It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: July 8th., 2013

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading is hosted by Jen and Kellee at Teach Mentor Texts

Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Abby @ Abby the Libriarian

A great reading week – it’s wonderful to be able to chip away at that TBR list! So, here goes:
I was finally able to get to the last Cynthia Kadohata book, Cracker,  on my list:

Here is a summary from the jacket copy: 

Cracker is one of the United States Army’s most valuable weapons, a German shepherd trained to sniff out bombs, traps, and the enemy. The fate of entire platoons rests on her keen sense of smell. She’s a Big Deal, and she likes it that way. Sometimes Cracker remembers when she was younger, and her previous owner fed her hot dogs and let her sleep in his bed. Rick Hanski is in Vietnamto whip the world and prove his family and his sergeant—and everyone else who didn’t think he was cut out for war—wrong. But sometimes Rick can’t help but wonder that maybe everyone else is right. Maybe he should have just stayed at home and worked in his father’s hardware store. When Cracker is paired with Rick, she isn’t so sure about this new owner. He’s going to have to prove himself to her before she’s going to prove herself to him. They need to be friends before they can be a team, and they have to be a team if they want to get home alive.

There was so much to love about this story.  Kadohata is able to get inside the characters of both the young soldier,Rick, as well as the scout dog, Cracker, in  an amazing way.  She captured the arc of this relationship – suspicion, frustration, and distrust giving way to understanding, respect and love – perfectly.  Along the way, I learned a lot about how the Army trains dogs to be scouts, and how necessary it is for both soldier and dog to work in instinctive unison.  Kadohata is also able to describe a young soldier’s mindset and life on base in a realistic way that will appeal to middle school readers – it’s authentically described, brutally realistic when necessary, but always appropriate to the book’s primary audience.  The battle scenes in the jungles of Vietnam were gripping, and even though I suspected that all would end well for the two main characters,  there was enough tension and suspense along the way that I was never quite sure.  This is a wonderful book through which to teach perspective, too.  There are whole passages in Cracker that I’ve earmarked for mini lessons on this strategy .  Here is a fascinating documentary produced by the Army in 1969 about how dogs were trained at Fort Benning, where Cracker and Rick trained:  

Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray was such an amazing reading experience.  I know very little about what took place in the Baltic region of the Soviet Union once they were invaded in the 1940’s.  I did not know, for instance, that the people of Lithuania , Latvia and Estonia were rounded up in large numbers and deported to Siberia in large numbers.  I did not know the harrowing conditions these prisoners faced, or what life was like during the terrifying journey or in these desolate work camps.  So, Between Shades of Gray was a lesson in history.

But, the storyline through which this history lesson is told, is a powerful one, as well.  Here is the summary from the jacket copy:

In 1941, fifteen-year-old Lina is preparing for art school, first dates, and all that summer has to offer. But one night, the Soviet secret police barge violently into her home, deporting her along with her mother and younger brother. They are being sent to Siberia. Lina’s father has been separated from the family and sentenced to death in a prison camp. All is lost.
Lina fights for her life, fearless, vowing that if she survives she will honor her family, and the thousands like hers, by documenting their experience in her art and writing. She risks everything to use her art as messages, hoping they will make their way to her father’s prison camp to let him know they are still alive.
It is a long and harrowing journey, and it is only their incredible strength, love, and hope that pull Lina and her family through each day. But will love be enough to keep them alive?

Lina, her mother, and her brother Jonas are beautifully crafted characters.  Each of them react to events in their own, individual ways, and the reader is able to “live” through these events and gain an understanding of how children and parents struggled to keep hope alive under terrible conditions.   Here is Ruta Sepetys describing what  motivated her to create Lina’s powerful story:

Same Sun Here is a story told in letters between two penpals, Silas House writes as River, and Neela Vaswani as Meena.  I loved this technique, and am thinking about ways to bring it into my classroom.  This would be a wonderful end-of-the-year genre experimentation in collaborative writing – something lacking in our Writing Workshop.

