The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Milford Sound in New Zealand To this day, I remember where I was when I finished reading Where the Red Fern Grows . I was in the car (my mom had run into Service Merchandise) and caught completely off-guard by the climax of the book. I remember the tears running down my face as I turned the pages, alternately shocked that my aunt had recommended a book like this to me and overjoyed that someone had managed to capture a love so deep and true between a boy and his dogs. While it broke my heart, it also became one of my favorite books of all time. It has been more than a decade since I first read Wilson Rawls’ classic novel and nothing has touched me the same way since that day. That is, until I read Kathi Appelts’ debut novel, The Underneath.

The Underneath is all at once tragic, consuming, passionate, full of love, hopeful, and alternately beautiful and ugly. Appelt does the almost-impossible, by threading 3 separate stories into one amazing climax that will renew your faith in goodness and love. It is an adventure, full of magic, myth, and mysticism, of sorrow, of family – of life. Woven together like an elaborate tapestry, the result is gorgeous and awe-inspiring.

The blurb on the back cover quotes author Alison McGhee as saying, ” Rarely do I come across a book that makes me catch my breath, that reminds me why I wanted to be a writer—to make of life something beautiful, something enduring.” While you may be ready to scoff (I admit I was!), reading just a few pages will convince you that McGhee is absolutely right. This novel is an inspiration to anyone who writes. Appelt’s debut novel is haunting, lyrical, and poetic. While the stories seem separate at first, they come together in a stunning conclusion that wraps up all loose ends.

Appelt is a master storyteller, and seems a natural heir to Natalie Babbitt, one of America’s foremost children’s authors. In fact, her use of symbolism and vivid imagery reminded me of Babbitt in many ways. I would love to use The Underneath in my class, as a companion to Tuck Everlasting.

It’s almost impossible to describe what the story is about. It takes place deep, deep in a Southern bayou- a place full of mysticism and magic. There is a bad man, an evil man. There is an abandoned calico cat- “There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road”. Heartbreaking, isn’t it? There is an abused hound dog, chained to a porch, fed sparingly and kicked often. Later, there is a family made up that abandoned calico cat, the abused hound dog, and two new kittens. One of those kittens ventures out from the safety of the Underneath and sets into motion a chain of events that changes their lives.

There are sentient trees, ancient shape-shifters, and myth and magic. Lullabies and secrets that only the trees know. Yet it all seems so real.

I feel like no review can do this book justice. It is magical and wonderful, sad and full of hope. There is so much hate but also so much love. Kate Appelt has written a new classic and I would be shocked if this was not given high honors by the Newbery committee in January.


Wanna read “The Hunger Games”?

One of the best books I have read this year is Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. Want to win a free ARC? is giving away 100 ARCs on their website!  Enter here!!

Summary, courtesy of  Twenty-four are forced to enter. Only the winner survives.

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by 12 outlying districts. Each year, the districts are forced by The Capitol to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in The Hunger Games, a brutal and terrifying fight to the death — televised for all of Panem to see. Survival is second nature for 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who struggles to feed her mother and younger sister by secretly hunting and gathering beyond the fences of District 12. When Katniss steps in to take the place of her sister in the Hunger Games, she knows it may be her death sentence. If she is to survive, she must weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

My review!

Dolphins, Poetry, and Madeline L’Engle

Picture from Asbury Park Press

some text

The big news in my area is that a pod of coastal dolphins has been spending their time in a local river and estuary. At first, officials were worried that they were offshore dolphins, which would present a problem because they don’t have a food source in the area. However, today it was confirmed that they are coastal dolphins and have been feasting on the abundance of bunker in the river! Now, officials are keeping an eye on them and hoping they make their way back to the ocean before the July 4th holiday, when the river will be crowded with boats.

They have been attracting quite a crowd and last night I headed down to try and see them. I did not spot them, but today my mother and sister were lucky enough to spend some time down by the river. They counted 8 dolphins, including a few young ones, and even saw them leaping from the water! I am extremely jealous, needless to say.

