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


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.









It’s Monday, And Here’s What I’m Reading: Wishtree & Patina

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

I have been hearing so much about Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree, so that when my copy finally arrived I set aside everything else I had planned to do and sat down to read it.  Of course, having loved The One And Only Ivan, I knew that I would be in for another lyrical reading experience, one that would pull at my heartstrings and give me hope for humanity…which is exactly what it did.

Red is a northern red oak tree, two hundred some years old, who houses an entire community of assorted birds, creatures, and, every May Day, the wishes tied to her many boughs by people hoping for all manner of things.  Although much of the world Red remembers from her earliest days has passed into history, she still casts shade over two homes that go back to her earliest days, in one of which lives a girl who has become close to Red’s heart.

Samar is about ten, with “the look of someone who has seen too  much.  Someone who wants the world to quiet itself.”  She finds comfort under Red’s branches, especially late at night, and when she sits, all the creatures around make their way over to join her. Red, of course, takes note of this.  One night, Samar wishes for a friend, and Red wants to make her wish come true.

But someone scrawls an ugly word intended for Samar’s family on Red’s trunk, and the neighborhood becomes a world divided between those who wish for newcomers to stay, and those who want them to leave.  Francesca, who owns the land Red’s roots have dug deep into, and therefore owns Red as well, decides that it’s time to cut the tree down, who needs the bother of all the leaves, critters, acorns, and wishes that come with Red, after all?  For that matter, do wishes ever come true?

Wishtree is a journey into believing in wishes, and in people, too.  I loved every moment of reading it so much, that the moment I came to the end of its last page I just had to read it again.

Jason Reynolds’ Ghost was our final read aloud last year, and my ex-students still talk about how much they loved it and how they can’t wait to get their hands on its sequel, Patina .  Well, they will be glad to know that the copy I ordered is finally here, and that it was worth the wait.


Patty is Ghost’s track team mate.  She is just as fast as he is, naturally, but with her own compelling story.  Patty has seen a lot of loss for someone in middle school: her father died suddenly when she was quite young, and then her mother lost her legs to diabetes, which meant that Patty and her sister Maddy had to live with their aunt who was better able to take care of them.  Even though Patty sees her mother every weekend when they can all go to church together, she misses the family she life she once had, and her old school, too.

Patty knows two things for sure: that her family counts on her to be strong , and that she is fast as the wind on the track. But, Patty is also just a kid trying to negotiate being one of the only African American girls at her school, being a role model for her younger sister and a cause of nothing but pride for her mother, and being part of a track team filled with big personalities.  That’s a lot for one kid.

I loved that Patty is a strong young lady, her sassiness hides a big heart and a vulnerability which makes her an interesting character to follow through the book. Reynolds writes with an understanding of a kid’s perspective on life, and with a genuine love of all the quirkiness that (especially) goes into  middle school aged kids.  These are my people, too, and I loved being immersed in their world through the eyes of Patty.


#IMWAYR It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart


It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! is hosted by Jen Vincent  @Teach Mentor Texts & Kellee Moye @ Unleashing Readers.

Truth to tell, I was afraid to read Dan Gemeinhart’s new book Scar Island.  Both his previous books, The Honest Truth and Some Kind of Courage, were wonderful reads, and I feared that (perhaps) this third book would fail to live up expectations.  Thankfully, I was wrong.


Here’s the jacket copy:

Jonathan Grisby is the newest arrival at the Slabhenge Reformatory School for Troubled Boys, an ancient, crumbling fortress of gray stone rising up from the ocean. It is dark, damp, and dismal. And it is just the place Jonathan figures he deserves. Because Jonathan has done something terrible. And he’s willing to accept whatever punishment he has coming. Just as he’s getting used to his new situation, however, a freak accident leaves the troubled boys of Slabhenge without any adult supervision. Suddenly the kids are free, with an entire island to themselves. But freedom brings unexpected danger. And if Jonathan can’t come to terms with the sins of his past and lead his new friends to safety, then every boy on the island is doomed.

Gemeinhart is able to create Slabhenge in such vivid detail that it becomes another compelling character in a cast filled with compelling characters.  I was completely transported to this place, ghastly and troubling though it was, and I know that my sixth graders would be even more drawn to imagining its storm tossed walls and mysterious nooks and crannies.  One of the literary elements my students have focused on this year has been the way in which setting influences story, and Scar Island is the perfect book through which to explore this idea.

Jonathan’s “crime” and the way in which this is revealed makes for the heart of this story, Gemeinhart creates the kind of edge-of-your-seat tension that my sixth graders will love. But, Scar Island  is also a story about how to stand up to bullies, and how fear and peer pressure can get in the way of even the nicest kid’s best intentions.  Scar Island has a touch of Lord of the Flies, which is a good thing for our kids, they need to be reminded of these lessons time and time again.  

