Mulling things over

Count on a review of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow tomorrow.  I literally just put it down, but I need some time to digest it.  Know this though- I loved it.  And I wish it had been in print when I was in high school.  I plan to tell all of my techie high school classmates about it.  I just need more time to mull over the ideas and the afterwords.

Newes from the Dead by Mary Hooper

Last night I had trouble falling asleep. I place the blame for this entirely on Mary Hooper’s creepy novel, Newes from the Dead, which I finished right before bed. Just look at that cover! It’s enough to give you nightmares!

The entire time you are reading Newes from the Dead you have the chills. You know, those involuntary shudders that take over your body, making it hard to turn the pages?

Anne Green is a servant girl in 17th century England. Her family is poor, so she lives in the big house a few villages away. While life is not easy, she is content. She even has a suitor, young John the blacksmith. However, when the teenage son of her master begins flirting and making promises to her, she is flattered and sometimes even flirts back a bit. However, she knows he is only being silly, until the day that he makes an unwanted advance against her. He promises her that he loves her and will raise her up to new heights…he will even make her a lady! All she has to do is give him the one thing he wants. It’s just a silly little thing, not even an issue. He fills her head with promises and wild dreams, and she succumbs. However, this begins a torrid one-sided affair, which she immediately regrets. There is no passion, no sweetness, no love in their encounters. Her young master continues making promises, and is also very jealous of her suitor, John. She is forced to break John’s heart when she ends their relationship. Only days later, when her young master, Geoffrey, heads back to school, Anne discovers she is pregnant.

Though she tries to eliminate the pregnancy, knowing that the stain of losing her virginity will forever humiliate her and her family, she is not successful. She is determined to hide the pregnancy until Geoffrey comes home, when she will tell him and he will set things right. This thought keeps her content, until Geoffrey does come home, but not alone. He has brought his new bride-to-be and Anne realizes he is a liar and she is doomed.

All of this would make a wonderful book on it’s own. However, it doesn’t stop there! When Anne gives birth to a stillborn, premature baby alone in an outhouse, she is discovered and accused of infanticide. When she tells her master that his son is responsible for her condition, she ends up in jail awaiting trial on charges of murder. Anne is a simple girl, who believes that the truth will prevail and she will be set free. She is naive and trusting, unaware that Master Reade is a magistrate and holds her fate in his hands.

Anne is found guilty and hung for her crimes. Her body is donated to science for dissection, as is the normal custom for the poor. However, her story only begins there. When the doctors begin the dissection, it is discovered that she is alive!

The story is told in alternating chapters by Anne, in a coma of sorts, reliving her experience, and by Robert, a scholar with a stammer who is struggling with his own views of life and death.

I can not accurately describe the creepiness of this book. Mary Hooper has captured a perfect voice for Anne, and you really do believe you are right alongside her when she begins to awaken in her coffin. You feel for her and are outraged by the rash judgement of the judge and jury in her trial. It seems hundreds of women were prosecuted for infanticide in the past, because proving they had not killed their newborn was harder than saying they had!

Even creepier is the fact that Anne’s story is true. Mary Hooper includes a great author’s note and even a copy of one of the pamphlets made announcing Anne’s miraculous resurrection.

This is a great book for reluctant YA readers. It deals a lot with sex, so I am not sure I would recommend it lower than 8th grade, but I could definitely see it being used in high school history classes. It is very high interest, fast-paced, and frightening!

Summer Reading Rant

Over the last few weeks, I have been fielding a lot of questions from friends and family regarding summer reading. Many a parent has placed a list of 5-6 preselected books in front of me saying, “Which of these should my child read? Which one will be the least painful? Which one will help us actually enjoy our summer instead of making it erupt into a mass of screaming and fighting parents and children?!”

Ok, maybe those aren’t their exact words. But the look of fear in their eyes says more than their words ever can. And that’s a lot of pressure!

Yet, inevitably, the list that I am handed is dated, frought with “classics”, and BORING!

