Laura Amy Schlitz

A few weeks ago I had the honor of hearing Laura Amy Schlitz speak about her Newbery win for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village (out in paperback on December 23).  WOW!  If you have the opportunity to meet Ms. Schlitz or hear her speak, you must must must do it!  

Ms. Schlitz began her presentation by walking onto the “stage”, removing her shoes, and performing Giles’, the beggar’s, monologue from her Newbery-winning book.  Man, can that woman act!  She had the room full of librarians and teachers rolling in the aisles.  Her students are so lucky to have her.

She then spent the rest of her presentation talking about her writing career and the pinnacle- her Newbery win.  I was shocked to find that she had written a novel under a pseudonym in 1990.  She then assumed she could get anything published, and proceeded to write her dream novel, a huge tome of historical fiction; The Nightingale’s Cage, 700 pages.  Sadly, it never found a publisher.  During this time, she wrote the monologues for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village in 1996 while waiting to hear back from publishers about her dream novel.  The monologues were written for her students and never intended for a wider audience,  When her dream novel was rejected over and over, she gave up on the publishing industry.  She especially knew that no one was interested in a childern’s book about medieval times told in dramatic verse.  

Inevitably, she was told year after year that the childrens’ performances were wonderful and that she should really try to get the monologues published.  When she finally decided to send out the manuscript, it was only to prove everyone wrong.  That way she would be able to say, “See, no one wants it”.  So, she sent out 11 copies to various publisher (which she named) and was stunned to receive an acceptance email from Candlewick.  She then imitated her reaction, which included bounding down the school hallways due to excitement!  Of course, it took years for the book to come out, and in the meantime she published other novels.  But when the book was published, and Newbery buzz started building, she honestly did want to win the award and woke up at 4am the morning of, hoping for a phone call!

Laura Amy Schlitz was a phenomenal speaker and I can not recommend her enough.  Her honest description of winning Newbery was refreshing and thrilling to experience vicariously through her.  Her performance of Giles’ monologue was flawless and full of laughs.  And she was extremely sweet when she held the book signing at lunch later that day.

Tween Book Buying Guide for the Holidays- The Realistic Fiction Fan

Realistic fiction is always the most popular genre in my classroom.  Middle schoolers love to read about other middle schoolers!  Some of the most popular choices in my classroom would invariably make great gifts!

  • Stanford Wong Flunks Big-time , Millicent Min, Girl Genius, and So Totally Emily Ebers by Lisa Yee- This series by Lisa Yee is always popular.  Everyone can identify with one of the main characters, whether it’s Millicent, Emily, or Stanford.  And kids love that the same story is told, but from the perspective of each character.  It makes each book just different enough from the last one while still retaining that familiarity that is so important for a lot of my readers.  Plus, Lisa Yee is hysterical!

 

  • Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis- A personal favorite, Emma Jean represents that kid everyone remembers from middle school- lacking certain social skills, reveling in being different, and getting into everyone’s business. And her classmate, Colleen, is the girl who just wants to be popular, even if some of the “popular” ways go against her sweet and compassionate personality. A gentle read, this novel is perfect for fans of realistic fiction about middle school.

 

  • The Graduation of Jake Moon by Barbara Park- A word of warning- this is a sad book! However, it’s always a popular choice for boys and girls alike. This short novel deals with Jake’s relationship with his grandfather as his Alzheimer’s slowly worsens. You meet Jake when he is in third grade and follow him through eighth grade. He starts out looking after his grandfather an hour a day, a job that becomes more and more burdensom. He is embarrassed by his grandfather’s increasingly erratic (and sometimes crazy) behavior. Looking after his grandfather slowly alienates him from his friends, as he is embarrassed to have them see his grandfather. This is an issue a lot of kids deal with these days, and this slim novel is heavy-hitting.

 

  • Rules by Cynthia Lord- This is a powerful story about a young girl whose brother is autistic. Twelve-year old Catherine tries her best to help David get along in the world, developing lists of rules for him to follow. However, while she loves her brother, she is trying to live her own life, too. When a new girl moves in next door, Catherine isn’t sure she wants her to know about David. A great novel to introduce autism and special needs to tweens, this isn’t a preachy story and my students love it!

