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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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

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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.

It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: A Boy Called Bat, Ahimsa & The Van Gogh Deception

IMWAYR 2015

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

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There is so much to love about Elana Arnold’s A Boy Called Bat, beginning with its main character, Bixby Alexander Tam (known to one and all by his preferred name, Bat).  Bat does not like loud sounds and he sometimes flaps his hands when he gets upset, he likes organizing his space the way it makes sense to him, he loves animals, and he knows a lot about them.  Some day, he plans to be a vet, just like his mother.  And when Bat’s mother brings home a stray baby skunk who needs to be cared for until it can be released into the wild, he is ecstatic.  No matter what his mom says, Bat is determined to keep this kit – it is the perfect pet, the best companion, even though Bat knows enough about wild animals to know that keeping Thor forever is not a good idea.

A Boy Called Bat is a sweet and sensitive story about both a boy’s onging yearning for a pet of his own, as well as how an ordinary family copes with a family member on the Autism sptectrum – imperfectly, but always with a deep and abiding love.

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Growing up in India, the granddaughter of someone who fought for independence alongside the likes of Ghandhi and Nehru, I’ve always known that life for the children of these freedom fighters was a mixed blessing. On the one hand you were proud of your parents and the cause for which they fought, and on the other you had to endure many sacrifices of comfort and  security.  Winning freedom is never easy.

Supriya Kelkar’s Ahimsa is a wonderful middle grade novel about India’s fight for independance from Britain, and what that felt like from the perspective of a young girl, used to all the benefits of being of the highest caste and of  comfortable means.  Here’s the flap copy summary:

In 1942, when Mahatma Gandhi asks Indians to give one family member to the freedom movement, ten-year-old Anjali is devastated to think of her father risking his life for the freedom struggle.

But it turns out he isn’t the one joining. Anjali’s mother is. And with this change comes many more adjustments designed to improve their country and use “ahimsa”–non-violent resistance–to stand up to the British government. First the family must trade in their fine foreign-made clothes for homespun cotton, so Anjali has to give up her prettiest belongings. Then her mother decides to reach out to the Dalit community, the “untouchables” of society. Anjali is forced to get over her past prejudices as her family becomes increasingly involved in the movement.

When Anjali’s mother is jailed, Anjali must step out of her comfort zone to take over her mother’s work, ensuring that her little part of the independence movement is completed.

Books like Ahimsa give readers a view into history, and a sense of the courage and commitment it takes for people everywhere to sacrifice their own self interests for the greater good, we need more books like this.

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If you are in the mood for an edge-of-the-seat read, Deron Hicks’ The Van Gogh Deception is the book for you.  A young boy is found at the National Gallery, and he cannot remember who he is or how he came to be sitting where he was.  Taken into foster care, this boy must piece together not only his identity but also why he is in such imminent danger.  As the clock ticks on, the boy and the people who are after him for secrets he doesn’t even know he carries, are on a collision course with only one good outcome – that the boy finally regains his memory

I loved the inventiveness of this sophisticated adventure, and the fabulous way in which art is woven into this story (QR codes within the book lead you to paintings associated within the story – such a wonderful bonus!), which is such a treat for the soul.

Hicks is a master story teller, and The Van Gogh Deception is a wonderful treat of a read.  

 

 

It’s Monday And Here’s What I’m Reading:Pablo and Birdy, Armstrong & Charlie

 

Alison McGhee’s Pablo and Birdy is one of those lyrical books you cannot bear to stop reading, even though you’ve read it twice already.  I picked it up right after having the same experience reading Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree, and so I count myself a lucky reader these days when we have such gifted writers gifting us one memorable read after another.

The island town of Isla was already famous for its talking birds and for (perhaps) being one of the few places where the mythical Seafaring Parrots come home to roost, when baby Pablo washed ashore strapped to an inflatable swimming pool and guarded over by a fiercely loyal lavender parrot.

Rescued and raised by Emmanuel, Pablo and Birdy are loved and protected by the birds and people of Isla, which he has come to look upon as his home.  But, happy as he is, as Pablo nears his tenth birthday, he begins to have questions about where he came from, and who he really belongs to.  And Birdy, well Birdy can neither fly nor talk, unlike every other bird on Isla…or anywhere else.

And, as Pablo nears his big double digit birthday, Birdy, too, seems restless.  The “winds of change” that stirred up the seas so violently the night Pablo arrived are beginning to rustle up again, and there is a feeling that some of the truth of Pablo’s story, and Birdy’s too, will finally be revealed.

This lyrical, fable like story was such a delight to read, and I loved Ana Juan’s gorgeous illustrations which made it all so much more believable, for, with stories like this, one wants to believe.

Steven B. Frank’s Armstrong & Charlie is such a fun read, even though it touches upon tough issues: death in a family, race relations, and depression.

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Armstrong Le Rois and Charlie Ross are not looking forward to sixth grade: Armstrong’s parents have seen fit to sign him up for an opportunity to be bussed to an all-white school in fancy Laurel Canyon where he will know no one, and most of Charlie’s friends at his Laurel Canyon school are leaving just because these new kids are being bussed in.

Both boys have a lot to learn about getting along and seeing that people who seem different on the outside are more alike on the inside than they will ever know unless they take the time to know each other and to learn.

At times laugh out loud hilarious and then deeply moving, Armstrong and Charlie is a wise book, perfect for our troubled times.  For, even though it is set in the tumultuous early seventies,  many of the questions this story raises about race and prejudice are just as relevant today.  This would make a wonderful readaloud or book club selection.

 

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.

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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.