I do the best I can, pointing out books that the student can probably enjoy, but it’s usually a difficult task. Most of these summer reading lists look like they have not been updated in over a decade. And while I am all for kids reading the classics, like The Secret Garden, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer , and Gulliver’s Travels , I am not sure summer reading is the place for them.

Most of the classics require a good deal of scaffolding- the vocabulary is difficult, the situations are usually unfamiliar, and the context of the stories has not always been explained. While these novels can certainly be enjoyed by rising 7th and 8th graders (the lists I usually see them on), without that scaffolding they do not enjoy or even necessarily understand the books! All too often I see students reading the “Great Illustrated Classics” edition of the story, slamming the book shut at the end, and calling it a day. That’s it! They consider themselves well-read and some will even make it to college telling those around them that they have “read all the classics”. Yes, the abridged, illustrated versions! Are we really doing them any service at all by requiring these books as summer reading when students will not get the support that need and might even be turned off to these books for the rest of their lives?

And if the lists don’t consist of 5 classics, they are made up of middle grade or YA novels published 10, 20, 30, maybe even 50 years ago. And the choices are few- maybe 4 books of which the students must choose two. And worst of all, they all seem the same to me! There is no diversity, the books are not high-interest, and heaven forbid we include ANY YA or newer middle grade novels. Not to say that the books on these lists are bad- in fact, it is just the opposite. It seems like someone, somewhere along the line, grabbed a list of award-winning books, looked for a few that were age-appropriate, and then put them on the summer reading list. The problem is that that list hasn’t been updated since then! Most of these books have great literary merit but they don’t always “fit” the reader. In fact, when you only offer 5 books, very few of those will fit the majority of your readers! The problem with only allowing students to choose from older award-winners is that they see these awards as old and stale, not at all relevant to their lives. They don’t even realize that books written this year will be up for the 2009 Newbery or Printz award. In fact, I would venture to guess most students don’t realize those awards are still given out today!

Summer is the time for students to expand their reading horizons. They should be reading all those books they didn’t get to read during school because of their homework, sports, and activities schedules. When we force them to read what we deem to be worthy literature, we all to often force them to hate the books, and by association, hate reading.

This is my plea to administrators, teachers, media specialists, and parents- revamp your summer reading lists! The best decision would be to do away with specific required books while letting students choose their own reading material during the summer. But if this is not a reasonable request, then I beg of you-update those stale summer reading lists! Put together a committee of well-read teachers, students, administrators, and parents. Have them come up with the list. And no list should be stagnant. It should be alive, and it should be allowed to change as the years go by.

Even better? Make up a suggested summer reading list and include the reasons why each particular book was placed on the list. Or just have each teacher from the next grade choose a book and write a quick paragraph explaining why they are recommending that book. This allows rising students to become familiar with each teacher’s personality through their choice of book(s). This will also ensure a varied list. I would be willing to bet you would see classics right alongside newer books, award winners next to beach reads. And the students would see that each teacher values reading in a different way, just like them! Some teachers would recommend fiction, others non-fiction. You would see a variety of genres. And a list like this could easily be updated each year!

Summer reading should not be a time of torture, arguing, and cheating (I’m talking to you, movie-watchers and Sparknotes-readers!). Summer reading should be fun and enjoyable. It should allow students to try new books, read the latest in their favorite series, or try out those great classics. Without any pressure. It shouldn’t be miserable. I firmly believe that miserable summer reading experiences are just one of the reasons we are raising a generation of bookhaters instead of booklovers.

For some of my favorites (and some that I recommended to my classes at the end of the year), check out my Amazon store here.

Brooklyn Bridge by Karen Hesse

Karen Hesse has outdone herself with this one! I love her work, and The Music of Dolphins was one of my favorite read-alouds this year. Her verse novels are wonderful and Out Of The Dust is a Newbery award winner. Lately though, Hesse has been taking a break from writing novels. Her last novel was published in 2003. When I saw that there was a new Karen Hesse novel coming out this fall, I knew I had to read it, just to see what she had been up to. I did not expect the masterpiece that I encountered.

