Thursday, April 20, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – THUNDER BOY JR. by Sherman Alexie & Yuyi Morales

Have you ever thought about having a different name? Why is your name just right for you? I really liked the way the character in this book took time to think about his name.

Summary from the publisher:


Thunder Boy Jr. wants a normal name...one that's all his own. Dad is known as big Thunder, but little thunder doesn't want to share a name. He wants a name that celebrates something cool he's done like Touch the Clouds, Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth, or Full of Wonder.

But just when Little Thunder thinks all hope is lost, dad picks the best name...Lightning! Their love will be loud and bright, and together they will light up the sky.

Thunder Boy Jr. was written by Sherman Alexie and illustrated by Yuyi Morales. It was published in 2016 by Little, Brown and Company.

Opening:

“Hello, my name is Thunder Boy. Thunder Boy Smith. That’s my real name.”

My Thoughts as a Writer:

There is a strong voice in this book, since it’s written as though the main character is talking to the reader. I really loved all the fun possibilities the main character comes up with for choosing a new name. This is another good example of a story with different layers and an important message about being yourself.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This book would a great addition to a classroom and school library collection. Not only does it reflect the perspective from a native American culture, it also shows a strong relationship between a son and his father. I would be so great to read early in the school year when students are getting to know each other and learning about each other’s names. I love the line: “I want a name that sounds like me.” Discussing all the possibilities for a new name would provide lots of opportunities for students to talk about some of their accomplishments and experiences.

Ages: 4 - 8

Grades: K - 3

Themes: family, names, sense of self  

Activities:

List at least five experiences you are proud of. What names could you make up for yourself?

Choose an important adult in your life. What things do you love about him or her? In what ways do you want to be different?


Here’s the book trailer:




Sherman Alexie discusses the book:




Monday, April 17, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – ONE AMAZING ELEPHANT by Linda Oatman High

If you're looking for a book to help cope with feelings of sadness or grief, this might be a good choice. I like animal stories, and I really liked the chance to think about a situation from the perspective of an elephant.


a story about a girl and and elephant finding their way through grief togetherDescription from the publisher:

A poignant middle grade animal story from talented author Linda Oatman High that will appeal to fans of Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. In this heartwarming novel, a girl and an elephant face the same devastating loss—and slowly realize that they share the same powerful love.

Twelve-year-old Lily Pruitt loves her grandparents, but she doesn’t love the circus—and the circus is their life. She’s perfectly happy to stay with her father, away from her neglectful mother and her grandfather’s beloved elephant, Queenie Grace.

Then Grandpa Bill dies, and both Lily and Queenie Grace are devastated. When Lily travels to Florida for the funeral, she keeps her distance from the elephant. But the two are mourning the same man—and form a bond born of loss. And when Queenie Grace faces danger, Lily must come up with a plan to help save her friend.

One Amazing Elephant was written by Linda Oatman High and published by HarperCollins in 2017.

Why you want to read this book… 

It’s a touching, emotional story of a girl making friends with an elephant and learning to love each other in the face of their fears and sadness. I didn’t expect part of the story to be told from the elephant’s perspective, and it took me a little while to get used to it, but I thought it was an interesting way to tell the story. I feel so sad for Lily, having to cope with her grandfather’s death as well as the way her mother treated her. Along with Queenie Grace, I really liked Lily’s new friend Henry Jack, who stuck by her side when she needed someone.

“Don’t worry,” says my new friend, and his voice is like a warm, fuzzy blanket thrown over me when its cold.”


If you’re a writer… 

This is an interesting book to study if you’re considering writing from the perspective of an animal. The story is told using a first person point of view in present tense, which brings a feeling of immediacy to the story events. I admired the way the author created so much emotion though the rhythm of the language.

“I run and run, tears gushing down my cheeks, through the empty and quiet trailer park, not caring what anybody thinks or says or does.”

If you’re a teacher…

There are possibilities for class discussions about animal cruelty, animal emotions and how humans care for animals would capture student interest. This book might pair nicely with The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, another story written from an animal perspective.

