Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z.

I love when I find a book that I haven't heard of before and am drawn in by something, the cover art, the description on the cover, a great title or an interesting author bio. In this case the title, cover and bio drew me in. I had not seen this title anywhere or heard of it's author, Kate Messner, but when I read that she is a middle school teacher, I was ready to read.

I found The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. on the new book shelf at the local branch of my public library and the fall colors of the cover caught my eye. When I picked it up and read the flap I knew I was checking it out and taking it with me. The description includes a grandma who leaves her false teeth in the fridge, a father that drives a hearse, a monster science project and a middle school arch nemesis and I couldn't wait to read some details about each.

Turns out that Gianna is a student who really struggle with organization, we've all had them, heck, I probably was one of them! She has been assigned the dreaded leaf collection project, you know the one, collect 25 leaves, label them with their scientific name, common name and where they can be found, all presented in a creative and organized fashion.

Luckily for her she has a really good friend who happens to be a boy who is gifted and organized and helpful. Unluckily (is that a word?) for her she also has an arch nemesis, a mean girl who is trying to take her place at the sectional cross country meet. Gianna must finish the project on time, or the mean girl will take her place. The mean girl, Bianca, is that the perfect mean girl name or what? (sorry to any Biancas currently reading this) will stop at nothing to help Gianna fail, including completely destroying the project the week it's due.

In addition to the trials and tribulations of middle school Gianna is dealing with home issues too. Her family runs the town funeral home and occasionally her father takes her to school in the hearse, I personally think this would be pretty cool, but Gianna is mortified and it's only fodder for more harassment from Bianca.

Gianna's Italian grandmother lives with them and is beginning to show early signs of Alzheimer's. At one point in the story she wonders off and is missing for a significant amount of time. Gianna and her friends search the neighborhood in a fall thunderstorm to find her dangling her feet in the neighbor's pool totally confused. Kate Messner handles this issue beautifully. The story teaches what happens to an Alzheimer's patient, slowly slipping away, but also teaches to live in the moment, and enjoy the good times.

Gianna recognizes her organizational challenges and while they frustrate her, she has found positive outlets to help her cope with the frustration. She is a talented artist always creating and looking for the beauty in everything. Sometimes this works against her when she is distracted by creating something rather than focusing on her assignments, but she pulls through and even uses her talent to make a very unique leaf project that reflects who she is. Her artistic personality also is how she connects so closely with her grandmother, Nonna. Gianna is also a very gifted cross country runner and revels in running whenever she gets the chance.

Kate Messner tackles a lot of issues in this story, but she does it in a way that is not overwhelming or unbelievable. The pacing of the book and the memorable characters keep the story moving and don't let the reader get bogged down in the trials of life. I like this book a lot and I think most 4th and 5th graders will too.

More Reviews:
Book Nut
The Reading Zone
Jen Robinson's Book Page

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Day of the Pelican

Have you ever read a book that kept you on edge the entire time and you weren't even sure you were breathing as you read until you took a huge breath as you closed the back cover? That experience happened to me today as I read The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson.

This story was inspired by a refugee family from Kosovo that came to Paterson's town in Barre, Vermont, because they were sponsored by a local church group there. As Paterson learned of their family history and their struggles, she began to write a serial for the newspaper based on the refugee family.

I love this story for many reasons, but the first is the title of the book. The main character of this book, Meli, was doodling and drawing a picture of her teacher as a pelican in her Kosovo classroom. When her friend saw the illustration and realized what it was, it caused both of them to get the giggles, which caused them to get in trouble, and led to both of them having to stay late after school. Meli always walked home from school with her older brother, Mehmet, but on that day he was not waiting for her when she finally left school. Meli assumed Mehmet was angry with her about getting in trouble and had gone home without her. However, when she got home, Mehmet was not home and was nowhere to be found.

What the reader comes to realize when Mehmet does come home several weeks later is that he was taken by some Serbs, put in jail, beaten, and then thrown out in a field to die. That sequence of events changes Mehmet, Meli, and their family in dramatic ways.

Meli's family soon has to leave their apartment and grocery store, the home they've always known, and seek shelter with her uncle's family. However, when they get to the uncle's house, they are told that soldiers are on the prowl, and they can't stay. Uncle Fadil drives them up into the mountains to be near a KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) camp.