Brooklyn Bridge takes place in New York City at the turn of the century- 1903. Joseph and his family are lucky. They seem to have achieved the American Dream. You see, Joseph’s mom and dad are Russian immigrants. They were doing all right, running their candy store in Brooklyn and being part of the neighborhood. And then they saw the Teddy Roosevelt cartoon in the newspaper. That Teddy Roosevelt cartoon depicted President Roosevelt declining to shoot a baby bear on a hunting trip. Suddenly, Joseph’s life is turned upside down, thanks to his mother’s brilliant idea to make two stuffed bears inspired by the cute cub. Those bears catch on like wildfire and suddenly the family is spending every waking moment

You’d think Joseph would be happy to be entering the upper-middle class, to be achieving the American Dream his parents struggled to attain. Except that now his parents have no time for him. He spends his time watching his little brother, hanging out with his sister (who is pretty cool for a little sister), or being quality control for the burgeoning teddy bear business. It seems like his dream of visiting Coney Island will never come true.

Joseph knows he is lucky. And he is grateful. But he misses his parents. And he hates that the neighborhood kids look at him differently now that his family is making more money than average. I know it sounds like Joseph is a whiner, but his hurt and confusion ring true. I think a lot of kids will identify with his desire to have his parents around. It is all too similar to kids today who live with two working parents. And his desire to fit in with his peers without drawing attention to himself reminds me a lot of some of my students.

Interwoven throughout the chapters are shorter chapter which focus on children very different from Joseph and his family. The bridge children are the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. They live under the Brooklyn Bridge, forging a strange sort of family. They congregate there every night to try sleep and stay out of harm’s way- for some that harm is their families, for others it is the police or City of New York. Some have nowhere else to go, others have run away from horrific situations. These kids watch out for each other, share with one another, and simply try to survive from one day to the next.

For much of the book, it seems like the bridge children are only mentioned as a foil for Joseph and his family. It is not until near the end that the tragic connection between them is revealed. I was swept up in this climax and turning pages at a mad pace, trying to tie together the clues in my head before the answers were revealed. Hesse is a master storyteller

Brooklyn Bridge is another one of those books that defies conventionality. It is clearly a historical fiction novel, but it also includes dashes of magical realism and a pinch of a ghost story. This is one of the reasons I think this books skews toward a slightly older audience, probably 12 and above. The dual stories and genres that are presented might be a bit difficult for a younger reader to grasp.

Hesse also touches on some heavy topics, including a terrible scene where a Cossack brutalizes a young girl in Russia. There are also horrible beatings, violence, and there a few allusions to suicide. While none of these scenes are over the top or even particularly detailed, they are there. This would make a great read aloud for a middle school class and I can even see some high schoolers reaching for this book. It will be great for reluctant readers because the protagonist is older (14) and the story skews to an older audience. And it doesn’t preach! It’s not that heavy-handed historical fiction that kids dread reading. The story flows and the historical aspects are an integral part of the story without jumping out at the reader.

Hesse has really outdone herself with this one. Dare I say I heard the word “Newbery” whispered over and over as I turned the pages? Hmm….I just may have.

Reading Recommendations?

My youngest sister is 9 years old and a voracious reader. She called me today for some recommendations- I gave her a few ideas and she immediately ran out to the library. She ended up with Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic, Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little, Midnight (Warriors: The New Prophecy, Book 1), and Ivy and Bean and the Ghost That Had to Go (Book 2) (Ivy & Bean). These should appease her for a few days, but I need more ideas!

Admittedly, younger chapter books are not my forte. (I really need to work on that). I am looking for recommendations and your expertise. She reads at a high level, is entering 4th grade, and will give almost anything a shot. Some of her recent favorites include Frindle, the Clementine books, Oggie Cooder #1 (Oggie Cooder), and Lunch Money. Oh, and she read the entire The Spiderwick Chronicles series at the beginning of June. She LOVED them.

