Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking for Newbery - Slob

I originally picked up this book for one reason, and one reason only... I was hungry, and it had a picture of an Oreo on the front cover. Unfortunately, I took it home and it's been sitting in a pile in my office until yesterday when I realized it was on the Starred Book List that Bookshelfer compiled. Granted, it was pretty far down the list, but it caught my attention.

Regardless, I'm really glad I read Slob by Ellen Potter. The main characters deviate from any kind of typical and I enjoyed them immensely (with one exception). The main character, Owen, has started to overeat in the past two years, and has become quite large (57% fatter than other kids his age). Potter does a fabulous job dropping clues throughout the story as to why that happened. Owen is also quite the inventor. Owen's younger sister, Jeremy, is part of a group of girls who have decided to get equal rights by adopting boys' names. Owen's neighbor is Nima, who grew up in India and has just recently moved to New York City. Nima makes his living by selling momas, a type of dumpling, from a cart on the sidewalk. One other very important character in this story is Mason Ragg. One side of Mason's face looks deformed, he works with a special aide from time to time, and everyone at school believes he carries a switchblade under his sock. Finally, there is the P.E. teacher who is quite detestable. Because I found him so unlikeable and downright mean, I was glad that Potter gave him the name Mr. Wooly. He was the epitome of a teacher who wants to degrade students, not teach them. Yuck!

This ecclectic cast of characters each has their own issues, but the way Potter intertwines their lives is quite interesting. There seems to be a surprise awaiting the reader at every twist and turn. The details of the characters' lives are given to us a little bit at a time. There are several times I found myself saying, "You're kidding me!" I honestly did not see certain plot twists coming. The reason the book has its title is nothing that I expected, but it makes for a very poignant ending to the book. The word I found myself saying about Potter's style, pacing, and plot twists was "subtle". She did a great job of misdirecting the readers' thoughts about the characters and what happens to them.

I'm not sure Slob is a book that will win the Newbery, however, it is most definitely a book that should be in classrooms. It would make for great conversation about stereotypes, about looking at more than just the outside of a person, and what motivates characters to do the things they do. Slob is a very good story.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Looking for Newbery: Day 4: The Girl Who Threw Butterflies

Before Molly Williams' father died, he left her a gift. He taught her the art of throwing a knuckleball and she is able to throw it with incredible accuracy. It is the one piece of her father that she is able to really hold onto since her mother has become distant and the two of them are struggling through their grief.

Not only did Molly's dad teach her to throw the knuckleball so that it danced and floated like a butterfly, he taught her the love of baseball. Molly is intrigued by all of it, the ball parks, the players numbers and the statistics. In fact she thinks of life as a baseball game and people she comes in contact with earn points in her batting average of life scoring system. Another way she copes with her father' death.

When she discovers some of her father's belongings including a reporter's notepad, she hopes to learn more about his death. Unfortunately, the notepad is blank, but it leads Molly to interview him in her imagination, another step in her grief process.

Finally, Molly decides to try out for the baseball, rather than the softball team, at school. Even though some of the boys don't want her on the team, the coach recognizes her talent, and has an appreciation for the knuckleball, puts her on the team where she meets a friend. Oddly enough, it is on the baseball field where the healing between mother and daughter begins.

It's been a while since I read this one, but I do remember marveling at the language and softness of the story. Author Mick Cochrane weaves the themes of baseball and grief together creating a touching story. I like this one a lot.

Other reviews:
Dog Ear
The Sports Literature Association
Abby the Librarian

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Looking For Newbery - When You Reach Me

Back in the summer, I read When You Reach Me for both a first and second time. It absolutely knocked my socks off both times.

Because it is getting so much "buzz" with regard to the Newbery, and because I wanted to pick a great book for my class read aloud coming back from holiday break, what better book than When You Reach Me?! Just to triple check myself, though, I reread it for a third time yesterday. I am amazed that even in a 3rd read, this book just continues to both surprise and delight.

In the review I posted this summer, Mary Lee (A Year of Reading) posted a comment about how great the chapter titles were as well. She said they would make great writing prompts. Better yet, since I missed the connection the first two times, is how well the titles correlate with an important strand in the story. I don't know how Rebecca Stead managed to tie up all the story strands by the end of the book. She is truly a gifted author.

Other accolades for When You Reach Me:

1) It is on the Mock Newbery list for the Allen County Library.

2) It made five of the "best of the year" lists (thanks to Jonathan Hunt at Heavy Medal for this post).

3) Out of 6 possible review journals, it received stars in 5 of them (thanks to Shelftalker for the 2009 Starred Books Wrap-Up).

4) It made Fuse #8's mid-year Newbery prediction list.

I truly believe that When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is a book worthy of the Newbery award. Fingers crossed until January 18!!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Looking for Newbery: Day 3: All the Broken Pieces

One of the things I enjoy about Looking for Newbery is that it gives me a chance to go back to something I read several months ago and remember why I wrote about it. This is one of those titles.

I wrote about All the Broken Pieces here, back in September, so again I hope this book has not been lost in the shuffle of newer titles on Newbery lists. After re-reading my journal, and blog post I am reminded about how powerful this free verse novel is.

Ann E. Burg takes the events surrounding the Vietnam conflict and brings them down to a level that a middle school student can relate to and understand. The main character, Matt Pin, is adopted into an American family after being airlifted out of his home country. He struggles with the guilt he feels about leaving his mother and disabled brother behind. He puts up with the prejudice from classmates who have had relatives killed in Vietnam. He helps a support group for Vietnam vets deal with their feelings after returning home.

I didn't purchase this book for our library, but would highly recommend it for the middle school library.

Other reviews can be found at:
The Reading Zone
OMS Book Blog
Oops...Wrong Cookie

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Looking for Newbery - Day 2: A Season of Gifts

A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck is another book that has appeared on the mock Newbery list of the Allen County Library. In addition, I have been following what the Heavy Medal blog has to say about the Newbery. Recently, one of the contributors to Heavy Medal, Jonathan Hunt, compiled a list of books that won some important children's book awards throughout the year. A Season of Gifts has appeared on three of those major award lists. It was also on Shelftalker's 2009 Starred Books Wrap-Up -- it was a starred book in five different review journals (out of six possible). Before I even read A Season of Gifts, I knew it must be a book worth reading.

Someone I used to teach with is a huge Richard Peck fan; he will read the latest Peck book as soon as it comes out. Somehow I never had the desire that he did, so when I found out that A Season of Gifts was a companion book to A Long Way From Chicago and A Year Down Yonder, books I hadn't read, I was a little concerned that I would not have the background knowledge sufficient to understand the nuances of the story. I might have been missing snippets of information, but I found A Season of Gifts to be delightful as my first read about some of the characters. What I know for sure is that now I will be going back and reading those earlier books.

A Season of Gifts was a true joy to read. It deals with the relationships between a new family that moves to town and the wonderfully eccentric Mrs. Dowdel (a character from the companion books). Though Peck focuses on the new family, the Barnharts, Grandma Dowdel is still a very important character who manipulates (in a good way) situations that help the new family move to acceptance in their new community.

The Barnharts are a fun family to know. The dad is a preacher trying to start a new church in town. The mom is the glue that holds everyone together (very 1950ish, which is appropo since this story is set in 1958). Phyllis is the teen-age sister who loves Elvis Presley, falls for a wild guy and makes some poor choices. Ruth Ann is the inquistive little sister who is fascinated by their new neighbor, Mrs. Dowdel. Bob, the only boy, is the narrator of the story.

The language in the story is truly beautiful. The character development is wonderful, and the plot kept me wanting to read. It is also set in a year where I was 3 years old (my students call that historical fiction!) which made it appealing to me as well. I can understand why A Season of Gifts has found its way to so many lists of good books.

Finally, I want to say thank you to the student who got me this book for Christmas. Thanks GS!! It was truly a wonderful gift!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Looking for Newbery: Day 1: The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg

It's that time of year, when folks start making their predictions for the Newbery winners and Karen and I are no exceptions. Both of us got interested and started in this blog thing when we were asked by our friends at A Year of Reading to "guest blog" our picks three years ago and we've never looked back. Last year we took a big jump into the pool and did a month of reviews based on THE LIST over at Fuse #8 and called it "Looking for Newbery." We had so much fun we thought we would do it again. Karen chose me to kick it off, so here we go...WELCOME TO LOOKING FOR NEWBERY 2010!

Our first source of titles is the list over at Allen County Public Library. Honestly this the first internet Newbery prediction lists I found, and I still think it's one of the best. We divided up their list and were pleasantly surprised to find that between the two of us we have already read and/or blogged nearly half of the books on the list. One title I read a year ago that I'm a bit surprised and disappointed that I didn't write about it earlier is The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick.

Told in first person from the perspective of Homer, the historical fiction is set during the Civil War. Homer is a habitual liar and is capable of telling some real whoppers. He and his older brother Harry were orphaned at a young age and custody is given to a cruel uncle Squinton Leach (great name) who abuses them and makes them sleep in the barn. Homer's lies get him into trouble, but Harry is constantly protecting him and keeping the trouble from getting bigger than the two of them can handle.

