Tuesday, January 31, 2012

It's Monday, What Are You Reading??

I have been following the bloggers who post on Mondays about what they've been reading, and have loved seeing the variety of books and materials being read.  So, I've decided to join in the fun.  And yes, I do know that today is Tuesday, but my blog partner had such a great post on Monday about what he was doing with a NCFL grant he received, I didn't want to steal his thunder.

So, here are the books I was reading on Monday, or getting ready to read!!

First of all, this past Saturday, many of the Central Ohio bloggers met for breakfast and book browsing at our favorite independent children's bookstore, Cover to Cover.  You know what happens when a bunch of book-lovers are all in the same place?  Recommendations out the wazoo and my credit card getting a strenuous workout!!  But seriously, how fortunate I feel to live so close to such great people, great readers, and great minds!

Second, Bill and I wrapped up our Looking for Newbery series, and we both made the same commitment - we need to read more and track our reading throughout the year.  I have actually set a goal of reading 150 books this year (way up from last year's number), and GoodReads tells me I'm 5 books ahead of where I need to be.  Hope I can keep this up!!  This past week, books I read were:
  • Scumble by Ingrid Law
  • Neversink by Barry Wolverton
  • Eye of the Storm by Kate Messner
In addition, I am one of second round judges for the Cybils nonfiction picture book category and our conversations are starting to intensify, so I finished reading all the finalists in my category as well.  Though, I can't talk about them in depth here, let me say that each book has some great entry points for students.  Here is a picture of those books:

Finally, I am eagerly looking forward to the stack of books I brought home from Cover to Cover last Saturday.  So many great choices, it's hard to know what to read next!  Next week, I'll have more information about what those choices are.

Hope everyone has a great reading week!  Head over to Jen and Kellee at Teach Mentor Texts to see what even more people are reading!

Monday, January 30, 2012

An NCFL Grant to Extend My Wonderopolis World

A few months ago, several of my Dublin colleagues and I received $500 grants for technology that would allow us to increase literacy in our classrooms. The grant was awarded by the National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL) the sponsors of the Wonderopolis web site. NCFL was looking for ways to help teachers use technology in creative ways to increase literacy.

My friend Maria at Teaching in the 21st Century, an ambassador for Wonderopolis before she was even selected as an official Wonder Ambassador, told me I needed to apply. I've been using the Wonderopolis web site in the library for a while now, since she put me onto it and have found it to work well with all of the kids grades 1 - 5 that I have each day. I figured I had nothing to lose and knew I had been wanting/needing to get some iPads for our library so I applied. Lo and behold, not only did I get one, Maria got one and our kindergarten teacher Kitsy got one. It seems the good folks at NCFL were intrigued by the collaboration possibilities of three recipients in one building. In order to seal the deal the three of us had to sit down and come up with a way to collaborate with the iPads to bring Wonderopolis to a new place at Bailey.

It's been an exciting journey so far and I think we've come up with some pretty good ideas with our collaboration. For example, I've been playing with QR codes this year, I've converted my Amazing Library Race clues to all QR codes, I've been placing QR codes in random books with links to web sites or extensions of the books and recently I've been going through the non-fiction section and putting codes that link to Wonderopolis where the Wonder of the Day extends the book.

The three of us have some big plans for using Wonderopolis to create a file of QR codes that link to Wonders of the Day that will connect to the curriculum standards and beyond and I'm working on some sort of Wonderopolis scavenger hunt for my 4th and 5th graders. It's amazing what great professional development comes out of three teachers sitting down and working together for the good of the students in their building. Amazingly we didn't talk about data or statistics or grades, just how the creative and innovative use of technology will increase our students knowledge base and literacy. Can't wait to get started.

Thanks NCFL for your support of good teaching!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

How I Help My Kids Have Reading Lives (and Join the Nerdy Book Club)

Wow!  What a week this has been for me!  First, we start with all the exciting ALA announcements on Monday.  I had a personal record this year -- I had read and reviewed two of the three Newbery winners in our "Looking for Newbery" series!!  Then, this Saturday, all the Central Ohio bloggers will be gathering to celebrate the awards with breakfast together, followed by a trip to our favorite independent children's bookstore, Cover to Cover.  And I know there will be much conversation as well.

But to top it off, I have an opportunity to do a guest post at The Nerdy Book Club blog today.  I am cross-posting my thinking here, but if you haven't checked out the NBC blog yet, you really need to!  Lots of great weekly posts and ideas!!

I love my job!!  On a daily basis, I have the opportunity to model for my students how I am personally part of a much bigger reading community than just the four walls of our classroom.  I frequently talk to them about my reading life, their reading lives, and how I want them to live the lives of readers. 

I look at how many ways we've been able to break down the physical walls of our classroom, and extend into the virtual reading community; many of those experiences grounded in conversations I had with other book lovers via Twitter.

