Bystander by James Preller

As a middle school teacher, I see bullying everyday. People who don’t work in education tend to think bullying is only physical- fistfights and the like. But I see name calling, teasing, isolation, rumors, gossip, and much more used to instill fear in students. While most schools have anti-bullying curriculums, it seems that many students tune them out. When you are 11 or 12 years old, the last thing you want to listen to your teachers about is how to get along with your classmates. Everyone knows teachers are ancient and never experienced middle school!

That’s where a book like James Preller’s Bystander comes in.  Eric is the new kid in his Long Island town.  When he meets Griffin and his posse of hangers-on right before school begins he can tell they are a little different.  Over the next few weeks he learns that Griffin is the sort of kid who makes an awful enemy.  Charming and scheming, he is what teachers call an “adult pleaser but kid teaser”.  He is one of those kids with a naturally magnetic personality, one he uses to control the kids around him.  But he always puts on a different face for the adults in his life, such as teachers and parents, and convinces them he is a sweet, mild-mannered child with good morals.

Very quickly Eric realizes that Griffin is a bully.  But he doesn’t do much about it, as a bystander.  Why?  Because he isn’t the target.  As any kid will tell you, stepping in will only make you the bully’s next target.  At least, that’s the line of thought most kids follow.  But when Griffin goes too far Eric begins to notice exactly what he is doing to his so-called friends.  What’s a kid to do when his conscience kicks in but his brain tells him that he will be the next victim if he does anything?

I really enjoyed Bystander.  It’s not an easy book to read.  There were a few times where I felt teachers might enjoy it more than tweens, but the message really hits home.  Kids can be cruel and that doesn’t always mean throwing punches.  Sometimes, it’s the verbal and emotional bullying that is even worse.

What I really loved about this book is the fact that it doesn’t end with the teacher or another adult solving the problem and dealing with the bullies.  Eric and his friends need to decide for themselves how to handle the situation.  As a teacher, I admit to being a little frustrated at first when I read the last page.  But then I realized it is exactly what tween are looking for.  They don’t need us stepping in all the time and solving their problems.  They need to learn how to work within their own cliques and peer groups.  As much as we might want to see the bully “get what he deserves”, that isn’t always realistic and kids know that.  So kudos to James Preller!

I look forward to adding this one to my classroom library.  I think it would make a great read aloud or literature circle title.  I can imagine some great conversations and writing stemming from the story.

*My own purchased copy. This is a Cybils nominee and all opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the panel as a whole.

Tween Book Buying Guide for the Holidays- Verse Novels

My students love verse novels.  Whether they are dormant readers or voracious ones, my students pick them up and sing their praises.  It’s one of the easiest ways to get my students to read some of their least favorite genres.  If it’s a verse novel, they will read it!

Sonya Sones writes fantastic verse novels, and One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies is one of the most popular among my girls. I’ve already had a few run out and buy their own copies of her other novels after reading this first.

Another popular author in my classes is Wendy Mass, and her Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall is never on the shelf anymore. Many of my girls read this novel first and then fall in love with Mass, moving on to her numerous other (non-verse) novels. I refer to Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall as a “gateway book”.

Historical fiction can sometimes be a tough sell for 6th graders. Thank goodness for Jen Bryant and her The Trial. Set in NJ, this verse novel follows the story of the Lindbergh baby trial and my readers usually set off to research even more about Lindbergh after reading this novel.

The Holocaust and WWII are two topics with no end of novels written about them. However, they can be heavy and overwhelming topics for some of my students. For those who are interested in the time period but don’t want the burden of a long, prose novel there is T4 a novel. Paula, a deaf 13-year-old, learns about Hitler’s T4 program, which states that doctors euthanize the mentally ill and the disabled. Because her deafness means she is a target, Paula is forced into hiding. This is a portion of history that most social studies books do not touch on and it always hits home with my students.

Brushing Mom’s Hair (a Cybils nominee this year) also focuses on a tough topic- breast cancer. Ann’s mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her recovery from surgery and her chemo treatments are by Ann, her youngest daughter. It’s a heartbreaking book but my students love it.

One of my most successful read alouds last year was Diamond Willow. This novel is an exciting mix of survival adventure and tween girl’s discovery of family roots and secrets. Willow loves her dogs and when an accident means one of them might have to be put down, she is determined to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What great verse novels do you and your students love?

