Cracker: The Best Dog in Vietnam by Cynthia Kadohata

Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam is a unique novel told in alternating viewpoints- Cracker, the german shepherd and her handler, Rick.

The story begins with Willie, a young boy who is forced to give up his dog when his father loses his job and the family must move to a small apartment. Willie is brave enough to give Cracker to the United CD602F6B-138B-4479-BE64-D57544294E3E.jpgStates military where she will be trained to sniff out booby traps in Vietnam. At Fort Benning, Cracker is paired up with Rick, a seventeen-year old private. Cracker is a stubborn dog and makes Rick earn her respect, but once he does they are an unstoppable team. Cracker loves her new job and Rick is convinced she will be “the best dog in Vietnam”. Together they train for survival in Vietnam. Once the two ship out, they are involved in a secret mission with special forces, a few routine missions, and a battle with the Vietcong that left me in tears.

This is a very powerful book, and very appropriate for the times we live in. The story is set during the Vietnam War, so there is definitely some violence. However, none of it is gratuitous and it is appropriate to the story being told. The alternating viewpoints were a great narrative device: anyone who has ever wondered what a dog is thinking will love the story told through Cracker’s eyes. The novel is also a great way for a new generation to learn about the Vietnam War and it’s effects.

I shed more than a few tears over this story. I was attached to Cracker within the first few pages, and I felt the fear and terror that Rick experienced during his tour in Vietnam. The topic of military dogs was unfamiliar to me and I enjoyed learning about our country’s use of the dogs’ intelligence and natural instincts to save many lives in Vietnam. I would recommend this novel to my 6th graders- specifically dog lovers and those who enjoy war books. I also see this in the running for the Scott O’Dell Award, and maybe even the Newbery.


Hot Gift Books for Middle Grade Students

About a month ago, I posted my first “Hot Books in My Classroom” list. For this months list, I will be making a list of books that are currently popular in my classroom, along with books that were popular earlier this year. These are books my 6th grade students love, and run the gamut of levels and genres.

For the Middle Grade Student Dreading Middle School:

Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf: A Year Told Through Stuff: Told through a year of “stuff”- notes, 1C785909-3E2D-4FE4-A1BA-2C2F6FE28EB7.jpgassignments, lists, cards, receipts, postcards, articles, and comics, my students can’t put this book down. Over the past 2 weeks, I have seen my single copy in a different student’s hands each day. This novel appeals mostly to girls, who identify with Ginny’s desire to finally have a great year at school (and actually have a decent school picture, “for once!”). A great book for girls who are reluctant readers. This hardcover edition also makes a perfect present.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: I have not seen B2508F29-2851-468F-A870-2F4E2DA693C5.jpgany of my 3 copies of this book since October. Boys and girls alike are devouring this illustrated novel about Greg’s middle school adventures (and misadventures!). Perfect for reluctant readers of either gender, this is a must-have!

Shopaholics (and shopaholic wannabees!):

The Clique: Too young for Gossip Girl, but still love 73C2ECD8-B888-4F86-B5E1-7594EDB33604.jpgthe idea of wealth and unlimited shopping in a middle school age group? My girls are eating these books up. This is another series that is being passed around my classroom like candy. Series are a great way to hook a lot of kids into reading!

Wannabe Detectives:

The Face on the Milk Carton: I remember reading Caroline Cooney’s Janie series when I was in middle 537F76F7-FA83-4119-B296-DB297B0C9213.jpgschool. Scholastic began offering the books this year and my boys and girls alike are fascinated by Janie’s life. A good series for kids who are interested in mysteries and adventure. Janie’s story is exciting and keeps you on the edge of your seat. I have had more than one student who completed the first book in the series tell me that they have gone looking for their own baby pictures, “Just to make sure”!

Double Identity: If they love Haddix’s other books, “Double Identity” is a great mystery for middle grade readers. A quick read with a slight 4D786681-4A7E-4680-8D6E-ED7C98EC252D.jpgsci-fi overtone. 2 thumbs up from my class! Not unlike her The Shadow Children Boxed Set series, this novel is more realistic to many readers.

Fantastic Fantasy:

Tuck Everlasting: The DA49DC5F-F9FD-4071-AE0A-50F1CE0CBD39.jpggreatest children’s book ever written, my students have fallen in love with Babbitt’s beautiful story. Every child should have the opportunity to read this fantastic love, life, and family story.

Eragon (Inheritance, Book 1): My boys have started reading “Eragon” and “Eldest” over the last E16448AB-62BE-497B-AB43-70245DE2A9EF.jpgfew weeks. They have been reading them from cover to cover and comparing notes. Paolini draws a rich and vivid fantasy world that immediately draws in the reader. A nice addition to any fantasy collection.

Realistic Fiction for Realistic Kids:

Rules (Newbery Honor Book): Cynthia Lord’s story of a pre-teen girl and her struggle to come to terms with her brother’s autism is a story that will bring a tear to the eyes of many readers. This novel has quietly 0003E06B-0F4A-4BD4-8EFF-E78D0C4CD719.jpgbeen making waves in my classroom, rarely gathering dust on the bookshelf. Many of the same students who enjoy this book also enjoy Ida B: . . . and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World.

This is by no means a complete list- hopefully, this list and my prior Hot Books list have given you some good ideas for your middle grade reader this holiday season!

Poetry Friday

I am hoping for a snow day soon! And we are scheduled to get a nor’easter this weekend, though it may just be rain. This poem is perfect for my current snow-thoughts.

by Robert Louis Stevenson
Late lies the wintry sun a-bed,   
A frosty, fiery sleepy-head;   
Blinks but an hour or two; and then,   
A blood-red orange, sets again.   
Before the stars have left the skies, 
At morning in the dark I rise;   
And shivering in my nakedness,   
By the cold candle, bathe and dress.   
Close by the jolly fire I sit   
To warm my frozen bones a bit; 
Or with a reindeer-sled, explore   
The colder countries round the door.   
When to go out, my nurse doth wrap   
Me in my comforter and cap;   
The cold wind burns my face, and blows 
Its frosty pepper up my nose.   
Black are my steps on silver sod;   
Thick blows my frosty breath abroad;   
And tree and house, and hill and lake,   
Are frosted like a wedding-cake.

Edward’s Eyes by Patricia MacLachlan

Wow, what a powerful book! I picked this book up off my endless pile of books to read when I was heading to bed last night. I finished it in one sitting, after about 45 minutes of reading.

McLachlan tells the story in a series of thoughts, almost a running commentary, rather than a normal narrative arc. We experience the story through Jake’s eyes. I identified with Jake’s family, in the sense that in a big family, siblings tend to raise each other. Jake’s favorite is Edward, an amazing young boy who reminded me a bit of Charles Wallace in Madeline L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”. Edward is a lover of baseball, people, and fireworks. He seems to know things, even predicting his mother’s new baby and naming her before her birth. Edward also has beautiful eyes, which Jake notices the moment he is brought home from the hospital.

Without giving away the plot, Edward’s story is one of life, love, tragedy, and family. We see it all through Jake’s eyes, and we feel everything he feels. I left the book with tears in my eyes a heavy heart. However, the message is very powerful, and deals with an aspect of tragedy not normally broached in children’s literature. Again, I won’t go into detail because I don’t want to take away from anyone else’s experience of the book. Pick “Edward’s Eyes” (Patricia MacLachlan) up, though!

The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt

I had heard this book mentioned over and over in the kidlitosphere, paged through it at the bookstore one day, and ultimately decided to hold off on buying it. When I saw a pile of the books at the Scholastic warehouse sale, I decided to grab a copy and read it when I had some extra time. Not a day later, I saw “The Wednesday Wars” bandied about as a possible Newbery winner, and decided to give it a shot. I can’t tell you how glad I am that I read it!

Holling Hoodhood is doomed; it is only the first day of school and his teacher hates him. Immediately, the reader thinks, “No teacher hates a student! And definitely not on the first day of school!” However, Mrs. Baker has a good reason to hate Holling- at 1:55pm each and every Wednesday, the students in her class board two buses and head off to Hebrew school or catechism classes. All of her students except for Holling, the lone Presbyterian in the class. He just knows Mrs. Baker hates him, because she had the prospect of a free hour at the end of every Wednesday and it was cruelly taken away from her by one Mr. Holling Hoodhood. The worst part of all? No one believes that Mrs. Baker hates him. Not his mother, not his father, the architect trying to win a bid for the Baker Sports Emporium, and not his sister, because honestly, when does your older sister ever believe her little brother? Holling is forced to stay at school during that long afternoon every Wednesday, where he begins the year by running errands and doing cleaning for Mrs. Baker. However, after the first few weeks, Mrs. Baker informs him that they are going to begin reading Shakespeare together. As any 7th grade boy would react to this news, Holling is none too pleased. Obviously, this is even more proof that his teacher hates his guts! However, as the book progresses, Holling actually enjoys some Shakespeare.

I absolutely LOVED this book. What a powerful story, and what a perfect “boy book”. First of all, Holling Hoodhood might be my favorite character name, ever. How great is it? Holling?? And the alliteration! Plus, his voice is realistic and I felt like he could be a student in my class. He was so real! Also, Mrs. Baker is on my list of “Awesome Teachers in Children’s Literature”. Mr. Hoodhood might be my favorite character, though. He is not particularly likeable- in fact, he is downright unlikeable at some points. However, he is such a perfect picture of the man stuck in his ways while the world around him changes. In some ways, he reminded me of Kevin’s dad on “The Wonder Years”. In fact, a few parts of the book reminded me of “The Wonder Years”.

I also appreciated the setting of the novel. Sometimes, I feel like historical fiction books are just realistic fiction that happen to be set in the past. In other words, the setting is just an after-thought, not particularly important to the story. This is not the case in “The Wednesday Wars”. Holling is living in 1960’s Long Island. The Vietnam War is raging, Martin Luther King, Jr. is marching on Washington, DC, and schools are practicing atomic bomb drills. The time period is a vital part of the plot without being overbearing. Holling’s everyday life is affected by the global events surrounding him. Mrs. Baker’s husband is fighting in Vietnam and his sister is slowly becoming a hippie (much to his father’s chagrin).

The book is not all serious, though. There is quite a bit of slapstick humor in here, and I laughed out loud a few times. I know the boys in my class will appreciate the slapstick humor even more than I did. It’s typical middle school boy humor, but it never crosses the line to gross or overdone. It’s very tasteful and sometimes even requires reading between the lines. I have a feeling I will end up recommending this novel as a humorous boy story, rather than historical fiction. My students will be more willing to read it that way!

My only issue with this story is in the ending. Not that there is anything wrong with it, per se. I just felt like it was a combination of rushed/drawn out. While those sound like opposite ideas, let me explain. About 10 pages before the end, I thought the story was over. I was thinking in my head, “Hmm, I wonder what’s at the end here? A preview of another book?” I was surprised to see the story continued on for a few more pages. However, I enjoyed those pages and felt like the last page or so were rushed! A strange combination, I know. All in all, though, I LOVED this book. If you haven’t gotten a chance to read it, I highly recommend that you do as soon you can. Move it to the top of your to-be-read pile!

One of my favorite quotes in “The Wednesday Wars”:

That’s the way it is in the real world.

It’s not always smiles. Sometimes the real world is like Hamlet. A little scared. Unsure. A little angry. Wishing that you could fix something that you can’t fix. Hoping that maybe something would fix itself, but thinking that hoping that way is stupid.

And sometimes the real world is more like Bobby Kennedy, who was a sure bet for the Democratic nomination and probably would have been president of the United States and stopped the war, but who got shot at point-blank range.

One of those weeks

It’s just one of those weeks.  I spent all day thinking that today was Wednesday; imagine my disappointment when I realized it was only Tuesday!  It’s shaping up to be a longer week than I thought.  Plus, I still have Christmas shopping to do, I need to get a present for my Secret Santa, I need to plan our class holiday party, I need to send out progress reports, and I need to have a few minutes to relax! Count on some new posts in the next few days.  Hopefully, a few reviews (I am reading “The Wednesday Wars” right now and loving it!), an updated Hot Books in My Classroom list (holiday edition!), and a few other odds and ends. 

7 things about me

I have been tagged by Mary Lee over at A Year of Reading.  I think I will follow her lead and post 7 things about me as a reader. 

7 Things about TheReadingZone as a Reader: 


1)  My to-be-read piles (yes, piles) are strewn about my house, in no particular order.  Sometimes, I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to what to read next!

2)Right now, I am reading aloud “The Postcard” by Tony Abbott to my class.  My morning class thinks it is ok, and my afternoon class absolutely loves it.  That’s what I love about teaching two classes- they can be so different! 

3)  Right now, I am reading “The Aurora County All-Stars” by Deborah Wiles.  

4)  I have never read the His Dark Materials books.  After the recent controversy, “The Golden Compass” has moved farther down on my to-be-read pile.  Not because I don’t want to read it, but because I am tired of hearing about it!  

5)  I am determined to read the Newbery before it is picked.  Maybe not this year, but I do think I have a good shot this year!  I have read over 100 children’s/YA books since last January, and about 15 adult books in that same time period.  

6)  I prefer middle grade/YA lit over adult lit almost any day.  I do have a soft spot for chick lit, though.  My latest guilty pleasure is the Megan Mccafferty Jessica Darling series.  It reminds me of a more grown-up version of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.  Plus, it takes place in NJ! 

7)  I am not a huge fan of adventure books, or boy books, as my students call them.  I detest “Hatchet” and most Gary Paulsen books.  Most likely because I just can’t connect with them!  

I tag- everyone!  😉