Here is the jacket copy for Same Sun Here:

Meena and River have a lot in common:  fathers forced to work away from home to make ends meet, grandmothers who mean the world to them, and faithful dogs.  But Meena is an Indian immigrant girl living in New York City’s Chinatown, while River is a Kentucky coal miner’s son.  As Meena’s family studies for citizenship exams and River’s town faces devastating mountaintop removal, this unlikely pair become pen pals, sharing thoughts and, as their camaraderie deepens, discovering common ground in their disparate experiences.  With honesty and humor, Meena and River bridge the miles between them, creating a friendship that inspires bravery and defeats cultural misconceptions. Narrated in two voices, each voice distinctly articulated by a separate gifted author, this chronicle of two lives powerfully conveys the great value of having a friend and the joys of opening our lives to others who live beneath the same sun.

I loved the way both characters wrote about their own worlds, each needing to explain the particulars of their environment (rent control, coal mining) in a way that the other could understand and empathize with.  I also liked the way in which their relationship developed over time, as they wrote back and forth to each other, learning this and that detail about each others’ lives.

Ten Good and Bad Things About My Life was just a pure joy to read.  Ann Martin “gets” the voice of the age group I teach and love so much just perfectly – that goofy sense of humor, wariness about change,  and prickliness.   I was reminded of so many of my kiddos as I read this book!  

Here’s what the jacket copy had to say:

Pearl Littlefield’s first assignment in fifth grade is complicated: She has to write an essay about her summer. Where does she begin? Her dad lost his job, she had to go to a different camp—one where her older sister Lexie was a counselor-in-training (ugh!)—and she and her good friend James Brubaker III had a huge fight, which made them both wonder if the other kids were right that girls and boys can’t be good friends and which landed one of them in the hospital.And there’s much, much more on the list of good and bad things, as Ann Martin takes this appealing character into new adventures through which young readers will see that good or bad, life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

Pearl and JBIII were so much fun to get to know.  They have a lot to learn, they are fifth graders after all, but go about it all with an exuberant confidence that is so typical of that age group: everything’s just gotta work out somehow, right?!  I also loved the way Martin wrote about Pearl’s parents and the way the family copes with Dad’s job loss – they are all in this together, even though some of the cost cutting measures seem awful to begin with (having to take the subway all the way there and back to Buy More- Pay Less on a regular basis, missing out on an awesome trip to a ranch out West).  It was wonderful to read about a functional family coping with trying circumstances in a loving, supportive way – for once, in a YA book!

I.M.Pei: Architect of Time, Place, and Purpose  by Jill Rubalcaba tells the story of six of this world-renowned architects most famous buildings – each of them controversial projects which garnered Pei much criticism.  Using photographs, sketches and architectural drawings, Rubalcaba describes what inspired Pei in his designs for each of these buildings.  The engagingly written text is just detailed enough to inform not overwhelm – tricky to do when one is writing about a topic that is rather complex.  This would be a wonderful addition to our classroom’s nonfiction library.


And, here is Pei himself describing the resistance he faced to the now iconic glass pyramid in front of the Louvre:


8 thoughts on “It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: July 8th., 2013

  1. So glad to hear about Cracker, the Ann Martin and IM Pei books. They all sound good, Tara. We always have someone studying architecture & the Pei book will be a great addition to the library. I like Ann Martin's books, and your words make me want to read this one. And thanks for the extra info about Between Shades of Grey. I thought it, and Same Sun Here, were extra special books, for different reasons! Thanks!

  2. I LOVED Cracker and Same Sun Here (I listened to both on audio, and they were great!). I love the Ann Martin cover – I need to read that. I love the flowers on your blog. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by my blog this morning!

  3. I hadn't heard of Ten Good and Bad Things…looks like a great addition to my fifth grade classroom library. Also, I LOVED Between Shades of Gray. Thanks for the recommendations!

  4. Cracker sounds like the perfect book for some of our middle school boys. Can't wait to read it! Will also look for the book about I.M. Pei and Same Sun Here. And you're right, Between Shades of Gray was amazing. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Loved BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY and SAME SUN HERE. We have a lot of military families in our area, so I'll definitely be checking out CRACKER in addition to your other recommendations!Natalie

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