I am planning on recommending the Just Grace series next.  But I need more ideas!  I counting on you – do you have any recommendations for great books for 4th graders?

Wanna read “The Hunger Games”?

One of the best books I have read this year is Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. Want to win a free ARC? Teenreads.com is giving away 100 ARCs on their website!  Enter here!!

Summary, courtesy of Teenreads.com:  Twenty-four are forced to enter. Only the winner survives.

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by 12 outlying districts. Each year, the districts are forced by The Capitol to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in The Hunger Games, a brutal and terrifying fight to the death — televised for all of Panem to see. Survival is second nature for 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who struggles to feed her mother and younger sister by secretly hunting and gathering beyond the fences of District 12. When Katniss steps in to take the place of her sister in the Hunger Games, she knows it may be her death sentence. If she is to survive, she must weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

My review!

2007-2008 Class Book Lists

This year, my class read more books than we ever have in the past. In case anyone is interested in some great books for 6th grade, I made a list of the books we read, divided into read-alouds and class novels.

Class Books:


Flying Solo by Ralph Fletcher- This was the first book we read together (in my homeroom). We read it aloud during the first week of school and it was one of our favorites for the year! A great way to start off the school year, with the story of a class that has no substitute when their teacher is home sick.

The Talking Earth by Jean Craighead George (Class Novel)- I had never used this book before and probably would not use it again. The story is great for an environmental unit, but it was a difficult start to the year. As my kids put it, “Nothing happened in the book!”. George is a preeminent environmental writer, but this novel failed to grab my students attention at the beginning of the year.

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis- I am desperately waiting for a new book from Lauren Tarshis. I fell in love with Emma-Jean and Tarshis has a great grasp of middle school life. I chose this as the first read aloud for both classes once school started, and they loved it! A great story about a girl who is “different” and her struggle to preserve herself in the churning waters of middle school.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (Class Novel)- A gorgeous story and well-known as the greatest children’s book ever written.

The Postcard by Tony Abbott- My class read this in ARC form, and they really enjoyed it. A great mystery that tells the story of a young boy, his mysterious grandmother, and the circus!

The Giver by Lois Lowry (Class Novel)- This is my favorite dystopian novel for young adults, and one of the first I remember reading in school.

Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick- We read this as a companion to our Valentine’s Day charity work. Sonnenblick has crafted a gorgeous story of a young boy whose family is touched by cancer. It also made us laugh out loud a lot!

The Devil’s Arithmetic (Puffin Modern Classics) by Jane Yolen (Class Novel)- This is the anchor of our Holocaust study and one of my favorite novels every year. Yolen’s haunting story of a girl who does not want to remember is a powerful testament of the strength and courage of those who were persecuted during the Holocaust.

Guys Write for Guys Read by Jon Scieszka- Great short stories that appeal to boys (and girls!) by various authors.

Marley: A Dog Like No Other by John Grogan- The biggest tearjerker of the year, by far. I was sobbing by the end, as were many of my students. This is a beautiful story that most kids can identify with- the love and devotion of a family pet.

The Music of Dolphins by Karen Hesse- This is a wonderful book that combines children’s love of marine mammals and a new idea for most kids- feral children. Karen Hesse is a beautiful and gifted writer!

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1) by Rick Riordan- Definitely oneof my classes’ favorites! A rollicking story that infuses regular kid problems, Greek mythology, and tons of adventure! A must-read!

Eleven novels in one year! That’s a lot of read-alouds, considering many of these books over more than 300 pages. Sometimes, it was a pain making time for the daily read-aloud, but it was worth it! It made a huge difference in my classroom, though. Reading aloud everyday really made it obvious to my kids how much I valued reading. And I made sure to read a variety of genres, styles, and authors. Everyone enjoyed the books this year, even if they didn’t love each and every one.

Good Morning America Book Suggestions

This morning, Good Morning America did a segment on great reads for kids this summer.  Most of the time, these “suggested lists” are stale and boring.  They tend to be formulated by adults who rarely have contact with kids and thus have no idea what reluctant readers want- and to be honest, many kids are reluctant readers in the summer!