 

  • The Landry News by Andrew Clements- Andrew Clements is probably the most popular author in my 6th grade classroom. While all of his novels are a hit, this one is particularly popular this year. Mr. Larson has taught for 20 years and he’s burned out. So he decides to let his fifth graders do a project on their own while he sits back and relaxes. So when a student, Cara Landry, writes a newspaper with an editorial about the lack of teaching going on in room 145, the former “Teacher of the Year” gets very upset. Realizing that the girl is stating the truth, he starts a unit on journalism and the class enthusiastically begins a newspaper. The newspaper is a huge success. However, when she allows a very personal story about divorce to be printed, the principal sees it as an opportunity to get rid of Mr. Larson. A great story about the First Amendment, kids can’t put this down!

 

 

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Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-you Notes

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-you Notes is the second book in the Moxy Maxwell series.  Moxy is a funny kid, always scheming to get out of her “boring” chores and work, like the summer reading she has to do in the first book.  In her latest adventure, she has promised her mother that her Christmas thank-you cards will be completed on the day after Christmas.  Of course, she made this promise at Easter (when last year’s Christmas thank-yous were finished.  You see the problem?).  What she didn’t know then was that she and her twin brother would be visiting their father, a big mover and shaker, in Hollywood two days after Christmas!  Obviously, Moxy has much better things to do than write thank-you cards- packing, planning what to wear to the big New Year’s Eve bash, and figuring out how to get “discovered” while in Hollywood are just a few of those things.

All hope seems lost.  Until Moxy has a  genius idea; she will write one generic thank-you letter and photocopy it on her stepfather’s brand new copier!  Ok, so technically no one is allowed to touch her stepfather’s new copier, but Moxy is sure no one will mind once she explains her genius idea.

As you can imagine, nothing works out as planned for Moxy.  But you can’t help but laugh at her antics and the situations she gets into!  This is a great book for those who loved the first Moxy story and for reluctant intermediate readers.

 

*This review reflects my opinion and not those of the Cybils Middle Grade panel as a whole.

Tween Book Buying Guide for the Holidays- The Reluctant Reader

Every year I begin our reading workshop with a reading survey.  It lets me get to know my new students as readers and I enjoy learning about their thoughts on reading.  Without fail, at least half (sometimes 75%) of my new students note that they dislike reading.  Their reasons are varied, from not having the time to read, to hating books, and sometimes just a lack of good books to choose from.  Reluctant readers are some of my favorites, because the feeling I get when I am able to turn them on to reading is amazing.  This holiday season, try to share the joy of reading with a reluctant reader.

Some favorites in my room, which always hook reluctant readers:

  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney-  Told in prose and illustrations, Jeff Kinney’s hysterical tales of Greg and his middle school misadventures are impossible to keep on the shelf.  For the last two years my students have passed these around to each other.  Greg is a typical middle schooler who has an embarrassing mom, a strict dad, a crazy older brother, and a spoiled little brother.  My students identify with his family misadventures and his struggles in middle school.  Plus, the journal format (which includes Greg’s own cartoons and illustrations) is kind to reluctant and struggling readers alike.  And the best part is that Kinney has made this into a series!  Check out Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw (available January 13, 2009), and Diary of a Wimpy Kid Do-It-Yourself Book (for the budding writer/comic book artist in your life).

 

  • Shadow Children Series by Margaret Peterson Haddix- It’s hard to find tween-friendly science fiction that isn’t a turn-off for my students.  Haddix’s Shadow Children Series is the story of a world much like ours where families are only permitted to have two children.  Third children are illegal and if found they are killed by the Population Police.  Luke is a third child and as such has spent his 12 years of life in hiding.  For most of his life the woods around the family farm are thick enough to protect him.  But when the government purchases the land and begins building homes there, Luke is sentenced to life indoors and away from all windows.  While sneaking a loom out the attic window one day, he spies a child’s face in the window of one of the new homes, after the family of four has left for the day.  Is it possible that he is not the only third child in the area?  Luke is faced with tough decisions and his situation is realistic enough to be frightening.  Haddix’s series follows Luke as he begins to question the law and fight the government.  Without fail, students read the first book and immediately demand the rest of the books.  A great way to hook reluctant readers!

 

  • the dead and the gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer- Pfeffer’s post-apocalyptic tale of New York City after the moon has been knocked out of orbit is an obsession with my students this year.  I only have one copy in the classroom library, and the last time I checked there were 5 or 6 copies that kids themselves bought and began passing around to each other.  To sum up the story (this is a companion novel to Life As We Knew It), it is based on an asteroid hitting the moon, setting off a tailspin of horrific climate changes. The story examines these events as they unfold in New York City, revealed through the eyes of seventeen-year-old Puerto Rican Alex Morales. When his parents disappear in the aftermath of the disaster, Alex is forced to care for his two younger sisters, even as Manhattan becomes a deadly wasteland, and food and aid dwindle to nothing.  A little gross, very graphic, and frightening enough to make you want to stock up on canned goods, the dead and the gone is impossible to put down, even for the most reluctant reader!

 

  • Amulet, Book One: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi- This graphic novel is great for kids who can’t even imagine having to read a novel.  The illustrations are beautiful and the story will keep them turning the pages.  After the tragic death of their father, Emily and Navin move with their mother to the home of her late great-grandfather.  But is the house really safe? Soon, a sinister creature lures the kids’ mom through a door in the basement. Emily and Navin, desperate not to lose her, too,  follow her into an underground world inhabited by demons, robots, and talking animals. And don’t discount graphic novels for readers of all levels!  Graphic novels require readers to be engaged in the process of decoding and comprehending a range of literary devices. According to a study by Scholastic, “graphic novels can also help improve reading development for students struggling with language acquisition, as the illustrations provide contextual clues to the meaning of the written narrative. When graphic novels are made available to young people, even those deemed “poor readers” willingly and enthusiastically gravitate towards these books. Providing young people with diverse reading materials can help them become lifelong readers.”

 

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Meeting Miss 405 by Lois Peterson

Tansy does not need a sitter.  She is certainly more than capable of taking care of herself after school, especially since she used to take care of herself and her mom.  At least, that’s what she thinks.  Unfortunately, her Dad firmly believes she needs a sitter while he is at work.  Hence Miss 405, Stella, is recruited to watch Tansy after school.

Tansy has a lot going on in Meeting Miss 405 .  Her main worry is the reason she needs a sitter in the first place- her mom has been diagnosed with depression and is staying with Grandpa until she feels better.  Tansy’s dad works long hours and is worried about her staying alone after school.  Plus there is Devin, the bully at school who keeps saying Tansy’s mom is in the nuthouse, Devin’s life-threatening peanut allergy that has completely ruined every lunch Tansy could bring to school, and a host of other worries floating through her mind at any given time.  Plus, Miss Stella is weird, or so Tansy thinks.

Meeting Miss 405 is a short book, but it deals with a lot of heavy material.  Tansy’s mom is struggling with depression and it has affected the entire family.  Not sure what to think, Tansy oscillates between anger and pity, all while missing her mom terribly.  Dad is struggling to keep it all together and Tansy slowly realizes that he is feeling much like her, only as a grown-up he isn’t as free to show it.  And then there is Miss Stella.  She reminds me a bit of the audacious Somerset sisters in Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters. Not at all who she seems to be in the beginning, she serves as a stabilizing factor in Tansy’s life.  Wise and gentle, she also tells it like it is, all while helping Tansy to slow down and live in the moment while forgetting her worries.  

Full of thought-provoking issues, this was a novel I fully enjoyed.  One of my favorite aspects was that the book didn’t wrap everything up in a neat little package at the end.  Tansy’s mom is depressed, which isn’t something that magically goes away, and Lois Peterson makes that clear.  In today’s world, too many of our students struggle with depression in their family and this is the first intermediate book that I have seen realistically deal with the topic.

I really enjoyed the book, and honestly didn’t expect to.  From the cover and the back copy, it seemed like a book for very young readers.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it was very deep and thought-provoking.  Orca Book Publishers should really be marketing this as more of a high-low novel, as the plot revolves around some heady issues but the text is at an accessible level.  I have a handful of readers this year who will really enjoy this book immensely and actually be able to comprehend it without struggling.   My only issue is that the bottom front cover includes the copy “Orca Young Readers”.  I think a lot of intermediate kids will be turned off by this, because it makes the novel seem like a “baby” book.  Hopefully, I will be able to sway my struggling readers to read this title!

 

*This review reflects my opinion and not those of the Cybils Middle Grade panel as a whole.

Tween Book Buying Guide for the Holidays- The Sports Enthusiast

Whether the tween in your life is a rabid baseball fan or a traveling soccer player, there is a book out there for them.  Sometimes, my athletes are the hardest readers to hook, as they tend to be overbooked, tired after long days on the field or watching their favorite team, and sometimes view reading as “boring”.  But don’t worry, there is a book out there for even the pickiest sports enthusiast in your life!  

Below are some favorites from my classroom:

  • Six Innings by James Preller-  In this book, there are two teams.  Two teams playing six innings.  One championship game.   Each chapter is devoted to the top of bottom of the inning, and the reader experiences the game from both sides, through the eyes of different players.  With details that make you feel like you are in the stands watching the game, you can almost hear the bats crack and see the slides into first base.   But this is more than just a simple baseball book.  Two friends are struggling to come to terms with a cancer diagnosis that has sidelined one of them, forcing him to give up baseball, the game that he loves.   It’s not just a game- it’s life for these boys.  And for everyone else, this is the last- the last game for those who will choose to play a different sport next season, the last time the teams will play together, the last hurrah.                                                                This is a book that has resonated deeply with my 6th graders, whether they are baseball fans or not.  Preller’s story is one that most tweens can identify with, especially those involved in organized sports.  A great choice for tweens, especially baseball players!

 

  • Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery by John Feinstein-  Sports and a mystery?  Sign me up!  Set at the Final Four, this is an action-packed mystery full of sports trivia and Final Four information.  Two eighth-graders win a writing contest that sends them to the Final Four to report for their local newspapers.  When they stumble upon blackmail threat and one team possibly throwing the game, they may have bitten off more than they can handle.  My students love that fact that throughout the story, famous basketball personalities make guest appearances, including spirited sports analyst Tony Kornheiser and well-known commentator Dick Vitale. Combined with references to real players and coaches, my kids have been eating these up since they entered my library. Feinstein is a best-selling sportswriter and his extensive sports expertise is obvious, which kids appreciate.  And the mystery is realistic and keeps my most reluctant readers turning the pages.  Plus, this is a series!  Check out Cover-up: Mystery at the Super Bowl  and Vanishing Act: Mystery at the U.S. Open, too!

 

  • Travel Team by Mike Lupica-  Lupica is another sportswriter-turned-children’s-author.  His sports books are go-to selections when I am suggesting books for my biggest sports fans.  His characters are easy to relate to, realistic, and multi-dimensional.  Their problems are realistic and frequently touch on current events in sports.  In this selection, Danny Walker is devastated when he doesn’t make the cut for his local travel basketball team.  He is told that he is too short, but secretly suspects he was cut because of issues with his divorced father, a former NBA player, and the coach.  But then his father announces he is starting his own travel team and Danny finally has a team.  When unexpected events happen and Danny’s dad is unable to coach, Danny himself steps in.  A great sports book that connects with my athletes and non-athletes alike, I frequently find myself recommending this one.  And once they read one Lupica book, the rest usually follow!  Other favorites include Summer Ball and Heat.

 

  • There’s a Girl in My Hammerlock by Jerry Spinelli-  Jerry Spinelli is formidable force in middle grade literature.  There’s a Girl in My Hammerlock is a tried and true favorite that always connects with my students.  When eighth-grader Maisie Potter decides to try out for the wrestling team, she has no idea that it will be a catalyst for so many issues.  Legally, the school can not keep her from participating, despite that fact that it is a boy’s team.  However, she quickly becomes a hated figure in school and the center of a media storm.  But what is constantly lost in the chaos is that Maisie is a pretty darn good wrestler!  Spinelli’s tale grabs boys and girls alike, and Maisie reminds a lot of my students of Maniac Magee (a perennial favorite read in 5th grade).  

 

  • We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson- This non-fiction title is absolutely stunning and baseball fans and history buffs will not be able to put it down.  Using an anonymous player as the narrator, Kadir Nelson tells the story of Negro League baseball from its beginnings in the 1920s through its decline after Jackie Robinson crossed over to the majors in 1947. Told through accessible text and accompanied by gorgeous oil paintings (done by Nelson), this is a book that no baseball fan should be without.  There is no doubt this one will be tossed about as a possible Newbery winner come January.  

 

  • The Million Dollar Kick by Dan Gutman-  Gutman seems to specialize in books for otherwise reluctant readers.  In The Million Dollar Kick, seventh-grader Whisper HATES soccer. Her little sister is the family athlete, and a sports star. However, Whisper is the one who is chosen as a contest participant and she must try to kick a goal past the town’s famous professional star in front of a whole stadium full of huge soccer fanatics. The prize is one million dollars.   Is the chance to win a million dollars worth the huge possibility of total and utter humiliation?  The worst part is that no one supports her! She is fairly certain her family expects her to fail. Her classmates know she won’t make the shot. It seems her only supporter is Jesse, a self-proclaimed computer geek. Does Whisper even want to be seen with him, even if he has created a laptop simulation that could help her succeed?  A funny book that will connect with those who enjoy soccer just as much as those who love realistic middle school fiction.

 

While this is just a small sample of the great sports books out there, I hope they help you make some great decisions for your holiday book-buying!  Stay tuned for another list tomorrow!

 

 

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