Capture the Flag by Kate Messner

Full disclosure- I’ve known Kate through Twitter and blogging for a few years now.  We finally met in person this past November, but we’ve been chatting for years.  She taught 7th grade when I taught 6th grade and I was always amazed that she could be a real writer and continue to teach.  She was a teacher-hero. :)  Now Kate is a lucky lady who gets to write full-time because her books are awesome!

Capture the Flag is the perfect middle grade mystery but it also kept this adult intrigued.  I’m a huge fan of the movie National Treasure and Capture the Flag is similar, but much more well-written!  Kate Messner has crafted a fabulous trio of kids that read like kids I know.  And the Jaguar Society? So cool!  I want to be a part of the club!  Not to mention, the history sprinkled throughout the story will keep readers interested and I think it will inspire a lot of readers to go out and do some more research on their own.

Anna, José, and Henry are brought together at the airport in Washington, DC when all flights are cancelled due to a blizzard.  They don’t know that their lives are connected until the Star-Spangled Banner is in the news after being stolen from the Smithsonian Museum.  Anna, who is certainly a leader, decides that she is going to track down the thieves, who must also be stuck in the airport because of the snow.  But it’s not that simple- accusations are lobbed at all kinds of people, the kids’ parents don’t want them wreaking havoc in the airport, and the flag is still missing!

Capture the Flag is a great mystery for middle grade readers.  Highly recommended for middle grade libraries and I think it would also make a great read aloud for a history class that is studying US history.  Kate’s writing will keep readers guessing and the history will keep them learning.  And it’s the perfect summer reading book for July!  :)

 

 

Eye of the Storm by Kate Messner

It’s appropriate that I am publishing this review today, as I watch severe weather warnings scroll across the bottom of my TV.  Kate Messner’s Eye of the Storm is a science novel (a term coined by Betsy Bird) about a dark future where storms have taken over the weather pattern and have pushed people out of their homes and into planned communities.

I loved this novel.  Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have a weak spot for the post-apocalyptic/dystopian genre.  But I am also a huge science geek.  I struggled to choose a major in college, because I loved biology and English.  I went to a pre-engineering academy for high school.  And even today, I still raise monarch butterflies and subscribe to too many science blogs to list.  I was excited when I read that Kate was writing a book heavily based on meteorological science and I begged an ARC off the publicist at NCTE.

Jaden’s dad is a meteorological engineer and he invites her to the middle of storm country to attend a camp for gifted and talented middle schoolers.  She is happy to spend time with her father and his family and as a science geek, she looks forward to camp.  But when she gets to Oklahoma, she realizes that everything is not as it seems.  Her father’s planned, engineered stormsafe community seems to be going above and beyond in order to keep the residents safe from harm. But by avoiding the storms, they may be putting those outside the community in danger.  Once Jaden starts camp, she befriends some of the farm kids from outside the community and they all begin to dig a bit deeper into the storms.

Eye of the Storm  is recommended for middle graders, but I think it will appeal to high school readers, too.  Jaden is a great heroine who is smart, geeky, and fun.  The science in the book is top-notch and Messner keeps you on the edge of your seat.  The teens/tweens read as real kids and as a teacher of gifted students, I recognized a lot of my own students in her characters.  One warning: Be sure to have some meteorology books on hand because when kids finish this one they are going to want to read a lot about storm systems!

Highly recommended for middle school and high school libraries.  A great read for upper elementary students, too!

*ARC courtesy of the publisher at NCTE

Real Revision: Authors’ Strategies to Share with Student Writers by Kate Messner

Real Revision: Authors’ Strategies to Share with Student Writers by Kate Messner is a must-have book for any teacher of writing, regardless of grade level. I can not recommend this book enough!

