Monday, July 17, 2017

Jelly Bean Summer by Joyce Magnin

It's the summer of 1968 and Joyce Ann is desperate to escape -not only from her older sister Elaine and her noisy pet guineas pig, Jelly Bean - but also from the sadness that has filled her house since her brother Bud left.  Bud is a world away fighting a war in a place called Vietnam and now he’s missing, even the government can't find him.  

Joyce comes up with the perfect plan to find some peace - she'll camp out on the roof of their house!  While on the roof Joyce is able to keep an eye on the neighborhood and it's there that she discovers another roof dweller! Brian has his own reasons for being on the roof, yet he too is excited to see Joyce Ann.  Joyce is determined to not not only meet Brian, but become his friend and help him realize his dream.  Unfortunately, along the way the unthinkable happens and threatens to tear apart her plans. Will Joyce be able to make everything “OK” again, or can some things simply never be fixed?

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Tru and Nelle by G. Neri

Summer in Monroeville, Alabama during the Great Depression is pretty much a typical small southern town of the 1930’s.  It’s hot and life is slow-paced.  It’s not the place anyone would expect to find someone famous.  But that’s exactly where where two world famous authors met as children, and became lifelong friends.  Tru has been sent to live with his eccentric cousins after a stint of working on a riverboat showboat with his ever-scheming father.  Nelle is the youngest daughter of the town’s lawyer.  With a mostly absent mother and two older sisters that want nothing to do with her, Nelle has nothing but time on her hands.  At first she is simply intrigued by the new kid in the strange clothes that moved in next door.  They soon bond over their mutual love of mysteries, especially Sherlock Holmes.  Little do they know they will soon be solving a real life mystery of their own.  In the process, they uncover some not so nice truths about their small town and put their own lives in danger!

While this book is middle grade fiction, it's based on the true life friendship of Truman Capote and Harper Lee. It’s a fascinating read as it weaves truth with fiction seamlessly and leave the reader eager to discover more about both authors. Don’t miss the Author’s Note in the back of the book!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Red by Liesl Shurtliff

Have you ever wondered, what’s the “real” story behind the fairytale of “Little Red Riding Hood”?  For example, why does she wear that red cape?  Is she some kind of superhero wanna-be? Why do her parents let her walk through that dark forest all alone?  And by the way, just where are her parents?  Now about the granny, why does she live all alone in the woods? How many grandmothers do you know that prefer to live all by their lonesome in the scary woods?  Then we come to the wolf.  Seriously, how many wolves have you met that dress up in granny clothes and talk?  Does that even really happen?  Read Red by Liesl Shurtliff and find the answers to all these questions and more, so much more!  Red is one twisted fairytale fantasy that takes you on a journey in which you come to expect the unexpected.  Red sets out on a journey to find a solution to help her ailing granny.  Along the way she meets Goldie (future like long friend?), encounters deadly water sprites, dwarves (Snow White did not tell the full story!), an ancient huntsman, a beast, and of course the wolf!  So much happens to Red and Goldie on their quest that it's easy to forget they’re only kids!

As with many fantasies, Red is a wonderful escape from everyday life.  But just when it seems all hope is lost, we’re reminded that in a fantasy anything can happen and magic takes over. What makes this book so special, and different from many other fantasies, is the powerful theme woven throughout the story. The lesson is not readily evident at first, but all at once the readers realize the author's message. I won’t give away the theme here, I’m excited to have students discover the lesson for themselves and share it with me!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Mission Mumbai by Mahtab Narsimhan

Dylan Moore is sure he’s in for the adventure of a lifetime when he’s invited to travel with his best friend's family on a summer vacation to India. Dylan’s excited to learn more about Rohit’s native county, the culture, and of course the delicious food!  Although Dylan does have another reason he's so anxious to escape New York City. A reason he’s not ready to share with Rohit, or even himself yet.

Mumbai proves to be quite an eye-opener for Dylan right from the start.  From upsetting a cow to meeting Rohit’s aunt, who he nicknamed “Boa” for reasons that soon become obvious, the family retreats to the country for what they hope will be a more peaceful vacation.  Not likely.  Dylan does however learn a very important message about family and friendship from an ancient woman. Could her simple wisdom really be the solution he’s been searching for?

This book immediately caught my eye and piqued my interest when I discovered it on the “New Middle Grade Fiction” shelf in the library.  As a sixth-grade teacher, I have had the pleasure of teaching many students either from India, or that have family living in India.  Many of these students travel to India on a regular basis.  I thought reading this book would be a chance for me to peek inside life in India.  Now that I’ve finished the book all I can say is, wow!  I feel as if I have just returned from a two week trip to India myself. Even the terrifying parts (and there are definitely parts of the book that had me on the edge of my seat wondering how anyone could possibly live through what I was reading) left me feeling excited to read more.   However,  from the culture, the food, the city , the countryside, the people, even the monsoons, I want to know more.  I think this book is a perfect example of how books can take readers to faraway places. I am excited to have my students read this book and share their opinions with me.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Masterminds by Gordon Korman

