Monarch Butterflies, Milkweed, and Migration….

I just finished watching the Insect episode of LIFE on Discovery.  If you haven’t been watching this series, you are seriously missing out.  It is absolutely incredible.

The footage of the monarch migration was stunning and incredible.  Definitely made me “homesick” for Michoacan.  I visited the oyamel forests in Michoacan, Mexico in February 2008.  It was a life-chanigng experience.  The experience was spiritual and standing amongst millions of fluttering wings, the only sound their quiet flapping, was the closest I have ever felt to God.  It’s an experience I wish everyone could live.

Now, the monarchs are in trouble.  The combination of the floods in the reserves this winter and the habitat destruction in the US are forcing the monarchs to disappear.  Due to the deaths from the severe weather in the reserves, scientists think it will take at least 2 years (maybe more) for the population to return to the levels of earlier this year.  Unfortunately, this year’s population was already obscenely low and lower than the last few years.  So we need to do what we can to help.  Planting milkweed is huge and many organizations, like Monarch Watch, are starting campaigns to inform people of the importance of planting milkweed.

There have been numerous news reports on the monarch crisis.  Check out the GMA and CBS News videos.  Tonight’s episode of LIFE seems to have gotten the attention of a lot of people, too.  The Facebook messages and Twitter responses I got from friends and family after the episode aired were awesome.  I had no less than 10 people send me messages asking me things like, “You’ve been there, right?  It looked incredible!  I’d love to go someday”.  How awesome is that?  Airing the footage of the reserves in HD seems to have made a huge difference.  The footage itself was short but stunning.  Hopefully there are many more people out there who thought the same thing and will look into visiting and along the way will learn about planting milkweed, helping the migration, etc.  :)  Even if they never get to Mexico, the monarchs will be in a better position.  And that is something we all benefit from.

If you liked The Giver, then try…..

Thank you for all your suggestions of dystopian literature!  I added many of your suggestions to my wishlist.  Below is the handout I gave my students after we read Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

If you liked The Giver then try…..

The companion novels: Gathering Blue and The Messenger by Lois Lowry

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix
  • Candor by Pam Bachorz
  • Uglies by Scott Westerfield
  • The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson
  • The Other Side of the Island
  • Life As We Knew It (and the rest of the Moon series) by Susan Beth Pfeffer
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
  • House of the Scorpion
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Healing Wars by Janice Hardy
  • Bones of Faerie by Janni Lee Simner
  • 1984 or Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Ear, The Eye, and The Arm by Nancy Farmer
  • White Mountains by John Christopher
  • The Maze Runner by James Dasher
  • City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
  • The Declaration by Gemma Malley
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
  • Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
  • Unwind by Neal Shusterman

After passing this list out, many of my students started highlighting the books they want to read.  It was wonderful to watch!

Dystopian Literature and Tweens

As teachers, it is difficult not to share our passions with our students.  Obviously, books and writing are a passion of mine (along with monarch butterflies).  However, my students know that all books are not created equal in my eyes.  No sirree- show me a dystopian novel and I’ll show you a book I can’t put down.  Needless to say, our unit surrounding The Giver is always one of my favorites.  Today my students wrote in-class short essays comparing the themes in The Giver to those in a dystopian short story.   (Old Glory by Bruce Coville, Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., or All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury).  They chose one of our 5 essential questions to answer and had to use examples from both pieces of literature to back up their opinions.  I am so proud of the thinking and writing they did!

After they completed their work, I rewarded them by handing out a list of dystopian books.  Sort of “If you like The Giver, then you will love….”  I listed about 15 dystopian novels and they were thrilled.  I will share the list on the blog tomorrow, but for now I am looking for your suggestions.  My students exhausted my collection of dystopian novels, so I need more ideas!  What are some of your favorite dystopian tween or YA novels?

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Last night I was up until 1:46am.  Why?  Because I could not put down Neal Shusterman’s creepy dystopian novel,   Unwind. My classes just finished The Giver as a read aloud and I can not wait to booktalk Unwind. tomorrow.  It’s deliciously creepy and I could not put it down.  I carried it in my purse all day, even reading on the car ride down to Easter dinner.  Due to the holiday, I didn’t get a ton of reading in, which resulted in my 2am bedtime.

Unwind is set in the future.  The second civil war took place sometime between now and then, between those who were pro-life and those who were pro-choice.  The peace treaty enacted was meant to satisfy both sides- The Bill of Life.

From The Bill of Life:

“The Bill of Life states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen.

However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively ‘abort’ a child…

…on condition that the child’s life doesn’t ‘technically’ end.