Opening line:

“I’m finally riding the elephant, my grandpa Bill’s circus elephant, Queenie Grace, and it feels kind of like I’m riding the universe.”

Other info:

In an interview with Kathy Temean, Linda talks about the novel:
“It is my hope that ONE AMAZING ELEPHANT not only raises awareness about the plight of elephants not as lucky as Queenie Grace, but that it helps readers to get inside an elephant’s head.”



Thursday, April 6, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – ARE WE THERE YET? by Dan Santat

A great choice if you're interested in interactive picture books. Or wanting something to read on a long car trip!

Summary from the publisher:


"Are we there yet?" Every parent has heard this classic kid question on a long car ride--and after reading this astonishingly inventive new book (that even turns upside down for several pages!), you'll never look at being bored the same way again.

Let's face it: everyone knows that car rides can be boring. And when things get boring, time slows down. In this book, a boy feels time slowing down so much that it starts going backward--into the time of pirates! Of princesses! Of dinosaurs! The boy was just trying to get to his grandmother's birthday party, but instead he's traveling through Ancient Egypt and rubbing shoulders with Ben Franklin. When time flies, who knows where--or when--he'll end up.

Are We There Yet? was written by and illustrated by Dan Santat. It was published in 2016 by Little, Brown and Company.

Opening:

“The car trip to visit Grandma is always exciting! But after the first hour, it can feel like an eternity.”

My Thoughts as a Writer:

Dan Santat has taken the classic “joke” of a long car trip and turned it into an entertaining story. I loved the expressions on the character’s faces and the interactive element of turning the book to “go back in time” is so clever! The detailed illustrations invite the reader to take their time and the comic book style frames with speech bubbles were so cool! I also really liked the deeper layer of meaning that is hinted at: “And you never know where life may take you…”

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

It would be fun to talk about the different time periods shown in this story. This book could also be used as a starting point for discussing different modes of transportation. An interesting project might be to look at a few of the different books Dan Santat has illustrated to study his illustration style.

Ages: 4 - 8

Grades: K - 3

Themes: family, imagination, car trips,

Activities:

If you were in the car on the way to Grandma’s house, what “side trip” would your imagination take you on. Draw a picture to show where you’d travel.

Create a paper book with a few pages and try to recreate the cool reversal that happens in this story to see how it works. Use arrows to show where the story goes.

What is your favorite scene from the story? Explain why.

Check out this fun book trailer:


Monday, March 27, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – HIDEOUT by Watt Key

I couldn't put down this adventure story. The tag line "Two boys with too many secrets" is a good description, because I was really worried about what would happen to these boys! 

Description from Amazon:


In this riveting middle-grade adventure, the son of a Mississippi policeman finds a boy living on his own in the wilderness. Twelve-year-old Sam has been given a fishing boat by his father, but he hates fishing. Instead he uses the boat to disappear for hours at a time, exploring the forbidden swampy surroundings of his bayou home. Then he discovers a strange kid named Davey, mysteriously alone, repairing an abandoned cabin deep in the woods. Not fooled by the boy’s evasive explanation as to why he’s on his own, Sam becomes entangled in his own efforts to help Davey. But this leads him to telling small lies that only get bigger as the danger increases for both boys and hidden truths become harder to conceal.

Hideout was written by Watt Key and published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2017.

Why you want to read this book… 

It’s a fast-moving adventure story of a boy who wants to prove himself but ends up getting in over his head.  I liked Sam’s personality. He wanted to be independent and solve his own problems and he tried to stay loyal to his friends, even through difficult situations. Now I want to read more books by Watt Key.

“Even with stars everywhere overhead, the swamp was darker and louder and spookier than I expected. I couldn’t even imagine spending a night alone there.”


If you’re a writer… 

You might be interested in reading this book to study the pacing and development of tension. The main character’s choices and sometimes poor judgment get him more and more embroiled in the problem. I also admired how the author wove in setting details

“The foliage looked like a jungle, but I heard no bird or animals sounds. It was quiet and still. I heard nothing but my heart beating heavily into my chest and up into my ears.”