I have a long list of students clamoring for this book, and I know that each will say: Dan Gemeinhart has done it again! And  I wholeheartedly agree.



#IMWAYR: The Wolf Keepers, The Wild Robot & A Hound’s Holiday

imwayr-2015-1-2It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! is hosted by Jen Vincent  @Teach Mentor Texts & Kellee Moye @ Unleashing Readers.

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Zoo life, the mysterious ways of wolves, a new friend who turns out to be a runaway, and a hiking adventure  deep into the wilds of Yosemite in search of John Muir’s lost cabin – put them all into one book and you have Elise Broach’s exciting new title: The Wolf Keepers. Here’s the jacket copy synopsis:

Twelve-year-old Lizzie Durango and her dad have always had a zoo to call their home. Lizzie spends her days watching the animals and taking note of their various behaviors. Though the zoo makes for a unique home, it’s a hard place for Lizzie to make lasting friends. But all this changes one afternoon when she finds Tyler Briggs, a runaway who has secretly made the zoo his makeshift home. The two become friends and, just as quickly, stumble into a covert investigation involving the zoo wolves who are suddenly dying. Little do they know, this mystery will draw them into a high-stakes historical adventure involving the legend of John Muir as they try to navigate safely while lost in Yosemite National Park.

This was a lovely story about friendship and trust, and the backdrop of Yosemite and the fascinating yet tangled issue of releasing wolves into their natural habitat made this a hard-to-put-down adventure story as well.


I adore everything Peter Brown writes, so I was especially keen to read his first middle grade novel, The Wild Robot.  This was such a beautiful and unusual story to lose myself in: haunting, moving, and unforgettable.  Here’s the jacket synopsis:

Can a robot survive in the wilderness?

When robot Roz opens her eyes for the first time, she discovers that she is alone on a remote, wild island. She has no idea how she got there or what her purpose is–but she knows she needs to survive. After battling a fierce storm and escaping a vicious bear attack, she realizes that her only hope for survival is to adapt to her surroundings and learn from the island’s unwelcoming animal inhabitants.

As Roz slowly befriends the animals, the island starts to feel like home–until, one day, the robot’s mysterious past comes back to haunt her.

At the heart of this story is the unlikely way in which Roz comes to become a mother to Brightbill: first as a caretaker to the solitary egg she is able to rescue, and then to the duckling who emerges and demands both love and guidance. Is a robot capable of either? Well, Roz discovers that she is capable of that and so much more, and in doing so she becomes a character we grow to love as well.  Brown’s illustrations grace the book perfectly, adding just the visuals the reader needs to help imagine the world of the book. Here’s a fascinating  post Peter Brown wrote about what moved him to write “a robot nature story”.   I imagine many wonderful classroom conversations about the lessons learned from Roz and her fellow island dwellers.


I chanced upon A Hound’s Holiday at an art show, and fell in love with this charming holiday story, written in verse by Kim Spensley.  Old Bowser the dog is left at home while his family pack their sleigh with holiday fare and drive off through the snow to share a holiday feast.  But Bowzer will not be left aside so easily, and he manages to free himself and gallop off through a New England winter in search of his family…and the feast. Heather Bellanca’s enchanting scratchboard artwork brings warmth and delight to each page, and add just the kind of Christmas season nostalgia one always looks for at this time of year.  A treasure of a book!

Nonfiction Wednesday:The First Step & The Great Gift

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Join the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge 2016 hosted by Alyson Beecher @ Kid Lit Frenzy.

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The march toward justice is a long, twisting journey. Three steps forward, one step back.  One step forward, three back. Laws change and the march moves forward.  People resist change, and the march slows to a standstill, waiting for a better time.  Then, at last, ideas have changed enough and people have changed enough.  Finally, the march cannot be stopped.

I read this passage, from Susan E. Goodman’s picture book The First Step: How one Girl Put Segregation on Trial, with a sad sense of deja vu, because this is where we seem to be as a nation at this very moment, once again.  Sarah Roberts fought for the right to attend her neighborhood school in 1847 and lost;   and then came a better time, so that Linda Brown could fight the same fight in 1950, and win – the march moved forward.  It is important for us to read this story with our students now to remind ourselves that the fight for social justice is one that we can never step away from: there is always resistance to change, but we must move forward.

E.B. Lewis’ beautiful paintings set the scene for these parallel stories:

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Another timely book, is Their Great Gift: Courage, Sacrifice, and Hope in a New Land by John Coy, with photographs by Wing Young Huie:

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This is a sparely written but eloquent photo essay into the sacrifices people make for their families in bringing them into the United States in search of a better life.

They kept going day after day

so we’d have choices they didn’t have.

We read this in class today, in order to reflect upon what we are as a nation of immigrants many of  whom sacrificed their presents for their children’s futures.  Each photograph told such a rich story, and allowed for deep conversations.

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