Edublog Awards Nominations

The Edublog Awards are one of my favorite blogging awards.  Through the nominations I always discover new and interesting blogs.  This year, I decided to take the plunge and nominate a few blogs.

My nominations for the 2009 Edublog Awards are as follows:

Best individual blog- Jen Robinson’s Book Page:  Jen’s blog is amazing.  She posts thoughtful, insightful reviews of many middle grade and YA books.  And it that wasn’t enough, she also does the Kidlitosphere Round-up, Children’s Literacy and Reading News, and is the literacy evangelist for the Cybils.  Her hard work exposes books to parents, teachers, librarians, and many others!
Best resource sharing blog- Two Writing Teachers:  Stacey and Ruth are my own personal writing gurus.  The minilessons they share are always inspiring and never fail to make me sit down and plan out my own version.  They work hard to share new mentor texts and professional books with teachers while also writing their own book.  Finally, they encourage their readers to write alongside their students and they provide memes as opportunities to do this.  I love participating in their Slice of Life Tuesdays and Memoir Mondays!

Best teacher blog- The Book Whisperer: Donalyn Miller is the book whisperer; a teacher who can find the right book for any student in her classroom.  Her blog is a veritable treasure trove of book recommendations, classroom experiences, and her own reading life.  It should be required reading for any language arts or English teacher.
Best librarian / library blog- Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog: Every year I run a mock Newbery with my 6th grade students.  That means I read, read, read.  I love to talk about my reading with other adults who enjoy children’s literature and that is why Heavy Medal is one of my favorite blogs.  Jonathan Hunt and Nina Lindsay do a phenomenal job posting thought-provoking questions about eligible titles and the conversations in the comments are almost scholarly.  I always leave the blog feeling like I have learned so much about children’s literature.

Tween Book Buying Guide for the Holidays- Sports Fanatics

Do you have a sports fan in your life? Check out some of these recommendations from my sixth graders!

The Contender sat on the shelf in my classroom library collecting dust for the last few years. In the early part of this school year one of my boys picked it up and it still hasn’t made its way back to the shelf. I see a different student reading it every few weeks and then they pass it to someone else. All of them are raving about this classic novel that tells the story of a seventeen year old boy from Harlem who dreams of becoming a champion boxer.

Every sports fan should pick up Mike Lupica’s books. Lupica is a sportswriter and his children’s novels are an inside look at sports and families. His latest novel, Million-Dollar Throw, was released last month.

Mention that a children’s author also played in the NFL and you’ll see any middle schooler’s eyes light up. For that reason, Tim Green’s books are always popular with my students. When I shared an ARC of Baseball Great last spring, I had a waiting list a page long. Now, all of my Tim Green novels are constantly moving off the shelf.

Finally, Dairy Queen has found a few new fans among my students this year. This story about a high school girl who decides to tryout for her high school football team brings laughter and tears to its readers!

What sports books do you recommend?

The Kind of Friends We Used to Be by Frances O’Roark Dowell

The Kind of Friends We Used to Be is one of those quiet, unassuming books that is constantly circulating in my classroom library. It is the sequel to The Secret Language of Girls, but it’s one of those sequels you can pick up and fall right into the story even without readind the first book.

Kate and Marylin were best friends, until they grew apart and had a falling out in 6th grade. Now in 7th grade, Marylin’s a middle school cheerleader on the bring of popularity and Kate is the artist, writing songs, playing guitar, and wearing combat boots around school. The two former best friends aren’t quite sure what they are now; they aren’t all-the-time best friends but they also don’t want to completely abandon each other.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a quiet book, the best kind of realistic fiction in the eyes of many of my girls.  There is no huge fight, no major drama, no over-the-topness in this book.  Instead, Marylin and Kate are slowly figuring out their place in middle school while also determining who they want to be as they grow up.  I identified with both characters because they just seemed so real.  Marylin isn’t some caricature of middle school popularity- she is a girl who wants to be popular but also realizes the pitfalls of that popularity.  Kate isn’t some crazy rebel- she is a quiet girl unsure of her writing talent and aware that popularity isn’t for her.

Both girls also have family issues and they are beginning to grapple with boys.  They find themselves at times drawn to the familiarity of their friendship with each other while at other times sure they are not longer meant to be friends.  I really enjoyed this book and as I read at (during reading workshop), many of my girls commented about their love for it, too.  It definitely resonates with my 6th graders!

*My own purchased copy.  This is a Cybils nominee but all opinions are my own and do not reflect those of the panel.

