Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French

Julian Carter-Li’s mother is following her photography dreams in China but that means she left him behind in San Francisco for the summer. Unfortunately, she left him with his aunt and uncle, who seem to hate him.  He does love his younger cousin, Preston, but he really wishes that his mom would come home sooner rather than later. His aunt and uncle are far from kind (and reminded me a little of the Dursleys!).  When the school calls to say Julian is sick, no one will pick him up!  His aunt sends a cab to take him to his uncle’s office, where he is left to lay on the couch til later that night.  However, while his Uncle Sibley is at a meeting, Julian intercepts an email from a girl his age, Robin, who is furious that Sibley will be clear cutting a redwood forest near her home.  Julian spontaneously responds to her and he and his friend, Danny, begin exchanging emails with her.  The boys and Robin come up with a scheme that helps Julian escape the dreaded math camp  he is being sent to and lands him an exchange with the Robin’s family. On their farm, he discovers the true meaning of family of the beauty of the redwood forest.

Before he realizes it, Julian is working against his uncle’s company to save the grove of old-growth redwood trees from the clear cutting Sibley has planned.

I really enjoyed this book.  It’s a good companion for Carl Hiassen’s eco-novels and I imagine it will really appeal to my middle schoolers.  Julian and his friends are in middle school themselves and their reactions and plans for the protest are very realistic.  I could imagine myself making the same decisions they did as a preteen.  Plus, who has not wanted to run away and live in a treehouse at some point in their life?

*Review copy courtesy of the publisher for the Cybils. All opinions are my own and not those of the panel as a whole.

Scat by Carl Hiaasen

Scat is Carl Hiaasen’s latest book for middle grade/YA readers. Nick Waters and some of his friends are pulled into an eco-avenger’s plot to save endangered Florida panthers and put a halt to illegal drilling going on in the Everglades. When Nick’s strict (and sort of crazy) biology teacher goes missing during a wildfire that breaks out on a class trip, no one is sure whether to be worried or elated. Even weirder, though, is that one of their more “infamous” classmates, Smoke, isn’t with the class when the fire breaks out. And he doesn’t show up for school. And he had threatened Mrs. Starch the day before. Did he set the fire to get rid of Mrs. Starch?!

Scat deals with a serious ecology topic (similar to Hiaasen’s other novels), but it’s also a very funny book. One of my favorite characters is a substitute teacher who follows very specific guidelines. For example, he always teaches page 263 on Fridays. No matter the subject. Without fail. Every Friday. And he wears a tuxedo and bow tie to class. As a teacher, this had me in stitches. I can only imagine how I would feel as a student reading it!

Unlike Hiaasen’s other books, this one has a bit more mystery. Readers are kept in suspense- I couldn’t put the book down. It is also very contemporary. Nick’s dad is a National Guardsman on tour in Iraq and Nick struggles with his feelings about the war. There are also passing references to Facebook and Myspace.

My favorite aspect of the book is the Florida Panther. This gorgeous animal is one of the most endangered in the world, with between 60 and 100 left in the wild. No one who reads this book can walk away without gaining a love for these majestic animals. And I think that is exactly what Hiaasen is aiming for.

This is a great book that I can’t wait to recommend to my students. I think it will appeal to boys and girls alike, and those who love mysteries and funny books. This is another slam dunk for Carl Hiaasen!

Diamond Willow by Helen Frost.

Diamond Willow by Helen Frost is a short, concise story that packs a powerful punch. I finished it yesterday afternoon and it is still on my mind.  The action of the story takes place over the span of a few short days, but don’t make the mistake of assuming nothing happens.  Willow grows and changes more in those days than most middle-schoolers do in a lifetime.  

This is a gorgeous book, despite the fact that there are no illustrations. Instead, this verse novel is told in a series of diamond-shaped poems, based on the shape of the diamond willow. Within each poem, a few words are bolded and when from top to bottom, they form a poem-within-a-poem, the heart of the story.  Every single diamond is different, and the word choice in each poem is amazing.  I sometimes stopped on a new page just to look at shapes, which almost served as illustrations.