As I sit here in my warm house, snowed in for another day, with all the food, clothing and shelter that I need, I am humbled by this story. Meli and her family survived so many difficult situations -- living in a tent in the mountains with a dwindling amount of food, moving back to their uncle's farm only to have Serbian looters come and take their gold and then burn the farm to the ground, walking to the nearest border looking for sanctuary and only carrying the 2 outfits they wore with no food or water whatsoever, being herded like cattle onto freight trains and then put into an internment camp, and being separated from other family members. The inner strength and determination of this family from Kosovo astounds me.

This is a story about the strength of family. It is also a peek into a tragic, though real, event in time. Words like Kosovo, Serbs, Kosovo Liberation Army, President Milosevic, and Albanians have crossed my path in the newspaper. But, until this story, they were just words. Katharine Paterson brings all of that alive in The Day of the Pelican. Real people living through truly dangerous times are depicted here.

When Meli's father (Baba) finally decides they need to leave for America, I was as torn as Meli. I had come to understand the importance of her extended family as well as her love for her homeland. But I also hoped that America would truly be a land of opportunity for this family who had been through so much.

Once in America, Meli's younger siblings were able to learn English quickly, but both Meli's mom and dad had great difficulty. Meli's dad became a dishwasher and eventually, Meli's mom became a maid in a motel, both jobs that didn't require great proficiency with the English language. Her brother, Mehmet, forced himself to learn as quickly as possible, but Meli had trouble for her first year.

But even in America, people can be cruel. 9/11 happened and with it, deep suspicions about the family from Kosovo who were Muslim. Katherine Paterson doesn't end this story with a happily ever after ending, however it was very satisfying.

As much as I loved The Day of the Pelican, I'm not sure all 5th graders would have the maturity necessary to process both the underlying and the obvious violence in the book. However, coupled with the "Historical Note" at the end of the story that explains this time clearly, it is most definitely a book I will put into the hands of some students. I wonder if it will take their breath away in the same way it did for me?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Marlane Kennedy's Dog Days of Charlotte Hayes On a Snowday

Our district used its 4th snow day today, and I used yesterday, Presidents' Day to read the Dog Days of Charlotte Hayes by Marlane Kennedy. There's really no connection between the two other than the time off has given me lots of opportunity to catch up on my "to be read" pile. I will say that I'm getting a little nervous with all of these days off since we only have one more calamity day left before we have to make them up, and I'm hearing rumors of yet another winter storm on its way. Makes you wonder about the wisdom of cutting our calamity days from 5 to 3 next year and then ZERO the next year. Oh well, enough speechifying, on with the book!

Marlane Kennedy is an Ohio author which already makes her interesting to me, and she wrote one of my favorites, Me and the Pumpkin Queen, based on a girl growing up in Circlevilhle, OH, te home of the Pumpkin Show every year. Pumpkin Queen got quite a bit of attention in the year it was written, and I'm still recommending it to kids in the library, it doesn't stay on the shelf very long.

Charlotte Hayes is not a dog person, she makes that very clear from the beginning of the book. However, she is stuck taking care of the family Saint Bernard who is chained to a dog house out back. Nobody is bugging Charlotte to take care of the dog, she just can't stand to see Killer as her father calls him or Beauregard as Charlotte calls him left without food or water or attention, so she fills the bowls, scratches the tummy and scoops the poop.

Why does the family have a dog that can't be in the house and nobody seems to want? It's because Charlotte's father can't pass up a good deal, whether it's a yard sale, a cheap broken down used car, or a purebred Saint Bernard, if he can get it cheap, he'll do it and not think of the consequences. His purchases keep him occupied and interested until the next good deal comes along and then they are forgotten. He claims to still love the dog and doesn't want to get rid of him, but he doesn't want to take care of him either, so Charlotte with the big heart steps in.

Why doesn't the family share the responsibility of the dog? Everyone has their own reasons, dad is distracted, older sister Agnes, a true teen queen, wants nothing to do with the drool and Mom is suffering from postpartum depression after the birth of baby brother Justin Lee. Mom also said from the beginning she didn't want the dog and wouldn't do anything to help with it, so Charlotte, who can't stand to see the gentle giant Beauregard suffer, tends to his needs.

