Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Nora Raleigh Baskin’s Anything But Typical has been on my “must read” pile for the last few months. I was excited to see that it was nominated for the Cybils because it meant I finally had an excuse to bring it to the top of the pile. Boy, am I glad I did. This is a fantastic book and I am thinking of using it as a read aloud with one of my classes after the holidays.

The story is written in the voice of Jason, a middle school boy diagnosed as high-functioning autistic. His life is full of letters- ADHD, LD, HFA, PDD-NOS, NT. While he struggles in school to be accepted socially, he is happy to spend most of his time on the Storyboard writing forum online. On the forum no one sees his odd hand flapping or his struggles to control himself. No one looks at him strangely or makes rude comments. He is a great writer and he can interact with other people without fear of ridicule. And when a girl befriends him on the forum he is thrilled. This would never happen to him in real life (despite the promises of his parents, “Someday you will meet a nice girl….”). But online, he suddenly has a girl friend. Maybe even a girlfriend.

Then everything begins to unravel. Jason’s parents surprise him with a trip to the Storyboard Convention. Phoenixbird messages him that she will also be at the convention. Jason knows that he can’t go to the convention- as soon as his online friends meet him they will treat him just like his classmates do.

I don’t want to give much more away, but this is a book that every.single.teacher should read. I found myself brought to tears more than once. This is not just about a child on the autistic spectrum; I found myself more involved than ever before while reading a book. I felt like I knew Jason. I felt like he was one of my own students. The reactions of his classmates were cruel while peppered with pure reality. Anything But Typical is a powerful book and I think it will make a wonderful read aloud for my students. I can’t recommend it enough.

*Review copy courtesy of the publisher. All views are my own and don’t represent those of my fellow panelists.

Gone From These Woods by Donny Seagraves

Eleven-year old Daniel, or D-man, doesn’t have the best dad.  In fact, his dad is pretty mean.  But that’s ok, because Daniel has his Uncle Clay.  Clay is only twelve years older than Daniel and they do everything together.  They fish, play cards, and hang out together all the time.  When his dad is angry and being mean, he can go to Clay’s house just down the road.

Clay can’t wait to take Daniel hunting for the first time in their Georgia woods.  But when Daniel tragically shoots his uncle after missing his first rabbit, his life is forever changed.  The fatal accident rocks his family and their small town, but Daniel is forever changed.  How can he possibly go on living when Clay will never laugh again, never hunt again, never make Daniel feel good again?

This is a heartbreaking book that I could not put down.  Daniel’s pain is palpable but realistic.  Obviously having never been in his situation, I still felt like I was right there with him.  How does an 11-year old deal with the overbearing guilt of fatally shooting his uncle? I found myself unable to stop reading because I needed to know that he would be ok, that he would be able to go on with his life.  There were times when I wasn’t sure he would do it.  The pain he experiences is too much for an adult, let alone a child.

I booktalked this one in my classes today and immediately had five or six students begging for it.  I also think this would make a great read aloud.  The themes of love and loss, sadness and hope, plus the ideas about gun ownership and children vs. adults would make for some great classroom discussions.

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

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.

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.

All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg

Wow.  That is all I can say about Ann E. Burg’s All The Broken Pieces. I picked this off my pile of Cybils nominees and began reading without looking at the flap cover. I was caught completely off guard by how amazing this verse novel is!

Matt Pin is haunted by his memories of Vietnam. He was born a bui doi, the dust of life, son of an American GI and Vietnamese mother during the Vietnam War. He has nightmares of falling bombs, land mines, and the awful secret he left behind in Vietnam. He was airlifted out of Vietnam at ten years old, leaving behind his mother and brother.

Through the course of the book Matt is forced to come to terms with his with his horrifying past and his American present. Unsure if he can exist in both worlds, or if he even should, he comes face to face with the effects of the Vietnam War on American soil.

This is an extremely powerful novel. As a huge Miss Saigon fan, my middle school self would have loved this book.  I found myself humming Bui Doi throughout the novel.    However, I don’t think reading the novel requires any previous knowledge of the Vietnam War. Even readers with no knowledge of the Vietnam War will close this book understanding the ramifications of war. The book explores its effects on soldiers, civilians, parents, sons, daughters, and those left behind.

The verse format of this novel also works exceptionally well. The verse is spare yet you can not breeze through it. Being in Matt’s head connects you to him more than a standard 1st person perspective. I know many of my students look for verse novels because they are less intimidating than prose novels. However, this novel is a perfect example of how deeply evocative verse novels can be.  I can’t wait to recommend this to all of my sixth graders.  It will connect with boys and girls, I think.

 

*Review copy courtesy of the publisher, via the Cybils. All opinions are my own and not necessarily shared by the panel as a whole.

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.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid Dog Days by Jeff Kinney

To give you an idea of the popularity of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, let me tell you about the release of the book in my classroom. Scholastic Book Clubs ran a promotion where students could preorder the book and it would arrive on the release date with a free Wimpy Kid bookmark. When I offered this option to my class, 44 of them ordered the book! They paid with checks, bills, coins, you name it- everyone wanted a copy of the book. Then they proceeded to ask me 100 times per day if the books had arrived yet. When the box came (specially decorated with Wimpy Kid drawings), they were ecstatic! Needless to say, Jeff Kinney is practically a god in the eyes of my 6th graders and that has not changed since the release of the first Wimpy Kid book.

Due to my overwhelming amounts of Cybil reading, I did not get around to Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days until this weekend. I was thrilled when the middle grade panel was informed that Kinney’s latest book was being moved to our category. Now I had an excuse to read it!

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days does not disappoint. It is just as funny as the first books in the series and had me laughing out loud over and over. Kinney is an expert on the voice of middle school boys. He gets in their heads better than almost any other author. One of my favorite parts of the book was when Greg’s mom starts a book club for the neighborhood boys.

When the boys bring copies of their favorite books (comics, nonfiction, etc), Mrs. Heffley tells them they aren’t real books and then brings out her favorites- Little Women, The Yearling, Old Yeller, and Anne of Green Gables. Obviously, the boys are horrified.

The are the exact same types of books our teachers are always pushing us to read at school.  They have a program where if you read a “classic” in your free time, they reward you with a sticker of a hamburger or something like that.

I don’t know who they think they’re fooling.  You can get a sheet of a hundred stickers down at the arts-and-crafts store for fifty cents.

And Greg’s definition of a “classic” sounds pretty much the same as my sixth graders’s definitions…

I’m not really sure what makes a book a “classic” to begin with, but I think it has to be at least fifty years old and some person or animal has to die at the end.

I admit, I was cracking up there!

Greg is spending the summer at home in this book because his parents can’t afford to go on vacation this year.  Of course, he ends up getting in more than enough scrapes.  But the best part is when he ends up with a dog.  Gosh knows I can sympathize with the sometimes annoying aspects of having a dog!  Greg is also getting older and that comes out a few times in the story.  He is in love with a high school girl, instead of a middle school girl, which is like a whole new world.  However, anyone who is familiar with Greg knows that nothing ever works out the way he planned it to.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days was not my favorite of the WImpy Kid books, but it does not disappoint. I laughed out loud more than a few times and my students laughed even more than I did. Definitely recommended for any fans of the Wimpy Kid series!

*Cybils nominee

*Personal copy

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