New Captain Underpants on the way!

Dav Pilkey has a new Captain Underpants book coming out in August. Check out the title:  Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers.  How can you resist that?!?  Even you, grownups.  That’s funny no matter what!

Until then, watch this cool little video that features one of everyone’s favorite author/illustrators drawing in real time–


The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Do you like a good mystery?  I’m not talking about some Scooby Doo, haunted amusement park-type mystery.  A real mystery that you can solve as you read, gathering clues just like the characters in the book.  Then this book is a must-read for you!

I had seen this classic mystery set-up referenced in another book, so I knew I had to go back and read this book.  It is an older book, from 1978, way back when I was a kid  before I was born.  It is also a Newberry Award winner, which is the mark of a book that would be considered to a “classic” in children’s literature.  This book has an AR level of 5.3 and is worth 8 points.  (I’ll talk more about book awards and my thoughts on AR later, but I’ve been providing this information because I know kids do use these levels to narrow down their reading choices.)

In this book, millionaire Sam Westing has died, and his will indicates that he was murdered.  A lawyer gathers up a group of seemingly unrelated people who all happen to live in the same new apartment building, and presents them with the Westing Game.  Whoever can solve the crime will inherit $200,000,000 dollars.  Oh and by the way, the killer is among them even as they sit and listen to the instructions!  They are split into pairs and given clues to work with, but it is up to them to decide if they want to share their clues.  They all interpret their clues and instructions in different ways and thusly take different approaches on how to figure out the mystery.

I did end up able to solve the puzzle at the end, but some readers might get frustrated with how jumbled up the story gets.  The reader is only allowed to know what each team of characters knows, which keeps the mystery going.  It is challenging to keep track of each character’s details, but that’s part of the game now, isn’t it?  You might like to jot down some notes to help you stay organized as you read.  (This would be a great time to use a thinking map, like the tree map, and you can play detective, too!) Reading this book is very much like playing a game of Clue in your head.

Read this book if you like The 39 Clues.  I personally haven’t read any of those yet, but I keep seeing these books linked together as I am reading more about The Westing Game.  Don’t go looking for the solution online— read the book yourself! No spoilers! If you like this one, you might like some Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books, or if you want something harder you could try a Sherlock Holmes story (though the language will be much more difficult because the writing is so much older and more formal.)  This collection might be a good place to start!

The View From Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg

This is a book by the author of one of my favorites, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a story in which a brother and sister run away from home and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  It’s a great story and since I’m always threatening to move to the British Museum in London, I totally understand the premise!  If you haven’t read that one yet, be sure and check it out.

The View From Saturday should have been just as captivating for me because it’s about a group of 6th graders (I teach 6th grade!) who bond together and form an academic decathlon team (I love trivia! I love quiz shows! I love Jeopardy!) under the guidance of their teacher, Mrs. Olinski.  It turns out that three of these children are already entangled in each others’ lives– Nadia’s grandfather married Ethan’s grandmother, and by a strange twist of fate, Noah ended up being the best man at the wedding.  Julian is the new boy, who is unlike anyone they have ever met, and he has a hard time adjusting to life at his new school.  Eventually they all become a solid group of friends and Mrs. Olinski picks them to be a part of her team.  Mrs. Olinski also has a connection to these kids, as Ethan’s grandmother was her principal at a prior school.

The good: the children are all awesome, quirky characters.  They each have a distinct way of speaking which helps to bring them to life.  They overcome challenges together, solve puzzles, and work well as a team.  I wanted to hear more from the children themselves.

The bad: for me, this book was arranged in an order that I found confusing.  The book is only 160 pages.  It shouldn’t be so hard to read!  The time-order jumps all around and the point of view changes in between chapters.  It was hard to keep track of who was narrating.    Grownups, if you’ve ever seen the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” this book is similar, where each student is asked a question in the Academic Bowl and then the story goes back in time to explain how he or she knew that answer.  It felt inconsistent to me though, and it caused problems with the flow of the story.  It took me a few days to read this book and I had to flip backwards several times to reacquaint myself with who was narrating and what they were talking about.  I loved the IDEA of this book, just not the format.  On the author page at the end of the book, she explains how this was based on several short stories she had already written.  Ah ha, that explains a lot!

This book is a Newberry Award winner from 1997, with an AR level of 5.9 and is worth 7 points.  I’m not sure if I recommend this book or not.  The individual stories are interesting, but as a book it fell flat for me.  Okay, I’ve got it: read this book if you are a writer and are interested in how dialogue reveals characterization.  That was my favorite take-away from this book.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockheart

Meh.  I think this book backfired on itself. Frankie Landau-Banks *should* be a kick-butt female character, but in the end, everything she thinks she is fighting against puts her back to being the girl who does everything to get a boy’s attention.

