Monday, June 29, 2015

Dear Hank Williams by Kimberly Willis Holt

     WARNING:  Do not start reading this book and think you can predict the ending. I guarantee you will be wrong!  When I first began reading this book I thought, “Oh, what a cute story.  I like the letter-writing format.”  I felt pretty confident I knew the “happy” ending part, after all, I’ve read a lot of books, right?  I was totally unprepared for what happened.  I am not ashamed to admit I did not see it coming and I did go back and reread most of the book to see if I missed anything. This is one of those books that will grab your heart and not let go.  It delivers a powerful message: Life includes both beginnings and endings, but through it all, it’s family and friends that see us through.

I did not want to say good-bye to Tate, Aunt Patty Cake, Uncle Jolly and Frog.  They'll be with me for a long, long time.

       Three features drew me to this book from the start. First, as a newly published (2015) middle grade fiction novel, it may be a contender for the Newbery Award.  Therefore it’s a book that we’ll be including in our Mock Newbery Book Club this fall.  Second, the genre is historical fiction.   I like historical fiction because it usually shares some new side of history that the author has discovered during her research.  Historical fiction helps make history fascinating and attainable for so many readers.  Finally, I was intrigued by the format of this book.  The entire book is written as a series of letters from a young girl, Tate P. Ellerbee, to a newly rising country singer, Hank Williams.  Through Tate’s letters we learn about her life in the small town Rippling Creek, Louisiana in 1948.  We learn not only about Tate and her family, but also about the people of the town and events that threaten to devastate, yet may bring people closer in the end.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket

The Baudelaire orphans have finally begun to feel the first glimmers of hope (and dare I say happiness?) since their parents’ untimely death in that horrible fire.  Mr. Poe has taken them to live with their Uncle Monty, known to others as Dr. Montgomery, an esteemed scientist.  Uncle Monty studies and collects reptiles, especially snakes.  He even has a special room in house, The Reptile Room, in which he cares for all of his “pets”.
Despite being extremely busy with his research and planning an excursion to Peru, Uncle Monty welcomes the orphans with open arms and quickly makes them feel at home.  The orphans join Uncle Monty in preparing for the trip to Peru, each with their own special jobs to do:  Violet designing snake traps, Klaus reading up on Peru, and Sunny is busy biting a rope into shorter lengths. Uncle Monty also begins to teach the children all about the reptiles and snakes that are more like his family than the deadly animals others see them as.  Life seems to be settling into a nice, comfortable routine for the Baudelaire orphans that is until Uncle Monty’s new assistant Stefano arrives.  He seems strangely familiar to the orphans….

The Reptile Room is the second book in A Series of Unfortunate Events.  As with volume one, the action is fast paced and the book difficult to put down.  I continue to be hooked on the series and look forward to more adventures with the Baudelaires this summer!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

My Letter to Lemony Snicket...

June 11, 2015
Dear Mr. Lemony Snicket,

I regret to inform you that I recently had the misfortune of reading The Bad Beginning.  In fact, to compound this misery, seventy-six of my sixth grade students joined me in this extreme streak of bad luck.  For the past two weeks we have been distressing daily over the injustices suffered by the Baudelaire orphans.  Many of us have lost sleep in order to learn if the children survived yet another round of evil.  As distressing as the loss of their parents was, reading about the horrendous Count Olaf was almost more than we could bear. Personally I found myself regularly urging the children to run, run as fast as they could to find the police.  I am sure many people thought I had lost my marbles if they observed me yelling at the book.  I did not have the heart to explain my agony and spoil their day by sharing the misery of the Baudelaire orphans.

 I am also curious if there may be more to Mr. Poe than meets the eye.  His miserable cough does have the effect of making one feel sorry for him.  However, I fear that Mr. Poe is hiding a mysterious past. Is it possible his cough is actually a nervous reaction that occurs only when he fears other are close to discovering his secret?  It does seem as if the great misfortune affecting the Baudelaire orphans is the complete lack of stable, reliable adults in their lives, starting with the loss of their parents. (And I am not at all convinced their parents are dead.  I fear Count Olaf may be holding them prisoner on a remote and dreary island. Maybe someone needs to investigate further?)

Unfortunately, tomorrow is our last day of school.  I feel I must share with you the sad news that many of my students, myself included, will continue to read about the Baudelaire orphans over the summer. While that is certainly a gloomy way to spend one’s summer, we feel we need to continue on this journey with the orphans.  We will regularly be venturing into our public libraries in order to search for the rest of the volumes detailing the sad misfortunes of the orphans.

An Unfortunate Reader

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill by Megan Frazer Blakemore

So often when I think of historical fiction I think of the Civil War, World War II, and the Great Depression.  And while historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, I am always on the lookout for books that highlight lesser-known, yet equally fascinating time periods of the past. The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill by Megan Frazer Blakemore does just that. The novel captures the Cold War between the United States and Russia, which fueled the “McCarthy Era”, a time between the late 1940s and early 1950s when Senator Joe McCarthy made it his mission to hunt down “spies” based largely on unsubstantial rumors and innuendo.  Unfortunately these investigations spread fear and distrust, turning neighbor against neighbor, leaving many to wonder what they could believe in and whom they could trust.

“Hazel Kaplansky, star student, holder of knowledge, solver of mysteries, and future double agent” lives in the quaint town of Maple Hill, Vermont in 1953.  It’s a quiet little town, but Hazel is determined to keep her family safe in case of an enemy attack.  She starts by preparing a fallout shelter (in the cemetery her family runs), and then discovers “evidence” that leads her to believe spies have infiltrated her small town.  When she reads that McCarthy investigators have arrived to interview workers at the factory in her town, she is even more convinced.  But whom can she trust to help her?  Her best friend recently moved.  The new boy in town, Samuel Butler, might be a possibility, but he has some serious secrets of his own.

Hazel learns important lessons, both through her investigations, the spy investigations at the plant, and her friendship with Samuel:

“Sometimes we want to believe in something so badly, we see what we want to see instead of what’s there.  Then again, maybe if we believe in something enough, maybe it is real.”

And while these lessons may have opened her eyes to new realities, it is clear that Hazel will continue on, solving mysteries in Maple Hill and beyond.