I LOVED the books the suggested.  They focused on middle school and young adult titles, all were new or newer, and they divided them into categories like sports, the dead, and oddball heroes/heroines.  Check out the list here, and pass it on!  To see my own list of great summer reads, click here!

My favorite part of the segment was that the hosts suggested that the young adult books also make great adult reading.  It’s nice to see the mainstream media admitting that YA books are great books all around!

The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante

Anyone who knows me can vouch for my extreme (okay, maybe overboard) love for everything butterfly related. Naturally, Cecilia Galante’s The Patron Saint of Butterflies immediately caught my eye.  Now, what most people don’t know is that I am fascinated by religious fanaticism, cults, and communes.  When Galante’s book surfaced near the top of my large to-be-read pile, it immediately caught my eye.  Once I began reading it, I couldn’t stop.

Agnes and Honey have been best friends their entire lives. Lately though, they seem to be growing apart.  The girls have been raised on a religious commune known as Mount Blessing.  The people of Mount Blessing are very religious and allow Emmanuel, their leader, to control all aspects of their life.  Agnes loves being a Believer. She firmly believes that the traditions and strict rules at the Mount Blessing  are there to make her a better person- a perfect person. But Honey hates Mount Blessing and  Emmanuel.  She sees the commune in a more realistic light and she knows that much of what goes on there is wrong.  She is miserable, and this is causing a rift between her and Agnes. The only bright spot is the butterfly garden she’s helping to build, and the journal of butterflies that she keeps.

When Agnes’s grandmother makes an unexpected visit to the commune, she uncovers the child abuse that is going on and that the Believers are covering up.  Honey, who has no parents in the commune,  has always viewed Agnes’ family as her own.  She opens up to Nana Pete and admits that Emmanuel has beaten her.  Nana Pete is horrified and plans to help Honey.  Then, Agnes’s little brother is seriously injured and Emmanuel refuses to send him to a hospital.  Agnes’ grandmother and Honey plot to take all three children and escape the commune. Their journey begins an exploration of faith, friendship, religion and family for the two girls, as Agnes clings to her familiar faith while Honey desperately wants a new future.

I couldn’t put this book down.  It is very timely, as I could see some similarities between Honey and Agnes’ exposure to the outside world and the fate suffered by the FLDS children in El Dorado, Texas recently.  Galante tells the book in two voices, with the chapters alternating between Honey and Agnes.  This allows the reader to see two sides of the story while still realizing that both girls have their own prejudices about their background and their home.

Cecilia Galante has an author’s note at the back of the book, in which she shares her own experience growing up in a religious commune in New York state.  While her experiences influenced her writing, she makes it clear this is not a biographical story.  However, her own experiences clearly shape the book and the story is the better for it.  I loved this book and recommend it for anyone interested in faith, religions, growing up, and the current events taking place with the polygamists in Texas.  A great book for book clubs!  I can also see this being used in the classroom because it would spark some great discussions!

48 Hour Book Challenge in the Classroom

No, I am not that crazy!  But today I brought in my stack of books, piled them on the desk in the front of my room, and explained to my students what I spent my weekend doing.  After that got over their shock, I told them that part of the reason I participated was to get a great pile of books to recommend to them for summer reading.

I passed out our summer reading plan worksheet to the class and explained that while I want them to complete their required summer reading, I also want them to read the books that they enjoy, just as they have been doing all year.  Because I won’t be there to make recommendations and pass out new books, I want them to have a list of books ready for this summer (and hopefully into next year).  For the summer reading plan, I planned to begin by booktalking the books I read for the Challenge.  Later this week the students will recommend books to their classmates.  At the end of the week they will formulate a summer reading goal.

Today’s booktalks went really well!  Most of the students wrote down 3-4 of the titles I read over the weekend, and many of them wrote down even more.  So thank you, Mother Reader!

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