This is a boarding school book, which means that the characters all attend a fancy private high school where they live on campus in dorms, with no parents around, and little adult supervision.  Everyone likes to read these because it’s like a miniature college, or a pretend version of the “real world” but without any real responsibilities.  That said, because of this notable lack of adults, there are references to parties, underage drinking, and relationship issues.  (Like k-i-s-s-i-n-g! Eww! Well, it is a girl book after all. The book is published by Disney though, so there’s nothing too racy here.)

As a freshman, Frankie was mousy and nondescript, following in her older sister’s shadow. When she returns as a sophomore, she has changed over the summer and is ready to stand on her own and be noticed. The boy that she dates doesn’t really appreciate her intelligence; he basically pats her on the head and tells her how pretty she is and not to worry her pretty little head over things. Another boy also interests her because he challenges her intellectually, but he is unavailable and dating someone else.  He seems to be her enemy because he is constantly getting in between Frankie and her boyfriend, Matthew, and disrupting their dates.  It turns out that both boys are in a secret society on campus (which Frankie’s father had been a member of back in his day when he attended this private school, so she already knows about the society’s existence), but naturally it’s a boys-only club. Her goal is to get her boyfriend to tell her about the group and he won’t budge. She just wants him to admit that he is in the club, and that’s it.  She sees the club’s  pranks as being pretty lame, so she orchestrates an evil plot to take over the group from the outside.  She  sends the boys out on elaborate new missions via email by pretending to be one of the leaders.  The bothersome thing is that she does all of this tedious cloak and dagger, secret spy mission stuff to outwit the boys involved, but she is doing it to gain their attention and be acknowledged for her brain (and not just her looks.) She is working so hard at trying to prove herself to these guys that her motivation gets all screwed up and she loses sight of her purpose.  Her actions have unintended consequences, of course, and there is fallout for everyone. In the end, she comes off as being desperate and not a little crazy. Not a great role model. The book is full of feminist, girl-power messages, but she totally blows it.

Frankie does have one quirk that I did enjoy, and that is the way she uses words. She has a habit of removing prefixes from words and using the root words by themselves to create the opposite, even for words that don’t quite work that way. So if “disgruntled” means grumpy and upset, she’d use the word “gruntled” to describe feeling happy. I thought that was a clever quirk of her character, but otherwise her intelligence fails her as she gets wrapped up in her plot to gain attention from these two boys.

Read this book if you like to read about smart kids and you are interested in what it would be like to attend a school like this one.  It’s not a bad book, but I definitely didn’t love it.  I did enjoy the writing style, so that kept me reading through to the end.  This book is at an AR level of 5.5 and was a “top teen pick” on the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) 2009 list.

The Last Apprentice series by Joseph Delaney

I’ll start with this series because I just bought and read book #5 , Wrath of the Bloodeye.   You all seem to like scary stories, so these are great and there will ultimately be 13 books once the whole series is done.  These should keep you reading for a long time!  These are AR books and they range from level 5.5 and up.

In these stories, we learn about a boy named Tom Ward. He is twelve years old in the first book, but most importantly, he is also the seventh son of a seventh son.  This birth order gives him the ability to see, hear and fight against those things that go bump in the night.  Because his family is so big, he is apprenticed to the county Spook, a man named John Gregory.  A Spook is kind of like a Ghostbuster; he travels around the country tracking and trapping witches and other dark creatures.  People call on him when they need to get rid of a ghost or a boggart, and John Gregory shows up to deal with their problems.  He starts teaching Tom all of the rules about each kind of haunting, the behaviors and weaknesses of the creatures, and how to deal with all sorts of spooky situations.  Tom tells each story and includes his journal notes at the end of each book.

I love an author who can create a whole world, with specific rules about how things work.  Some of these stories made the hair on the back of my neck stand up because they gave me the chills due to how creeptastic they were.  (Creeptastic? It’s a word!)  The characters are complex and everyone is more than they seem to be, which leads to questions as to who will be loyal and who is to be trusted.  Beware girls with pointy shoes!

Read these books if you ever shared the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark  books with your friends, but you are ready to take it to the next level of spooktacular goodness.  (Spooktacular, also a word.  I should know because I’m an English teacher!)  These are not the simple, predictable scares of the Goosebumps books either, so be forewarned.  As a bonus, the cover art and pictures inside are really neat, too.  Check out the website for more info, but turn your speakers down…unless you are braver than me.