Monday, June 13, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – THE WILD ROBOT

I'd heard a lot about this book and was really looking forward to reading it! I didn't know about all the illustrations, so that was a lovely surprise.

Description from Amazon:

Can a robot survive in the wilderness?
technology meets nature in a survival story on an island

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.

From bestselling and award-winning author and illustrator Peter Brown comes a heartwarming and action-packed novel about what happens when nature and technology collide.
The Wild Robot was written and illustrated by Peter Brown and published by Little Brown and Company in 2016.

My Take:

I haven’t read a middle grade book with talking animals for a while, and I enjoyed this one. I was so interested in finding out what would happen to Roz, I read it very fast. But I’d read it again to again to study the illustrations more closely and absorb all the layers of meaning.

I enjoyed the details of the natural setting and animal behavior, as well as Roz’s understandings and communications about it. By the time I got to the end, I really wanted to find out what happens next. I hope there is a sequel!

For writers: 

It’s interesting to think about how Peter Brown managed to create a robot with warmth and kindness, while still keeping her robot-like characteristics and personality. I especially liked how the lessons and strategies the robot tried to learn were emphasized throughout the story. 

Opening Line:

“Our story begins on the ocean, with wind and rain and thunder and lightning and waves.”


“Roz could feel her Survival Instincts—the part of her computer brain that made her want to avoid danger and take care of herself so she could continue functioning properly.”

“Performing could be survival strategy! If the opossum could pretend to be dead, the robot could pretend to be alive. She could act less robotic and more natural.”

“It was a mystery why her computer brain knew certain things but not others.”

Other Info:

Peter Brown is an author and illustrator living in Brooklyn, NY. He has written and illustrated many picture books, such as My Teacher is a Monster, Mr. Tiger Goes Wild,  Will You Be My Friend? and Children Make Terrible Pets.  He also illustrated one of my favorites, Creepy Carrots. The Wild Robot is his first middle grade novel.

Peter Brown's blog post on how The Wild Robot developed is fascinating. He explains many considerations he had while planning, such as deciding on the gender of the robot, the setting, and where the initial idea came from. I was especially interested in how long it took for this story to develop – eight years!

I also really enjoyed reading Peter Brown’s description of what the story is about and what Roz learns. Here's a snippet: “But the most important lesson Roz learns is that kindness can be a survival skill. And she uses kindness to develop friends and a family and a peaceful life for herself. Until her mysterious past catches up with her.”

Looking for more middle grade reads? Check out the list of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books over at author Shannon Messenger's blog.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Learning from Picture Books – WOLFIE THE BUNNY

At first this book seems like just another funny story (and it is) but there are also deeper layers and an important but subtle message about standing up for yourself and the people you love.

Summary from the publisher:

The Bunny family has adopted a wolf son, and daughter Dot is the only one who realizes Wolfie can--and might--eat them all up! Dot tries to get through to her parents, but they are too smitten to listen. A new brother takes getting used to, and when (in a twist of fate) it's Wolfie who's threatened, can Dot save the day?

Wolfie the Bunny was written by Ame Dyckman and illustrated by Zachariah OHora. It was published in2015 by Little Brown and Company.


“The Bunny family came home to find a bundle outside their door.”

My thoughts as a writer:

This is a really great example of how illustrations work with the text to add more humor and layers to the story. The bright, bold illustration style without much background keeps the focus on the characters.

I really liked the use of repetition. A pattern is set up that seems like it’s going to be predictable but then there's a surprising twist.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

There are a lot of possibilities for discussion with this book – how it might feel to have a new sibling, why the baby is getting so much attention, adoption, looking different than other people in your family, standing up for others. I really liked the idea that you can stand up for yourself and others, regardless of size.

Ages: 4 – 8

Grades: preschool - 2

Themes: individuality, getting a new sibling, family, standing up for others


Draw your favorite page in the story. Explain why you liked it.

Make puppets and retell the story! This would be a really fun book to place at a retelling centre or to use in a retelling basket.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – THE GIRL IN THE WELL IS ME

I've enjoyed two of Karen Rivers' other middle grades, so I was looking forward to reading this one. I wasn't disappointed - there's lots of suspense!

middle grade story of a girl trapped in a wellDescription from Amazon:

Longing to be one of the popular girls in her new town, Kammie Summers has fallen into a well during a (fake) initiation into their club. Now Kammie’s trapped in the dark, counting the hours, waiting to be rescued. (The Girls have gone for help, haven’t they?)

As hours pass, Kammie’s real-life predicament mixes with memories of the best and worst moments of her life so far, including the awful reasons her family moved to this new town in the first place. And as she begins to feel hungry and thirsty and light-headed, Kammie starts to imagine she has company, including a French-speaking coyote and goats that just might be zombies.
The Girl in the Well is Me was written by Karen Rivers and published by Cormorant Books in 2016.