First of all, Kate gets it.  She is a full-time author, full-time seventh grade teacher, and full-time mom.  She teaches and actually uses the strategies she shares.  And as a writer, she is a revision expert. She knows that revision is hard work and she understand the difficulty of giving revision enough time in age of timed tests and standardized writing. I am thrilled that she decided to write this book and share her wisdom with us!  (And the wisdom of many of her author friends).  Kate understands the current climate of testing, she gets middle school minds, and she knows how much pressure teachers feel in this day and age.  Yet she still manages to make the book accessible, practical, and conversational.  You can read Real Revision: Authors’ Strategies to Share with Student Writers straight through or a few pages at a time and you will learn something every time you sit down with it.  My copy is flagged and I know I will be pulling it out constantly this year.

I read a lot of professional books about reading, writing, and general literacy.  Kate’s Real Revision: Authors’ Strategies to Share with Student Writers by Kate Messner  is the first book in a long time to grab me and make me want to continue reading long after I should have put the book down.  She doesn’t just share her own classroom experiences, but also includes interviews and essays from various children’s and YA authors.  The authors share their own methods of “real” revision and ways teachers can apply those methods in their own classrooms.

And teachers will love, love, love the “try it” sheets that are included throughout the book and in the Appendix.  Many of the “try it” sheets are invitations for students to try a revision strategy shared by an author in the book. Because these are authors thats students are familiar with, I imagine they will love having the chance to “try” what their favorite author suggests.They can actually learn about the real revision work done for the books in our classroom libraries.   How awesome is that?!

Highly, highly recommended for teachers of grades 2-12.  There is something in here for teachers at all grade levels!  Pick up a copy before the school year starts!

Sugar and Ice by Kate Messner

Earlier this week I finished reading a fantastic middle grade/tween book and I can not recommend it enough.  Kate Messner’s Sugar and Ice is a book you should be handing to all of your middle grade readers.  It’s just perfect!  Reading it, I was transported to Lake Placid and could almost feel the snowflakes in the air and smell the maple syrup on Claire’s family farm.

Claire Boucher loves to ice skate.  She skates on the cow pond as soon as it is safely frozen over and she loves coaching the little kids down at the town rink.  However, she does not compete, since she freezes up in front of judges.  Instead, she just skates because she loves it.  When she performs as the lead in the town’s Maple Festival, she catches the eye of a scout from Lake Placid.  He is looking for local skaters who are talented enough to join him at the Olympic Center.  When he approaches Claire and offers her a scholarship to train with him and other talented skaters, she assumes her parents will turn it down. And she is ok with that.  But when her parents shock her by saying yes, because it is a once in a lifetime opportunity, Claire finds herself in a whole new world.  She is not naturally competitive and the other skaters around her live and breathe skating.  Is Claire ready to leave her life behind and step into the spotlight?  And does she have time to skate and stay on top of the homework in her advanced math class?

Messner is a master at capturing the tween brain.  (Probably because she spends so much time with them as a mother and teacher!) Claire is easy to relate to and you are immediately drawn into her world.  Readers don’t have to be ice skaters, beekeepers, of Fibonacci-lovers to fall in love with Sugar and Ice. The characters are strong and well-drawn, the setting is gorgeous, and the ice skating competitions will leave you on the edge of your seat.

As a teacher, I loved Messner’s references to other books (Hattie Big Sky, Twilight, Need).  I was also thrilled to see that Claire loves math and has a fascination with Fibonacci.  Her school project is woven seamlessly into the plot and I found myself constantly learning something new.  It’s so awesome to read about a female main character who loves math and it proud of it.  It even helps her connect with the cute boy in her ice skating group!  Hopefully, this will also catch the minds of tween readers.

And finally, this book can also be booktalked as a mystery.  While at Lake Placid, Claire’s belongings are sabotaged.  Throughout the book you are left wondering who is doing these awful things.  I’ll admit, I was pretty sure I knew who was doing it and I ended up being wrong.  It was a great twist.

Highly, highly recommended for middle grade readers.  I’ve already passed my copy on to my 6th grade sister- the highest compliment I can give a middle grade novel these days!

*ARC courtesy of the publisher

Kate Messner Talks about Sugar and Ice

I am thrilled to be interviewing Kate Messner today!  Her latest middle grade novel, Sugar and Ice, will be released this week and it is absolutely wonderful! I already passed my ARC on to my 6th grade sister because I just know that she will adore it as much as I did. (Look for my review later this week!)

Right now, I am so happy to introduce Kate!  She is an amazing writer, teacher, and mom, which leaves me in awe.

 

So Kate, when did you decide that you wanted to be a writer? And once you did decide, how did you get into a routine of writing daily?


I’ve always been a writer, since I could hold a pencil. When I was in elementary school and junior high, I did a lot of creative writing, but as I got older and had more homework, I put that writing mostly on hold. It was after I was a mom and teacher that I really rediscovered the stories I’d loved as a kid and started writing for myself again.

When I started working on my first book, I wasn’t really in a good routine; I’d write in fits and starts, stealing a few hours on a weekend and then not getting back to the project for weeks. However, as my kids got a little older, I got better at setting aside time for writing each night, which is what I do now.

 

What is it like to be a writer and a full-time teacher and a mom? How do you do it all?

Actually, I find that my writing, teaching, and mothering lives complement each other beautifully! When I have to take a research trip, whether it’s up the road to Montreal or across the country, the whole family usually comes, and we make a bigger trip out of it.

As an English teacher, I find that being a writer lends a sense of credibility and vulnerability to the job. I think I tend to empathize much better with my students when I have to go home and revise myself at the end of the school day! And of course, it affords us lots of opportunities to talk about craft, since I share my editors’ revision notes and my own struggles with writing with my kids.

 

When you first got the idea for Sugar and Ice, what came first? Did Claire come to you as a character, or was the concept/plot the first thing?

To be totally honest, this book kind of happened by accident. My daughter had signed up for a basic skills skating camp in Lake Placid, and I was going to drop her off and head for the coffee shop across the street to revise my other book, THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. I’d apparently missed the small print in the registration materials, though, and didn’t realize that when I signed the girl up for skating camp, I had also signed myself up for a skater-mom education program.

For the first fifteen minutes, I kept trying to devise ways to escape…but then I really started listening to the experts who gave presentations. Thousand dollar skate blades? Really? And then there was the sports psychologist who really captured my imagination with her stories of how she works with skaters to keep the sport healthy amid all the competition. What a perfect world for a book for kids! I was sold…and started taking notes that afternoon.

Claire came to me later on, as I was wondering what kind of kid might have the most difficulty adjusting to that fast-paced, competitive skating lifestyle. I thought it would be interesting to take a girl from a small-town maple farm and see how she managed in a world of mean girls on ice.

 

I know you are also working on a teacher resource book that focuses on revision. What have you learned about revision that you did not know before by focusing so much on the topic?

Enough to write a whole book! Honestly, this project was one of the best things I’ve ever done, not only in terms of the actual book, which I love, but because I learned so much that I can use in my teaching and writing lives. I interviewed more than forty authors about their revision processes and learned that while our goals are the same, everyone has their own little tricks and pet strategies that make the revision road an easier one to travel.

I added about a million tricks to my own revision toolbox as I worked on this book. It features lots of the strategies I used when I was revising SUGAR AND ICE and THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z, and it also includes lots of tips from other authors, all adapted in ways that can be used in the classroom. The title is REAL REVISION: AUTHORS’ STRATEGIES TO SHARE WITH STUDENT WRITERS, and it’ s due out from Stenhouse this spring.

 

What is your favorite go-to snack when you are writing?

Oh, that’s easy. Chocolate. Always chocolate.

 

You are also a 7th grade teacher.  What book are you recommending to your students right now? Alternately, what book(s) are they just devouring?

I just got back from the NCTE/ALAN conference with two boxes of books for my kids, and they’ve descended on them like vultures. There’s a big wait-list for dystopian titles like MATCHED by Ally Condie and the ARC of DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth, due out in May. Kids are also loving the books I had signed to them by Wendy Mass and Lisa Yee.

My students are also loving GIRL, STOLEN by April Henry, OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon Draper, TOUCH BLUE by Cynthia Lord, ALABAMA MOON and DIRT ROAD HOME by Watt Key, THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy, HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT by Natalie Standiford, NEED by Carrie Jones, HARMONIC FEEDBACK by Tara Kelly, MAGIC UNDER GLASS by Jackie Dolamore, and sports books by Tim Green and Mike Lupica.

And of course, some of the books I can’t quite manage to put into the classroom library until I’ve had a chance to read them! I just finished an ARC of Gayle Forman’s WHERE SHE WENT tonight (amazing!) and started reading an ARC of Jenny Moss’s TAKING OFF, set around the time of the Challenger disaster (also amazing so far!).

 

Wow!  Those are some amazing books.  And like you, I held back my copy of WHERE SHE WENT so that I could read it first.  It’s one of the perks of being the teacher!  Don’t worry, though- I already passed it on to a voracious reader. :)

Thanks so much for stopping by, Kate!  It’s been a pleasure hosting you!

 

Want a personalized, signed copy of SUGAR AND ICE?

The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid is hosting a SUGAR AND ICE launch party from 3-5 pm on Saturday, December 11th, so please consider this your invitation if you live in the area! If you can’t make it but would still like a signed, personalized copy, just give the bookstore a call at (518) 523-2950 by December 10th. They’ll take your order, have Kate sign your book after the event, and ship it out to you in plenty of time for the holidays.

Sugar and Ice

Junior Library Guild Selection

Winter 2010-2011 Kids IndieNext List

Amazon Best Books for December 2010

 

For Claire Boucher, life is all about skating on the frozen cow pond and in the annual Maple Show right before the big pancake breakfast on her family’s maple farm. But all that changes when Claire is offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity- a scholarship to train with the elite skaters in Lake Placid. Tossed into a world of mean girls on ice, where competition is everything, Claire soon realizes that her sweet dream-come-true has sharper edges than she could have imagined. Can she find the strength to stand up to the people who want her to fail and the courage to decide which dream she wants to follow?

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner

I am always looking for that quintessential middle school novel.  You know, the one that isn’t too old or too babyish for my 6th graders.  While plenty of my students love to read YA and are more than prepared for it, I also have many who just want a book about a kid like them.  My students are fabulous at self-censoring and know when a book is just right for them.  A few time this week I have had some of my girls put a book back on the shelf after a few pages saying, “This book is too old for me so I am going to try something else.”

Inevitably when I ask them what they are in the mood for they tell me “A book about a kid in middle school, going through regular middle school stuff.  A main character like me.”

Kate Messner’s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. is that book and I can’t wait to pass it on to my students!

Don’t misunderstand me- this isn’t some fluffy novel.  Messner deals with some heavy subjects in the novel, but they are issues many of my students deal with on a daily basis.

Gianna is a cross-country runner, a gifted artist, and a free spirit.  She doesn’t do very well with deadlines so when her science teacher gives the class a month to complete a leaf identification she procrastinates.  When the two week deadline approaches and Gianna has very little done she learns that she won’t be able to run in the cross-country sectionals if the project isn’t completed and handed in by the end of the school day on the due date.  Even worse, glittery mean girl Bianca will get to run in her place!

Gianna has the best of intentions.  She means to finish the project on time but life keeps getting in the way.  Her best friend Zig is starting to show interest in her as a little more than just a friend. Family obligations keep popping up left and right, like going to the Italian market in Montreal.  Her father is a mortician, and she has to comfort a classmate who has just lost her grandmother.  Calling hours are held at the house, causing even more of a distraction.  Plus, Gianna’s mom is her exact opposite- organized, a health-nut, and sort of Type-A.

The story follows Gianna through one particularly tumultuous week in her life.  While she should be working in her leaf project she is overwhelmed by her grandma Nonna’s forgetfulness.  Her mother’s refusal to discuss Nonna’s forgetfulness puts a lot of pressure on Gianna, as she is particularly close to Nonna.

I loved this book!  I think girls especially will connect with Gianna.  She isn’t perfect but she is real.  Her imperfections reminded me of a lot of the students I teach every year.  She wants to do well in school but is easily distracted.  However, she is so smart- her interpretation of Robert Frost’s Birches is brilliant and spot-on.  But she doesn’t hand it in, because she thinks it’s not what the teacher wants to hear.  (I was so frustrated by her at that point!)

What really hit home for me was Gianna’s relationship with Nonna.  Nonna’s early symptoms of Alzheimer’s broke my heart.  I’m not too proud to admit I cried more than once toward the end of the book.  But too many of my students are dealing with similar issues and I am so happy to find a book that voices the whirlwind of emotions they are feeling.

And as an English teacher, I love the repeated references to Robert Frost’s poem, “Birches“. I especially love that the poem is not only referenced and quoted numerous times, but that it is also thoughtfully discussed throughout the book. What a great introduction to Frost this will serve as for many middle grade readers!

It’s obvious Messner deals with middle schoolers on a daily basis because her characterizations are spot-on.  I highly recommend The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. to all classroom and school libraries.  And attention teachers- this would make a fantastic read-aloud!

*Note- I have never met Kate Messner, but we are Twitter friends and I follow her blog.  We have a lot in common as we both teach middle school Language Arts/English and I’ve always enjoyed her online writing.

*ARC received from publisher at BEA

Reading in Middle School: Choice, Independence, and Community

It’s been a crazy few days for reading in the news.  First, I was devastated to learn that Reading Rainbow has been cancelled and its final episode aired on Friday.  I remember watching Reading Rainbow often as a child and singing the theme song even more often.

“Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high. Take a  look, it’s in a book…”  I can still picture the opening credits in my head!

According to vice president for children’s programming at PBS, Linda Simensky, “research has shown that teaching children the mechanics of reading should be the network’s priority…”  This breaks my heart.  It’s just another example of the mentality that mechanics and how-to takes precedence over why reading (and often writing) is fun and enjoyable.  As a teacher I can promise you that enjoying reading has taken my students to new heights and in my experience is just as important as those mechanics.  If you hate reading it doesn’t matter how well you can read, you still aren’t going to pick up a book.  And if you struggle with reading it’s hard to see a reason to enjoy it. It saddens me that PBS no longer sees teaching the enjoyment of reading as important but I plan to continue teaching and modeling that enjoyment in my classroom.

After reading about Reading Rainbow I was I was thrilled to see the “reading workshop” approach to teaching getting publicity with an article in the New York Times.  Motoko Rich’s  A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like isn’t ground-breaking- reading workshop has been around for decades- but any publicity for this way of teaching is good publicity in my opinion. There are thousands of teachers out there who are unfamiliar with the workshop approach, don’t believe it can work in this age of standardized testing, or don’t feel confident enough to take the plunge. Hopefully this article will encourage a few more to try it in their own classrooms.  Presenting students with choice in reading opens new worlds.  I have the anecdotal evidence from my own classrooms as do many other teachers. You only have to read my literacy surveys at the beginning of the year and the end of the year- you’ll see the difference in my readers.  Speak to their parents.  More importantly?  Speak to my students.  Having a choice in their reading leads to enjoying reading!

I don’t agree with every single thing in the article, just like I don’t agree with every single thing Nancie Atwell or Lucy Calkins preaches.  Lorrie McNeill, the teacher in the article, doesn’t believe in any whole-class novels.  While I use them (very) sparingly, I agree with Monica Edinger (a fourth grade teacher) that they can be very valuable.  Adults read with book clubs, so why not students?  I do agree with McNeill’s opinion that too many teachers overteach whole-class novels.  That’s the problem.  But this is why I love the workshop approach- you do what works for you and your students.

My teaching was shaped by my student-teaching experience.  I was extremely fortunate in that I taught at a Teacher’s College Reading & Writing Project school in New Jersey.  I attended staff development and saw the workshop approach work over my two semesters in third grade there.  My cooperating teacher was an inspiration and I’ve never looked back.  Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Kelly Gallagher, and so many more have been inspiring me ever since.  But my reading workshop isn’t identical to anyone else’s.  I teach 100 sixth grade students in 55 minute periods.  I have to modify the system to fit my classroom and my students.  For the record, I do think reading workshop works at its best with small classes for larger quantities of time, like McNeill’s classes.  But we all work within the parameters of our district.

Here’s a broad overview of my sixth grade reading workshop:

  • Independent Reading- The cornerstone of my workshop.  All of my students are required to have a book with them at all times.  We read in class, while I model by reading or conference with individuals.  At the beginning of the year I spend a lot of time modeling reading while easing into reading conferences with my students.  Our minilessons are related to each child’s independent book because I focus on comprehension strategies which can be applied to all books instead of lessons tailored only to a specific novel (a la the numerous novel guides out there).  My students begin the year with in-class reading logs while easing into letter-essay responses.  They also keep an at-home reading log that is collected once each month as a quiz grade.  The quiz is pass/fail and everyone passes as long as the log is turned in.  The logs, and later letter-essays, allow me to keep track of each student’s progress and help guide them.  I also have individual reading conferences with each student along with numerous informal chats in the hall, during homeroom, and hopefully online this year!
  • Read Alouds: Can you have two cornerstones?  Because read alouds are equally as important as independent reading in my class  We are always reading a book together.  This is a “for fun” book, as I tell my students.  They aren’t quizzed, tested, or graded.  What they rarely realize is how much they are learning from my modeling, thinking aloud, and our class conversations.  I choose books that they class wouldn’t normally choose to read on their own and the books are always a few level above my average reader.  We usually use Newbery buzz as a guide, trying to read the Newbery winner before it is announced in January.  Of course, we also read picture books, non-fiction related to the content areas, and numerous articles.  This year’s first read aloud? When You Reach Me.  See here if you are interested in what we read last year.
  • Whole class books:  The dreaded whole-class novel.  *shudder*  We do read books together.  These are different from our read alouds because the students are responsible for these books (tests, quizzes, or projects). One of the reasons I grade the activities attached to these books is because my students will experience reading class this way from 7th grade until graduating college.  It’s my job to prepare them.  We normally  read Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting as we learn to annotate text and dig deeper. We read literary articles about the novel, including Horn Book’s amazing interview with Babbitt, “Circling Tuck: An Interview with Natalie Babbitt”. We also read Lois Lowry’s The Giver as we debate euthanasia, free choice, and so much more. Every year it is a wonderful experience. And nothing beats hearing kids moan and groan about a “boring book” before we begin reading it and then listening to their devastated reactions when Jesse and Winnie don’t end up together or debating whether or not Jonas made the right decision.
  • Book Clubs- We study the  Holocaust at each grade level (4-8) as part of our district initiative.  We read and research different aspects of the Holocaust before students break off into book clubs of their choosing. The groups read a variety of books, fiction and nonfiction, about different aspects WWII.  They take notes, do further research, and then present what they learn to the class.  Every year I learn something new and the students are able to dig even deeper into aspects of the war they might not have been familiar with before our book clubs.
  • Primary and secondary sources- Our students participate in National History Day each year and I love introducing them to primary sources!  Connecting with history through those who actually experienced it turns on so many students to research and helps them overcome the dread attached to the word “research”.

This is only a brief, very brief, summary of my classroom and my personal approach to reading workshop.  The reaction I get the most when I mention I use reading workshop is a frown followed by, “Don’t your  students just read “junk books?”  Of course.  However, they aren’t junk books to me or those students.  They are gateway books.  I watched this year as one of my most reluctant readers  read Twilight, followed by all of its sequels, every other vampire book she could get her hands on, and then Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, and eventually Wuthering Heights!  One person’s junk is another’s treasure, and that same junk opens up a whole new world to readers.  And that’s also why I am sure to include all the other aspects of my reading workshop- read alouds, book clubs, and even whole class selections.  My students are surrounded by books and words at all times.  Each book connects with each student differently.

Reading workshop works so well because it can be personalized by each teacher.  Every classroom is different.  Just check out some of these other responses around the blogosphere:

-Monica Edinger’s In the Classroom: Teaching Reading
-The Book Whisperer’s The More Things Change
-Lois Lowry’s I Just Became Passe’
-Meg Cabot’s How to Foster a Hatred of Reading
-Kate Messner’s Heading Off Book Challenges

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