Homer's world comes crashing down when the cruel uncle sells Harry into the Union Army even though he is not of age. When Harry leaves, Homer decides to follow him and get him out by proving that he's too young to be in the army. This is where the adventure begins. On his journey Homer meets up with some interesting characters. He is kidnapped, meets up with a Quaker who works on the Under Ground Railroad, joins a circus where he is billed as the Pig Boy, hucksters, swindlers, Civil War spies and other interesting characters.

In the end Homer and Harry meet up on the fields of Gettysburg where they take part in one of the most famous battle of the Civil War, Little Round Top.

I loved this book with it's mix of humor and history. Homer is a lovable character even though the reader knows throughout the book that he is a liar. Rodman Philbrick's writing is amazing. He brings the reader into the story from the start and doesn't let go until the end. His word selection and character development kept me reading and admiring his work from beginning to end.

Even though this book is on several lists, it came out in December, I hope it's not forgotten!

Other reviews at:
Fuse #8
Book Nut
Help Readers Love Reading!
Oops...Wrong Cookie (GREAT BLOG NAME!)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Lion and the Mouse

I love the holiday break!! I stopped by my local public library yesterday, picked up 3 fun adult books to read, 1 picture book (more on that later in this post), and a lot more of Louise Borden's books (our school's visiting author in January). Knowing that I have a week and a half ahead of me full of big chunks of free time, I can't wait to curl up and read!

I still have a Christmas "to do" list so I'm not ready to dive into all the adult books, but I did curl up with the picture book I got -- The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney. I'm not sure how, but somehow this book escaped my attention until Mary Lee (A Year of Reading) recently used it as one of her mentor texts in a study on theme and literary essay. I made a mental note to myself to look at it sometime, so when it was displayed on the "New Books" shelf at the library, I just had to grab it.

Many of us grew up reading and knowing Aesop's Fables with their simple morals and themes. Pinkney took this story and created a wordless picture book that tells the story. The Lion and the Mouse is a visual feast for the eyes. There are many wonderful things about the illustrations, but I specifically loved the strength and kindness Pinkney manages to convey in both the lion and the mouse.

I'll be using The Lion and the Mouse with my 5th grade students for a variety of reasons:
  • an appreciation of such a beautiful story and book
  • the need to infer many of the events in this wordless picture book
  • the introduction of fables and their messages
  • the ability to find "theme"
I haven't been following a lot of the mock Caldecott lists but I would have to believe this gorgeous book is on most of them!!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Last Day of School, Cybils, and Waiting for Newbery

Today is our district's last day of school before holiday break. As I look back on these past 4 months, I realize how far my students have already come. What is wonderful (and challenging as well) is knowing how much further we have to go. But, for the next two weeks, I plan on putting my students aside, and focusing on my family, my friends, and myself. Two glorious weeks full of wonderful happenings, and also many days with nothing to do but curling up with a book and maybe even the computer to post a few blogs. Heavenly, right? We are truly blessed to have such a lovely break.

In addition, Bill and I are currently in deep discussions online with our fellow panelists about what books our group might recommend to make the short list for the Cybils non-fiction picture book category. Our panel is amazed at how many wonderful non-fiction picture books were written this year. If you haven't checked out the long list on the Cybils website, it is most definitely worth a look!

Finally, Bill and I met for breakfast the other morning, and have committed to doing another year of "Looking for Newbery". We will begin right after Christmas, and each day one of us will post about a book on a mock Newbery list. Last year, we relied heavily on the list compiled by Fuse #8. Currently, we are looking at the Allen County Public Library list. We're also paying attention to what the folks at Heavy Medal are posting and thinking. Some wonderful books are listed, and we can't wait to dive in.

We hope you'll join us in the next month or so as we try to read the book that just MIGHT win the Newbery -- hope lives eternal!! Stay tuned!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Great Teacher Thinking and Reflecting

I'm pretty sure that most people who read our blog also read A Year of Reading by Mary Lee and Franki. But, on the off chance that we have a reader or two who don't read their blog, you really need to check out what Mary Lee is doing this week at A Year of Reading. She has taken a somewhat difficult 4th grade writing task, literary essays, and is planning and reflecting on what this study might look like.

I love getting inside the heads of smart educators! If you haven't already done so, check it out!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Life-Size Zoo is Worth Visiting

Life-Size Zoo: From Tiny Rodents to Gigantic Elephats, an Actual-Size Animal Encyclopedia by Teruyuki Komiya is a delightful gem. I haven't shared it with my 5th graders yet, but I predict they are going to love it.

The cover sets the stage nicely for what the reader will find inside the book. We see a life-size photo of a zebra. Right inside the book, the author gives a guide to the readers as to what each section of the upcoming pages will hold. As someone who is currently teaching non-fiction text characteristics and their purposes to her students, this immediately caught my attention. It is so important for students to know how to get the most information possible from each page of a non-fiction text.

The pictures of each animal are not only life-size, but they also contain the most minute of details. Children will love looking at these amazing close-up photographs.

The text beside each photo is minimal, but good. However, the sidebars on each page have very interesting details about both the specific animal in the picture (including its name) and details about the animal in general.

The best part of the book is the pages that fold-out to accommodate the life-size features of the animal. My favorite fold-out was the picture of the giraffe with its tongue sticking out -- both gross and fascinating at the same time!

To be "life-size", Life-Size Zoo is quite an oversized book. This is yet another reason to love this book and share it with children!

**This book was compliments of the publisher, Steven Footer Press.**

Sunday, December 6, 2009

River of Dreams

I just finished reading the most amazing book, River of Dreams: The Story of the Hudson River. It was written and illustrated by Hudson Talbott. He also wrote/illustrated United Tweets of America and illustrated Jacqueline Woodson's book, Show Way.

I need to first tell my 5th grade teacher friends why this is a must have. With this one book, you could help your students understand some powerful social studies and science big ideas:
  • the settling of the Mahicans along the Hudson and how they only used the river and surrounding area for food, shelter, and transportation
  • the importance of Henry Hudson, the explorer, to this river
  • why the Dutch and English moved to the area, with high expectations, only to have a different reality once they arrived
  • great side notes about the Revolutionary War that I wasn't aware of -- I especially liked the idea of the colonists "chaining" the Hudson River from the British
  • how the invention of the steamboat and the Erie Canal made the Hudson the "first super-highway" of America
  • what happened to the Hudson River with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and railroads
  • immigration to New York Harbor
  • pollution that the industry on the Hudson River made, and it was all legal
  • the pollution causing a ripple effect on the ecosystems existing along the Hudson
  • how one person can make a difference -- Franny Reese taking on Con Edison's plan to build on Storm King Mountain along the Hudson River
Pretty amazing, right?!

Beyond the content of River of Dreams, this is a book to be savored for other reasons as well. Hudson Talbott has put beautiful illustrations in this story, using a variety of mediums: watercolors, colored pencils, and ink on watercolor paper. Within the illustrations, there is much to notice on each page. Sometimes there are inset pictures, there are many separate pictures about information in the text with accompanying labels or captions, and there is a river that "flows" through some of the pages containing timelines and other pertinent information.

The pictures are truly a visual feast for the eyes. One of my favorite pictures is the one where the Hudson River is frozen and it shows how they used the frozen river for ice blocks. The cutting and gathering of ice is fascinating.

River of Dreams: The Story of the Hudson River is a very smart book about a variety of topics using the Hudson River as a backdrop and done in a beautiful way. It's nomination to make the long list of the Cybils' non-ficiton picture book category was well deserved!! It is obvious that the author is passionate about the Hudson River and the area surrounding it.

** This book was a review copy provided by the publisher, Penguin Young Readers Group. **

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Eleanor: Quiet No More

One of the books on the long list for the Cybils non-fiction picture book category is Eleanor: Quiet No More by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by Gary Kelley. This book captured my attention from the gorgeous front cover: a picture of Eleanor Roosevelt, but not one word to be seen. It's a very flattering picture of Eleanor, but you can't help but be drawn into the force of the personality shown in this illustration.

When I opened the book, the delight I felt just kept growing. Each 2 page spread is designed exactly the same way: there is a gorgeous picture, some information about a different part of Eleanor's life written in verse, and a quote from Eleanor that mirrors the information in verse. I literally could not quit turning the pages of this book.

I loved this book as a reader, but as a writing teacher, I couldn't help but think what a fabulous mentor text this would be for one of my students writing a piece about a famous person. This format would breathe life into the information they discovered in their research.

As a reader, I was drawn into the force of Eleanor Roosevelt's personality and will. What an amazing woman she was, and how much she accomplished in her lifetime! In fact, Rappaport includes her thoughts about the importance of Eleanor to her -- what a role model for women!

Eleanor: Quiet No More will be a book I can't wait to share with my class, discuss the implications of the person, and pull out many more times after that to use as a mentor text.