My Take:

I really didn’t like the girls in this book, reminding me of “mean girls” I encountered myself at various times in my life so far. I liked the way more layers of Kammie’s personality and history were revealed as the story continued, and I was scared for what might happen to her. It’s a good thing this was a shorter book that I could read fairly quickly.

For writers: 

I found it interesting to think about how the author created tension and suspense while writing in a stream of consciousness style. A really good example of writing where everything is written in the thoughts of the main character, and realistic in the way her thoughts jump from one idea to another related idea.  

Opening Line:

“The whole thing feels like a prank at first, like something they planned—a joke with a punchline.”


“But, obviously, popular and mean are tied together so tight they’re like those knots that just tighten and tighten no matter how hard you try to untangle them.”

“I start to cry again, but my throat is all clamped up from all that crying before and I can’t breathe, so I stop and instead do useful things, like whisper-screaming HELP every twelve seconds in the hopes of being helped.”

“I stare at the well wall in front of me, which is like looking into a shadow to try and find a light.”

Other Info:

Karen Rivers ( is the author of 18 novels for adults, young adults and middle grade readers. Her middle grades include: Finding Ruby Starling, The Encyclopedia of Me and Waiting to Dive.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – JUST LIKE ME

I’m always curious about summer camp stories! This one has a different angle with an adopted girl learning to figure out where she fits in.
Description from the publisher:

Who eats Cheetos with chopsticks?! Avery and Becca, my "Chinese Sisters," that's who. We're not really sisters-we were just adopted from the same orphanage. And we're nothing alike. They like egg rolls, and I like pizza. They're wave around Chinese fans, and I pretend like I don't know them.

Which is not easy since we're all going to summer camp to "bond." (Thanks, Mom.) To make everything worse, we have to journal about our time at camp so the adoption agency can do some kind of "where are they now" newsletter. I'll tell you where I am: At Camp Little Big Lake in a cabin with five other girls who aren't getting along, competing for a camp trophy and losing (badly), wondering how I got here...and where I belong.

Told through a mix of traditional narrative and journal entries, don't miss this funny, surprisingly sweet summer read!

Just Like Me was written by Nancy J. Cavanaugh and published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky in 2016.

My Take:

Julia’s struggle with her Chinese background and her adoption agency “sisters” showed me a perspective on adoption I hadn’t thought about before. This book also tackles the problem of getting along with people with different personalities and developing friendships. I liked that there wasn’t an easy solution to the “mean girl” problem.

For writers: 

I always like it when letters tell part of the story. This is a good example of a story where letters an interesting layer and also keep the plot moving.

Opening Line:

“The camp bus sputtered and chugged up the interstate, sounding as if this might be its last trip.”


“She almost looked like Superman, before landing flat on her stomach on the bed. Her curly hair bounced like springs and her stuff fell, scattering all over the floor.”

“We all stood like melting statues as the water continued to drip off every part of us.”

“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next, but I knew that if we didn’t leave out troubles on land, we didn’t have much chance of winning—because there were enough trouble between the six of us to easily sink a rowboat.”

“My body hummed with exhaustion, while my mind raced with thoughts of all that had gone on that day.”

Other Info:

Nancy Cavanaugh is the author of This Journal Belongs to Ratchet and Always, Abigail

Friday, May 20, 2016

Learning from Picture Books – TRAINBOTS

Robots and trains in the same book? What a cool idea! This one reminded me a bit of the classic story The Little Engine That Could by Wally Piper, but with a very modern approach.

Summary from the publisher:

Trainbots are getting ready to make and deliver toybots for kids to play with, but it looks like the Badbots are sneaking and scheming to sabotage the delivery in this moving, grooving picture book!

Trainbots boarding, how rewarding!
Trainbots zooming,
Badbots peeking, sneaking, scheming,
hopping, dropping—Badbots teeming!

These Trainbots are getting ready to make and deliver toybots for kids to play with! They’re drawing, sawing, and building to get the toybots ready to send, but it looks like the Badbots are sneaking and scheming to sabotage the delivery! Luckily, the Trainbots draft and craft and engineer and rockateer to outsmart the misbehaving Badbots. And once the toybots are delivered, the kids become their FRIEND-bots 'til-the-end bots!

Trainbots was written by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Shane McG. The publisher is Little Bee Books. I received a Fold & Gathered review copy from the author, but the finished book will be available very soon!  The release date is June 7, 2016.


“Trainbots drawing, sawing, building. Hammer; clamor, lots of gilding.”

My thoughts as a writer:

If you write in rhyme or love reading picture books in rhyme, this is good one to study! I loved how Miranda Paul managed to work in scientific terminology without messing with the rhythm and rhyme: “Trainbots drafting, engineering…clever crafting, racketeering!”

The illustrations remind me of animated films – bright and dynamic, with fun expressions on the character faces.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

The idea of putting robots, trains and superheroes together is perfect for helping to capture the interest of young students. I especially liked how blueprints and plans were included in the story, because I’m always encouraging students to draw plans while building in my kindergarten classroom.