What's a girl to do? Charlotte sets out to rid herself of Beauregard with several plans, the first is to make friends with the new girl, Grace, who lives in the biggest house in town with the hopes that she can talk Grace's family into adopting Beauregard. When that fails Charlotte takes drastic measures and drops the big dog off at an animal shelter claiming she found him running loose. When Beauregard is brought back by her father, Charlotte talks her dad into selling the dog through an ad in the newspaper, but when some scary characters begin to inquire about the dog, Charlotte offers to buy the dog herself so that she can turn him over to a Saint Bernard Rescue organization.

What can a 12 year old do to earn $400 to buy a Saint Bernard? Charlotte tries all sorts of ways to earn money and sort of falls into a job helping 83 year old stroke victim Petunia. At first Charlotte is nervous about being around Petunia who is very independent and doesn't really feel the need for help, but as time goes on the two find things to talk about, and Charlotte introduces Petunia to her friends Luann and Grace and the four play euchre every Friday after school. Needless to say, Charlotte earns the money and buys the dog and the ending of the book is very well done, not hokey and not at all what I predicted, more realistic.

Marlane Kennedy has a way with characters. Each person in this book has a role and each one plays it well. I love the way she developed the father as a guy who is loving and dedicated to his family, but can't pass up a good deal. The author gave such strength and independence to a frail 83 year old stroke victim and set Petunia up a role model for the 12 year olds who play cards with her on Friday. She created Charlotte as almost the voice of reason in her family, she sees a a problem and explores realistic ways to fix it.

I like this book a lot and just like Pumpkin Queen, I don't think it will be on the shelves very long.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Poetry Friday - Looking Like Me

I recently visited a different branch of our metropolitan library, and discovered they have an amazing children's section. What I really loved was how they had poetry books highlighted the day I was there. Many interesting, engaging front covers facing out for someone to just reach out and grab. So grab I did!

One of my finds that day was Looking Like Me by Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by Christopher Myers. I loved this book on several different levels.

First, I love the message I took away after reading it -- that we all have many identities and those identities are to be celebrated.

Second, Myers does a fabulous job giving different perspectives as the child in the book hears from all the people in his life that day about how they view his importance to them. The add-on quality of the verse as the child starts to list everything he is based on others' perceptions is quite lyrical.

As the child talks to all the different people, he fist-bumps them after they tell him what he means to them and then uses the phrase, "I gave it a bam!" This phrase conveys to me a sense of celebration for all that he means to each and every one of those people.

The poem starts with the child in front of the mirror saying,

"I looked in the mirror
And what did I see?
A real handsome dude
Looking just like me."
Then he proceeds to fist-bump ("I gave it a bam") himself.

So, it seems only appropriate that the book ends with the child talking to the reader and telling them to find a mirror, "think of all the things you do and all the things you say", and to start with themselves by giving "yourself a great big smile and your fist a great big bam!" What a celebration of each individual!

Finally, both Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers have author blurbs, done in the same text that explain who they are.

I think the identity of who we are is huge in this book. I can't wait to share it with my students (one in particular). I don't mean to trivialize this book or make it lesson plan-y, but I can definitely see using it at the beginning of the year with a new class as we are building community, learning each others' identities, and how each of us is an important member of the community.

Looking Like Me is a gem!!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Testing the Ice

Testing the Ice : A True Story About Jackie Robinson is a beautiful story written by Jackie's daughter, Sharon Robinson. It is illustrated in Kadir Nelson's amazing way -- his illustrations of people seem to have light shining from their faces.

From reading the back flap, I found out that the words in this book are actually a story about her father that Sharon Robinson has told many times through the years. I'm just personally delighted that she has committed the story to a book format for all to enjoy.

The story of Jackie Robinson's emergence from the Negro Leagues to the all-white major leagues is the stuff of legends. Robinson briefly touches on that part of her dad's life in this story. However, the man she knew as "dad" was just a regular guy.

It was when their family moved to Connecticut, and made friends with their neighbors, Candy, Willie, and Christy that this story takes place. Jackie Robinson had decided to retire from major league baseball, and had far more time at home. The Robinson's new neighbors loved seeing Jackie's trophy room and hearing about Jackie's life in the Negro League and then how that changed when Branch Rickey brought him to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

At their new home in Connecticut, there was a lovely lake that the rest of the Robinson family loved to utilize as much as possible -- canoeing, fishing, swimming. But not Jackie. He had never learned to swim and was very fearful of the water.

So, when winter came, and Sharon was dying to go ice skating, she came to her dad to ask permission. What happens next is a beautiful metaphor for how Jackie Robinson is a true hero. He was willing to go where no one else had gone, even though he was frightened for his own safety.

