Monday, October 9, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – THE SEVENTH WISH by Kate Messner

Today is Thanksgiving in Canada, so it seems especially appropriate to feature a novel that reminds us that some families are struggling today. This is an absorbing read, especially for children ages 11 and up with challenging family situations. 
                              

Description from the publisher:

Charlie feels like she's always coming in last. From her Mom's new job to her sister's life away at college, everything else always seems to be more important than Charlie's upcoming dance competition or science project. Unsure of how to get her family's attention, Charlie comes across the surprise of her life one day while ice-fishing . . . in the form of a floppy, scaly fish offering to grant her a wish in exchange for its freedom. Charlie can't believe her luck until she realizes that this fish has a funny way of granting wishes, despite her best intentions. But when her family faces a challenge bigger than any they've ever experienced, Charlie wonders if some things might be too important to risk on a wish.

The Seventh Wish was written by Kate Messner and published by Bloomsbury in 2016.


Why you want to read this book… 

It's great to find a story that shows how a sibling is affected when her older sister faces a difficult challenge. It’s a realistic portrayal of how a whole family struggles and has to come to terms with the crisis, while still carrying on with all the other things they have to do in their lives. (This story reminded me a bit of Jo Knowles’ novel, Still a Work in Progress, because it is also told from the perspective of a sibling of a struggling character. See my review here.)

I think this is the first novel I’ve read that includes both Irish dancing and ice fishing! For me, the magic fish reminded me how sometimes we wish for a quick solution that will make things better but in reality there are some difficulties we can only get through with time and hard, emotional work. The ending of the story was realistic and hopeful.

“But today, I’m tired of being the youngest in the family. I hate the way everybody else’s plans matter more than mine.”

If you’re a writer… 

This is a good story to study to see how to create a fully realized picture of the many elements that make up middle school life – friends, family, activities and interests, homework… It’s so interesting to see how the author manages to balance all of these elements in the same story!

“Mom doesn’t need that stomping and kicking and forget-everything loudness the way I do, especially now.”


If you’re a teacher…

Many students need to cope with difficult family situations, like addiction, so I think it’s an important novel to at least have available in the classroom. I really liked the way the story showed the family taking time to work through the situation. This story has connections to curriculum related to substance abuse and addiction.

“We can wish on clovers and shooting stars and flowers all we want. But in the end, the only real magic is what’s inside us and the people we love.”


Opening Line:

“I’ve only seen the ice flowers once.”


Other Info:

Kate Messner has written many middle grade novels including Eye of the Storm, Capture the Flag, The Exact Location of Home and the Ranger in Time series.

There’s a teacher’s guide for The Seventh Wish on Bloomsbury’s website.




Thursday, October 5, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – MITZI TULANE, PRESCHOOL DETECTIVE in WHAT’S THAT SMELL? by Lauren McLaughlin & Debbie Ridpath Ohi

I enjoyed this sweet, funny book about a young girl and her family.

Summary from the publisher:

Mitzi Tulane may be only three years old, but she sure knows how to follow a trail of evidence and solve tough mysteries. From the strange happenings in the kitchen to the sudden arrival of every family member she’s ever met, Mitzi pieces together the clues and (finally) realizes that she’s . . . in the middle of her own surprise birthday party!

Kids and parents will laugh along as Mitzi sorts through not-so-subtle hints and comes to her conclusions. Readers will love figuring out the surprise ahead of the private-eye protagonist! Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s bouncy illustrations bring an extra layer of fun to Lauren McLaughlin’s clever story.

Mitzi Tulane, Preschool Detective in What’s That Smell? was written by Lauren McLaughlin and illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi. It was published in 2017 by Random House Children’s Books.

Opening:

“Mitzi Tulane knew every smell that came from her kitchen. As a detective, it was her job to know what happened at 123 Maple Street.”

My Thoughts as a Writer:

I really liked the idea of Mitzi being a detective to find out more about what was happening in her own house. It’s also very sweet that she turns to her baby brother, Kev, to think things through. The author has nicely shown the perspective of a young child with Mitzi’s observations and conclusions (“Everyone one in the whole wide world was standing in Mitzi’s living room.”) The illustrations follow this same perspective and most scenes depict the world around Mitzi from her eye level. I also enjoyed the subtle humor that often seemed designed to give adult readers a chuckle.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

I don’t often come across fiction picture books that focus on the sense of smell, and I liked the concept of using it to solve a mystery. This different way of telling a story about a birthday was refreshing. The illustrations show diversity in the skin colors of family members, and it was interesting to read interviews with Debbie that explained the reasoning for her artistic choices (http://debbieohi.com/bk-mitzi-creation/).