(This book was sent compliments of the publisher, Disney/Hyperion Books)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Grand Discussion "How-To" Part 2

Okay, so you've selected a book, written questions and baked cookies. Well actually, the cookies are optional for you, but for Joyce and me? MANDATORY! I think some people come just for the cookies.

1. Reading Time: We usually give the kids and parents about 6 weeks to complete the book. I think this year we may have cut down on the time since we are ordering the books and they have the books in hand sooner and don't have to spend time looking for them. During that time I check informally on their progress and to see how many are potentially participating.

2. Night of the Event: We usually arrive early and set up tables in groups of 10 or 12 depending on how many we are expecting. With our crowd on November 17, did I mention we had 85? it was nearly impossible to fit them around the library tables so we actually spread out all over. As the families come in we ask that the parent and child sit together. It seems so obvious, but it really does need to be stated. Once the crowd has gathered we go over some basic ground rules. Things like reminding parents not to dominate the conversation, be willing to listen to their children's good ideas. We ask the kids to focus on the conversation and not be side tracked by silliness. When the questions are handed out we share that they are only suggested questions, not required and there aren't any tests or quizzes. If the conversation takes them a different way, go there, it will probably be better! The groups break off, no assignments, just who happens to be sitting near you and the the Grand Discussion is off and running. Joyce and I wander around making sure to join in on all of the groups at some point during the evening, making comments, answering questions and handing out cookies when appropriate. We usually let them talk for 30 to 45 minutes and then come back together to share especially insightful comments and I always like to take an informal poll about the general feeling about the book. I'm always interested to see if opinions change after the discussion, and interestingly enough, they usually go from a negative to a positive.

That's about it for How to Host a Grand Discussion, it's really pretty simple and Joyce and I both agree that it's one of the most rewarding things we do as teachers.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Grand Discussion "How-To" Part One

Due to the response to my blog about the Grand Discussion of November 17, did I mention we had 85 people participate? I thought maybe I'd do a follow up post to answer some of the questions posted in our comment section, by the way, thanks to all who visited and commented, nothing warms the heart of a blogger like comments about a post. My thought is that I'll start with the pre-discussion steps and follow up with what happens on the night of the big event.

1. Book Selection: This is perhaps the most difficult part of the Grand Discussion. The book has to be something that kids will like to read and have enough depth for the parents to enjoy as well. It also has to have some hook or edge or theme that will spark discussion. Our most recent, Bystander by James Preller, had the bullying theme which for fifth graders who will move onto middle school next year is something they need to be aware of. We also choose something that may be a bit more advanced since we know that the students are reading with a parent. Some of our other choices:

The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place by E.L. Konigsburg (Pretentious Reader)
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles
Tangerine by Edward Bloor
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt
Greetings From Planet Earth by Barbara Kerley (Becky's Book Reviews)
Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
Savvy by Ingrid Law

2. Publicity: My friend and colleague Joyce and I have had some fun with this. We try to include a photo that represents the book in some way. For example for Al Capone Does My Shirts, we posed behind the bars of a playground toy. For The Unnameables by Ellen Booraem
we posed with Chipotle bags over our head which scored us free chips and dip from one of our favorite eating establishments and a mention on the author's blog, apparently we made her laugh...EXCELLENT! Possibly my favorite of all time was for Hattie Big Sky. We super imposed our faces over American Gothic with speech bubbles that said

"Look at that sky." "Sure is big." HAH! I Still laugh at that one!

Obviously, include the important information, date, time and place and a brief description of the rules, a parent AND child must read it together AND both must come to the discussion event.

3. Books: This has happened several ways. I've contacted bookstores and warned them about our event and the stock up. Other times students get them from the public library. This year I've worked with Selections Book Fairs and the students have the opportunity to pre-order the books and they are shipped to the school. I think the parents like the convenience of having the book brought to them. Another idea that I haven't tried is to use a book that the school already owns multiple copies of, the problem here is that you run the risk of choosing a book that many of the students have already read.

4. Discussion Questions: We usually come up with a set of questions to get the discussion started, these are only suggested questions, we always encourage our groups to go off the script if the discussion takes them there. Typically we are able to find some discussion questions on line, but if the book is new, like Bystander, we actually have to rack our brains to create our own.

In my next post I'll talk about the night of the event. The only other pre-discussion preparation is to bake cookies. Joyce takes care of this. The last discussion tested her abilities and patience, baking for 85. My guess is it also depleted her supply of parchment paper, keeps them from sticking you know.