Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Oliver and The Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Copy courtesy of Random House
Children's Books
Earlier in the month I was at The Bookies picking up a couple of birthday gifts, and the sign in the store says “one for them, and one for you…” (OK there really isn’t a sign that says that, but it is implied!) Anyhow, I picked up a new book and added it to my TBR stack when I got home.  After finishing my last book I picked it up and started reading it.  After a few pages I wasn’t too sure I was going to like, but a plodded onwards.  A while later I regretted buying the book.  You know that thought?  “Maybe I just take it back and say I already had a copy etc.”  There is just something about when the author talks directly to the reader and warns us that if we want to read something nice to stop reading and find another book.  Lemony Snicket was brilliant at this, but others just can’t get it right. 

As I teach my readers if you really don’t like a book put it down and get something else.  Cautiously, I approached the teetering mountain of books and selected a brilliantly and joyful book entitled Oliver and The Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre.  Oliver Crisp is ten years old.  He has spent his entire live traveling the globe with his explorer parents.  They finally decide to return home to Deepwater Bay, but as they come around the bend to settle they see islands that were not there before.  After unloading the explorermobile his parents take off saying they won’t be long.  However, they don’t return, and Oliver sets out to find them.  He lands on a small island and meets a talking Wandering Albatross named Mr. Culpeper.   He, also, befriends a plump, nearsighted and tone death mermaid named Iris.  These islands aren’t really islands they are Rambling Isles, and Oliver is on the head of one of them.  After brief introductions and naming their isle Cliff the four set out to find his parents.  On top of the search for Oliver’s mom and dad the friends must help cliff prepare for the seawigs completion.  It is a year celebration where the Rumbling Isles compete for the best seawig using flotsam from the sea.  (More on flotsam later!)  Along the way they encounter a mean isle and an even meaner kid named Stacey de Lacey.  Yes, boys can be named Stacey too!

I loved this book.  It was a very fast read, and the characters are very different. How many stories have a plump nearsighted mermaid that can’t sing? The vocabulary is VERY rich.  Mr. Reeve is British so there are many terms that will make kids think and hopefully ask for clarification.  It even has the word flotsam.  When I was in high school it was one of our vocabulary words.  Living in a high desert there is not a whole lot of interesting flotsam.  For years I wondered why did I have to learn this word so out of context from anything? My first beach visit after moving to Boston finally answered that question, but it would have been so much nicer if I had learned it from a story.

The other day I wrote about finding my first read aloud, and today I know what my first book talk will be, Oliver and The Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre.  I think my third graders are going to love this book!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

I found it!  You might be asking yourself, “What did Kyle find?”  I found my first chapter book read aloud of the 2014-2015 school year.  As you know finding that perfect first book is a daunting task, but after starting Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff  I knew it was the right one. 

The book starts off with the hero of our story finding out that he has to go to a new school.  The private school he attended didn’t think his academic abilities lived up to their standards.  Albie is just average.  At first Albie is devastated because Erlan, his best friend, goes to the same school.  However, quickly Albie likes his new school.  He has met a new friend, and his teacher is OK because she lets him read graphic novels and Captain Underpants.  During this time of transition his parents hire a new nanny to be with him after school.  Albie is not pleased about this because he is “too old” for a nanny or a baby sitter. 

Luckily Calista is not your average nanny.  (Actually, I think she probably is!)  She is new to New York City, so Albie gives her lessons on living in the City.  Because of Calista’s young age she doesn’t always make the best choices.  She does make Albie feel like he can be successful.  Something his hardly even seen father is capable of doing. 

The book takes place over a school year.  During that time we learn that Albie has really hard time learning. He can almost  get words correct on his spelling test.  He can almost read aloud with out stumbling over words.  In other words Albie is absolutely almost.  His best friend, Erlan, is considered highly gifted, but it doesn’t really bother the two.  This relationship is one of the things that drew me to this story.  I work in a school that  Garrison Keillor best describes at the beginning of every Prairie Home Companion, “all the children are above average."  The problem with this is that when students believe this and don’t achieve greatness etc. they often feel like failures.  This is for the kids that read above grade level etc.  For the kids that do struggle in this type of environment it can be devastating.  I’m not bashing my school.  It is a great school.  There is support in reading and math for kids that are “almost”.  I think that is one of the reasons I like this book.  It lets us average people (Yes, I was a solid C student, except in spelling were I was a strong F student) see other people like us in books. 

As the book ends Albie still hasn’t found his passion, or what he really enjoys, but he seems to be ok with that.  The ending is not sad, nor is it one where all of a sudden we find out the main character is fantastic at something.  At the end we discover that right know Albie is absolutely almost.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature by Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and Peter D. Sieruta

Copy courtesy of Candlewick Press.
Available August 2014.
My genre of choice is fiction.  I know I need to be a better model about reading non-fiction, but for some reason it is a challenge.  It isn’t that I don’t like non-fiction.  I really enjoy the ones I read, but given the time constraints I read what I enjoy the most.  However, I challenged myself to read some non-fiction this summer.  I went to Tattered Cover and ordered The Man Who Knew Too Much Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer by David Leavitt.  I was set to go.

When I got home from the bookstore there was an envelope from Candlewick Press, and inside was a non-fiction book.  Not just any book, but one I was looking forward to reading when it came out later in the summer.  There is a little background about the book.  Sometime this year I read a blog post on Fuse #8, by Betsy Bird.  She briefly mentioned that she had co-written a book about children’s literature.  The post was during a time when my life was very stressful, and I forgot to write down the information.  Later in the spring when I thought about I couldn’t remember the details, so I emailed Betsy Bird.  She gave me the information and let me know that it was going to be released until later in the summer.  She mentioned that she would have a copy sent when they were ready.  I was so excited to get it.

Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature by Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and Peter D. Sieruta is a book about the world of children’s literature and not so much about mischievous children in the books.  The exciting thing about the book is that it is a very comprehensive history of what so many of us are passionate about:  children’s literature. 

At the beginning of the book there are many quotes and vignettes about how the average person reacts to authors and illustrators of children’s literature.  For example, “So you only write children’s books?  Have you written any real books?”
It is as bad as, “Those that can do, those that can’t teach!”  What is interesting is that these seem to be common thoughts among many.  In the July 2014 Vanity Fair (I guess this counts as non-fiction reading!) there is an article about The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.  The article quotes literary critic James Wood.  He writes, “I think that the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.”  Mr. Wood those are fightin’ words! 

Wild Things! drives holes into his narrow way of thinking.  The book is filled with interesting history of how children’s literature has become such a driving force.  There are sections on the private lives of children’s authors and how their experiences shaped what they wrote.  There is an important chapter on GLBT and Literature for youths, and the money driving children’s literature today.  I look forward to sharing this with other.

Thank you Betsy for a wonderful book, and helping me model reading non-fiction for my students.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Julian Chapter by R.J. Palacio

The Merriam-Webster kids definition for remorse is “a deep regret for having done wrong.”  The question is how do we teach kids remorse?  Or better yet, how do we model remorse?  The Julian Chapter by R.J. Palacio asks these same questions.  Luckily for us Ms. Palacio eloquently helps us have a better understanding of what is means to be truly remorseful.  The Julian Chapter is a companion book to Wonder.  It is the story of the school year that changes so many, but through the eyes of Julian.

From the beginning Julian doesn’t present himself much better than he was portrayed in Wonder.  In other words he is a royal jerk!  Julian’s mom has great influence over his behavior towards Auggie.  At times she is the one that stokes the flames in the fire.  From the get go Julian talks about how he needs to be remorseful, but he doesn’t know how or what it even means.  (Think, apple---tree---apple---tree.) 

The first half of the book follows the school year, while the second part focuses on the time he spends with his Grandmère in Paris.  Julian was not overly excited about having to spend the summer with her, but it is here where he learns what humanity really is.  His Grandmère was a Holocaust survivor, and she tells Julian a story about her childhood.  It is one that she has never told to anyone.  It is powerful and changes Julian.

When I started The Julian Chapter I was apprehensive.  Wonder is a book that means so much to me, and I worried that this book would cheapen the experience, but as I mentioned at the beginning Ms. Palacio is a master storyteller. True to form Mr. Tushman’s words ring strong.  “If you don’t know what to do, just be kind.  You can’t go wrong.” 

What stands out the most is that Julian learns how to be remorseful.  Unfortunately, he lives in a house where demonstrating this is a sign of weakness.  Luckily, his Grandmère gives him courage to do what is right.

I look forward to sharing this with students.  It will be an important way for them to see the world through different points of view; and, hopefully, in the words of Mr. Tushman…”always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary.”

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson

Truth be told I’m much more a vampire person than a zombie person.  I don’t really know why.  Well, the whole flesh falling off is just a bit too much.  With that said, the buzz recently has been about Boys of Blue by N.D. Wilson.  I really enjoyed Mr. Wilson’s 100 Cupboards series so I decided to give it a try.

Charlie moves to a very small town in Traper, Florida with his mom, sister, and stepfather. They originally come to Traper to attend the funeral of the beloved high school football coach.  Charlie’s step-dad was a pro football player.  Traper is not your ordinary small town.   It is close to the everglades where kids chase rabbits and try to out run the sugarcanes that have been set on fire.  This alone would set it off from other small towns, but Charlie soon discovers that strange things happen in the swamps.

As soon as Charlie arrives he befriends Cotton.  Cotton is a distant step cousin of Charlie.  Charlie, also, discovers that his deadbeat biological father lives in the next town.  Rereading this I expect to hear “And like sand through the hour glass, so are…”. It really isn’t that type of book. 

The boys quickly find themselves engaged in something unnatural in the everglades.  They get to the point where every decision could mean life or death.

N.D. Wilson has a way of sucking in the reader.  The laundry can wait, the weeds will be there tomorrow, and the books accrue an even larger fine from the library, but once I started Boys of Blur I was hooked. I remember as a kid meeting someone and forming an instant connection like what happens to Charlie and Cotton.  There were times where I felt the book was very creepy, but in a good creepy way.  The natural flow of the book made everything fit together and not forced. 

The reading level is 4th grade, but I would be careful.  In my opinion it is end of 4th grade or to 7th grade, but one I will quickly recommend to boys I know.