Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Simon Bloom Plays With Newton's Laws

Micheal Reisman's Simon Bloom the Gravity Keeper is science fiction with an emphasis on the SCIENCE! The realms of knowledge, geology, biology, physics, history, etc. are controlled by a panel of keepers. Each possesses a book entitled Teacher's Edition of which they are the keeper. The members of each realm are able to bend the rules of their particular area to suit their needs and control things on Earth. The council of physics meets in a mysteriously hidden wooded area near Simon's house. When Simon stumbles onto their meeting area, the Physics Teacher's Edition falls out of the sky and hits him in the head and the adventure begins.

Simon begins to experiment with bending the Newton's Laws of Gravity and finds himself floating and bouncing around his room. He eventually gets it under control, and begins to enjoy the experience. His best friend Owen is afraid of everything, including the tacos in the school lunch room and wants no part of the fun. The third person in the story is Alysha, a friend of Simon's from kindergarten who has become very popular, hanging with the beautiful people, even if she doesn't really like them. Alysha becomes curious about a change in Simon, and follows him into the mysterious woods and catches him experimenting. Simon shares his talents of bending the laws of gravity with Owen and Alysha, and the three become sort of a group of pre-teen super heroes fighting crime by changing the laws of physics, in particular, friction, and velocity.

This is where I'm not sure about the level of this book. The adventure of good versus evil is the stuff of comic books, good guys (and gals) fighting villains using their super powers is easy to follow and understand. Reisman does a good job of explaining the physics of what is going on, but I'm afraid many readers will be lost with the very scientific explanations. Toward the end of the story when Simon messes with the time and space continuum...WHOA... the explanation lost me completely! Very deep!

I liked the characters and the idea behind the book. The story is told by a narrator that seems to be an outsider but ends up getting involved. The chapters where the kids meet him are very entertaining, and I loved the scene created in his apartment where he watches the story unfold. Simon's friend Owen has some very funny lines, and the relationship between Alysha, the popular girl, and the two outcasts is well written and believable. As I said, the whole book has a comic book feel to it and I couldn't help but think it would have made a great graphic novel. I was not surprised to see that it has been picked up by Universal to be turned into a movie. I predict that kids will love it for the action.

As for me, I'm struggling with who to recommend this one for. They will need to be pretty high level thinkers with an appreciation for science fiction that is heavy on the science. Readers who do not enjoy science, should be ready to scan over the explanation parts. The book might make a good read aloud for classes studying Newton's Laws which is an intriguing thought since there are not many read alouds that will tie into the science curriculum.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Slice of Life -- week of April 28

My husband and I just celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary. The night before our anniversary was a Saturday, and my thoughtful husband got reservations for us at one of our favorite restaurants. We had a lovely dinner -- wonderful setting and ambience, delightful company, and delicious food (we did all the courses -- appetizers, salad, entree, and a shared dessert). And as nice as all that was, the best part came the next day.

On our actual anniversary, I had a lot of errands to do. I decided to also add to my "to do" list, a trip to my favorite meat market -- Weiland's. I was going to get some really good steaks to grill out for dinner. Since it was our anniversary, I asked my husband, M, if he wanted to go on a field trip with me to Weiland's. He hesitated, but gave in reluctantly (after all, it was our anniversary), and off we went. We got to the market, and spent about twenty to thirty minutes looking at and ordering the meat, checking out the deli, and discovering Weiland's premade food -- M found his new favorite thing -- already-made twice-baked potato. We checked out, loaded our groceries in the car, and headed home. We were in a much more eclectic neighborhood than where we actually live, so as we drove, we enjoyed noticing all the different businesses and the different neighborhoods. On the way, we stopped at a gas station where I had earned $1.80 off each gallon of gas, so we filled up the tank. We marveled at the price we paid -- it's been a long, long time since we paid that little!! We joked about being "old" and paying so much attention to the gas pump prices -- we were so proud of our deal!

So, if you're wondering where I'm going with this, here it is: that Sunday, our anniversary, was full of the small moments (or "slices") of life. We did them together and had a blast. It wasn't a romantic getaway to some tropical island, but instead, it was the everyday moments that I spent with M that day that made me realize why we've stayed married for 23 years, and why I look forward to many, many more years together! Sure, I'd take the island getaway, but life is really more about those small, everyday moments. Those are the moments that a marriage consists of, and I plan to treasure all of them.

For more slices, head on over to Two Writing Teachers.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Gollywhopper Games are Great!!

In my next few posts about books, I'd like to share some fun books I've read recently that would be good end of year or summer reading books to share with children.

The first one is The Gollywhopper Games by Jody Feldman. It is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets The Mysterious Benedict Society meets Survivor meets American Idol.

The premise of the story is a competition sponsored by the Golly Toy & Game Company. The main character, Gil Goodson (don't you just love the names!), has his own personal agenda for making it into the competition, and then winning it (maybe).