Ages: 2 - 5

Grades: preK - 1

Themes:  birthdays, family, detectives

Activities:

Draw a picture of your own birthday party. Who was there?

Go on a “smelling walk.” Use your nose to smell what’s in the air around you and try to identify what you are smelling.

What is your favorite smell? Draw pictures or make a list of smells you like—and smells you don’t like.

Check out the Teacher's Guide on Debbie Ridpath Ohi's site for more activities.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Monday Quick Pick: RESTART by Gordon Korman

I don't have time for a full review of this one, since it's so early in the school year and I'm still re-learning how to balance my writing, reading and teaching without collapsing from exhaustion at the end of every day. But I really wanted to give this book a shout out. 

I loved the concept of the story: a kid who was a terrible bully has an accident, gets amnesia and gets a chance to start his life over again.

This is a different take on a bullying story and it's worth sharing with kids to generate discussion about feelings and behaviour choices. As well as Chase's point of view, the story is also told from the perspective of kids who he bullied in his "previous life."

I am a big fan of Gordon Korman's writing and you can learn more about him from some of my other reviews of his books: UNGIFTED, MASTERMINDS and THE HYPNOTISTS.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – THE DRAGON WITH A CHOCOLATE HEART by Stephanie Burgis

This is one of the best middle grades I've read this year - a fun, fresh and delicious story with bold and lively characters.

Description from the publisher:


Aventurine is the fiercest, bravest kind of dragon, and she's ready to prove it to her family by leaving the safety of their mountain cave and capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human.

But when the human she captures tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, she finds herself transformed into a puny human girl with tiny blunt teeth, no fire, and not one single claw. She's still the fiercest creature in these mountains though – and now she's found her true passion: chocolate! All she has to do is walk on two feet to the human city, find herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she'll be conquering new territory in no time … won't she?

Wild and reckless young Aventurine will bring havoc to the human city – but what she doesn't expect is that she'll find real friendship there too, along with betrayal, deception, scrumptious chocolate and a startling new understanding of what it means to be a human (and a dragon).

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart was written by Stephanie Burgis and published by Bloomsbury in  in 2017.


Why you want to read this book… 

It was a genius idea to pair dragons and chocolate in the same book! I loved Adventurine’s fierceness and adventurous personality. It’s so entertaining to read about how she learned to adapt to the “human world” and I loved her determination to become a chocolatier apprentice. There are lots of funny moments in this story and I loved Adventurine’s friendship with the persuasive girl, Silke, as well as her developing relationship with her gruff new boss, Marina. And then there are the interesting details about making chocolate! For me, the best word to describe this story is “delightful.”

“Dragons could go for days without food when they needed to, and I didn’t like being treated as if I were weak. Still, as the scent drifted up from the glass in my hands, I lost the will to argue.”      


If you’re a writer… 

This is a good story to study to see how to create characters that feel alive and full of personality. I enjoyed all the details that showed her dragon’s eye view of the world the author created.

“Humans really were herd animals. And now I was at their mercy.”

If you’re a teacher…

It was interesting how Adventurine had to learn how to control the dragony feelings of rage that bubbled up inside during challenging situations. She also is quite determined and doesn’t give up on her dream to work in a chocolate house. This story would be a great one to have in the classroom for fans of fantasy!

“I blinked out the last of the irritating wetness from my aching eyes and pushed myself up from the ground with a growl of fury. What kind of dragon would curl up and surrender just because she’d had a bit of bad luck?”


Opening Line:

“I can’t say I ever wondered what it felt like to be human.”


Other Info:

Stephanie Burgis is the author of the Kat Incorrigible series. I believe (hope!) The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart is the first in a series too!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – NERDY BIRDY TWEETS by Aaron Reynolds & Matt Davies

A great book for encouraging reflection about the use of social media.
            
Summary from the publisher:

Nerdy Birdy and his best friend, Vulture, are very different. Nerdy Birdy loves video games, but Vulture finds them BORING. Vulture loves snacking on dead things, but Nerdy Birdy finds that GROSS. Luckily, you don’t have to agree on everything to still be friends.

One day, Nerdy Birdy joins Tweetster, and the friend requests start flying in. Vulture watches as Nerdy Birdy gets swept up in his new friendships, but when she finally gets angry, Nerdy Birdy knows just what to do to make things right.

Nerdy Birdy Tweets was written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Matt Davies. It was published in 2017 by Roaring Brook Press.