Imagine, for the first thirteen years of your life you’ve lived in the small town of Serenity, New Mexico.  The town has been voted #1 for Quality of Life for fourteen years in a row.  Honesty and integrity are the highest values in town. There are only a total of thirty kids in town. Everyone learns the usual subjects in school, as well courses like Contentment and Mediation.  The main sport is water polo. Homes are spacious and have swimming pools. The town has no crime, no unemployment; all parents have good jobs with many working in the only industry in town, the plastics factory.  Sounds like a perfect life?  Maybe. At least that’s what Eli, Amber, Tori, Hector and Malik used to think. Then Eli tries to bike outside the city limits and becomes terribly sick.  His best friend mysterious leaves town.  But worst of all, the adults in town start acting weird.  Even his own father seems to be hiding something.  Eli fears the worst, could his father actually be lying to him?

Masterminds in the first novel in a new series by author Gordon Korman.  It has all the elements of a blockbuster novel for middle grade readers!  The town of Serenity at first seems like a utopian society, something along the lines of the town in The Giver.  But Masterminds takes place in the present, not the future.  So while at times the genre may seem like science fiction, it has an eerie quality of possibly being realistic fiction. Could this story actually happen?  Do scientists have all the technology they need?  The questions the story poses will make for some interesting conversations.
The story quickly becomes so shocking and unexpected that readers will find it difficult to put the book down. This will be a must read series for many, including me!

Monday, July 20, 2015

A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord

Lily has her hands full this summer, helping her grandparents run the family store and taking care of her beloved dog Lucky who is slowly becoming more and more blind.  But Lily has a plan.  There’s an operation that just might save Lucky’s sight, the only problem is it costs a lot of money.  Lily, with the help of Pépère (her grandfather), is painting and selling bee houses to help raise the money.  Lily has plenty of time to work on the bee houses since her best friend Hannah has become boy crazy. Then one day Lucky gets loose and runs through the nearby blueberry fields.  It’s here that Lily meets Salma, a migrant worker in town with her family to help with the blueberry harvest. Lily has seen migrant workers before at the store, but has never known one personally.  Could the girls become friends?  Or are their differences too great?

I’ve read many books by Cynthia Lord including both Rules and Half a Chance.  While I enjoyed both those books, this is my favorite!  Lily and Salma are engaging characters. I liked how both girls helped each other, but also how the character of Hannah (the “boy crazy” best friend) evolved in the story.  I learned a lot about blueberries and the blueberry business in Maine, something I knew little about before reading this book.  Now when I see blueberries in the store, I have a new appreciation for where they came from and how they got to the store.  I also connected to the story of Lucky the dog.  I have always had pets and I understand how they become a part of the family.  I felt Lily’s desperation to help Lucky and enjoyed the final solution!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Rediscovering Favorites....

Sammy Keyes and the Skeleton Man  
by Wendelin Van Draanen

Every summer I usually get so caught up with discovering and reading new middle grade fiction in preparation for September’s Mock Newbery Club launch, that I have little time to read anything else.  This summer I’m trying to be different.  Sure, I’m still reading every wonderful new book I can get my hands on, but since my recent foray into the Series of Unfortunate Events novels, I’m taking another look at some of the “golden oldies” that I may have missed out on when I as busty raising my own three boys.  As I wrote about earlier, I remember my children being excited every time a new Series of Unfortunate Events book was released. But I never had a chance to read any of the books, there were not too many free moments between taking care of the boys, going back to school, studying, and working various part time jobs.  Reading anything for fun was a luxury.  What I did make time for was reading out loud to the boys.  This is something I will forever be grateful that I did, as I do believe it helped to foster their love of reading and helped them to become the successful young men they are today.

The Sammy Keyes series is another group of books that I remember seeing in the library when the boys were little.  I think one or more of the boys may have even read a few of the books.  I’m embarrassed now to admit that another reason I may not have picked up the books back then was because of the covers. I don’t like scary books (can’t sleep at night if I read them), so seeing skeletons and mummies on the front cover of a book just might have scared me off.  Happily, I rediscovered Sammy Keyes about a year ago when I was searching for engaging mysteries for the sixth graders I teach. After reading the first book in the series, Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, I immediately fell under Sammy’s spell.

Sammy Keyes and the Skeleton Man is the second book in the series.  While you do not need to have read the first book to read this one, the main characters are all there with a few interesting additions such as the Bush Man, Skeleton Man and a new friend for Sammy, Dot.  It doesn’t take long for Sammy to become embroiled in another mystery when she and her friends discover that the neighborhood recluse has been robbed on Halloween.  After calling the police for help, Officer Borsch warned Sammy to “stay out of it”, but in true Sammy-style she just can’t help getting involved. Meanwhile, Sammy’s nemesis, Heather, has a whole new devious plan to take down Sammy and make her the laughingstock of the school.  Heather just might get away with it if Sammy can’t prove to others what Heather’s up to.