It was through Twitter that I met Susan Dee (@literarydocent), and discovered that we were both going to begin reading Out of My Mind to our students at precisely the same time.  I teach in Ohio and Susan teaches in Maine.  In 140 characters or less (multiple times!), we came up with a plan for how we could connect our two classrooms via Kidblog.  As we each read this powerful book aloud to our students, we had them take the time to respond to the book on the blog several times a week, and then also respond to each other's thinking.  Their conversations were amazing!!  We capped the experience off with a Skype visit between our two classes.  They were so excited to put names and faces together, especially with the people with whom they had had rich online discussions.  Their "in person" conversations were as thoughtful as their responses on the blog - so delightful!

It was also through Twitter that I met Laurel Snyder (@laurelsnyder), a wonderful author of children's books.  With the upcoming release of her latest book, Bigger Than a Breadbox, this past October, she was offering free Skype visits to classes who might want that experience.  That was a no-brainer for me - I definitely wanted that experience for my students.  Laurel visited us via Skype, but the way she set it up, if felt like we were right there in her living room, just chatting about her book and other issues pertaining to being an author.  After reading the book together and then having a conversation with Laurel, my forty-eight students felt so connected to this author who lives in a different place than they do.  They were thinking and responding like readers in a virtual world.

This year, I have a different teaching situation than before.  I've always taught in a fairly self-contained elementary classroom, but this year I am teaming with another teacher, and I teach two sections of 5th grade language arts each day.  From the beginning, my goal was not to have them be two separate classes; instead, I wanted the physical walls to come down, and have them be part of the same larger reading community.  I turned to my trusty KidBlog again.  I've opened the virtual walls between the two homerooms so that they have conversations with each other about books, recommendations, our read aloud, and their lives as a reader on a regular basis, even when they're not in the same room.  KidBlog is the perfect tool to enable these ongoing discussions.

Recently, I became a member of the Nerdy Book Club (actually, I've been a member all my life; it's just nice to have people organize it so well now!).  I shared my membership in this club with my students, and then asked them what they thought it meant to be part of a book club.  What great conversations ensued!  From the obvious ("you get together and talk about a book") to the more thoughtful ("it gives you a sense of what other people think about the same book you read"), the discussions have been thought-provoking.  And how did I hear about the Nerdy Book Club??  You guessed it -- Twitter again!

Hopefully, the message my students get on a daily basis is that we are all part of a global reading community, and to keep those communities alive, we need to actively participate in them.  I really do want my students to be readers for life, both inside and outside our four classroom walls.   Making that happen is why I love my job!!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

New Gordon Korman is a Book Fair Showoff

We're getting ready to set up our second book fair of the year, we always use Scholastic, and they always include some special price hard cover books. The first year I was in the library the book was Swindle by Gordon Korman. It was one of my very first book reviews at Literate Lives and I followed it up about a year later with a review of Zoobreak and about a year later with a review of Framed. Over the years these reviews have received a lot of attention so I figured why not, I'll review the latest installment in the series, Showoff.

Luthor the guard dog is the featured character in this episode. Griffin is spending six weeks with his friend Ben while Mr. and Mrs. Bing are in Europe trying to sell Mr. Bing's inventions. The one rule in place is "No Plans!" Of course Griffin agrees, but when the kids go to the mall to see a grand champion show dog trouble starts.

Samantha the animal lover takes Luthor the doberman and he uncharacteristically charges the stage and injures the champion pooch. Samantha's family is sued by the owner and Luthor is dropped off at the pound. That doesn't sit well with Griffin so he bails Luthor out and sets his plan, Operation Doggie Rehab, into motion.

Griffin intends to turn Luthor into a grand champion show dog to raise the money to pay the lawsuit to help Samantha get her dog back to keep. As usual parts of the plan work, parts don't and Griffin and Ben get mixed up with some interesting characters, most notably world famous dog trainer Dmitri Trebezhov who has dropped out of the dog game to protest the treatment of the show dogs.

The chapters on Dmitri's training techniques were some of my favorites and had me laughing out loud in spots. I think kids are really going to enjoy them too. This installment of the Swindle series doesn't have quite as much action as the other three, and the team doesn't get totally engaged until close to the end, but it's still fun. Gordon Korman has a way in all of his books of drawing the reader in and keeping them. Whether it's the action, or the characters or the plot twists, he writes books that kids love to read.

I have a feeling that Showoff will be flying off of the book fair shelves.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Looking for Newbery - The Picks

We have had the good fortune to sit down a couple of times during the running of our Looking for Newbery series this year and there were some definite themes to our conversations.

The first, as we debated whether or not to go ahead and run the Looking for Newbery series, was that we think people like our Newbery posts. We're not big number watchers here at Literate Lives; we blog because we enjoy reading and writing about good kids' books, but it is clear that our readership goes up every year while we "look for Newbery." We take that to mean that people must like what we are doing during this time of year, and even with the onslaught of blogs dedicated to Newbery predictions, readers are still finding us, so we decided to continue this year.

The second theme we noticed was that we felt our own personal reading was down this year. Neither of us felt we had read nearly the number of books as in years past, and neither of us felt we had read the winner. Last year we believed that one of us had at least read the winner, we just weren't sure what it was. This year we don't have a feel for the winner AND we feel like we probably haven't read it anyway! Maybe we're all in for another Moon Over Manifest surprise, but there's no telling what the committee will do. All of that being said, we've decided to list the books that we really liked this year. If they win we look like geniuses; if they don't, we still look pretty good because we know these are good books that kids like, and isn't that what it really all about?

Bill's Picks:

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt: I liked it from the start when I read the ARC and I like it just as much now. Quality characters and writing everything you expect from this author and I think it's about time he won a gold medal.

The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy: I'm still on the read aloud band wagon for this one. If anyone has tried it I'd love to hear about it. Why not celebrate Charles Dickens' 200th birthday with this fun tale.

With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo: I definitely like this one for a future Grand Discussion. It will provide lots of great discussion material. The family dynamics are wonderful and I really like the strong parental units!

Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richardson Jacobson: I know it was a long time ago, but this one sticks with you after you read it. I hope it sticks with the judges too.

Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney: I love historical fiction and this one is about a topic that I was totally unaware of until now. I love how the three perspectives weave together.

Karen's favorites this year:

As Bill said, I don't have a good feel for what will win the Newbery this year, but I have had a blast this past month reading frantically to catch up on all the books I felt I had missed in 2011.  I plan on doing a much better job with my reading this year.

Anyway, with no further ado, here are my top 5 (okay, 8!!)  favorites of the year:

Okay For Now - I've listened to the criticisms of this book, but there is something about Doug that just touches my heart.  And the supporting cast including Lil, Mrs. Windemere, and his mom, are so well done and crucial to the plot.  I'm reading this book aloud to one of my language arts classes, and they are as involved with Doug's life as I am.

Inside Out and Back Again - I just reread this one on Friday.  That reread made me once again appreciate how beautiful the language in this story was.  The fact that this story was based on the author's (Thanhha Lai) own life experience as her family fled from Vietnam, made it all the more poignant.  And I'm a sucker for a great novel in verse.

Wonderstruck - I know it probably doesn't even qualify for the Newbery award, but it was absolutely one of my favorite books of the year.  Selznick was a master at illustrating one story, telling another story with words, and then beautifully meshing the two.  Pure genius!!

Ghetto Cowboy - I read this book after hearing about it on twitter, and it has stayed with me ever since.  The concept of a horse stable in the ghetto of Philadelphia was not only intriguing, but also based on true events.  Loved the journey of this main character, and really liked how his dad was trying to make a difference within his own community.

Hound Dog True - Loved this female character, Mattie, and I really, really loved Uncle Potluck.  Such a small story, packed with amazing emotion.  I had many personal connections to this story which added to its power for me.

Cheshire Cheese Cat - Another book that recently came to my attention and I loved it.  I'm not usually a fan of stories with animals as main characters, but I'd most definitely make an exception for this one.  Who knew there could be such great suspense with cheese, mice, cats, a misplaced bird, and Charles Dickens in a pub?!!  Great language abounds in this story, and as an adult, it was fun to know the "inside jokes" in reference to Charles Dickens.

Bigger Than a Breadbox - This story is a great look at how divorce and separation can affect children.  It covers several other themes as well: trying to fit in to a new place and wishing for things you want doesn't always bring you happiness.  I read this aloud to both of my language arts classes and we capped our experience off with a Skype visit with Laurel Snyder.  It was an incredibly thought-provoking read.

Icefall - This was my final read in trying to get to all the best books on mock Newbery lists, and it was such an amazing read.  There was one section of the book where I found myself gasping for air because of the building tension in the action.  At another point, I was sobbing.  Great characters, great setting, Viking folklore, storytelling within a story, and cliffhangers galore.  This one would be slightly old for my 5th graders, but I still loved it!!!!!

So, that wraps it up for this year.  We hope something we've mentioned gets some love on Monday.  But, as Bill said, no matter what, we have both enjoyed some great books this year, and we've had the great opportunity to share them with students as well.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Looking for Newbery - The Aviary

The Aviary by Kathleen O'Dell is an interesting book. Part historical fiction, part mystery it is full of twist and turns that keep the reader guessing and guessing and guessing. I didn't figure it out until the very end and then I'm still not sure I've figured it out!

First there's the Glendoveer Mansion, the family home of a world renown magician whose family perished in a boat crash under mysterious circumstances. The mansion becomes a character in the story with its mysterious rooms and sounds and artifacts. It's the perfect setting for this suspenseful story.

Then there's Clara, the house keeper's daughter. She's a curious girl, but her overprotective mother won't let her leave the house. She looks longingly out the windows when the drapes aren't drawn and wishes she was walking to school with the other neighborhood kids. She believes she suffers from a rare heart disease that makes it to dangerous for her to mingle with the outside world. Clara only knows the Glendoveer Mansion and it's last inhabitant, Mrs. Glendoveer.

Mrs. Glendoveer is the sickly, aged widow of the world renown magician. When she passes away, Clara's only friend is taken away...or is she? Clara still feels her presence and is convinced that there is something she must do so Mrs. Glendoveer can finally rest.

Add, the birds. The birds in the aviary in the backyard. Each a different species, each with a different personality, each with what appear to be very human characteristics. Clara is afraid of the birds, but has promised Mrs. Glendoveer that they will be taken care of after her death. Clara fulfills her promise and begins to notice that the birds are more human than they should be, one of them even speaking.

Begin the investigation. Clara starts to look into things, finding some of the mysterious mansion rooms, sensing the presence of Mrs. Glendoveer and realizing the secret lies with the birds. She befriends one of the school children by waving out an open window and has a partner to help with the investigation since she still isn't allowed to leave the house.

Everything is answered in the end, and the end is satisfying. There are a lot of characters all adding their own piece to the puzzle in interesting and entertaining ways. Although it wasn't a quick easy read, a lot to think about and process, I liked the book. I was a bit afraid that it might be a little long in some places for kids to get into, but several of the Newbery Club members read and liked the book. The writing is certainly well done and the feel Kathleen O'Dell creates with her words definitely works in this mysterious story.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Looking for Newbery - Bigger Than a Breadbox

I would be remiss in our Looking for Newbery series if I didn't include Bigger than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder.  It came out in the fall, but I had the good fortune to read it before that time.  Because of an offer Laurel made on twitter about a free Skype visit with her, I have already written two posts about this book.  One was  my review of Bigger Than a Breadbox, and the other was a synopsis of both of my classes' opportunity to Skype with Laurel Snyder and talk about Bigger Than a Breadbox and a myriad of other questions pertaining to the life of a writer.  Our skype visit with Laurel Snyder was fabulous!

 Bigger Than a Breadbox was our second shared read aloud of the year, and I think I speak for all 49 of my students when I say that Laurel Snyder is an amazing author, and we all loved our time with her and our time sharing this book together!!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Looking for Newbery - Ghetto Cowboy

One day this fall, I was catching up on tweets from people I follow, and I noticed much chatter about a book I hadn't even heard of -- Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri.  While I have been behind on many books I wanted to read, this was different; it was a title that I'd never heard.  The people having the conversation were people who tend to have some of the same reading tastes as me, so I knew Ghetto Cowboy was a book I needed to read. 

Ghetto Cowboy is a work of fiction, though it is based on actual urban cowboys from the Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Queens areas.  In fact G. Neri first learned about these cowboys while reading an article in Life magazine called "Street Cowboys."  I like his title much better - Ghetto Cowboy.

A quick setup to the story: The main character, Cole, has been badly misbehaving back in Detroit.  He has gotten in so much trouble, his mom, who is raising him alone, decides to deliver him to the father he didn't even know existed in Philadelphia, hoping that a man's influence would benefit Cole.  His dad's name is Harper and he helps maintain a stable in the ghettos of Philadelphia where they take in horses of all kinds.  For a hard-nosed, urban kid like Cole, this is all just a little bit too much to absorb.

I loved this book for so many reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is it reminded me so much of the Christopher Paul Curtis's books, The Watsons Go to Birmingham and Bud, Not Buddy. 
  • All of these books have urban settings as a backdrop.  
  • In addition, all these books use a dialect that matches both the characters and the settings.  
  • In each book, the main characters have fallen upon hard times of some sort. 
  • There is a journey that needs to take place in all of these stories, both a physical journey and a journey for the main characters  to find out a critical piece of who they really are.
  • All these stories rely on the some quirky secondary characters to help the main characters on their journey of self-discovery.
Ghetto Cowboy is a book that stayed with me so much, I've reread it two other times since my first reading.  I don't know if this book will get any recognition on January 23, but I do know that it is absolutely one of my top 5 favorite middle grade reads for 2011!!!!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Looking for Newbery - The Wonderstruck Conundrum

Three years ago librarians were faced with a similar dilemma, what to do with Brian Selznick's The Adventures of Hugo Cabret. Well, he's done it again, what do we do with Brian Selzinick's Wonderstruck.

Is it Newbery? Caldecott? Graphic Novel? None of the above?

Whatever category you put it in, it's good. Selznick has a way of weaving stories and pictures together like nobody else right now. In Wonderstruck the stories of Ben and Rose start out separate, but knowing how Brian Selznick works, the reader knows at some point they will come together.

Ben is a partially deaf boy living in Minnesota in 1977. He doesn't know his father, but lives a happy life with his mother and her family in a tiny fishing cabin. When his mother dies suddenly, Ben begins to wonder about the family he never knew. While looking around the cabin he finds a book with a mysterious inscription and decides it's a clue that he must follow to New York City to find his past.

Rose is a girl, practically a prisoner in her own home, in 1927 Hoboken, New Jersey escapes to New York City following an actress she idolizes.

Both children find the answers they are looking for and more in the city and when the pictures and text come together they find each other. It really is a fairly simple story but in the hands of Brian Selznick it twists and turns through adventures involving amazing characters that change the story every time they enter and leave.

Hugo Cabret is still a popular book in the library and when I brought out Wonderstruck, the reserve list grew and grew and grew. We are still working our way through it and kids are still adding their names to the end of it. The books are magical and draw kids in, all kids, regardless of reading level get the books and read them again and again.

Brian Selznick has done it again!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Looking for Newbery - Breadcrumbs

Is there anyone who has read Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu that hasn't loved it and its themes and its beautiful language?!  If so, I haven't talked to them.

I needed a quick review today, so as I was looking back at the reviews I've written this year, I found a small snippet I wrote after the 48 Hour Challenge last June.  It all still holds true, so I'm copying it here:

**I finished Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. I don't want to ruin the plot, because this book doesn't even come out until this October, but I do have to say the themes within the story make it an incredibly important read. A couple of notes, however. The main character is at one point reading When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. I loved how cleverly Ursu lets the reader know that without ever mentioning the actual title, and how well she connected the two story lines. Another part that truly stuck a chord with me is the following:

'Somewhere ahead there was a boy who had been her best friend. She had known so many versions of him, she carried all of them with her.'

If that passage doesn't capture the essence of friendship, I'm not sure what does. I kept reading the section over and over, loving it more each time.**

As I reread this brief reflection, I remembered how much this passage, and so many more passages just like it, in Breadcrumbs moved me.  It is a book that is sure to be a classic and quite possibly wearing a Newbery medal in the very near future.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Looking for Newbery - Okay for Now

Frequent readers of Literate Lives know how Karen and I feel about Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt. This book has been at the top of my list since the beginning and that hasn't changed. I have used it as my "measuring stick" this year. Everything I read was compared to Okay for Now.

In all of his books, Gary Schmidt creates and develops characters that stick with the reader even after the book is finished. In Okay for Now he brings back a minor character from The Wednesday Wars and develops him and his family into a story that keeps the reader interested and moving through the book.

Doug Swieteck is a boy with a tough life. An abusive father, a troubled brother, a mom who just tries to keep things together for her family. Fortunately he meets some people who take an interest in his life and help him through the tough times. Mr. Powell the librarian who spots some talent in Doug and helps him develop it. Lil Spicer, a girl his age who befriends him and even helps him get a job and a science teacher that treats him as an individual, not his brother.

I wrote a more complete review here, and we used it at our first Grand Discussion this year which I wrote about here. We recently looked at a list counting the number of awards that various books have won, Okay for Now was down the line a bit, but as far as I'm concerned, it's still number one.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Looking for Newbery - Amelia Lost

I have been reading many places about the literary merit of Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming.  Now that I've read Amelia Lost, can I just say, "Wow!!"  It is worthy of any honor it might receive in this upcoming awards season!!!

I love how, much like Wonderstruck, there are two parts of the story that flip back and forth until the entire story line merges together toward the end. 

One part of the story is cliffhanger after cliffhanger as the reader waits, eagerly hoping that Amelia will land safely at Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean for her refueling on the final leg of her around the world flight.  Instead, we hear about call signals missed between the Coast Guard and Amelia - they can't seem to hear one another, even though several people in the United States heard some of her distress calls on their CB radios at home.  The tension is built so well by Fleming, I could actually feel my stomach clenching as I hoped someone would find and save Amelia, even though I am well aware of the outcome of the search.

The other part of the story takes us back in time, starting when Amelia was born and gives us the background information necessary to understand this very complex woman.  Amelia is at times caring,  and at other times selfish, but she always has an adventurous streak within that pushes her to test her limitations.  Many of the insights I gained about Amelia were foreshadowing possible reasons for her ill-fated final flight.

This could very well be one of the best biographies I've ever read!  The language is gorgeous and there are many quotes from Amelia that tie it all together.  And the extra artifacts and other information Fleming intersperses throughout the book just add to its depth. 

Amelia Lost is absolutely a winner!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Looking for Newbery - Small as an Elephant

Every year it seems that there is at least one amazing book that, because of its release date, gets lost in the Newbery shuffle. I read Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson back in March and marked it Newbery Watch in my journal, then I sort of forgot about it. As I began looking at other watch lists the title popped back up again and I remembered that it was indeed a 2011 title. I hope the Newbery judges have a better memory than I do!

Small as an Elephant starts in a campground on an island off the coast of Maine. Eleven year old Jack Martel comes out of the tent he share with his mom only to find his mom gone. He then sets out an adventure to find his way home, or at least to someplace safe. Jack is torn throughout his journey about how much he should reveal about himself. Author Jennifer Richard Jacobson does an outstanding job of keeping the reader wondering what the full story is too.

I remember wondering what kind of parent just leaves their 11 year old in the middle of a campground without any information about their whereabouts. I remember wondering if she had just run to get more supplies and would be back soon. I remember feeling angry, just like Jack, when I realized she wasn't coming back. I remember wanting Jack to tell someone safe about his predicament and I remember understanding why he didn't in order to protect his mom.

I remember a lot about this book 10 months after reading it and I think that speaks to the power of the writing. Slowly the facts of Jack's life are revealed, his love of elephants, his mother's mental illness and his fight to protect her so he can stay with her. Jennifer Richard Jacobson uses a string of characters along Jack's journey to reveal of the important facts about his story.

Recently we had a preliminary vote at our student Newbery Club, and Small as an Elephant made it to number one on several of the lists. Here's hoping it makes it to the top of some of the Newbery judges' lists too.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Looking for Newbery - Sir Gawain the True

I picked up Sir Gawain the True by Gerald Morris from the library multiple times, but I just never go around to reading it up until this point.  But when perusing one of my favorite places for Mock Newbery titles, I saw that Sir Gawain made the shortlist of the Heavy Medal blog at SLJ.  I knew it was time to get this book from the library one last time and actually read it!

But in this post, I'm not going to talk about Sir Gawain the True's literary merits.  I'm just going to say that this book was flat out F-U-N!!  It's the kind of book to which kids will gravitate, especially boys, though as a female, I had belly laugh after belly laugh myself, so girls might be amused as I was.  There are great fights, people getting bopped on the head, magical elements, dragon slaying, and beheadings.  And the illustrations by Aaron Renier are perfect for this book - my favorite illustration involves a knight wearing bunny slippers.  Kids will love this!!

But through all the humor, there actually is a great message for kids about staying true to your word and being polite.  And knowing that, I am pleased to find out that there are other books Morris has written in this series - The Knights' Tales.

Now that I've written this post, I'm actually going to go back and read about why Nina and Jonathan put Sir Gawain the True on their mock Newbery shortlist.  Regardless, I'm so happy I finally read it and can now share it with students.  Sir Gawain is pure entertainment!!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Looking for Newbery - With a Name Like Love

I wish I could remember which list include With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo because it's one of my favorites. I won't lie, I was a bit put off by the title, sounded a little romantic for my taste, but once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down.

At thirteen, Ollie is the oldest daughter of a traveling preacher named Everlasting Love. Everlasting is the son of a traveling preacher and loves the life of going from town to town saving souls and preaching the word. Ollie, on the other hand, is a typical 13 year old who would love to settle down somewhere, attend a real school, have friends other than her sisters and live in a real house, not the trailer pulled behind her father's truck. She loves her father and respects what he does, she just wishes he would do it in a more permanent setting.

When the Loves pull into Binder, a small town like so many others, their life changes. Ollie meets a boy with a cloud over him. His father has been killed and his mother is in jail after admitting to the murder. His family lives on "the wrong side of the tracks" and the rest of the town won't give them a break. Ollie feels sorry for him and thinks there is more to the story than what is known publicly. She talks it over with her mother and father and pretty soon the family is wrapped up in the politics and drama of an unsolved murder and a family in crisis.

Tess Hilmo does great job of creating the tension of the small town complete with a crooked sheriff with connections to the state attorney, a bitter mean woman who runs the local store and her bully sons. I was angry at all of them as I read the story and couldn't wait for each one of them to "get theirs!"

Of course the story wouldn't be complete without the positive side of life in the small town and Ollie's family is blessed to be taken in after a fire by Mrs. Mahoney who understands Ollie's desire to settle down and does what she can to make that happen. Tess Hilmo uses her to provide hope for Ollie and to temper the bad side of a bad situation.

This is absolutely one of my favorite books of the year. I have recommended it to the better fifth grade readers because there are some fairly graphic violent moments and themes that a mature reader can handle. I hope this book doesn't get lost in the shuffle because it is definitely well done. I may be jumping the gun a bit, but I can see this as a future Grand Discussion selection.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Looking for Newbery - Hound Dog True

Hound Dog True by Linda Urban felt very personal for me and therefore touched my heart in profound ways. 

First, like the main character, Mattie, one of my daughters had a very difficult time talking to others when she was young - I saw firsthand how painful her shyness could be.  Every time Mattie moved, she would need to get up in front of her new teacher and new classmates and share something interesting about herself.  The time, energy, and agonizing that went into this for her was painful to read.  She protected herself with her writing, her imagination, and her solitude.  When a new character, Quincy, tried to break past the wall Mattie had built around herself, Mattie questioned her motives and tried to insulate herself from having too much contact with her.

Second, Uncle Potluck, Mattie's uncle, a school custodian, reminded me so much of a custodian from my school who just passed away.  They were both articulate, had many rich life experiences, they cared for others, and they always wanted to make children feel good about themselves.  Uncle Potluck loved Mattie unconditionally and saw her for exactly who she was.  What a gift for Mattie.  I loved the part when the reader finds out how Potluck got his name, but I do think that if I was sharing this with students, I would need to fill in some background knowledge about what a potluck actually is.

The language that is used in this book is terrific, but some of my favorite phrases come from Uncle Potluck:
  • "traitorous knee, 
  • gave its service in the illumination of youth, 
  • director of custodial arts, 
  • recording our custodial endeavors for posterity, 
  • prognostication."  
And that's just to name a few.

Another part of Hound Dog True that I loved was how Mattie learned to be brave about big things, you have to do many small things that are brave as well.  Being brave is like being in training -- thanks to Mattie's school principal for that analogy.

And finally, how perfect that the reader sees the power of writing to get a character past difficult times.  That's a huge message!

Hound Dog True is a wonderful book with incredible characters and lovely language.  Definitely another favorite for me in 2011.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Looking for Newbery - Chengli and the Silk Road Caravan

One of my all time favorite Newbery winners is A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park. I love the story and the history that goes with it and Linda Sue Park does such a beautiful job of writing that I made it a regular in my read aloud rotation when I was still in the class room. It was a book that students didn't generally pick up on their own, but when they heard the story they loved it too. I added it to one of our early Newbery Club reading list and as usual, the kids who read it loved it.

It was because of A Single Shard that I was drawn to Chengli and the Silk Road Caravan by Hildi Kang. I found it on the same Twitter list I mentioned earlier and the subject matter drew me in. Chengli is a boy in ancient China, working as a laborer for a silk merchant in Chang'an China, the trading center for all of the caravans coming across the desert.

He is drawn to the desert by a mysterious wind that only he can feel or hear. Chengli believes it is the spirit of his dead father, a well respected inspector. He finally reaches a point of not being able to resist the calling of the wind and runs away from his master and the old cook who served as his guardian after the death of his mother. He joins a caravan that is headed across the desert as camel keeper. As fate would have it, his caravan is chosen to escort the girl princess who has been promised in marriage to a distant king.

Hildi Kang does a masterful job of describing the difficult life of the caravan. Walking for days and weeks and months on end through hot deserts, fighting bandits and protecting themselves from unscrupuolous fellow caravan workers. On the journey Chengli and the princess develop an uneasy friendship and when he is responsible for saving her life twice, their friendship becomes strong.

Chengli's journey is not a waste. Along the way he meets officials who knew his father and don't believe the son of such a respected inspector could be working as an animal keeper for a caravan. Chengli is able to convince them by showing them the one clue that links him to his father and the story ends with the promise of a bright future.

Hildi Kang brings the reader into the desert with the caravan and the excitement of the chase when the princess is kidnapped is hard to put down. It's obvious from the detail that she has done her research and she tells the story of Chengli in a way that is interesting and easy to read. With cliff hangers in every chapter, this would make a great read aloud and I think it deserves more attention then it has been given.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Looking for Newbery - Sparrow Road

I'm going to be honest,  Bill and I agreed to not tell what our favorite books are until the very end of our series, but I have to make this declaration: I love, love, love Sparrow Road by Sheila O'Connor!!  As a friend said recently, I'm surprised this book isn't being more seriously talked about in regards to the Newbery award (I found it on the Anderson's Bookshop Mock Newbery list).

Sparrow Road is a story that tugged at my heartstrings from the first sentence all the way to the last.  The main character, Raine O'Rourke (great name, right?), moves far away from home when her mother takes a summer job as a cook/maid at an artists' retreat on Sparrow Road.  Raine spends a lot of time wondering why they have moved from their familiar home with her grandpa to a place called Comfort, where they know no one, and  also wonders what the relationship is between her mom and the head of the artists' retreat, Viktor.

The artists themselves make wonderful foils for Raine - so incredibly quirky and eclectic.  Each artist has a gift - Lillian writes poetry and plays the piano, Eleanor is writing a book, Josie makes gorgeous quilts and other fabric creations, and Diego constructs art from others' garbage.  Each of these individuals contribute greatly to Raine finding her inner creative self during the summer.

The fact that the house that hosts the artists' retreat used to be an orphanage plays heavily into the story line.  It becomes part of Raine as a writer and as a person, and we discover interesting tidbits about other characters in the story as well.  The orphanage part truly is intertwined throughout everyone's story in a masterful way by O'Connor.

The language in the story is gorgeous as well.  I'm just listing a few examples:

"This is going to take some brave from both of us" -- Raine's mom talking about their move to Sparrow Road.

"Diego was right.  Sparrow Road wasn't really silent.  It was filled with a background hum most people didn't slow down enough to hear.  A steady insect buzz, birdsong, the rustle of leaf brushing against leaf.  I could even hear the wind whistle through the weeds." -- Raine commenting on her first day of silence, something enforced for the artists at Sparrow Road to get in touch with their creativity.