Having Sharon Robinson tell a story like Testing the Ice about Jackie Robinson, the dad, makes him that much more of a hero in my eyes. It is not necessarily what you do in big public situations that make you a hero; it is what you do in your everyday life. Jackie Robinson most definitely has earned the title of "hero"!!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Another Book Fair Find: Falling In

I took advantage of a snow day today to read another book from the book fair shelves. If we don't get back to school tomorrow, I may not have much of a chance to talk about it with the kids!

Last Wednesday was conference night and the book fair was open. One of my fifth grade students, I'll call her Madeline, called me over and asked if a book called Falling In was an Alice in Wonderland take off. I told her I didn't know and hadn't even seen the book before she pointed it out to me. Two things immediately caught my eye, the cool cover and the fact that the author was Frances O'Roark Dowell who wrote Shooting the Moon and the Phineas Macguire series, both favorites of mine. Madeline and I read the book flap together and were both intrigued, so I took a copy home for a read.

Before reading it I looked around on the internet for some info, but since it's a 2010 copyright, I didn't find much. I read it quickly because just like the nurse's closet pulls Isabelle Bean into a different world, Frances O'Roark Dowell pulled me into the story.

Isabelle knows there is something different about her, but she can't put her finger on it. She has difficulty making friends and when she does, the "cool" girls lure them away so Isabelle is left friendless until she just gives up on making friends. She is a bit of an unusual dresser, preferring trips to the thrift stores to trips to the mall, and she is the daughter of orphans, so she has no living relatives other than her mom, and her dad who left when she was 3.

Isabelle is haunted by a buzzing noise that she swears is coming from the floor of her classroom and is easily distracted. This leads to many trips to the principal's office and it is one of these trips that she attempts to help a classmate in the nurse's office. When she follows a mouse into the closet, Isabelle "falls in."

At the bottom she finds herself in a bit of a fairy tale land where all of the children fear a witch who threatens to eat them. The children of this place travel from camp to camp, avoiding the towns that are "in season" for the witch. When Isabelle meets up with them they immediately think she is the witch, eventually figuring out that doesn't make much sense since she is about their age and the witch has been around for as long as they can remember.

As she begins down the path to the nearest children's camp, Isabelle decides she would rather look for the witch and on the way meets Hen, the oldest child of a family who has been given the job of getting all of her younger brothers and sisters safely into camp. Unfortunately, they have become separated and now Hen has to find them. As the two of them head down the trail together, they are taken in by a kindly woman who is very good at finding healing herbs and roots which she leaves for the villagers depending on their need in exchange for food, and other items she needs. Isabelle senses something special about the woman, Grete and discoveries are made about family, magic and stories that aren't quite true. I don't want to ruin any part of the story here, but it's a good one with lessons about tolerance and misjudging people.

The characters in this book are very well written and Frances O'Roark Dowell blends humor with tender moments and fairy tale qualities in a way the keep the reader going. I'll be recommending this one to all of my fourth and fifth graders. It was a great way to "fall in" to the books of 2010.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Funny New Mystery Series

I've just come off one of those weeks where I spent 3 days never moving from my couch or bed. When I did get back to school, I could only go back half days for a while, because my body was still exhausted. During this time, I felt too ill to even read; a true sign of how bad I actually felt. However, there were a few exceptions toward the end of my "sick week", and today's review is about one of them.

There is a new mystery series out called The Brixton Brother(s) by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Adam Rex. The first book in the series is called The Case of the Case of the Mistaken Identity. This book is a very fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek, humorous mystery.

The main character in the mystery series is Steve Brixton. Steve is a huge fan of The Bailey Brothers mysteries series; he has read all 59 of the books in the series. He idolizes the two characters in the series, Shawn and Kevin Bailey, and wants to be just like them. The Bailey Brother mysteries seem to be closely based on the Hardy Boys.