Ages: 4 – 8

Grades: preschool - 3

Themes: individuality, perseverance, pirates, adventure


Build your own trainbot using materials such as cardboard boxes, wooden sticks, graph paper, buttons, googly eyes, etc. Paint and decorate!

Make up a character card for one of the trainbots: draw a picture, and list your character’s superpowers, special skills and name.

What is your favorite page in the story? Explain or write about why you picked this page.

Check out Writer's Rumpus for more about this book and an interview with author Miranda Paul.  

Monday, May 16, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – SPEECHLESS

When I first saw this book, I was intrigued by the title and the cover. It's the last of the nominees for the 2016 Silver Birch Fiction Awards that I needed to read before the results come in! The winner will be announced on May 18.

 Jelly Miles would rather be playing video games with his best friend P.B. than preparing for a speech competition. In fact, he’d rather be doing just about anything else. So he’s as surprised as anyone that he’s taking this year’s competition seriously. At first, it’s for the awesome prize. But when the competition turns ugly, Jelly realizes it’s his chance to finally get the last word with the class know-it-all. With his reputation, self-respect and the friendship he values most on the line, can Jelly find the courage to get up in front of the whole school and show his true self?

Laugh-out-loud funny, Speechless is about standing up to bullying, knowing who your friends are and finding your own unique voice.

Speechless was written by Jennifer Mook-Sang and published by Scholastic in 2015.

My Take:

Jelly’s character had some interesting hobbies (e.g., ventriloquism) and skills (e.g., he’s a computer genius) but what I really loved most about his character was his humor. He had a realistic personality that hooked me from the beginning of the story. This book tackles typical middle grade themes such as bullying, friendship and learning to be yourself.

For writers: 

I really liked the way the author used a speech contest as the backbone of the plot and built the other events around it. It kept the story focused but allowed room to explore and connect other subplots, such as Jelly’s work with the food bank.

Opening Line:

“The door of the school library burst open and Parker blasted in.”


“I will never understand girls.”

“Of course I was trying to stay out of trouble. But unfortunately, these days, trouble seemed to be lying in puddles all around me.”

“I took slow breaths and tried to keep the fear-excitement gathered into a small, cold knot in my middle, instead of rampaging through my whole body.”

“With all the presentations and class circles, I’m sure the bullies had learned more about how to bully than they’d ever be able to use in a lifetime.”

Other Info:

Jennifer Mook-Sang lives in Burlington, Ontario. Speechless is her first middle grade novel.

Teaching Ideas:

Reflect: Have you ever given a speech? What was the most difficult part of it for you? Think of one strategy to help yourself work through that challenge.

Think up your own set of steps or strategies for giving a speech. Create a comic or short story that uses all your steps.

Create your own anti-bullying slogan  or use Jelly’s (Speak Up, Speak Out) and design an anti-bullying poster. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Learning from Picture Books – SMALL SAUL

After reading The Most Magnificent Thing, I am a big fan of Ashley Spires, and this one is another great book to read in a classroom!

Summary from the publisher:

Ahoy there! Will this sweet little pirate find his place aboard The Rusty Squid or will he be forced to walk the plank?

When Small Saul joins the crew of The Rusty Squid, it doesn't take long for the other pirates to notice something is very different about this tiny fellow. He was born to sing sea shanties, bake pineapple upside down cakes and redecorate, not to hold a sword and plunder. Being rough and tough just isn't in his nature.

Small Saul learned at Pirate College that pirates only care about three things: their ship, being tough and lots and lots of treasure. Can Small Saul show these ruffians that despite his gentle spirit, he's worth his weight in gold? With treasure chests of laughs, 
Small Saul's high-seas adventure is a light-hearted celebration of individuality, perseverance and being true to one's self.

Small Saul was written and illustrated by Ashley Spires. It was published by Kids Can Press in 2011.


“Small Saul loved the sea. He loved its vastness, its calmness, its blueness.”

My thoughts as a writer:

I really liked the opening of this book, especially with the dynamic angle that was chosen for the perspective of the first illustration. The introduction of Saul going to Pirate College was a lot of fun. There are lots of small details in the illustrations to add humor to the story.

My thoughts as a teacher:

The story is fun (always a great way to get kids to pay attention), but there are also some great opportunities for discussions about how it’s okay to be yourself and follow your own path. There is also a theme of perseverance in the way Saul tried different ways to fit in with the pirate crew.

Ages: 4 – 8

Grades: K - 3

Themes: individuality, perseverance, pirates, adventure


What do you think pirates need to learn at Pirate College? Make a list.

Draw a treasure map and label it.

Make puppets and a pirate ship and act out the story of Small Saul.

The publisher also provided some ideas for using this book in the classroom.

What would you ask the author if you could? Here's an interview where she answers some student questions: