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!

Peak by Roland Smith

The first novel we read each year is a survival-themed novel. Unfortunately, I have not yet found a successful first novel for any of my classes. We have read Dogsong, My Side of the Mountain, and The Talking Earth. All of them were flops. My students could not connect with them at all and thus ended up hating the entire experience. This is an awful way to start the year! Fortunately, this year I began with a great read-aloud (Ralph Fletcher’s Flying Solo) but our first novel for mini-lessons was completely hated. So I am always on the lookout for survival books that I think the class will enjoy. I think I may have found the one- Roland Smith’s Peak.

Peak (no, not Pete. Peak, as in mountain peak) Marcello is the son of rock rats. “It could have been worse. My parents could have named me Glacier, or Abyss, or Crampon, ” he says. His mother has given up the climbing life and married his stepfather, a lawyer named Rolf. His father is one of the most famous climbers in the world and hasn’t seen Peak since he was a baby. Peak, his mother, stepfather, and twin little sisters live in New York City. The only time Peak gets to climb, his passion, is during summer climbing camps. However, he begins climbing skyscrapers, for the shear thrill. When he reaches his destination he tags a window with his symbol, a blue stenciled mountain peak. This works out until he is caught climbing the Woolworth Building.

After he is caught, he is held in custody by the NYC police. Unfortunately, the media sensationalizes his actions and another teen copies him, ending with fatal results. The state throws the book at Peak. Until his father, Josh, shows up. A deal is cut- Peak’s parents place $150,000 dollars in a trust until Peak is 18. If he doesn’t commit any more crimes before then they will get their money back. And Peak must leave the state of NY to allow the hubbub to die down. And he must go with his father, Josh.

Peak is suddenly thrust into a new life. His father lives in Thailand, where he runs his multi-million dollar climbing company. Peak is scheduled to attend the International School there until he can return to NY. Or so he thinks. Before he realizes it, he is in Kathmandu. And his father tells him they will be climbing Mount Everest. Peak finds himself in the complex world of an Everest base camp, where large amounts of money are at stake and climbing companies offer people an often-deadly shot at the summit. Josh’s team is preparing various expeditions full of paying customers who are attempting to reach the summit. Suddenly, Peak Marcello is faced with the chance to become the youngest climber to ever reach the summit of Mt. Everest.

The novel is full of mountaineering facts told in (all too) vivid detail: corpses litter the paths to the summit, HAPE affects many of the climbers, and people are willing to do anything to reach the summit. The story is told through Peak’s writing in his Moleskine notebooks, which will be used to judge his graduation from his school in New York. The story is fascinating and suspenseful. Will Peak make it to the summit? Will the Chinese allow him to do so? Using current events involving Tibet, China, and Nepal the story intertwines the tales of other climbers along with Peak. It is a fascinating look at a deadly lifestyle.

I am hoping to present Peak to our language arts coordinator over the next few weeks to see if we can get it approved for next year. I think the students will connect with Peak’s story and be excited to read about his choices and their consequences in the camps at Mt. Everest. Has anyone else used this novel in school?

Peak is out in hardcover right now. I highly recommend it!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,898 other followers