"Just tell yourself you're going for a walk.  Forget you're up on stage.  Disappear while the words do all the work.  Come on back when the audience starts clapping." -- advice Raine gets when she gets stage fright about sharing her story with others.

There's another integral part of the story that I've deliberately left out because it's too important for you to hear it from me.  You really need to read about it and see how it develops on your own.

In case there were any doubts in your mind, I ADORE Sparrow Road!!!!!!!!!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Looking for Newbery - The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale

First of all, let me apologize for going with a "re-post" so early in our yearly quest for Newbery winners. We spent the past week in Florida, a surprise gift to our children, and I'm still trying to wake up after 16 hours on the road and coming home to a house that looked like Christmas just ended a few hours ago, when it was really a week and oh starts again tomorrow!

Let me just wrap up the apology by saying it was all worth it. As my kids get older I know these family trips will be getting fewer and farther between so I treasure every minute of them. There's a future blog post here I think, but for now, let's look for Newbery.

I posted The Cheshire Cheese Cat back in November and since then have gotten it into the hands of several students who absolutely love it. One of them even came to me asking about Charles Dickens books in the library. We discussed titles and, given the season, A Christmas Carol came up. She wasn't aware that the famous story done by the Muppets, Mickey Mouse and countless others was actually a literary classic written in the 1800s. I don't know if she went on to read any other Dickens classics, they would have been a challenge, but in any case this book served as an introduction to great literature.

I said in my original post that it would make a great read aloud, and I'll stand by that. The chapters end with great cliff hangers and the twists and turns are exciting and fun. I haven't seen this on a lot of lists so far, but I did find it on a list my friend Maria at Teaching in the 21st Century sent me on Twitter. She and I had a conversation with our Newbery Club members about the books we have been reading and I made the point that with all of the books I've read this year, I still don't think I've read the winner. Time will tell, and I'll still give my opinion.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Looking for Newbery - Dead End in Norvelt

I had the pleasure of hearing Jack Gantos speak in 2010 at a dinner during the NCTE convention.  He was witty, clever, quirky,  and articulate.  So it came as no surprise when I read his book, Dead End in Norvelt, that it has the same characteristics that he does.

Dead End in Norvelt came to my attention as I followed various Mock Newbery groups online.  This book was mentioned on Heavy Medal's blog at SLJ.  As I look at how many post-it notes I put in this book while reading it, I would definitely have to agree with those opinions.

I enjoyed so much about Dead End in Norvelt, but my favorite part of the book was the relationship between the main character, Jack Gantos, and his elderly neighbor, Miss Volker.  Together, they are quite busy one summer writing obituaries for the many other elderly people dying in Norvelt (a town named after Eleanor Roosevelt).  What is unique about the obituaries that Miss Volker composes and has Jack scribe, then type, are their depth.  Miss Volker not only tells the pertinent details about the deceased, but she also connects them to the person's personal history as well as the history of the world.  She is so passionate when she dictates the obituaries for Jack.

Miss Volker says:

"History often sheds more light on the present than the past."

Toward the end of the book, Jack sums up why Miss Volker feels it is so necessary to revisit history:

"The reason you remind yourself of the stupid stuff you've done in the past is so you don't do it again.  That was what Miss Volker had been teaching all these years."

What a great lesson for us all!

One of Jack's quirky characteristics was his perpetual nosebleeds.  Anytime he was worried, in trouble, grossed out, or under any pressure, his nose would respond by spurting blood.  Of course, the nosebleeds usually happened at very inopportune times; one of my favorites was when he was looking at a dead body for the first time in a funeral home and his nose started dripping blood on the white satin lining of the casket.  He had just seen the person's dentures and when wondering out loud why they weren't in the person's mouth, he was told the lips were sewn together so dentures are not necessary.  The information proved to be a little too much for Jack.

Between being grounded for the entire summer for disobeying his mother, digging a hole for a bomb shelter for his dad, reading myriads of books on historical events while grounded, helping write obituaries, driving Miss Norvelt's car, and wondering if the Hells' Angels are coming to live in Norvelt or destroy it, Jack is quite a busy guy.

I enjoyed one of Jack's descriptions of himself:

"My brown curls stood up on my head like a field planted with question marks.  There was no reason to brush it.  The question marks would just stand up into exclamation points and then wilt back into question marks.  Besides, I was a boy.  It is okay to be a boy slob because moms think they still have time to cure you of your bad habits before you grow up and become an annoying adult slob for someone else."

What a gift of words - it elicited a great visual for me!  Passages such as this one and the many obituaries Miss Norvelt dictated remind me of the beautiful language I would expect from a Newbery winner.  Starting our "Looking for Newbery" series with Dead End in Norvelt seems like a really good idea!