The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called ‘unwinding.’ “

When a teenager is unwound, the law is that every part of them must be used to help someone else.  It’s like nonconsensual organ donation at its absolute worst.  It’s better to be divided and accomplish something great than to be whole and do nothing, right?

There are three protagonists which was a brilliant writing decision on Shusterman’s part.  Connor, Risa, and Levi are all about to be unwound but for very different reasons.  The only thing they have in common is their status as unwounds, and even in that aspect they aren’t equals.  By having all three characters alternate in telling the story we get three very different viewpoints.  I found myself alternately rooting for and hating each on at different points in the story.  These aren’t perfect kids by any means.  They make stupid decisions many times and I just wanted to shake them!  But what a testament to Neal Shusterman’s character development because I felt like I knew each character and I was rooting for each one.

This is one of the most terrifying dystopian novels I have read because the society isn’t all that different from our own.  In the big picture it seems impossible, but Shusterman includes real events from the present-day as reasons for the Bill of Life.  And his reasons don’t seem over-the-top.  In fact, the sequence of events sounds eerily possible.  I found myself folding down pages and marking passages to go look up later.

This would be a phenomenal class read-aloud or book club choice.  The conversation possibilities are almost endless.  The story will disturb you and fascinate you and reader’s won’t be able to put it down.  It’s perfect for readers who have outgrown Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Shadow Children Series.

Night Tourist by Katharine Marsh

I purchased The Night Tourist by Katharine Marsh after a few students begged me for more stories based on Greek mythology. It was one of the books always on my wishlist but it never made it to the top. I’m glad my students pushed me to purchase it and I can’t wait to pass it on to my mythology buffs.

Jack is a shy ninth grader who lives at Yale with his professor father. A loner, Jack doesn’t do much besides translate Latin and study. He and his father get along well enough but they don’t really talk alot. His mother died in a tragic accident and his father hasn’t been the same since her death. But when Jack gets hit by a car things start getting weird. His father sends him to get checked out by a special doctor in NY but won’t go with him. While in Grand Central Station he meets a girl who says she can show him the real NYC, the underground part. For the first time in his life, Jack decides to take a risk so he goes with her. Little does he know that she isn’t who she seems to be. Suddenly everything Jack knows about his life is turned on its head. Is his mother really dead? Is she somewhere in the Underworld? Is he who he thinks he is?

I already know which student will be getting this book from me tomorrow. He read the Percy Jackson series and finished it before anyone else and he has been begging me for more books based on Greek mythology. I just read his most recent letter-essay and he again asked for more books like Riordan’s. I know that The Night Tourist will satifsy him because Marsh doesn’t mess around in the beginning.  Almost immediately the reader is thrust into the action alongside Jack.  My students frequently complain about books that “take forever to start” but The Night Tourist is not one of those books.   And while I didn’t find The Night Tourist as laugh-out-loud funny as Riordan’s books, it does have its moments.  Plus, as someone who took Latin for 4 years, I appreciate any book that trusts Latin and it’s mythology into the limelight.  And while I love the mythology aspect of the story, I really appreciated the history of New York that was included.  The story includes pieces of the city’s hidden, lesser-known history, including Grand Central’s secret Track 61.  Yes, a secret track!  (It was used for President Franklin Roosevelt’s personal train.)  So cool!

My only complaint is that I didn’t feel like I knew Jack as well as I know Riordan’s characters.  It’s not that he was flat.  He just didn’t have a lot of character development.  I was dying to know more about Euri and wish Marsh had delved into her backstory a little bit more.  However, this was only a minor concern for me and I don’t think it will even register with my Percy Jackson-addicts.  The Night Tourist is a fun, quick read and I look forward to reading the sequel.

*Copy purchased by me

Life, After by Sarah Darer Littman

I have to start this review by admitting my true shallow nature- I am a cover girl.  Yes, I judge many a book by its cover.  So when I opened an envelope from Scholastic and Sarah Darer Littman’s Life, After fell out, I was immediately smitten. Is this not the most beautiful cover you have ever seen? I wish I could hang a print of it on my wall!  Even better is the fact that the story between the covers lives up to the artwork.  This is a quiet story that left me thinking long after I read the last page.

Dani lives in Argentina with her mother, father, and younger sister.  Ever since a terrorist attack killed her pregnant aunt, life has been different.  Her father loses his business and he shuts down emotionally and mentally.  The national crisis has caused chaos and both Dani’s best friend and boyfriend have moved out of the country.  When it is time for Dani’s family to do the same, her life is turned upside down.  What is supposed to be a new beginning feels like the end when the family is stuck in a tiny, cramped apartment, Mom is working night and day, Dad has completely shut down, and your new school is the opposite of everything you thought it would be.  Dani misses her old life.  Her life before.  But as time goes on and she connects with what she assumes is the meanest girl at school, Dani realizes that life, after, might not be so bad after all.

