Boy21

I was fortunate enough to meet author Matthew Quick at NCTE back in November.  I picked up a copy of his book and promised myself I would read it soon.  Then I got the opportunity to head Mr. Quick read a bit from the book and speak about writing it and I was hooked.  I read Boy21 a few days after coming home from NCTE and I’m still thinking about it. I expected to like the book due to Quick being a Jersey boy and the Jersey roots of the story. I’m also a basketball fan and figured it would be good for me to have another go-to sports book for some of my readers. After reading Boy21 I realized it is much more than a sports book. As one of my students said upon completing the book, “Mrs. G, it’s not just a book about basketball. It’s about life. And it’s really good.”

Finley lives in Bellmont, a dying town where racism, the Irish mob, and poverty are a part of life.  Finley is one of the few white kids in his high school, where his team mates refer to him as “White Rabbit” because he’s the only white guy on the varsity team.  He’s a hard worker who may not be the best on the team but just may be the most disciplined and most dedicated.  He hopes that basketball will be a way out of Bellmont for himself and his girlfriend Erin, who is a fantastic basketball player.  They practice together all summer in preparation for their senior year. But things take a turn for the bizarre when Coach shows up one night and asks Finley to look after a new student (and hopefully a new member of the basketball team).

Russ is a weird kid.  Coach explains to Finley that his parents were recently murdered and since then Russ has been shutting the world out.  He’s moved back to Bellmont to live with his grandparents and get a fresh start.  But when Finley meets him, he realizes that Coach was not entirely truthful.  It turns out Russ is one of the top-rated high school players in the country, or at least he was.  Now, he refers to himself as Boy21 and has a bizarre obsession with outer space.  Oh, and he no longer has any interest in basketball.  Coach wants Finley to look after him and convince him to play basketball again, even though that means Finley will probably lose his spot on the team if Russ decides to play.

And then something terrible happens to Erin, and Finley and Russ must deal with the tragedy and loss in their pasts, and the possible losses they may suffer in the future.

As my student said so eloquently when he handed back our classroom copy of Boy21, this is a book about life.  Smart, funny, raw, and touching, it’s a book I can confidently recommend to all of my readers, from reluctant to voracious.  The characters are real and their lives are not perfect.  I found myself wanting to dive between the pages and rescue Finley, Russ, and Erin. But at the same time, I knew that none of them would allow themselves to be rescued.  Boy21 is a book I am looking forward to handing to a lot of my John Green fans, because Quick’s book is smart and witty while still making the reader’s heart break and put itself back together again.

Highly, highly recommended!

 

 

*ARC courtesy of the publisher, from NCTE

Hidden by Helen Frost

Helen Frost is one of my favorite authors.  While she may not be the most well-known MG/YA author on the market right now, I wish she was!  I am constantly recommending her books to my readers.  When I was offered an ARC of her newest title, I jumped on the chance. Hidden does not disappoint. If you are a middle school of high school teacher, I highly recommend picking up a copy.

From the flap copy:

When Wren Abbott and Darra Monson are eight years old, Darra’s father steals a minivan. He doesn’t know that Wren is hiding in the back. The hours and days that follow change the lives of both girls. Darra is left with a question that only Wren can answer. Wren has questions, too.

Years later, in a chance encounter at camp, the girls face each other for the first time. They can finally learn the truth—that is, if they’re willing to reveal to each other the stories that they’ve hidden for so long.

I have a strange attraction to crime stories.  I am the person who can’t turn off CNN when they are talking about a missing person.  I read newspaper articles and magazine interviews.  Hidden was exactly what I was looking for. The story will keep you on the edge of your seat.  The chapters alternate between Wren and Darra and you sympathize with both.  The suspense alone is reason enough to pick up the book.  However, Helen Frost’s real gift is in her poetry.

Nothing is ever as it seems, which is what I love.   The real magic in every Helen Frost book comes when you start digging deeper, really paying attention to the poetry.  In Hidden, Helen Frost has invented a new form of poetry to help give insight into Darra’s story. Darra’s poems are told through especially long lines.  But upon reaching the end of the book, you learn that taking the last word of the longest lines allows you to read Darra’s thoughts and memories, seeing the kidnapping from her point-of-view.  Due to this, I found myself re-reading the book immediately upon finishing it the first time.  The second time through, I simply lost myself in the poetry, paying attention to the word choice, the rhymes, and this wonderful new form.

Hidden is perfect for reluctant MG/YA readers.  Highly, highly recommended!

Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell

Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life by Rachel Renee Russell is going to immediately draw comparisons to Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Both are in the illustrated novel category and both focus on characters in middle school struggling to be cool and part of the “in” crowd.  A universal theme, and one that my own almost-middle schoolers struggle with daily, boys and girls alike love the Wimpy Kid series.  Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life is similar in theme, but this is a girl book through and through.  Not that this is a detriment- I already have a waiting list for my ARC because some of my girls saw the pink cover with the manga-like illustration and demanded I read it quickly and pass it on.  And they certainly won’t be disappointed.

Nikki can not believe that she has to go to snotty Westchester Country Day all because her exterminator dad just got a gig there.  And to make matters even worse, she’s on a scholarship.  And her parents are completely clueless!  Don’t they realize that she will never fit in at WTC?  If they expect her to fit in with these rich kids, she totally needs a new iPhone.  A new wardrobe would help, too.  When her mom says that she should save up for the phone, she lists three very important and totally serious reasons that will never work:

  • Buying Nikki a phone will help her mother practice with money management.
  • Her allowance is so small that saving up would take years and by then iPhones won’t be cool anymore so everyone will laugh at her antiquated phone.
  • Nikki is an artist and she needs to save up for art camp instead.

I admit I was laughing at loud at Nikki and her reasoning.  It reminded me so  much of my students and their “drama”.  There’s always drama in middle school!  Nikki, of course, is no exception.

As you read Nikki’s diary of her eighth grade year, you can’t help but laugh.  Her fascination with the queen bee/head mean girl at school is reminiscent of so many middle schoolers.  She wants to hate Mackenzie and her designer outfits, but she also wants to be her.  And when Mackenzie enters her fashion portfolio in the school-wide art contest, she almost intimidates Nikki into skipping the contest.   Even when Nikki does enter, she’s convinced that she won’t win. She changes and grows during eighth grade, but in a realistic way.  Nikki isn’t perfect at the end of the book and her life isn’t picture-perfect.  She’s a regular kid, an everygirl.  And I think that’s why middle schoolers are going to connect with her.  And because she is in 8th grade, this will also be a great book for struggling/reluctant readers in early high school.

Nikki’s parents were one of my favorite parts of the book.  Convinced they are completely clueless, Nikki can’t understand why they want to make her life miserable.  Like when they decide the perfect solution to her friendless life to put positive affirmations all over the house.  Including in the toaster.  Which Nikki promptly sets on fire by accident.  Sounds like something that would happen to me!  But her parents are trying to do right by her and give her the best education they can while also making sure she is happy.  Nikki just can’t see that at thirteen.  And what thirteen-year old can?!

Rachel Renee Russell has a hit on her hands here.  This book is going to appeal to a lot of middle school girls.  And I couldn’t be happier that they will be reading a book where being a dork is cool.  Nikki realizes that sometimes being a dork is fun!  As a loud and proud dork/nerd, this makes my heart leap.  Too many of our girls spend their time trying to be someone they’re not.  They can learn a lot from Nikki and laugh along the way.  

Whenn

That Book Woman by Heather Henson

I love David Small’s illustrations, so That Book Woman by Heather Henson immediately caught my eye. And the illustrations are gorgeous. But it’s also a great story and one I plan to read with my class next year when we begin the new school year.

This is the story of a boy named Cal who lives way up in the Appalachian mountains during the 1930′s. Cal is a good boy who enjoys helping his Pa with the chores, like plowing and chasing after wayward sheep. What he doesn’t understand is why his sister, Lark, just sits around reading most of the time. Cal can’t read and has a hard time understanding the value of those “chicken scratches.” He sees no use for reading- they live an isolated life in the mountains!

When a woman shows up one day with a sack full of books, Cal worries that his Ma and Pa are going to trade his berries (for pies!) to get books. But then that book woman says the books are free! And she will show up on horesback about every two weeks with new books! Cal doesn’t believe her, but she isn’t lying. Through rain and snow she comes, with new books every time.

This is a gorgeous story for readers and non-readers alike. Cal is the kid all teachers and librarians know- the one with no use for reading. But even the most reluctant readers can be changed. ;)

Skeleton Creek by Patrick Carman

I don’t know if I will recover from reading Patrick Carman’s Skeleton Creek anytime soon. This is one scary book! I don’t do scary movies and I rarely read horror books, but the multimedia aspect of Skeleton Creek intrigued me, so I had to give it a shot.  Do not read this one when you are home alone.  I wouldn’t even read it at night!  It’s a fantastic story and I think I would be even more enthusiastic about it if I was a horror reader.  But I can recognize and appreciate a great book, even if it’s my least favorite genre. ;)

The story is told in journal form, with lined pages and handwriting-like font.  The journal writer is Ryan and he has just come home from spending two weeks in the hospital.  Ryan has been forbidden from seeing his best friend, Sarah, after getting into an accident the last time the two were together.  Life in Skeleton Creek is boring and the two had gone to explore a strange gold-mining dredge in the woods where a worker, Joe Bush, had died.  That’s where Ryan falls and ends up in the hospital in a coma for almost 2 days.

Ryan and Sarah are forbidden from seeing or contacting each other, but this is the age of the internet, IMing, blogging, and websites.  Sarah emails video updates of her continued investigation to Ryan.  Readers can access Sarah’s videos through the website listed in the book and the passwords given on each page.

The first video Sarah sends shows her first visit to the dredge and their first evidence that someone else is there. The video immediately creeped me out and I actually jumped at the end.  It reminded me a lot of the cinematography in “The Blair Witch Project”.  SCARY!  The second video shows the night of Ryan’s accident. In late videos Sarah continues to lay out her investigation.  Again- CREEPY.  I had trouble watching some of the videos because they really are scary. 

I can not wait to share this with my students and I can already predict a rush to buy the book, because no one is going to want to wait on a waiting list for this one.  The multimedia concept is really cool and I think it’s going to hook a lot of my more reluctant readers (especially boys).  Because the two main characters are male and female, this is an equal opportunity horror book that both boys and girls will enjoy, though.  

I love the video+text combination, but I do wonder how to handle it sometimes.  Not every kid is going to have access to the internet when they are reading the book.  The videos are interspersed throughout the book, sometimes only a few pages apart.  While you can certainly read it without watching the videos, you will lose a lot of the story and atmosphere.  Kids can’t always get to a computer while reading, especially if we are encouraging kids to read anywhere they can.  If you are reading at your brother or sister’s soccer game, you aren’t going to jump online to watch the videos.  Instead, you will be pulled out of “the zone” and might not continue reading until you can get online.  Also, what if the website is down a few years from now but the book is still in libraries.  Is it then useless?  Interesting dilemmas.

There are definitely some issues with the idea of tying books to the internet.  However, Skeleton Creek is a fantastic read and my horror fans are going to eat this one up.  And I know they will be thrilled that there is going to be a sequel in the fall.  Definitely pick this one up for your tween/YA horror fans.  

 

To get an idea of how creepy the videos are, check out this video from skeletoncreekisreal.com

Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing up Scieszka by Jon Scieszka

I was going to do a formal review of Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing up Scieszka this weekend. But then I booktalked it to both classes yesterday. And I haven’t seen it since!

Perhaps this is even better than a formal review. :) When I read a few chapters aloud to my students, they were literally in hysterics. There were shouts of, “I’ve done that!” and “My mom would flip out if she knew I did this stuff, too!”. It especially seemed to connect with boys but I had quite a few girls ask to get on the waiting list, too. Thank goodness our librarian just got her copy of Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing up Scieszka in this week, because I know about 20 6th graders who are going to be fighting for that copy, too!

This is a fantastic book for reluctant readers and readaholics. And for anyone who has grown up with younger brothers and sisters and done all of those things your mom would die over if she found out about. I am the oldest of six and felt like I was reading about my own life, especially when Jon talked about his adventures in Catholic school and adopting “Pagan babies” in Africa. If you don’t have this one in your classroom library, you need it!

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-you Notes

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-you Notes is the second book in the Moxy Maxwell series.  Moxy is a funny kid, always scheming to get out of her “boring” chores and work, like the summer reading she has to do in the first book.  In her latest adventure, she has promised her mother that her Christmas thank-you cards will be completed on the day after Christmas.  Of course, she made this promise at Easter (when last year’s Christmas thank-yous were finished.  You see the problem?).  What she didn’t know then was that she and her twin brother would be visiting their father, a big mover and shaker, in Hollywood two days after Christmas!  Obviously, Moxy has much better things to do than write thank-you cards- packing, planning what to wear to the big New Year’s Eve bash, and figuring out how to get “discovered” while in Hollywood are just a few of those things.

All hope seems lost.  Until Moxy has a  genius idea; she will write one generic thank-you letter and photocopy it on her stepfather’s brand new copier!  Ok, so technically no one is allowed to touch her stepfather’s new copier, but Moxy is sure no one will mind once she explains her genius idea.

As you can imagine, nothing works out as planned for Moxy.  But you can’t help but laugh at her antics and the situations she gets into!  This is a great book for those who loved the first Moxy story and for reluctant intermediate readers.

 

*This review reflects my opinion and not those of the Cybils Middle Grade panel as a whole.

Helping Struggling Readers Find the Perfect Book

Michele left a comment on one of my posts last week and I have been contemplating an answer ever since.  

 

I am in my second year of using Reader’s Workshop so it still feels very new to me. Would you mind speaking about how you help struggling readers in your class? I have found that a few of my students are selecting books that are much too challenging for them just to be reading what the other kids are reading. I try to direct them toward more appropriate material, but they usually abandon what I suggest and head straight back for whatever is hot at the moment.

I am almost at the point of telling a few students that they have to read a book that I select for them. Does that defeat the whole purpose of Reader’s Workshop and choice in their reading materials? Is there something that you have tried or have heard about that you could suggest?

 

Every year I have a handful of students who choose books that only frustrate them.  It’s a difficult situation to deal with, because I do not want to discourage them from reading and I don’t want to stop them from reading about a topic that they enjoy.  However, if they can’t comprehend the novel or fluently read it. they may just end up hating the act of reading.  So how do I help them?

The answer for me is time.  I spend a lot of time with these kids.  We talk about what they like, authors they have enjoyed, their favorite topics, etc.  I really get to know them as people and as readers.  Because I read so many books over the course of a given year, I have a wide variety of texts that I can draw from as recommendations.  This is one of the reasons I force myself to read and review books that I might not normally read on my own.  I can better serve my students when I have variety of genres and authors to draw on.  I also read reviews from blogs and industry magazines like School Library Journal for even more ideas.  My media center librarian is my ally in this, too!  

It can take weeks to find something that a reluctant and struggling readers can read and wants to read.  There will be a lot of abandoned books along the way.  In my classroom, the rule is that a student must give a book at least 50 pages before deciding to abandon it.  However, I waive that for some of my struggling readers.  Depending on the student, I will give them a 20-25 page limit for abandonment.  And my kids feel comfortable abandoning books.  I share my own experiences with abandoning books that were not “just right” for me, so they know that real readers don’t finish every single book they start.  All I ask is that they can give me a reason for abandoning their book.  I have heard everything from “I can’t connect to the characters” to “The vocabulary is just too hard”.  Because I know my students as readers, I can usually judge how truthful they are being. :)  

To put it simply, time is your friend.  Make sure you have a lot of books to choose from.  And make recommendations.  But let your students make the final choice.  And when they do find something they enjoy reading, let them!  Even if that means they read six books in a row about kids who play baseball.  Keep building their confidence- in their ability to read fluently, their ability to comprehend their reading, and the ability to choose their own reading  material.  Choice in reading material for independent reading is the most important factor in my reading workshop and I firmly believe it is what has made my workshop successful!

Diary of a Wimpy Kid Do-It-Yourself Book by Jeff Kinney

Jeff Kinney is a godsend for reluctant readers.  His Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is my go-to for students who hate reading.  Everytime, within only a few pages of Greg Heffley’s “diary” they are laughing and telling their friends what a great book it is.  I can’t tell you how many of my students over the past two years list Kinney’s books as their favorites.  Jeff Kinney has truly written “gateway books”.  My kids start with the middle school adventures of Greg Heffley and then move into other novels, exploring new genres and authors, thanks to Diary of a Wimpy Kid!  

Now, Jeff Kinney is looking to do the same for reluctant writers. His latest venture is Diary of a Wimpy Kid Do-It-Yourself Book. Designed just like the other Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, this hardcover (orange!) book includes original art, writing prompts, and do-it-yourself comics.  Greg leads the writer/reader through a variety of silly and funny writing ideas.  Some of my favorites include rules for your family, the baddest thing you ever did as a little kid, and a few questions from Rowley (Greg’s best friend).  The entire book is written in Greg’s authentic middle schooler voice, and the book reads like a conversation.  I found myself laughing out loud more than once!  

This language arts teacher was even more excited to discover that the second half of the book contains entirely blank pages- to be filled in by the author!  And Greg reminds you to keep the completed book in a safe place, because it will be worth a ton of money when you get famous someday!  :)

I really enjoyed this book.  It is available in the October Scholastic catalog and a few of my students already mentioned they can’t wait to order it.  If Jeff can hook kids into reading as well as he hooks them into writing, I will love him even more!  

 

 

Miscellaneous Thoughts-  I love the orange color of the cover! I also love that Amulet printed this as a hardback instead of a paperback.  Kids are going to love the idea that their book truly is a Wimpy Kid book and not just a lame knockoff, because it is a real hardcover, too.  Small details like that are so important when you are trying to get kids to enjoy writing.

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!

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