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 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.


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.

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.

Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull

Read these.  Just do it.

Wait, what are they about? Okay, I’ll tell you more.  These stories are about an sister named Kendra and her younger brother, Seth.  At the start of the first book, they are on their way to visit their grandparents while their own parents go on vacation.  Like all kids, they are not thrilled about going to hang out with people they don’t know very well, but they quickly discover that their grandparents aren’t exactly who they thought and that there are some old secrets in their family.  The book starts out seeming like this plot will be predictable, but flips it upside down!

Grandma and Grandpa live on a sanctuary for magical creatures, a place called Fablehaven.  It is well protected from the outside world, partly to keep people out, and partly to keep the creatures IN.  Kendra and Seth learn quickly that rules are meant to be followed here, no exceptions, or things can get dangerous in a hurry.  Not just regular dangerous, we’re talking end-of-the-world dangerous.  Seth, being a young boy and very curious, finds ways to bend the rules (technically he’s not breaking them, and if you’re a kid like Seth, you will recognize his strategies right away!)  He makes friends with some Satyrs (half man-half goats) who live in the forest.  These guys, Newell and Doren, love watching television, playing tennis, and sometimes taking advantage of Seth.  Together they often end up in trouble by showing Seth things he is not supposed to know about in the far reaches of the sanctuary.

Kendra, on the other hand, has encounters with fairies.  She ends up receiving some special gifts that allow her to have certain fairy-like powers.  She has the ability to see magical creatures for what they are, instead of drinking the magic milk from a giant cow, or eating walrus butter (!) like the rest of the family. Eventually Seth develops some talents of his own, but his powers lean more toward the dark side.  Will he be able to control his impulses and use his abilities for the right purposes?

Because these two are now insiders in this magical world, they become involved in fighting against a large organization which is looking to destroy these hidden sanctuaries all around the world.  There are journals and artifacts and clues to track down, other sanctuaries and guardians to visit, friends and foes at every turn, some clever time travel, and twists and tests for all involved in the cause.  You never know what will happen next and just when you think you know a character…

I loved every minute of this series and I felt like I read most of the last book while holding my breath.  They are so action-packed!  The characters of Seth and Kendra seem real, mostly because of the way they talk to each other. Seth can get annoying at times, but I promise you that he is the most interesting character because he changes so much during the series.  You can feel his frustration at being younger and not feeling as special as his sister, and you can see how that leads him to make some not-so-smart decisions.

Read these if you love fantasy stories and mythological creatures.  If you liked the Percy Jackson books, you’ll probably like these as well, even though this series is less well-known.  Also, if you like the Narnia books, where you are immersed in a whole different world with its own rules, these are for you.  The Fablehaven books aren’t really scary, but some of its inhabitants are definitely creepy.  For me, I like books where the alternate worlds are carefully planned out and the magical rules make sense throughout the whole story, so this book was just the right balance of being complicated and fun to read.  Try the first one and you’ll be hooked!  These are AR books that range from 4.8 to 5.6, and the points range from 11 to 21.