American Idol similarities -- thousands of contestants wait in line just to make it into the Golly Toy and Game Company's facility where the competition will be held. Once they get in, their task is to be one of the finalists -- no, they don't have to sing, but they have to know a great deal about solving puzzles that require mega-knowledge about all of the Golly toys.

Survivor similarities -- You have to outwit and outplay the other contestants. That sometimes requires teamwork for our main character, Gil. Other times, it involves being smarter than those around you. There are many challenges in the contest, followed by the need to solve a puzzle. I must admit, the characters in this book were always a few steps ahead of me -- I never solved the puzzle before they led me in the right direction. I think kids reading this book would love to try to outwit the characters during the challenges. Another similarity, the winner cannot identify himself/herself until after the televised show -- the actual competition is taped.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory similarities -- The Golly Toy and Game Company is literally a child's dream come true! Everything is larger than life , and designed to overwhelm the eyes and the senses. Treasure chests with jewels and crowns, sleeping hippopotamuses, hot air balloons, giant bowling pins, palm trees, beaches, rainbow walls, walls that move at will -- those are just a few of the amazing things the characters encounter during the competition. And a competition would not be complete without the prerequisite badly-behaved children, as well.

The Mysterious Benedict Society similarities -- The most important lesson learned in TMBS is that it takes all of us and our unique gifts and talents to complete certain tasks in life. That again is a factor in The Gollywhopper Games as well.

I really, really enjoyed The Gollywhopper Games. It's not full of beautiful, descriptive language (though the descriptions of the inside of The Golly Toys and Games Company are quite detailed), but it's fun, and it made me think -- I really wanted to solve some of the puzzles. (Needless to say, I would have been eliminated very early in the competition with the puzzle-solving ability I displayed.) The characters are interesting -- why is it so important for Gil to win? -- plus you meet some other unique characters along the way. It's very suspenseful -- I read it in an afternoon. I just couldn't wait to see what happened in each of the next tasks and puzzles. There's even a twist at the end that ties up the loose ends.

Jody Feldman must have had fun thinking of all the puzzles, because she leaves the readers with one final puzzle AFTER the ending.

My last rationale for why you should read The Gollywhopper Games -- just saying the title makes me smile!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

LuLu Atlantis: A Bizarre One

I guess I just didn't get this one! It started right and all. LuLu is feeling left out due to the birth of her new baby brother and she runs away from home. So far so good. She makes friends with an imaginary spider in top hat and gloves. Cute. She goes back home after running into a frog prince and a skunk with an empty yogurt container on his head...and this is where it lost me.

LuLu meets and converses with a number of strange characters, the Gangster Bakers, a heavenly evil cat princess with gold boots and plenty of bling, a cranky aunt and hard of hearing grandfather. Throughout, the characters converse with each other , especially LuLu's mother who seems a little spacey and is called Mother by all of the other characters. I found it hard to distinguish the real from the imaginary and who could see and talk to who.

And finally, there is the Eggman! Coo Coo ka Choo! WHO IS HE!? He sells eggs to the locals that he gets from the nearby farmer who doesn't seem to like anybody near his farm. The Eggman is always around, at family celebrations and at the family picnic at when tragedy strikes, all the while, LuLu's father is never around. Something fishy is going on here!

All in all, a very bizarre, confusing little book that I won't recommend to anyone, but I felt compelled to finish it to see if I could figure it out in the end. I didn't. I guess like I said in the beginning, I just don't get this one!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Take Me Out to the Ballgame!

With summer right around the corner, 30 days, but who's counting, I thought I'd check out a couple of new baseball books. I'm excited to add them to our collection and recommend them to our students. I just hope I don't say something corny like, "It's a beautiful day for baseball, so let's read two!" but I probably will.

The first is by sports writer Mike Lupica, The Big Field. I have read several by Lupica, both kids and adult sports books. He is one of today's best sports authors. He always does a great mix of describing the sports and creating believable characters. The Big Field continues the formula. Hutch is the star shortstop for his American Legion team trying to make it to the big baseball stadium for the championship game. Everything seems to be on track until he has to give up his favorite position to the new kid Daryl, an aloof, natural who clearly doesn't have the same love of the game as Hutch. Add in Hutch's father who was the star shortstop for the same American Legion team in his day, but doesn't want to encourage his son's dreams for fear of him getting hurt, and you have the classic Lupica sports novel. The drama is well written with enough young teen humor to break it up and make this an enjoyable sports read. For another review see Fuse #8.

The second is a book called Six Innings by James Preller. It brought to mind the older baseball book I used to read aloud each spring, Hang Tough, Paul Mather. Preller takes one little league game, six innings and creates an incredible story. The action of each inning is described in awesome baseball detail. Intertwined with the boys playing are stories of their lives off the field. The stories come to light as each boy bats or makes a great play in the field, or in one case announces the game from the press box. One boy is the son of a police officer killed in the line of duty. Another has been diagnosed with osteosarcoma, bone cancer. One player's father supports his little league fun, but constantly reminds him that he shouldn't take it seriously. The catcher for the team has an injured arm, but won't tell is father the coach it hurts to throw. This is a great book for lovers of baseball. Kids will relate to most of the players and will thrill to the realistic baseball action. Preller has taken great care to make it realistic by combining the action from some well known actual major league games.

Two fun, action packed baseball books to start the summer that most 4th and 5th graders can read and enjoy. It makes me want to buy some Crackerjack, hot dogs and put the Cleveland Indians on the TV! PLAY BALL!!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Slice of Life -- week of April 21

My youngest daugher, C, and I went on her first college visit last Wednesday. We were going to visit Miami University, the same school I called home for 4 years of my young adult life. As we approached the campus, I got a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. Would this be the same campus I left 31 years ago, or would everything be changed beyond recognition?

There are many hilly country roads that lead to Oxford, Ohio, home of Miami U. As we crested the last hill, I got my first view of the campus as it is today. I heaved a huge sigh of relief. Even though over 3 decades had passed, my beloved red brick campus with lots of green space was still there.

C and I (ok, it was me!) had incorrectly alloted the time for the trip, so we had three hours on our hands to kill before our 2:00 appointment and tour of campus. No problem -- after 31 years, this might be C's college visit, but there was lots I wanted to see and share with her!!

We started by driving around the campus. With each new street, millions of memories came flooding back. The dorm I stayed in with a family friend when I was a high school senior. Emerson, my freshman dorm where I had a crazy roommate who moved out and then I moved to the basement level where I had many good friends. Springtime, and laying out on the "Emerson Beach" in nice weather. Flowers - the dorm I lived in as a sophomore on the end of campus where I was close to one of the fraternity rows and the dining hall that housed training tables for all athletes. (At this point in the tour, C says to me, "We wouldn't have been friends. You focused too much on boys.") Richards -- the dorm I lived in junior year with my friend, Lisa (still an integral part of our family even today!). We moved to that quad to be closer to the dorm our sorority suite was in (no sorority houses at Miami). MacCracken -- the dorm I lived in senior year - yes, I lived in a dorm all 4 years / apartment life seemed too real-life for me. The Res -- only now they call it the Shriver Center (named after the President of Miami when I was there). McGuffey Hall -- the education building where I spent most of my last three years. King Library -- only now it has a coffee shop downstairs -- a true sign of the times.

We then looked for the parking lot that our map assured us was there. It's a good thing there's a sign by the street that says "Parking Garage" because, in keeping with the Georgian red brick feel of Miami, the garage looks just like any other building on campus, complete with windows. They really made sure it blended in with its surroundings. We parked the car, and then walked "uptown" -- translated, that means we walked up the street into the small town of Oxford.

I was delighted to see that Oxford hadn't lost any of its charm, either. The town square is still there, though it has been rehabbed and is more beautiful than I remember. On one side of the square, the same barber shop that was there when I attended Miami. Same college bookstore and same movie theater (only they moved the marquee from the side street to the main street). The dining establishments have completely changed since I was there, but there was a lot available for both the people of the town as well as the college students. Townspeople and college students alike, strolling the sidewalks of Oxford -- what great memories that brought back!

But, no matter where we went or what we did for the rest of the day, the essence of what Miami is still lives on 31 years after I graduated. Even with all the new athletic facilities, fabulous state of the art rec center, ice hockey arena, dorms, educational buildings, and bus systems, it still "felt" the same. It was the equivalent, for me, of being in a time warp.

However, I know it's now 2008, and not 1977 -- this is C's time. I wonder if she feels the magnetic pull of Miami the same way I do even now.

For more slices, head on over to Two Writing Teachers.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Nonfiction Monday - Riding to Washington

Riding to Washington
by Gwenyth Swain and illustrated by David Geister is quite a lovely book! It is part of the Tales of Young Americans Series.

The story is told in first person by Janie, a young girl from Indianapolis. Her father comes home one night to tell his wife he wants to go on a bus to Washington to hear a speech. Her reaction is that Janie cannot stay home; she is a mischief maker. So, by default, Janie ends up going with her dad on the bus from Indianapolis to Washington to hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak. Her dad tells her they are going to see history. Janie isn't wild about the history she learns at school, so she's not so sure about this bus trip.

Also, at this moment in time, Janie's only frame of reference when it comes to "colored or black folks" is what she sees on the television. From that, she infers they live in the South, get sprayed with water by police, and are nipped at by police dogs.

There are three parts of this book that are quite powerful. Each one gave me goosebumps.

The first moment is when they arrive at the theatre in Indianapolis to board the bus for Washington, and Janie observes the people around her. She says: "There were old people mixed with young people. Preachers mixed with farmers. And me and Daddy and just a few other whites mixed in with a whole bunch of coloreds." Goosebumps as I thought about how people from all walks of life came together for this very important moment!

The second moment is the scene where Mrs. Taylor (a black lady on Janie's bus) and Janie ask the bus driver to stop at a gas station because they need to use the restroom. The bus driver points out the "No Coloreds" sign. But little Janie, joined hands with Mrs. Taylor and went into the gas station where a young boy tries to stop them. Then, Janie says, "It's like my mama and daddy always say, 'You got the choice to do the right thing or not.' Mama says I make a lot of wrong choices, but I think letting us in would be the right one now." What intelligent words for such a young girl -- goosebumps again!

Finally, the illustration of all the people gathered to hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak in Washington on August 28, 1963, is amazing. The illustrator, David Geister, paints a powerful picture of the sea of humanity, all there to hear the famous, "I Have a Dream" speech. Goosebumps, goosebumps, goosebumps!

The end of this book has an author's note that is well worth reading. The author's (Gwyneth Swain) father and grandfather actually took a bus trip to see Dr. Martin Luther King deliver his famous speech. She ends by saying that even more historic than the speech was the fact that people of all skin colors and religions came together for the dream of peace. What a phenomenal moment in history!!

This book is very kid friendly. I actually borrowed this from the "new book" section in our local library, but I will be buying it very soon, as this is a must have for our classroom library!! In addition to being a wonderful story about a significant time in history, it will also serve as a great mentor text when we study how to write literary nonfiction.

For the Nonfiction Monday roundup, go on over to Picture Book of the Day.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Blue Balliett's The Calder Game

Blue Balliett writes very sophisticated kids' mysteries. I love the mix of math, art, logic and suspense. She draws the reader in from the first page and keeps them in the story to the end. Her three main characters, Calder Pillay, Petra Andalee, and Tommy Segovia return to solve yet another mystery in her latest, The Calder Game. The three are now seventh graders at the University School in Chicago. They are extremely bright, creative kids and each has a special talent or ability that help them solve the problems Blue Balliett throws at them.

Balliett's first two art related mysteries, Chasing Vermeer and The Wright 3, are favorites of mine, but I think this one is the best of the three. The plot was a little simpler to follow, with enough twists and turns to keep me interested, and as in all of them, there are interesting characters at every turn.In this adventure, Calder Pellay, yes named for the artist, and his classmates attend a showing of Alexander Calder mobiles at the Chicago Museum of Art. Fascinated by the changing sculptures, Calder, the student not the artist, stumbles on a game in which guests of the museum can design mobiles of five objects, words, ideas, whatever and hang them for all to see. Since Calder loves patterns that involve fives, this is right up his alley. Calder is known for the pentominos he carries in his pocket to help him solve a variety of problems.
When Calder's father is scheduled to travel to England to visit the gardens of Blenheim Palace, he takes his son with him to allow him to explore the mazes in the garden, and to experience small old town life in Woodstock, England. Calder is thrilled because it will get him away from his boring unimaginative teacher for a while, and his friends are envious. Imagine the surprise when Calder and his father find a sculpture by Alexander Calder in the center of the ancient English town. Needless to say, the townsfolk are not thrilled with the piece as it doesn't really match there town's "old English" charm. This is where the mystery begins, and student readers will need to hold on to keep things straight. Calder meets up with some unusual characters that both frighten and intrigue him. It's tough to sort the good guys from the bad guys as Blue Balliett weaves a twisted web of mystery around the disappearance of a boy named Calder, and a valuable sculpture by Alexander Calder.
As I said, I enjoyed this Blue Balliett mystery more than the other two, and I liked them a lot. I have found, though, that it is a special group of kids that enjoy them as much as I do. Many kids find the connection of art, math, philosophy, and logic too much to follow and give up on them easily. Of the three, I believe this one will be the easiest for them to follow and stay with. although the length, 375 pages, may seem daunting to some.

Once again, illustrator Brett Helquist provides a mystery within the mystery. In his drawings for this novel, pieces of Calder sculptures are hidden. When they are spotted, and matched with the kids' code in the story, a word is spelled. I have never been one for puzzles and have yet to figure out the puzzles in Helquist's drawings. If someone figures this one out, will you please let me know!?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Return to Maggie Valley on Jessie's Mountain

Kerry Madden started the Weems Family on their way in Gentle's Holler, continued the story in Louisiana's Song, and revisits the Weems family of Maggie Valley, North Carolina in Jessie's Mountain. Madden's books are beautiful portraits of a simple life in the Smoky Mountains in the 1960s.

Although I have not read Gentle's Holler, I know that the Weems family is introduced. Tom Weems is a traveling musician working hard to make it big and support his family. Jessie Weems, ran off with Tom to get married young, grew up in a home where appearances mattered to her mother, and dreamed of a simpler life in the mountains with a bunch of kids, the older children Emmet, Becksie, Louisiana, and the story teller Olivia (Livy Two.) Then come the younger children, Myrtle Anne (Jitters), Gentle who is blind, Cyrus, and the twins, Tom-Bill and Appelonia. It makes you tired just thinking about it, doesn't it? But Madden does a masterful job of giving each character their own distinct personality so that the reader doesn't confuse one for another.

In the most recent installment, Jessie's Mountain, the Weems family continues surviving in the mountains of North Carolina. Their financial woes worsen, and now that Jessie's mother, Grandma Horace, has moved in, they have to put up with her bossy, pessimistic personality. Her main objective is to get the family out of the mountains and into the civilized society in Enka. She will stop at nothing to accomplish this. Grandma Horace presents Livy Two with the childhood diary of Jessie and encourages her to read it and share it with the other children so they can know their mother's past. Livy takes it as a sign to head to Nashville to audition for George Flowers, the music agent from Louisiana's Sky. Her younger sister Jitters tags along and when they finally reach Nashville they get turned down. The whole family left in Maggie Valley is in a panic wondering where Livy and Jitters have gone.

When the girls return home, it appears that Grandma Horace will get her wish, and the family will move to Enka where she can begin to "civilize her heathen grandchildren." On moving day when Jessie discovers that her mother has shared her personal journal with the children, she changes her mind and gets a job in the paper mill 30 minutes away and begins to get the family out of debt which will allow them to stay in their beloved mountain home. This also means that the oldest daughter, Becksie, will need to stop attending school to take care of her little brothers and sisters and her recovering father. Tom Weems is well on his way to recovering from a devastating car accident, but the doctors say it will be another year before he can work again. Livy begins to hatch a plan involving a vacant building in the nearby town, her teacher, and the musical talents of her entire family. If all goes well, her mother can quit working at the paper mill, the family will be out of debt, and her father will be able to perform his music again.

While all three books are about the Weems family, they can be read separately. In fact, I plan to go back and read Gentle's Holler for the background information. The books are a wonderful blend of family drama, simple mountain life, and gentle humor. After reading Jessie's Mountain, I can't help thinking that it is a cross between The Waltons, and The Von Trapp Family singers! Kerry Madden does a superb job of describing mountain life, using the language and characteristics to paint a picture of the simple happy life enjoyed by the Weems family. It is clear that she has done her research and the books have a realism that is both enjoyable, informative about life in the Smokies.

I will recommend the wonderful simple stories of mountain life to my fourth and fifth graders, but I think some good third grade readers would also be able to enjoy them. Madden hints at it in her acknowledgments, and I hope it's true, that there may be yet another visit to Maggie Valley.

All three books are reviewed at Jen Robinson's Bookpage.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Slice of Life - week of April 14

I walk into the large banquet room, and am assigned my table/workspace for the day. There is much work to be done. I will be working from 9 AM until 5 PM. I need to get moving. I unpack my bags. Paper cutter, cutting tools, papers in all shades and designs, tape runner, stickers, my own personal sheet for the Cricket machine, box of pictures sorted prior to today, scissors, tweezers, a list of my plan for the sequence of the book. Then, ta-da! I crack open my newest album. Today is the day I start C's high school scrapbook. Prior to this, I have documented and journaled about her life from birth to eighth grade. Lots of memories, and now more to come! First pages of albums are always hard for me because they need to set the tone for the rest of the book -- I skip that for today, and dive into her freshman year activities. It's 4 pages of cross country season - laying out the pictures, deciding which one goes where. Choosing the borders that will be the best accent for these pages. Choosing the font that I want on the Cricket machine for the title -- I'll go with "George" today. Tape and lay down. Tape and lay down. Over and over, for all 4 pages. Leaving room for my journaling -- leaving my thoughts for C.
Time to move to Homecoming and start all over again.

* Note: I started scrapbooking in earnest six years ago this past October. One of my closest friends, Cheryl, had just lost her battle with breast cancer. A few other friends and I gathered at her house to help in whatever way we could. One of the biggest jobs that we chose to undertake was to go through all their family pictures, and find pictures that told Cheryl's life story to display at her memorial service, and then for her daughters to have. She took such pride in being a mom to 2 daughters, and we wanted to gather pictures for them that had meaning. We pulled out boxes and boxes of pictures, haphazardly dumped together. As we sorted through the pictures with her daughters, talking and remembering as we went along, it became crystal clear to me that I wanted to leave a physical legacy behind for my own two daughters. There are many legacies we leave behind, but I wanted K and C to each have a tangible object that came from me -- made with my hands, containing my handwriting and thoughts, and sealed with my love for them. Scrapbooking became the vehicle for what I wanted to do. This is truly a labor of love.

For more "slices", visit Two Writing Teachers.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Mary Pope Osborne interview

If you're a fan of the Magic Tree House books (or you know some children who are), and if you're a fan of Mary Pope Osborne, you might want to check out 100 Scope Notes. There is a good interview with Osborne and her sister posted there. I think our students enjoy these interviews, as well, so I always enjoy when someone just points me in the right direction so I can find the interviews, and then I, in turn, share them with my students.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Greetings from Nowhere

Greetings from Nowhere by Barbara O'Connor is an amazing book -- I truly love it! I love it so much, that I abandoned a wonderful historical fiction I was reading aloud to my 5th grade class to read this book instead! I have never, ever done that before, but I read Greetings from Nowhere in one night, and just knew I had to read it aloud to my class as soon as possible!

When we came to our class meeting area the first day, I turned my desire to read aloud Greetings from Nowhere into a lesson about our reading lives. I asked my students if they had ever stumbled across a new book that just grabbed them so much that they had to read it, and were willing to temporarily abandon the book they were currently reading. There were many head nods. I told them that is what happened to me after I read Greetings from Nowhere -- I just had to share it with our class. So, from the very beginning, my students understood that I thought this was a book worthy of our time, which is so very precious.

We started this read aloud just like all our others -- I had copied the front, back, and inside flaps for the kids. We then looked at one part at a time, making predictions using the clues that we saw on the flaps. While looking at the front cover, I had one student notice how much it looked like a postcard they had once seen, that had started with the words, "Greetings From..." (a postcard plays a part later on). Another student noticed that the setting looked like it was in the hills or mountains (the story takes place in the Great Smoky Mountains). Yet another student made inferences about the differences between a motel and the hotels he was used to staying in.

I then had the kids read the back flap, where we learned the name of one of the main characters, Aggie, and that she had plans to sell the Sleepy Time Motel. Finally, we looked at the inside flap, and things got really interesting! We learned some other characters' names and a little snippet about each of them -- Harold, Kirby, Loretta, Clyde Dover, and Willow. As the class was processing all this information, one of the students mentioned that she thought this was going to be a lot like The Van Gogh Cafe by Cynthia Rylant (an earlier read aloud this year). When I asked her why she thought this, she said that she thought that each of these characters was going to come together and make a difference in other characters' lives. The inside flap says, " ... find just the friends they need at the shabby motel in the middle of nowhere." This student likened the motel in this book to the cafe in The Van Gogh Cafe. All of this was amazing, and we hadn't even started reading the book yet!

The first four chapters in Greetings from Nowhere introduce us to the main characters -- Aggie, Willow, Loretta, and Kirby. In addition, we meet some very important supporting characters as well -- Willow's dad, Loretta's mom and dad, and Kirby's mom. Barbara O'Connor is masterful at using the characters' actions, thoughts, feelings, and words to really tell the entire story. As an adult reader, I was pulled in by the very first chapter about Aggie. It took some of my students a few more chapters, but, if there were any doubters about my decision to read this book, they quickly changed their minds after the chapter on Kirby. There's something about the rebellious, yet sad and unloved part of Kirby that really hooked them. The fact that he was headed to a reform school, just made him even more interesting and intriguing to my students.

The title of each chapter of this book has a character's name, and each chapter is told using that character's voice. O'Connor is a gifted storyteller who seamlessly weaves the story using one character at a time. I say gifted because she plants clues in one chapter that we don't even realize are clues to what will happen next until we get to the next chapter, and then you say to yourself, "Oh! That's why that happened!"

Greetings From Nowhere also contains beautiful language. One of my favorite words that is used often in the chapters on Aggie is "ponder" -- what a fabulous word, and it's the perfect word for what Aggie does -- she doesn't "think" about things, she "ponders". O'Connor's words also are wonderful for setting the mood. For instance, at the end of the first chapter on Aggie: "Aggie watched the sun sinking lower and lower behind the mountains until the sky was totally dark. Then she closed her eyes and waited for another day." Those 2 sentences really convey how empty Aggie's life has become -- it sounds like a dreary existence. Then, in the next chapter about Willow: "He had set his mouth into a straight hard line that told Willow he had locked the door to his heart and thrown away the key." This sentence does a wonderful job of describing Willow's dad and how hurt and upset he can become when Willow mentions the mom who left her. I could go on and on!

This story is very character driven, and that's why it appeals to me so much. Each character is unique, and I found myself rooting for all of them, and they each had a place in my heart. Aggie is appealing because she's seen so much of life and its happiness, but mostly loneliness and sadness lately. For me, she became the "wise" one of the story. Willow is the character who learns how to reach down deep for courage when something really matters. Loretta has such an unbelieveably positive outlook on life, it's refreshing! Kirby's behaviors get between him and most of the other characters for much of the book, but he appeals to me because I want to "mother" him. The power of the book is the individual characters, and how they change each other's lives forever.

There are many reasons I love Greetings from Nowhere, but the the cover illustration was high on the list of those reasons. When I was young, my aunt and uncle owned a motel that looked just like the Sleepy Time Motel. It was called the Plaza Motel and it was located in northwest Ohio. I have many fond memories of my time spent at that motel. I was glad that Barbara O'Connor had a motel like that play such a prominent part in her story.

Did I mention I love this book?! After loving her How to Steal a Dog, Barbara O'Connor has made me a fan for life with Greetings from Nowhere!

For more good reviews of Greetings from Nowhere, check out both Franki's post at A Year of Reading and Megan's post at Read, Read, Read, also.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Cool Daddy Rat Rocks!

Cool Daddy Rat by Kristyn Crow is a jazzy look at the New York City jazz scene. Cool Daddy leaves for his nightly gig and hears noises coming from his bass case. Lo and behold when he opens it up his son, Ace, pops out. He had followed his cool daddy-o while he travels around NYC playing his bass in a variety of locations, some well known, Broadway, Soho, and Times Square. And some not so well known, like the schmooze cruise, a rooftop, and for a fat cat.

The rhyming of this book is made even more fun by the scat interludes on each page like:

went an odd way down Broadway
hippy zippy zee zat
and found Ace in his bass case!
peeky squeaky who dat

When Cool Daddy Rat finds out that Ace can scat and bee bop with the rest of them, he puts his talents to work as the tour concludes with a sleepy taxi ride.

The illustrations by Mike Lester are bright and fun and add to this very hip story. I can't wait to make this a PICK FROM THE PIT! I think the kids are going to love it.

Can you dig it? I knew that you could!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Slice of Life Challenge

Lingering at the kitchen table after dinner, talking. There are only three of us -- our oldest daughter is at college now. Discussing in what colleges our youngest daughter, C, a junior, might be interested.

"So, C, what are you looking for in your college -- what's important to you?"
"I don't know -- I guess I want a college that has fun football and basketball teams to follow."
Laughter from my husband and me.
"That would be great to find a school like that, but what else do you want? Different colleges have stronger programs in certain areas than others. Could you give us a ballpark idea what you might be interested in? "
"I don't know. I mean, how am I supposed to know what I'm supposed to do with my life? I'm only seventeen, and still in high school. I don't even know what jobs are available. How can I choose what I don't know?"

More reassuring words from my husband and me. Talking about some of the colleges she's mentioned before, and what specifically she liked about those schools in more depth. Discussing where her friends are looking, and why. Sharing information about some "broad" majors she could possibly start with, and narrow her focus later. Organizing a trip next week to visit my alma mater (it's not on her list anymore, but it will be a good practice run). C actually generating some names of other colleges she'd been considering. Planning a few trips to colleges this summer. Fabulous conversation.

But then, after all that...
"What if I'm NOT one of those people who visit a college and just 'know' that it's the right one for them? Like K (her older sister) knew right away that DU was the perfect school for her. My friends have visited schools, and some of them already have found the one they love. What if I'm the one who never finds the school that feels 'right'? What if I choose a college, go there, and hate it?"

What I realized in that split second is that for all her bravado and her know-it-all attitude, when it comes to this subject, she feels insecure. Insecure about visiting the different colleges, insecure about finding the college that feels right for her, and insecure about knowing what she's going to be when she grows up. Insecure about all things that come after her high school years.

Note to self: remember this conversation in the next 12 months, and be cognizant of her feelings of uncertainty as she embarks upon this journey into higher education.

For other "Slices of Life", visit Two Writing Teachers.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Non Fiction Monday at America's Oldest Farm

As a lover of U.S. History, the thing I miss most about teaching 5th grade, Tuttle's Red Barn really gave me heart palpitations! Written by Richard Michelson, it follows the time line of America's oldest family farm, started in the 1600s by the first generation, John Tuttle.

The book traces the history of the Tuttle farm from the 1600s to the present day. Using generations to identify the time periods, the story traces the changes the farm goes through in the as it passes from father to son. The farm experiences many of America's historic times firsthand. It starts as a colonial self sufficient farm in the 1600s, survives battle during Indian Wars, the American Revolution and becomes a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The farm undergoes many changes to survive as a business for nearly 400 years, as a maple syrup farm, using the first cider mill in Dover, New Hampshire, the town's first greenhouse, and a farm market that exists still today.

Not only can the history of a family run farm and business be followed, but also the cultural changes in our country. The book talks about the change from home grown to big grocery stores and farms taking over. How we experienced a "get back to the land" change in the 1960s and how one generation went away to college, but yearned to get back to the farm. Another interesting observation about cultural change is the names of the Tuttle's through the ages. It's not until the 7th generation in the mid 1800s that a Tuttle man has a middle name, a reflection of the times.

It is also interesting to note that no females inherit the farm through 12 generations. One review I read saw this as a problem, however, without more background information, I think it's impossible to be too judgmental on this issue. Perhaps there were no females interested in taking over, perhaps their spouses didn't come from the farming tradition, perhaps no females survived long enough to take the farm over, so many unanswered questions and possibilities to make this an issue in my opinion.

In any event this is a wonderful book about the American tradition that is the family owned farm. Richard Michelson does a masterful job of telling the Tuttle's story, and Caldecott winner Mary Azarian's illustrations are beautiful. This book can be used in so many ways in any classroom at any grade level.

To visit the farm on line, go here.

For the Nonfiction roundup go to Picture Book of the Day.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The 48 Hour Book Challenge

So, Mother Reader has announced her 3rd annual 48 Hour Book Challenge. Get those calendars out and reserve the dates -- this year the Challenge will be June 6 - 8. I am personally thrilled about this for 2 reasons: 1) Bill and I didn't have a blog last year, so this year I can participate and blog to my heart's content about the books I'm reading, and 2) that is the first day of my summer break. I can't think of a better way to start my break than reading for 48 hours straight, with a little sleep somewhere in there, also. We sure hope you'll stop by and see what we're reading and blogging about that weekend! It will be a fun, fun party. A huge thanks to MotherReader for organizing this event!! Head on over to her site for the official rules and regulations.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

All Aboard the Freedom Train

Finding good historical fiction for third graders is not an easy thing to do. Evelyn Coleman has created just that with Freedom Train. Clyde Thomason's older brother is chosen to be a guard on the 1947 Freedom Train, an actual train that crossed the country to show off many of the most important documents in United States history. The problem is, because of this, Clyde has been chosen to recite the Freedom Pledge in front of a huge crowd when the train visits Atlanta. Clyde is not comfortable speaking in front of his own class, let alone the thousands that will turn out for the big event. In addition to this pressure, the school bully, Phillip Granger, has selected Clyde to be his target. This is made doubly difficult because the Phillip's father is the boss of the cotton plant where all of the parents work, and he holds it over the other students' heads at every opportunity. Phillip is Clyde's replacement for the Freedom Train ceremonies.

On the way home from school one day, Phillip and his goons decide to beat up Clyde. They catch them alone, and Clyde gets whacked in the head with a board. As he lays unconscious on the ground, an African American boy and his doctor father come to his rescue. Add the pressure of keeping this secret from his father, and Clyde is a real mess.

Coleman does a great job of creating the pressure that Clyde must feel with all of his mixed emotions. She portrays a poor white southern family perfectly. A mother who recently went to work during the war, and stayed. A proud father who is a bit put out that his wife has to work to help support the family, and is willing to follow a group of men to harass the African American doctor's family to protect his job.

Other strong characters include an open minded principal that doesn't believe in corporal punishment, and is friends with African Americans in the community, and the war hero older brother whose letters home enlighten Clyde about equality among the races.

All in all this short historical fiction novel does an excellent job of portraying the mood of the south in 1947. Although the topic can be heavy, the author lightens it with enough humor that readers from third grade up will enjoy it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Why I Love Clementine...Again!

Sara Pennypacker has followed up the first two Clementine books with another great one. Clementine is one of my all time favorite characters and she is just as funny, ornery, and lovable as ever. In this episode, Clementine's teacher is nominated for a special program that will take him out of the classroom for the remainder of the year. Clementine feels betrayed by this and writes a bad, but humorous, letter of recommendation to ruin his chances. Along the way, Clementine sells other people's donations to charity, endures misunderstandings with the substitute teacher, and helps her best friend Margaret through some tough times. Here are my Top Ten Reasons I Love Clementine:

1. She lives in Boston, my favorite city.
2. She calls her baby brother vegetable names. In this book she branches out to Chinese veggies like bok choi and bamboo shoot. We have yet to learn his real name.
3. She wants to make her mom happy so she can see her "Wow! I must be dreaming! face."
4. She asks the principal, Mrs. Rice, random questions like "Do you like tatoos?" Clementine does, Mrs. Rice does not!
5. She is an expert at giving sting ray eyes, arrow eyes, and high power sting ray eyes!
6. She says hilarious third grade things.
7. She keeps adding rhyming names to her friend Norris. By the end of the book he is up to Norris-Boris-Morris-Horace-Brontosaurus.
8. She is a good and loyal friend to Margaret. Even though Margaret has way too many rules.
9. Even when she is bad, she is funny and adorable.
10. She knows what makes a great teacher and has a way with words when she describes one.

"And without you even knowing it, he will teach you how to make beans. And here is the tricky part: somehow you will think you learned it all by yourself! Plus, you'll think making beans is the most interesting thing in the world to do, because my teacher makes everything interesting!"

AWESOME! This is the description we all strive for everyday in the classroom. Clementine is my hero, thank you Sara Pennypacker!

Slice of Life Challenge

For the last month, I've been intently reading many of the slice of life stories in the challenge that was over at Two Writing Teachers. Every day, for the month of March, people submitted slice of life entries. Since March is over, Two Writing Teachers have modified their challenge. Starting today, April 1, every Tuesday, interested participants can continue to submit a SOLS. While I watched from the sidelines in March, I've decided to jump in for a while with this new challenge. Wish me luck!

My first SOLS --

Monday was our first day back to school after spring break. After a week on a beach doing nothing more taxing than deciding what number sunscreen to apply, what book to read next, or what restaurant to go to for dinner, I came back rested and rejuvenated to tackle the last nine weeks of school with my 5th graders.

But no matter how rested I was, that first day back was still a full day of school, and when I got home, I was tired. I walked in the back door, ready to start my evening chores, and my can't-be-separated-from-my-cell-phone-only-have-time-for-my-friends-but-not-you-and-dad
17-year old daughter said, "Wow! You look pretty! I love your cute jacket and your new necklace and earrings!" The best part is that she really meant it; no hidden agenda, no buttering me up to ask for something. A real, honest-to-goodness compliment for no reason at all -- the absolute best kind!

For me, that's a slice of life I want to hold on to -- a rare and precious jewel. Who knows?!! I may survive her high school years after all!