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.



Shouldn’t You Be in School? by Lemony Snicket

schoolA new book from my favorite person! This is the third book in the All the Wrong Questions series. If you have already read #1 and 2, follow up with this one, but read carefully. Strange things are happening. Well, you know, stranger than usual. And while this book is just as clever as the last two, it feels much heavier. Much more dismaying, a word here which means the book takes us to several different locations around Stain’d-by-the-Sea but doesn’t bring us much closer to any answers. However, we do have all of our characters in the same place at once and our heroes have banded together in force to prepare for the fight against Hangfire, the villain. What does he want? Why? Is caviar really the salty jewel of the tasty sea? Alas, these questions are probably wrong. Look for some serious references to A Series of Unfortunate Events in this book! You will find them quite pleasing.

This book JUST came out, so there is no AR info to share. Doesn’t matter. You need to read this and then wait miserably with me until the next one comes out. In the meantime, watch this interview with Daniel Handler–

Then watch this one and follow the trail–

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.


Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

FloraUlyssesNewberry Award winner for 2014!

The thing that first caught my eye about this book was the title, because it has a subtitle where it says “The Illuminated Adventures.” I love the word “illuminated.” It sounds more regal than “illustrated,” doesn’t it? This book is illustrated though, more than a chapter book, but less than a graphic novel or comic, and the illustrations are adorable.  If I had a daughter, I couldn’t help but think she’d look just like Flora.

Flora is a self-described cynic. That means she has a hard time putting her trust in people and the world around her, and when we meet her newly divorced parents, we can seen why she has adopted this outlook. Her father is nervous and awkward, constantly and repeatedly introducing himself to people he already knows. Her mother is a writer and a chain-smoker, always hunched over her typewriter and does not have much to offer to Flora for emotional support. You definitely get the idea that Flora is a lonely child. Flora loves to read, in particular a comic book that sounds amazing called “Terrible Things Can Happen to You,” which contributes to her cynical outlook.

One day when she is watching out her bedroom window, she sees the neighbor chasing her new super-powered vacuum cleaner out into the yard. Flora is horrified when the vacuum sucks up a squirrel and runs outside to help. The squirrel is saved and he miraculously lifts the heavy vacuum up over his head! Flora names him Ulysses, after the machine that somehow gave him his superpowers, and takes him home to discover that the little guy has some more hidden talents as well. Flora’s mom does not react well to having a squirrel in the house though, and so begins a mission to save Ulysses.

Flora’s neighbor, Mrs. Tickham of the vacuum cleaner mayhem, has a nephew staying with her. He goes by his first and last name all the time, William Spiver, and he is always wearing sunglasses. He claims to be blind, but it turns out he has his own backstory to overcome. Mrs. Tickham and William turn out to be Flora’s biggest allies. I love that they are so willing to believe in Ulysses and his impossible feats, and they were my favorite part of this book.

Everyone learns something on this journey, as they have their eyes and hearts opened by this magical little squirrel. The one thing I do wish for is that we had been given a little more about Flora’s parents, because their resolution is unclear and I’d like to know how it impacted Flora in the long-term.  I enjoyed this book, but I’m not sure I would have chosen it for the Newberry Award. That might be because it feels so different from Kate DiCamillo’s other books. Read them all, see for yourself, compare and contrast! Maybe a poetry-writing squirrel will inspire you to make your own comic book someday, but mostly just read it because it is a fun story.

Flora and Ulysses has an AR level of 4.3 and is worth 5 points.

File Under: 13 Suspicious Events by Lemony Snicket

13 suspiciousThis past weekend, I attended the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which is held on the campus of the University of Southern California. It is a free weekend event which I highly recommend if you live nearby. There are all sorts of booksellers, in all sorts of categories, plus many other bookish things to discover and purchase, like posters, tote bags, journals, and nerdy t-shirts. All throughout the weekend, authors are giving talks, doing book signings, or teaching cooking classes, and there are people reading poetry, performing live music, puppet show-ing, and goodness knows what else! Some of the author panels, or “conversations,” require a $1 ticket to reserve a seat, but otherwise you are free to walk around and attend whatever catches your eye.

I attended two author conversations that were both very popular– John Green (The Fault in Our Stars, and several other titles, but he’s more of a 8th grade-and-up author), and Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket.) I saw Daniel Handler do a reading last year, but this time it was just him talking about how he got into writing and the surprising success of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and his new series, All the Wrong Questions. His panel was moderated by Ransom Riggs, author of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, another book I quite enjoyed reading, and together they made a great interview team. I met them both afterward to get my books signed. (Authors are my celebrities, what can I say? It’s all very exciting!)

This particular book takes place in the All the Wrong Questions world of Stain’d-by-the Sea, a town that once had a thriving ink industry until the sea dried up and the octopi that produced the ink disappeared. The town is now practically abandoned, except for a few locals who still live there. A young Lemony Snicket is stationed here with his mentor, but since she is pointless and no help at all, he begins working on some mysteries on the side.

Here we have 13 short mysteries to solve alongside Lemony Snicket. You can put your own detective skills to work as you read each story and then flip to the back of the book to see if you were right. This is in the style of the Encyclopedia Brown books I read when I was a kid, in which the neighborhood boy detective solved disputes by using his keen powers of observation, with the answers located separately in the back. (One of the character names actually refers to the Encyclopedia Brown creator, Donald Sobol!) In addition, watch for references to books that are mentioned, but never named.  I figured one out this morning as I was sitting down to blog, as a matter of fact.

These are fun to share and I started reading aloud as soon as we got into the car to drive home. This book is also important because it tells us about some of the other people who live in Stain’d-by-the-Sea, which is interesting since we have only met a few residents in the other books so far.  Will these people play a part in the larger mystery that Snicket is working on? We will have to wait and see!

HINT: Read the stories.  Read the solutions.  Then read the solutions again. I’m just sayin’.


Love That Dog by Sharon Creech

lovethatdogHow can THIS

even BE a book?

my son asked.

It is, I said.

Just read it.

It is the story of a boy named Jack,

who thinks poetry is not for him.

Not for him, because his brain is


His teacher though,

she knows better.  You know,

like teachers do.

Over the course of the year,

Jack becomes inspired and

influenced.  He reads,

he understands,

he writes.

He gets it.

Love That Dog is a teeny tiny book that reminds us of the power of well-chosen words.  More is not always better.  My students often ask, as they sit down to write, “How much do I need to write?”  And I always say, “You write until you’re done.  No more, no less.”  This is why I like poetry.  It forces the writer to choose very carefully what to include, what to leave out, and how to compress an idea into a few, powerful words.  Sharon Creech is kind enough to include some of the “master” poems that are referenced in the story, so we can see how our character, Jack, has been influenced and inspired along the way.  As he writes and his confidence grows , he changes from a student who doesn’t not even want to post his name on his papers, into a student who extends himself and makes something awesome happen for his school.

I read this book in about 20 minutes.  It was fantastic.  It is still making me think about poetry today and how I want to go about teaching my upcoming poetry unit in language arts.  For a book so small, Love That Dog is incredibly sticky.  It will be awhile before I can get this one unstuck from my brain!  Love That Dog has an AR level of 4.5 and is worth 1 point.