Sarah Darer Littman packs a whole lot of power into one story.  Dani deals with terrorism, immigration, cliques, Asperger’s, depression, family, death, life, siblings, friendship, Judaism, Argentinian history and politics, and more.  It sounds impossible, but LIttman deals with each theme gracefully and beautifully.  One thing I really enjoyed about this book was that the background information was so unfamiliar to me.  Dani lives in Argentina during the present-day, but I know very little about Argentinian politics (outside of Eva Peron).  But I do know too much about 9/11 and Littman does a brilliant job of bringing both experiences together in a way that is accessible to young readers.

While I believe this is a book aimed at the YA crowd, I won’t hesitate to recommend it to my 6th graders.  It’s an outstanding book that is both heartwarming and touching, while also thought-provoking.  This is a dynamic novel that you have to wait to read as it isn’t available until July.  However, put this one on your must-read list because I think you will hear a lot about it in the coming months!

*ARC provided by publisher

Umbrella Summer by Lisa Graff

What a great middle grade novel!  Lisa Graff really “gets” middle graders and I can not wait to add Umbrella Summer to my classroom library.  It’s perfect for fans of realistic fiction who also want a little more meat to their stories.

Annie is very careful. Most people would say she is too careful. She wears a helmet, kneepads, elbow pads, and more to ride her bicycle. She takes vitamins every morning. She reads about every disease you can imagine and checks herself for symptoms. Her parents worry about her and try to force her to stop being so paranoid. Annie doesn’t understand why they aren’t as careful as she is. No on worried about her big brother Jared, and he died. What seemed to be a simple hockey injury killed him because no one knew he had a heart defect. So she knows there is no such thing as being too careful, even if it means she has to give up some of her favorite things.

Umbrella Summer is a quick read. I picked it up planning to read only first chapter or so and ended up reading the entire book in one sitting. At the end, I didn’t know whether I wanted to laugh or cry. I was so proud of Annie at the end that I just wanted to hug her. Lisa Graff makes you feel like her characters are right there with you and I felt like I almost could reach over and squeeze Annie’s hand. I also loved the interaction between all the characters in the book. Annie’s parents are so wrapped up in their own grief that they try to hide their feelings from her, thinking they are protecting her. She also has a strong connection with her brother’s best friend. Finally, her own friends (even those she might not consider friends yet) are pushing her out of her shell in their own ways. All of the relationships felt real and true.

Despite the fact that story is propelled by the death of Annie’s brother, it’s not a story about death. It is a light story and one that I think many tweens will relate to. I know many worriers myself and though their reasons may be different than Annie’s, they will identify with her. Lisa Graff shares a powerful message with Umbrella Summer but doesn’t force it down the reader’s throat. This is a perfect book for tweens and I can’t wait to booktalk it when we get back from spring break.

*Copy purchased from Scholastic Book Clubs

Spilling Ink by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter

Every middle school and high school teacher should go out and buy Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook RIGHT NOW.  For years I have been looking for the “Ralph Fletcher” books for my middle schoolers.  I have used Ralph Fletcher’s A Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You for years but it seems that many of the primary teachers also use it, so I struggle to make it relevant to my middle schoolers. Well, my problem has been solved. I can not wait to share Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook with my 6th graders!  Potter and Mazer have put together a fantastic guide to the craft of writing that doesn’t actually feel like a guide.  There is no textbook-feel to this book.  Instead, it feels like two friends sitting down over coffee and spilling secrets.

Throughout the book, I found myself wanting to stop reading and try out some of the ideas and suggestions.  This isn’t a book that teaches grammar and conventions.  Instead, it teaches the nitty-gritty of writing, like how to actually sit down and get words on paper.  Each chapter is filled with practical advice and “dares” that push the reader to sit down and start writing.  At the same time, there is tons of practical advice.  I found myself learning things as I read without feeling like I was being hit over the head with boring writing talk.  In other words, if it worked on me, it will be awesome for my 6th graders.

Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook is an inspiring book that is perfect for aspiring writers of all ages.  I would hand this to middle schoolers, high schoolers, and their teachers.  I wouldn’t hesitate to hand it to adults looking for a little inspiration, too.  And make sure you check out thecompanion website.  It’s full of fun ideas and extensions of the book!

*ARC courtesy of the authors

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