** A quick side note here: I found myself totally connecting with Steve and his fascination with the Bailey Brothers. When I was younger, I also fancied myself to be a sleuth, in the same way that my idol, Nancy Drew, was. I looked for mysteries everywhere. In the beginning of this story, Steve makes the comment that his favorite Bailey Brothers mystery is whatever one he is currently reading. As someone who waited anxiously for a new Nancy Drew to come into our public library, I totally understand what Steve is saying. **

As a reader, I was drawn in by both the mysteries that Steve gets involved with as well as the sly humor that Barnett interjects in liberal doses throughout the book. I say it's sly humor, but I found myself "guffawing" (I think that's the best word for this humor) in many places. The humor is both situational (going to the library to find out a van full of top secret spies, who happen to be librarians, are attacking the library and there to capture you), mystery-related language (old-fashioned words and phrases like: "looks like a goon", "always gets his man", and "in cahoots"), funny illustrations by Rex that accurately matches Barnett's silly words (Steve dressed as a sailor as he went into a bar on the waterfront -- sailor meaning white sailor hat, black eye patch, black mustache, white tie with striped shirt, bell-bottomed pants and coordinating jacket) and kid-friendly, full of action (Steve wishing he could "wallop him with a haymaker to the kisser" when talking about his mom's new boyfriend).

As far as action goes, there is plenty of that. Steve solves his first case by the end of the first chapter. By chapter 6, he is under attack at the library (we don't know the attackers are librarian spies yet). Then, there is all the action that is quoted from the Bailey Brothers series, along with their helpful hints in solving crimes. The liberal quoting of the Bailey Brothers is not random; it very much helps the plot move along. All very fun stuff!

Add the fact that this book has some fun stereotypes: dumb adults at times and clever children, and I think Barnett has a real winner on his hands. My only complaint is that I couldn't find a publishing date for the next book. When I find a series I can't wait to get into kids' hands, I always wish there was more than one book to be able to hand them. I will be putting The Case of the Case of the Mistaken Identity in my class library and anxiously awaiting the next one.

Other reviews can be found at:

Books 4 Your Kids (while here, I found out there is soon to be an interactive website with this book. This site also reminded me that Mac Barnett and Adam Rex have already successfully teamed up to publish 2 picture books)
Book Aunt (a great description in her first paragraph of why this parody works)
Fuse #8 (has a fabulous review, but be sure to check out the video clips at the end -- definitely worth it!!)
Guys With Books (a blog in which both Mac Barnett and Adam Rex are contributors)

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Girl Who Could Fly Discovered at the Bookfair

It's book fair week...two weeks at school and the library is filled with Scholastic book shelves. It never fails that I find something to read that I've never heard of before. The discovered books come with mixed results, but this week I found The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester on the shelf. It looked interesting so I gave it a read and was pleasantly surprised.

Piper McCloud is the only child of a farm couple who are very old fashioned and don't believe in anything that is unusual. Everything has a purpose and everything needs to stick to that purpose. When Piper rolls off of the changing table and doesn't hit the floor, hovering just above it, her parents are shocked and frightened. They do whatever it takes to keep Piper "grounded" including home schooling so she doesn't accidentally fly at school.

As Piper grows older she feels an "itch that she just can't scratch" like something's missing. She begins exploring and leaps of the roof and finds what she's been missing. Once she discovers her special talent, she begins perfecting it in the back field in private, away from her parents, neighbors and small town busy bodies.

When the family attends a church picnic on the Fourth of July, Piper has hopes of making friends, something she has longed for her entire life. However, the busy bodies begin to gossip about the "unusual" child and it ruins any chance she has of making friends. When teams are chosen for a baseball game, Piper is chosen last and sent to the outfield. Having never played baseball before she fails miserably and is kicked off the team by the captain. As she is leaving the field a ball is hit and Piper, determined to show people she can play baseball leaves the ground and flies to make a spectacular catch. Of course the fans and her parents are stunned and they rush her home.

What happens next is a whirlwind of excitement. News media, gossiping neighbors, mean kids, mysterious voices and finally she is taken away to I.N.S.A.N.E. a special school for kids with extraordinary abilities by its director Dr. Hellion...and then the action really begins. Piper meets up with a band of students with special abilities like telekinesis, X-ray vision, super strength, super intelligence just to name a few. It's this part of the story that really keeps the reader in the book. There are a number of plot twists that leave the reader questioning who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Victoria Forester keeps the reader guessing until the end and includes some exciting, edge of your seat adventures with this band of special kids.

I liked the book a lot until the end. While the ending was ok, it seemed a bit quick to me. I have been recommending it to all of my fifth graders and some good fourth grade readers. There are some parts that border on weird, which make the story good, but may be disturbing to some readers.

I love it when I find something unexpected at the book fair!

Other Reviews:
Becky's Book Reviews
Book Nut
Best Book I Have Not Read