It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Caleb and Kit, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

IMWAYR 2015

My students have been immersed in the world of nonfiction these last many weeks, but I’ve had a chance to branch out into some great fiction for when they surface from this particular unit.

Aven Green is a character who just made me want to smile.  She’s plucky, funny, good-natured and kind.  One would think that the disability she was born with (being armless) would have made her a shy and fearful sort of kid, but Aven’s parents made sure that would not be the case:

I think I can do all these things because my parents have always encouraged me to figure things out on my own-well, more like made me figure things out on my own.   I suppose if they had always done everything for me, I would be helpless without them.  But they didn’t and I’m not.  And now that I’m thirteen years old, I don’t need much help with anything.  True story.

But, when Aven’s parents up and move from Kansas (where she’s always lived and where she knows every single kid in her entire school), to a rundown western theme park in Arizona (which she knows not a soul), even she experiences challenges for which she needs all the help she can get.  Meeting Connor and Zion, one who has Tourette’s and the other who is shy and struggling with being overweight, is the first step Aven takes in making a new life in her new town.  The three friends stumble upon a mystery at the ranch, and Aven has a sneaking suspicion that solving it will also answer some important questions about her own life.

This was a charming book, and I already have a long list of students who want to read our classroom copy.  I love that the disabilities of these young characters are written about with honesty and humor, and I love that Aven is the strong and capable young lady that she is.  She’s funny, too, with a wise dry wit that is so endearing.

                             CALEB AND KIT by Beth Vrabel

Twelve-year-old Caleb has dealt with his cystic fibrosis as best as he can – he has good days and bad days, days when he can do as he pleases and days when he can only watch his perfect older brother Patrick do everything and do it well.  In fact, Caleb’s own father had had such a hard time dealing with all of Caleb’s medical issues that he wound up leaving their home for good.  Caleb’s life changes when he meets the mysterious Kit in the woods behind his house.  Kit loves adventure, believes in magic, and seems absolutely fearless.  Caleb is soon swept up in her adventures, some poorly thought out and dangerous.  But, he soon begins to wonder about his new friend: where is her mother and why does she so often look bedraggled and bruised? is she living so deeply in her world of magic that she is putting herself (and Caleb) in terrible danger?

This is a poignantly written story that sweeps the reader along.  I don’t often find that the issues written about in this story find their way into middle grade fiction, and I welcome the chance to share this book with my sixth graders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s Monday and Here’s What I’m Reading: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

IMWAYR 2015

My resolution for the new year is to read fiction that is neither middle grade nor YA; luckily, I got a head start on that goal over Winter Break with this new, and much-heralded book:

I loved Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, also a wise and lyrically written story about families, parenting, and the ways in which society intrudes and often perverts.  Ng is a fearless writer and an honest one – Everything I Never Told You  was, at times, excruciatingly difficult to read for it made me think about my own efforts at parenting and how they went awry at times, as parenting is wont to do. 

Little Fires Everywhere is an equally brilliant book, although the scope widens to include class, race, and the politics of gender and poverty.  Here the book jacket synopsis:

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town–and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides.  Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.

Shaker Heights is the mirror image of the town I’ve lived in for many years, and I therefore understood Elena Richardson and her children all too well.  Our town, too, is said to embody all that a perfect town should, and many of its residents (like those of Shaker Heights) have returned to raise their own families in its perfection.  Elena’s children reminded me of so many young people I’ve come to know over the years, who grew up within the entitled confines of perfection, often at a great distance from truth, introspection, and a sense of genuine empathy.  They live in bubbles of prosperity and a self-congratulatory contentment, and seek to find similar bubbles however far they may wander from home.

I love the way Ng is able to build each character little by little, and weave the sometimes interconnecting narratives expertly through surprises and tragedies.  Each narrative stands on its own quite beautifully, but running through and around each other as they do makes for a captivating reading experience.  I am looking forward to reading it all over again for a Voxer book group, I imagine we will have some lively conversations!

 

It’s Monday and Here’s What I’m Reading:Alan Cole is not a Coward and Dear Martin

IMWAYR 2015

I managed to finish reading  two timely and thought provoking  books last week:

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Reading Eric Bell’s Alan Cole is Not a Coward felt at once deeply familiar (Alan and so many of the other characters felt like the middle schoolers I spend my days with) and yet revelatory (we never really know what our kiddos’ home life is like, but that life absolutely impacts what our kids do and say and think in our classrooms.  

Alan and his best friends Zach and Madison sit at the cafeteria’s sole Unstable Table, whose rickety structure reflects the boy’s own precarious social status at their middle school.   To make matters worse, Alan’s older brother, who is just about the biggest and nastiest bully I have ever encountered in MG lit, has just discovered Alan’s secret crush – another boy.  He promises to keep this secret secret IF Alan agrees to a competition: Cole brother vs. Cole brother.  Alan is forced to agree to this, even though he has no idea how he is supposed to accomplish any of Nathan’s ridiculously difficult tasks.  Thank goodness for his friends, for even though Zach and Madison have issues of their own, they are 100% loyal, most of all, they believe in Alan more than he believes in himself.

The scenes between Alan and his brother are difficult to read, because Nathan is so relentlessly brutal.  But so are the scenes between Alan’s family which reveal undercurrents of loss, blame, and rage.  Even so, the story manages to keep at its very center the three friends who embody a sweet and wacky kindness and humanity. Our classroom definitely needs several copies of this book, for it will surely be a favorite.

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I have been hearing rave reviews for Nic Stone’s Dear Martin  from every quarter, so I knew that I was in for a special read when my own copy of this book finally arrived.  There is so much going on in this book, that (after a few futile efforts on my part) I’m just going to share the jacket blurb:

Dear Martin  is a pitch perfect novel of our times, one that touches upon so many of our cultural flashpoints: police brutality, race relations, the school to prison pipeline, income and education inequality.  At the center of it all are kids like Justyce and Manny, who are trying to navigate what it means to be African American in a society that cannot seem to ever be able to live up to its lofty founding principle that “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”.
Nic Stone has crafted a novel that tells it like it is.  Justyce must contend with racism from all sides: his entitled white class mates, the kids from his neighborhood now running drugs and guns, and his mother who believes that there are simply no good white people.  I so appreciated the honest way in which Justyce’s conflicts were explored, and the clear eyed way in which the author used his story to tell the larger one of our country at a crossroads.
This is definitely a book for 8th. grade and beyond – the issues addressed are complex and beg for deep discussions about the story and its historical references. What a fabulous book!

 

 

 

 

It’s Monday and Here’s What I’m Reading: The Perfect Score, The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming, Jasper & The Riddle of Riley’s Mine

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It was a great reading week – of the four books in my reading pile, I managed to finish these three:

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Set in the period directly after the Civil War, J. Anderson Coats’ The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming gives us a glimpse of  life from a unique perspective: the women  and children who had lost their menfolk in the war.

Jane Deming’s widowed father remarried a young woman before setting off with the Union Army.  When he dies during the Seige of Vicksburg, Jane is left in the care of her rather harsh and controlling stepmother, and with the care of her  baby brother, Jeremy.  Other women left in such a position were heading out to Washington Territory, where rumor has it that there were many prosperous single men who had made their fortunes and were in need of wives.  Mrs. D., as Jane refers to her, is convinced that this is her only option, and so they set sail hoping for their dreams to come true: a rich husband (Mrs. D’s) and the opportunity to go to school (Jane’s).

The real Washington Territory proves to be about as different from expectations as possible, and both Mrs. D. as well as Jane have to make adjustments and sacrifices along the way.  Jane makes for a wonderful narrator – describing the perils of the journey West, and the rough and tumble life of all those who ventured into its wilderness in the hopes of building a new life far away from the crowded East coast cities and factory towns.

The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming is rich in historical detail and fascinating characters, it’s a thoroughly engaging story.

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I  read Caroline Starr Rose’s Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine in one sitting – I simply could not put down this rollicking adventure.  Eleven year old Jasper is having a hard time dealing with his mostly drunk and always broke father, who seems to have lost his way after his wife’s death.  Jasper is glad that he has Mel, his older brother, to keep him company in their common misery.  Someday, both boys plan to run away together, perhaps to prospect gold up in the Klondike gold fields where men are rumored to be making huge fortunes.

When Mel takes off without him, Jasper is determined not only to find his brother, but to prove that if Mel has dreams of gold, he cannot realize them without his intrepid younger brother.  Finding Mel proves to be easier than making the hazardous trek up steep mountains in the midst of blizzards in order to get to those fabled gold fields, but Jasper and Mel persist.

I simply loved Jasper, who proves to be the perfect narrator with his wry sense of humor and stubborn courage.  He part of a wonderful cast of characters, all of whom are beautifully crafted and great fun to get to know.  Like  The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming ,  this is a meticulously researched story, and one learns a lot about what it was like to be a part of the rush to find gold and strike it rich.  I know that my sixth graders will love this book, so my challenge will be to  have enough copies on hand to keep them happy! This would make for a hugely enjoyable class readaloud, too.

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The Perfect Score  caught my attention because it was  about how students in one middle school plotted to outwit the state’s mandated test.  Now, there’s an idea!  But, of course, Rob Buyea does more with the story than just that, for The Perfect Score is also about the whole kaleidoscope of middle school life: adjusting to new teachers, dealing with the cafeteria, coping with bullies at school and at home, and learning what cooperative work is all about.

Buyea has become a master of storytelling through multiple perspectives,  which is a narrative style that my kids love.  I especially liked learning about Trevor, who is a mean bully at school because he is tormented at home by his awful older brother.  I think it’s helpful for our students to try to develop an empathetic understanding of all their classmates, even the bullies.  The Perfect Score would make a fabulous book club book, for it will spur conversations about so many important issues – middle school related and beyond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Monday and Here’s What I’m Reading: The People Shall Continue, and Family Poems For Every Day of the Week

IMWAYR 2015

#IMWAYR is hosted by  Jen at Teach MentorTexts & Kellee and Ricki at UnleashingReaders 

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Simon Ortiz’s seminal children’s book , The People Shall Continue was first published forty years ago.  My tattered classroom copy can now be retired, as the publisher has just released a special anniversary issue. The People Shall Continue tells the history of Native and Indigenous people in North America, from their beginnings to the challenges they  have faced ever since the first European settlers arrived.