Opening:

“This is Nerdy Birdy. Nerdy Birdy loves playing video games.

This is Vulture. Vulture thinks video games are boring.”


My Thoughts as a Writer:

The author sets up an interesting contrast right from the beginning, since the two main characters are so different. I really enjoyed all the humor in this story, both from the text and the illustrations. The message about social media in this story is pretty obvious, but it doesn’t take away from the humor of the story. 


My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This book explains bullying on social media in a way that younger primary students can understand. It’s a good choice for generating discussion about the use of social media and how it can affect friendships for children in the primary grades and even younger junior students. I liked the way the ending showed Nerdy Birdy apologizing and admitting to his friend that he'd treated her badly. 

 This book also provides a chance to think about internet privacy and how social media or video games can become all consuming. I think this would be most appropriate for children in grades 2, 3 and even 4, though younger children may also relate the concepts to their observations about older siblings or parents using their devices.

Ages: 4 - 8

Grades: 1 - 3

Themes:  social media, friendship, privacy

Activities:

Conduct a survey about how much time you and your friends or family spend using their devices. Is there anything you could do differently?


Plan a "no screen time" day or evening. Create a poster showing other things people can do that doesn't involve a device.


Monday, September 18, 2017

Monday Quick Pick - THE FALSE PRINCE by Jennifer A. Nielsen

A few weeks ago I was asked to share some thoughts about one of my favorite middle grade books on the Dream Gardens podcast. I chose THE FALSE PRINCE by Jennifer A. Nielsen. 

I've read this book three or four times and each time, I enjoy it. As a writer, I continue to admire the strong voice of the main character, Sage, as well as the many surprises and quick pace of the story. I posted my review of this novel for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday when it originally came out in 2012 and I also featured it as one of my top picks for the year. 

If you haven't read it, I urge you to give it a try! 

You may also be interested in my interview with Jody Mott of the Dream Gardens podcast. It's an interesting coincidence that his last name is also the name of one of the characters in the story! 

The Dream Gardens podcast is good place to find noteworthy middle grade books recommended by teachers, writers, librarians and others who love children's books. 




Thursday, September 7, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – CLAYMATES by Dev Petty & Lauren Eldridge

A wonderful book to encourage imaginative play and risk-taking, or to support creative exploration with clay!
            
Summary from the publisher:

What can you do with two blobs of clay? Create something amazing! But don't leave them alone for too long. Things might get a little crazy.

In this photographic friendship adventure, the claymates squish, smash, and sculpt themselves into the funniest shapes imaginable. But can they fix a giant mess before they're caught in the act?

Claymates was written by Dev Petty and illustrated by Lauren Eldridge. It was published in 2017 by Little Brown.

Opening:

“So…are you new here?”
“Yeah.”
“Me too.”
“What do you think is going to happen?”

My thoughts as a writer:

The simple beginning question, “So, are you new here?” immediately invites readers to connect with these characters, because all kids have been in a new situation. The illustrations are actual photographs of modeled clay, shown talking to each other. So brilliant, because kids love using kids love using their imaginations to make toys and their creations talk. We also get a sense of their characters right away – the gray blob has a positive, adventurous outlook, while the brown blog is more cautious.

The entire text is structured as a conversation between the two main characters (balls of clay!) so it’s a great example to study to learn about telling a story through dialogue. I especially love how the “speech bubbles” are small, torn scraps of paper! Another nice feature is how the ending circles back to the beginning with the “What happens now?” question.
 
My thoughts as an educator:

As an educator who guides learning through inquiry, I love the way this story starts with the question: “What do you think is going to happen?” While reading this book aloud, there are opportunities to talk about taking risks and being creative, as well as persistence and problem-solving. Or you could discuss friendship and how friends help each other. 

Although the publisher lists the recommended ages for this book as as 4-8, it could easily support the art process in older elementary grades too.The photographs show us how to create form and texture using clay, and there is so much in them that I can imagine students returning to this book to look at it again and again. I want this one for my personal classroom collection! 

Ages: 4 - 8

Grades: K - 3

Themes:  creativity, imagination, taking risks, friendship, modeling clay

Activities:

Do a creative modeling clay challenge: Can you create ten different characters from the same ball of clay, using different textures?

Create a stop motion video of two clay characters interacting, using paper notes to show dialogue.

Play “hide and create” with a partner. Hide your eyes while your partner creates a cool creature using your blob of clay. Keep track of what creatures you made for each other. How does your partner’s idea influence yours?

Mr. Schu Reads showcases the book trailer along with his review

Little Brown provides a book chat with the author and illustrator.