The story is simple and middle-grade students will easily connect with Willow and her family.  Willow is a 12-year-old part-Native Alaskan who lives in a very remote town, accessible by snowmobile, plane, and boat.  She is struggling with herself, with school, and with finding happiness. She begs her parents to mush the sled (with three of their six dogs) to her Grandparents house one weekend.  While they say no at first, she is determined to prove her maturity and they finally give in.  But on the way back there’s an accident. From there, it builds and to go on would spoil the rest of the story, so I will stop there.  but I will say you should pick this up immediately!

One of my favorite parts of the story was Willow’s connection to the past.  She struggles throughout the book, all the while unaware that the animals surrounding her carry the spirits of dead ancestors and friends who care for her.   I loved this aspect of the story, so simple and serene in it’s beauty.  It was comforting, and who hasn’t caught a glimpse of nature and felt the flicker of recognition, the momentary thought that someone or something is watching out for us?  I also loved the theme of respect and love of nature.  I seek out environmental themes in my books and this one did not disappoint.  

Diamond Willow is a must-have for middle school teachers, and I expect it may even get some Newbery love next month!

Intrigued?  Read the first few chapters here!

In the Small by Michael Hague

I am not a big graphic novel reader. But I figured the Challenge was a good reason to give at least one more a shot. I chose a random ARC from my pile and it turned out to be In the Small by Michael Hague.

Bestselling illustrator Michael Hague is well-known for his fantasy illustrations. In the Small is a science-fiction/dystopian story about the end of mankind. While I appreciate the theme of environmental consequences, this was just too dark and gory for me. I think if I had read the story it would have been a bit better, but the illustrations just made the blood and gore too real for me. This is a good story, but one I would recommend for 8th grade and up.

June Edition – Learning in the Great Outdoors

Head on over to The Miss Rumphius Effect and take a gander at the June edition of Learning in the Great Outdoors.  This is one of my favorite carnivals, and this month looks especially great!!

Our Eco-art book!

Yay! Today my class’ eco-art photobook arrived, and it turned out beautifully! The book includes photos of both class’ eco-art and the poetry that it inspired in my students. The book was created as part of the Voices….From the Land project through EIRC.

The book, a 12×12 photobook made on Shutterfly

The awesome back cover, a collage of the art created in our schoolyard.

One of the photo/poetry spreads. (Made smaller because I don’t want my students to be recognizable!)

Another photo/poetry spread

One of the poems that a student wrote after creating his group’s artwork.

Another poem.

The final page in the book- a photo I took inCape May coupled with my favorite quote (and mantra).

I am completely in love with this project. It is a great marriage of art, science/ecology, language arts, and technology. We will also receive books from two other schools (including one in New Zealand!). How cool is that?  Even cooler?  The fact that I might get to meet that teacher from New Zealand at a workshop this summer.  Talk about making global connections in a new world, huh?  Absolutely amazing.

My favorite quote from today was, “Wow, Miss M!  I am published in a real book!”

Eco-art

Today, after a morning of standardized testing, I took my students outside to create eco-art.  In the tradition of Andy Goldsworthy we created art from the natural materials readily available around our schoolyard.  My kids were so amazing in this project!

After spending a good amount of time wandering the schoolyard, the students broke into small groups.  For the first time all year, there was no whining or fighting over working together.  Students seemed to naturally gravitate towards working alone or with a small group of friends.  They gathered materials together, brainstormed ideas, and even claimed their area without an ounce of anger or annoyance.  They quickly got to work and produced some amazing art.

Tomorrow, I will print out their artwork and we will use the pieces to inspire poetry and prose.  The words they write will then be combined with the photos before becoming a book on Shutterfly.  Through the Voices…From the Land project, we will share our book with another school and will receive one from another school.  We are very excited!

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