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!)


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.


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.


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.


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.


Throwback Thursday (and a book pairing bonus!)

My goodness, I’ve been away for too long!  This is due to two things:

1.  I took 43 sixth graders to camp for a week.  A loooong week.  Totally worth it, by the way.

2.  I’ve been in a serious reading slump lately.  Everyone once in a while it happens.  I get distracted and have trouble settling in for reading.  I got stuck in a book that I was not really enjoying, but I really wanted to like it and thought I should like it, so I was too stubborn to just quit.  Then I had an assignment for a friend’s site that also involved my reading another book I did not care for at all and then figuring out how to write about it.  (That was really tricky, but I did it!)

One of the side effects of a reading slump is that I tend to bounce around between different reading materials, so suddenly I found myself finishing several things at once.  That’s good for this blog, so I’ll try to post a few more things in the next week or so.

Today I have two titles to present.  One is a throwback, since Throwback Thursday is such a big “thing” right now, and the other is a comparatively newer book. We are looking at 1987 and 2006, so I guess those are both technically throwbacks.  At any rate, the first is a classic and the second was new to me, and they both go together quite nicely.


My students just finished reading Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.  This is the story of a boy named Brian who is dealing with his parents’ fresh divorce.  He is off to visit his father for the summer, traveling in a small plane to Canada, by himself.  The pilot is friendly and lets Brian try flying the plane for a few minutes.  Not too far into the flight, the pilot suffers a fatal heart attack and Brian has to take over the controls.  He crash lands into a lake, but manages to drag himself ashore.  When he wakes up, his situation is dire.  It is just Brian, and the hatchet he wears on his belt, against the wilderness.  The story is full of triumphs and disasters as Brian has to figure out basic survival skills like acquiring food, constructing a shelter, and making fire.  He struggles and we hold our breath to see what might happen to him next.  Will he get rescued? What will happen when the weather changes? Are people even still looking for him???  Phew!

My students BEGGED me to keep reading and were sad when we would have to stop each day and switch subjects.  That is the sign of a high interest, captivating book! Hatchet has an AR level of 5.7 and is worth 7 points.  There is a movie as well, but it is called A Cry in the Wild.  (Beware of the horror movie series called “Hatchet.”  It’s definitely not the same thing!)

alabama moonNow, while we were reading Hatchet as a class, I was also reading a book called Alabama Moon for silent reading time.  Alabama Moon was written by Watt Key, and also has a movie to match. Moon is a boy who has been raised to live off the grid since he was a baby.  The mother passed away when Moon was very young, so his father raised him in the woods.  Moon is an experienced survivalist, and his father has made sure to teach him how to read and write as well.  When Moon’s father breaks his leg, he refuses outside help and he dies, leaving 10-year old Moon all alone.  Moon is turned in to the authorities and spends some time in a juvenile detention center, where he makes his first friends ever.  After a daring escape, Moon goes on the run with an angry and bumbling sheriff on his tail.  This book was a great to read along with Hatchet and I found myself marking passages to read aloud and share with my class.  Brian was completely clueless and had to learn how to survive, where Moon was the exact opposite.  There is a part where he kills a deer and manages to use every part for something, right down to the eyeballs.  It was fascinating! It’s not hard to imagine being Brian once you read about Moon’s level of experience and reinforces Brian’s struggle.  (I would definitely be Brian in a survival scenario, how about you?)  Alabama Moon has an AR level of 4.1 and is worth 11 points.

Read either, or both, of these books if you love a great adventure story!  Don’t be tricked into thinking that these are “boy books” even though the main characters are boys.  Personally I love Hatchet because of its simplicity and how gripping it is, even though it has virtually no dialogue since Brian is by himself most of the time.  Alabama Moon, on the other hand, was much more about friendship and connecting with others.  These two make great companion titles, and each author has additional books to check out, too.  Read on!

The Truth About Truman School by Dori Hillestad Butler

trumanschoolThe Truth About Truman School is a book I bought at the end of the school year, since it’s about a middle school and my sixth graders were getting ready to take their next steps to seventh grade themselves.  We had been having some problems with kids being mean to each other, and I knew they were tired of hearing me lecture and I was tired of giving the same speeches day after day, reminding everyone to please just BE NICE.  Most of my students had been attending school together since their preschool days; they were at the point of splitting up to go in different directions for the fall so they were sad, but they also knew just how to push each other’s buttons and drive each other bonkers.  (It’s a fine line between love and hate, so they say.)  So I figured maybe if I couldn’t say anything else, I could throw out a reading experience that some kids would pick up on, and I ended up buying this book.

In the story, Zebby and Amr are neighbors and best friends.  They had a third friend, Lilly, but they “lost” her to the popular group in middle school, and hadn’t really interacted with her much lately.  Zebby wants to be a journalist when she grows up, but is frustrated with the way the school newspaper is being run.  Everything is sugar-coated and nobody can write anything even slightly critical about the school.  She and Amr decide to start a website for school news, where anyone can post anything they want– best teacher/worst teacher, opinion pieces, polls, etc.  They promise that they will not censor anyone like the official school newspaper does.

Of course, this idea of letting anyone speak their mind without consequence begins to spiral out of control.  The site quickly becomes a gossip site, and Lilly is the main target.  Someone is spreading anonymous rumors about her, and going through a LOT of trouble to do it.  This story follows the effects of cyberbullying on Lilly and the others who were involved, by alternating narrators and multiple perspectives.

I thought it was a very up-to-date topic, and was handled very well.  I do wish that the mean girls had expressed a bit more remorse, or indicated that they had learned a little something from their part.  Two of the stories end with a very flippant, “It was just a joke, no big deal” kind of attitude.  I suppose that’s real life though.  Not everyone will get it or have as much empathy as we would like.  You might recognize yourself in any one of these characters, or maybe more than one, since this age is so complicated for all of us.  It’s good to know that we aren’t alone, even if it sometimes just feels like us and a fictional character.  That’s why we read, to make connections.  And maybe reading something like this can help you learn to reach out to a friend who is struggling or even to make changes in yourself.

This was a really fast read, especially since there are no chapter breaks.  That always makes it hard for me to put a book down because I never know where to stop!  The Truth About Truman School has an AR level of 4.4 and is worth 6 points.