Tween Book Buying Guide- Adventure Seekers

Action. Survival. Danger. All three traits my students are always looking for in their books.  I can never have enough adventure books in our classroom library!

Escape Under the Forever Sky is the newest addition to our class and the waiting list is a page long. My students are tearing through this story of an American teenager kidnapped in Ethiopia. It’s a great mix of survival, action, and interesting information about Ethiopia.

Last year’s Newbery Award winner has plenty of new fans in my class. The Graveyard Book attracts readers looking for a fantastic adventure that involves stretching their imagination. Bod, or Nobody Owens, lives in the graveyard. He has been raised by ghosts since the night his parents and sister were murdered in their beds, and he has learned a few tricks of the trade. He can walk through walls in the graveyard, Fade so that humans can’t see him, and even dreamwalk. But he can’t leave the graveyard because the man who killed his family is still looking for him.

Sometimes my students want an adventure that’s real- something that actually happened. After browsing our non-fiction books they usually come back with The Year We Disappeared: A Father-Daughter Memoir. When Cylin Busby, now a a writer for young readers and former Teen editor, was nine years old she lived a normal live on Cape Cod. Then, overnight, her family’s life changed forever. A policeman in smalltown Falmouth, Massachusetts, her father is shot in the face on his way to work the overnight shift for the local department. The point-blank shots tear off John’s jaw, leaving it laying on the passenger seat of his car. While John is fighting for his life, he is also fighting to bring the perpetrators to justice. He knows that local small town arsonist Raymond Meyer is to blame. However, Meyer holds the town and police department in the palm of his hand, and the investigation goes nowhere. Meanwhile, the family is placed under 24-hr surveillance while doctors struggle to repair his face. He can no longer speak or eat and is forced to spend months in the hopsital. Cylin and her brothers must live with constant police presence, including escorts to school, police officers guarding their classrooms, and a high-tech security system. This eventually leads to no contact with friends, as most of them are too scared to even speak to the family anymore. Worst of all, the shooter is still on the loose.

Do you have your own little Alex Rider? Be sure to get them a copy of the newest book in the series- Crocodile Tears: An Alex Rider Novel.  This one has been making its way around the classroom and it is getting rave reviews from Alex Rider fans.

Finally, if you have readers desperately awaiting the release of the next Hunger Games book (August 24, 2010!), hand them a copy of The Maze Runner . is an action-packed story about a group of teenage boys who are trapped in a strange and mysterious place called The Glade. Just outside The Glade is a massive maze that seems to be impossible to solve. Thomas has just arrived, with no memories other than his name. While he is trying to adjust to his predicament he discovers that there are horrifying creatures that attack the boys in the maze at night. This one will keep you on the edge of your seat!

What are some of your favorite adventure novels?

Tween Book Buying Guide for the Holidays- Romantics

So many of my girls are romantics at heart. They love reading love stories and I spend a lot of time finding appropriate teen romance novels.

Shug is a perennial favorite. Annemarie, nicknamed Shug, has a pretty tough life. She has a beautiful, popular older sister who gets all the attention, an alcoholic mother, and a father who’s always on business trips. On top of all of that, she has developed a huge crush on Mark, her best friend. My girls have fallen in love with this one!

Stargirl is another popular choice (and one of my personal favorites!) Stargirl reminds me a lot of Spinelli’s Maniac Magee. More than just a first love story, it deals with nonconformity and the perils of popularity. There’s even a Stargirl Journal!

3 Willows: The Sisterhood Grows has slowly been gaining ground with my girls. The story of three lifelong best friends who are beginning to grow apart in 8th grade, they are spending the summer apart dealing with divorce, new surroundings, and, of course, boys!

Sarah Dessen is practically sacred among my girls. One of her most popular novels is The Truth About Forever. Macy has suddenly turned into the good girl- straight A’s, punctual, helpful. She’s trying to convince herself and the world that she ok even though her Dad died. Then she gets a job at Wish Catering. It’s run by pregnant, forgetful Delia with help from her nephews, Bert and Wes, and her neighbors Kristy and Monica. Macy falls in love with gorgeous Wes…..and her perfect life is changed forever.

The Indigo Notebook is part adventure, part romance. Zeeta’s mother loves moving and they have lived all over the world. When she moves the family to Ecuador, Zeeta is determined to make her settle down. She enlists the help of some vendors in the market to set her mother up on dates but ends up meeting an intriguing boy herself.

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