Ortiz tells this story in the way of the best oral narratives, and it is a moving experience to read it aloud with its sober cadences, repetitive phrases, and  powerful evocations of  bitter scenes, first of hope then of betrayal.  Sharol Graves’ illustrations to great justice to Ortiz’s writing, for they fit each segment of this story perfectly. I especially loved these pages, which tells the creation story of the people, and of the knowledge passed from one generation of the People to those who survive in the next:ENG_spread_1.jpg

In his author’s note, Ortiz writes movingly about the struggle of Indigenous People to maintain and honor their traditions: “Without any doubt, the endeavor to continue to live as Indigenous Americans is sincere and serious.  It is a way of living that engenders love, care, responsibility, and obligation.  It must be exercised and expressed as belief, commitment, and assertion of one’s humanity in relationship to others and all life beings in Creation, in order that the people shall always continue.”

We read this book just before the Thanksgiving break in my sixth grade classroom, which led to thoughtful discussions about the meaning of this “American holiday”.  It’s a book that belongs in classrooms, for it tells a story that must not be forgotten

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Family Poems for Every Day of the Week is a joyous whirl through the seven days we march though, endure, and enjoy.  I loved the way Alarcon wove his Latino traditions and family stories into each poem day.  The illustrations by Maya Christina Gonzalez were full of vibrant colors and feast for the eyes, as well.

Here’s what my reading week looks like:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Restart, and The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones

Last week’s reading included two books that presented stories which explored different perspectives, and how important issues such as bullying and dealing with the aged with kindness and sensitivity.

Chase Ambrose wakes up in the hospital and can’t remember why he’s there…or who he is.  To make matters worse, there seem to be conflicting  narratives about the kind of kid he was before his accident: the rock star jock of his middle school who was a jerk to everyone, or the rock star jock of his middle school who knew his place and how to have fun.  Some of his classmates (and most of the adults in his town) keep a safe distance because of the former, and his team wants him back in their midst due to the latter.  Chase must navigate a way back to who he was, and in the process figure out who he is.

Gordon Korman tells this story through the many perspectives of the students who knew the old Chase and are adjusting to the new one, as well as the point of view of Chase who is bewildered and then mortified by his past self.  My sixth graders will love Restart, and I can see that many meaningful discussions will ensue when they read this book.

What I’ve always loved about the way  Wendelin Van Draanen crafts her stories is that she is able to explore big truths through engaging and perfectly paced stories.  The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones, her most recent book, is no exception.

Lincoln Jones loves making up stories and filling his notebooks with tales of good guys winning over all the odds.  His own life is less than optimal, as far as Lincoln is concerned – a single mom who has just managed to escape an abusive relationship, adjusting to life in a new town but on the wrong side of his tracks, and (most of all) the afternoons he has to spend after school at his mom’s place of work – an assisted living facility with a cast of characters which includes someone given to breaking out into song…in the nude.  A too-curious classmate who seems to be shadowing him everywhere is the last thing Lincoln needs, but there she is and Lincoln must work even harder to keep his school life separate from his after school life.

I loved the way the senior citizens were written about, with poignant sensitivity and kind humor, and that was the part that I think my students will most benefit from in reading The Secret Life of Lincoln Jonesand, of course, they will love everything else about this book, too.

 

It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Forever is a long, long time

IMWAYR 2015

Caela Carter’s Forever, Or A Long, Long Time is one of those books which stay with you long after you’ve  turned the last page and returned it to the library – the characters are memorable, the story is captivating, and the writing just achingly beautiful.

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Flora and her brother Julian have spent their young lives moving from one dysfunctional foster home to the next.   A forever home finally becomes theirs, but Flora is convinced that this good fortune will not be theirs for long:

I have to be a good girl. I have to try to pass fourth grade. I have to make Person happy.

Person is my mom now.  My very own human mother.  I call her my mom when I’m talking to her or anyone else, but in my head I call her my person because there have been too too many mommies and they have faces that  blend together in my brain until they’re one ugly face that doesn’t make sense and some of them were nice but others weren’t very nice and they’re all gone now anyway and Person says she’s here forever.

She’s not. Nothing is forever…

The world is often a confusing place for Flora, and her words often get jumbled up and stuck when she tries to explain what she feels and thinks.  She wants to believe that Person and home are forever, but when she learns that Person is going to have a baby, all her fears and uncertainties return.  Will there be room enough in Person’s heart to still love Flora?  After all:

It’s so hard to believe in Forever when it only counts for some people and not all of them.

Caela Carter writes movingly about the damage the foster system does to children, and the endless hope children have that a forever family somehow still exists for them.  I loved  Forever, Or A Long, Long Time so much, and know that my students will, too.