If you’re a teacher…

This book would be a good class read aloud and might lead to interesting discussions about honesty, trust and decision-making. Sam starts by telling small lies, but they end up growing as he gets more involved and the situation becomes more dangerous.

“If all else failed, I could wade along the outside edges of the creek, but I knew I needed to stay back from the water if I was to avoid moccasins and alligators.”


Opening line:

“I slowed my skiff at the mouth of Bluff Creek and stared over the Pascagoula River.”


Other info:

Watt Key has written several other books including FOURMILE and TERROR AT BOTTLE CREEK.
You can read an excerpt of HIDEOUT on the website www.criminalelement.com.
On his own website, Watt Key talks about writing: “To this day I am still practicing my writing. I take nothing for granted, and I’m grateful each time I am able to sell a story.” 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – LITTLE RED by Bethan Woollvin

I really loved this - so succinct and clever in the way it plays with the traditional fairy tale. But be warned. It's a little dark, especially the ending!

Summary from the publisher:

Little Red Riding Hood meets a wolf on her way through the woods to visit her sick grandmother. The wolf is hungry, and Red Riding Hood looks tasty, so he hatches a dastardly plan, gobbles up Grandma and lies in wait. So far, so familiar. But this Little Red Riding Hood is not easily fooled, and this big bad wolf better watch his back. In this defiant interpretation of the traditional tale, the cheeky, brave little girl seizes control of her own story (and the wolf gets rather more than he bargained for).

The perfect gift for fans of darker fairy tales, complete with tree-shaped cover flaps that make this a sumptuous sight to behold.

Little Red was written by and illustrated by Bethan Woollvin. It was published in 2016 by Two Hoots.

Opening:

“One day, Little Red Riding Hood’s mother called to her.”

My Thoughts as a Writer:

I really loved this clever take on a classic story. With just the original characters and a simple text, the author has created a darkly humorous and very entertaining story. I loved the repetition of “Which might have scared some little girls. But not this little girl.” The careful use of colour (black, white and red) and size really enhances the darker moments in the text. The importance of the expressions shown in the character eyes reminded me of the “Hat” books by Jon Klassen. 

I’d study this one carefully to see how the text leaves room for the illustrations, and also how the text and illustrations leave room for reader interpretation.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

Although I really admired this one, I think it might be a bit scary for a couple of my younger kindergarteners. For slightly older kids, it would be great to contrast this book with the classic story and highlight Little Red’s more progressive and active role in dealing with the wolf.

Ages: 3 - 6

Grades: K - 3

Themes: fairy tales, fears, self-confidence

Activities:

Create puppets to represent the grandmother, wolf and Little Red and act out the story.

Draw a picture to show what Little Red’s plan might have looked like.


Why do you think the author left out the woodsman character from the original story? Discuss. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - GHOST by Jason Reynolds

The experiences of the boy in this book are completely different from my own, but the writing is so well done and the story is so compelling that I was right there with Ghost, cheering him on. 

Description from the publisher:


Ghost. Lu. Patina. Sunny. Four kids from wildly different backgrounds with personalities that are explosive when they clash. But they are also four kids chosen for an elite middle school track team—a team that could qualify them for the Junior Olympics if they can get their acts together. They all have a lot to lose, but they also have a lot to prove, not only to each other, but to themselves.

Ghost has a crazy natural talent, but no formal training. If he can stay on track, literally and figuratively, he could be the best sprinter in the city. But Ghost has been running for the wrong reasons—it all starting with running away from his father, who, when Ghost was a very little boy, chased him and his mother through their apartment, then down the street, with a loaded gun, aiming to kill. Since then, Ghost has been the one causing problems—and running away from them—until he meets Coach, an ex-Olympic Medalist who blew his own shot at success by using drugs, and who is determined to keep other kids from blowing their shots at life.

