, this book is also historical fiction and won the Scott O’Dell Award  for that genre as well.  Jack Gantos is a 11-year-old kid in the 1960s, who immediately manages to get himself grounded for the entire summer vacation.  He has an unfortunate disorder of spontaneous nosebleeds any time something stressful or startling happens, which is incredibly messy and disturbing for those around him.  The only thing he is allowed to do while on restriction is help old Mrs. Volker, who happens to write the obituary column for the local newspaper.  She is an original resident of the town and a source of great historical knowledge, which she likes to pepper into her articles whenever she can.  Due to her severe arthritis, Jack has to take notes and type up her obituaries, but as a bonus, Mrs. Volker allows Jack to drive her car around town.  On the other hand, Mrs. Volker is a nurse and the town’s medical examiner, so they also have to go around investigating all of these deaths.  (Which instantly gives Jack a bloody nose, of course.)   A mystery soon arises, and I can tell you that I was really worried about one of the possible endings!

All that said, I liked the individual components of the book, but I’m not sure I loved the book overall.  I wasn’t quite sure who this book was written for– kids? teens? adults?  Gantos doesn’t give much context to what he includes, so you either have to have a certain amount of background knowledge or be intrigued enough to do some research.  It’s hard to know what is truth and what is fiction, which could be confusing for young readers. When I sat down to write this review, I discovered that there is a second book planned, and now I can say that I will probably seek it out and read it.  Jack Gantos (the author, not the character) has a way of dropping some priceless, deadpan hilarious lines into his writing.  The character of Mrs. Volker is feisty and larger-than-life, and her scenes kept me going through the book.  Even the cringe-worthy one.  You’ll know it when you read it, trust me.  Give it a shot if you like books that don’t fit into any particular formula and feature quirky writing.  I think I’ll look for another book by this author the next time I am at the library.

The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had has an AR level of 4.2 and is worth 9 points.

Dead End at Norvelt has an AR level of 5.7 and is worth 12 points.