Ghost was written by Jason Reynolds and published by Simon and Schuster in 2016.

Why you want to read this book… 

It’s got strong, layered characters that take hold of your thoughts and make you want to keep reading to find out what’s going to happen to them. I don’t even like sports, but I was rooting for Ghost to succeed with the track team. Even more than that, I wanted him to deal with some of the issues in his life and have a feeling of safety where he could discover himself and his strengths. This is a fast read, and an emotional story that is hard to put down. One of the great things about this book is that it’s the first book in a series! Looking forward to reading the next one.

“So when I was done sitting at the bus stop in front of the gym, and came across all those kids on the track at the park, practicing, I had to go see what was going on, because running ain’t nothing I ever had to practice. It’s just something I knew how to do.”


If you’re a writer… 

This is a great book to study if you’re writing a novel with a first person perspective. The main character has a strong, consistent voice and all the details fit with his point of view.

“He was wearing those sweatpants, the swishy-swishy kind that make every step sound like paper crumpling.”


If you’re a teacher…

This book provides opportunities for class discussions about issues related to race and class, stealing, gun violence, bullying, and how to find ways to deal with strong emotions like anger. This book has many layers and at the same time, will keep student interest because of the focus on track and the short chapters.

“I’d made my point, and it wasn’t like I wanted to be part of their little club. I just needed everybody to know that the fancy, white-black boy wasn’t all that.”


Opening line:

“Check this out. This dude named Andrew Dahl holds the world record for blowing up the most balloons…with his nose.”

Other info:

On his website, Jason Reynolds talks about writing: “And when I say I’m a writer, I mean it in the same way a professional ball player calls himself an athlete. I practice everyday and do the best I can to be better at this writing thing while hopefully bringing some cool stories to the world. The stories are kinda like my slam dunk.”
Here’s a video of Jason Reynolds reading from GHOST at the 2016 National Book Awards Finalist Reading:  



Monday, February 27, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – THE WOLF KEEPERS by Elise Broach

If you like animal stories, this middle grade novel is a good choice! I didn't know what to expect when I opened it, but the story and characters were so interesting I read it straight through without stopping.

 Description from the publisher:

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.

The Wolf Keepers was written by Elise Broach and published by Henry Holt & Company in 2016.

Why you want to read this book… 

It’s full of secrets you’ll want to know more about – Tyler’s mysterious past, the problem of what’s happening to the wolves, and the location of a lost cabin. The two main settings of the zoo and Yosemite National Park really come alive through the author's details. In addition to being a mystery and an animal story, this was also partly a wilderness survival story! Lizzie was a kind and compassionate character and there's an interesting story line of her getting to know tough-on-the-outside Tyler. The drawings by Alice Ratterree scattered through the story add to the already vivid picture from the descriptive language.

“It seemed wrong somehow to assume that animals experienced the same emotions as humans, and even more wrong to believe that animal feelings only mattered if they could be understood in human terms.”


If you’re a writer… 

There’s a lot to learn from this book about using specific details, building characters with depth and emotion, and crafting a strong plot.  

 “They could no longer hear the wolves howling, but Lizzie was sharply tuned to every strange sound carrying through the trees…the rustle of pine needles, the snapping of twigs, the occasional chirp, trill, or hoot of some night creature.”

If you’re a teacher…

This would be a great book for a class read aloud. There are interesting possibilities for discussions about animal rights and conservation (should we keep animals in zoo?) as well as social issues (Tyler’s circumstances and his own comments about himself). An author’s note explains the ties to real historical events and people, and details about her research on wolves.   

Opening line:

“A few feet away, the wolf stared at Lizzie with pale silver eyes, ears pricking forward in sharp triangles.”

Other info:

You can read the first chapter at the publisher’s website.
On her website, Elise Broach talks about how her life and writing interact: “when you’re a writer, every part of your life eventually works its way into your books, whether you intend it to or not, so there are definitely bits and pieces of real life—and real people—in all of my stories.”