Dolphins have always been my favorite animals. Their intelligence, love, and compassion can be seen when they interact with each other in the wild. Because of my affinity for dolphins, Madeline L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light has always been a particular favorite of mine. To borrow from Amazon’s summary, “Vicky Austin is filled with strong feelings as she stands near Commander Rodney’s grave while her grandfather, who himself is dying of cancer, recites the funeral service. Watching his condition deteriorate as the summer passes on beautiful Seven Bay Island is almost more than Vicky can bear. To complicate things, she finds herself the center of attention for three very different boys: Leo is an old friend wanting comfort and longing for romance; Zachary, whose attempted suicide inadvertently caused the Commander’s death, is attractive and sophisticated but desperately troubled; and Adam, her older brother’s friend, offers her a wonderful chance to assist in his experiments with dolphins but treats her as a young girl just when she’s ready to feel most grown-up. Called upon to be dependable, stable, and wise, Vicky is exhilarated but often overwhelmed. Forces of darkness and light, tragedy and joy, hover about her, and at times she doesn’t know which will prevail.” A Newbery Honor book in 1980, this is my favorite L’Engle novel.

While looking out into the river, I was reminded of the Henry Vaughan’s famous poem, “The World”, which plays a vital part in the story. A perfect addition to Poetry Friday, I decided to present the first stanza using Wordle.

Read the rest of the poem here.

2007-2008 Class Book Lists

This year, my class read more books than we ever have in the past. In case anyone is interested in some great books for 6th grade, I made a list of the books we read, divided into read-alouds and class novels.

Class Books:

Flying Solo by Ralph Fletcher- This was the first book we read together (in my homeroom). We read it aloud during the first week of school and it was one of our favorites for the year! A great way to start off the school year, with the story of a class that has no substitute when their teacher is home sick.

The Talking Earth by Jean Craighead George (Class Novel)– I had never used this book before and probably would not use it again. The story is great for an environmental unit, but it was a difficult start to the year. As my kids put it, “Nothing happened in the book!”. George is a preeminent environmental writer, but this novel failed to grab my students attention at the beginning of the year.

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis- I am desperately waiting for a new book from Lauren Tarshis. I fell in love with Emma-Jean and Tarshis has a great grasp of middle school life. I chose this as the first read aloud for both classes once school started, and they loved it! A great story about a girl who is “different” and her struggle to preserve herself in the churning waters of middle school.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (Class Novel)– A gorgeous story and well-known as the greatest children’s book ever written.

The Postcard by Tony Abbott- My class read this in ARC form, and they really enjoyed it. A great mystery that tells the story of a young boy, his mysterious grandmother, and the circus!

The Giver by Lois Lowry (Class Novel)– This is my favorite dystopian novel for young adults, and one of the first I remember reading in school.

Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick- We read this as a companion to our Valentine’s Day charity work. Sonnenblick has crafted a gorgeous story of a young boy whose family is touched by cancer. It also made us laugh out loud a lot!

The Devil’s Arithmetic (Puffin Modern Classics) by Jane Yolen (Class Novel)– This is the anchor of our Holocaust study and one of my favorite novels every year. Yolen’s haunting story of a girl who does not want to remember is a powerful testament of the strength and courage of those who were persecuted during the Holocaust.

Guys Write for Guys Read by Jon Scieszka- Great short stories that appeal to boys (and girls!) by various authors.

Marley: A Dog Like No Other by John Grogan- The biggest tearjerker of the year, by far. I was sobbing by the end, as were many of my students. This is a beautiful story that most kids can identify with- the love and devotion of a family pet.

The Music of Dolphins by Karen Hesse- This is a wonderful book that combines children’s love of marine mammals and a new idea for most kids- feral children. Karen Hesse is a beautiful and gifted writer!

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1) by Rick Riordan- Definitely oneof my classes’ favorites! A rollicking story that infuses regular kid problems, Greek mythology, and tons of adventure! A must-read!

Eleven novels in one year! That’s a lot of read-alouds, considering many of these books over more than 300 pages. Sometimes, it was a pain making time for the daily read-aloud, but it was worth it! It made a huge difference in my classroom, though. Reading aloud everyday really made it obvious to my kids how much I valued reading. And I made sure to read a variety of genres, styles, and authors. Everyone enjoyed the books this year, even if they didn’t love each and every one.

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!

Newbery 2009?

The year is half over, which means it’s about time to start forming short lists for the Newbery.  Well, at least in the blogosphere.  I am currently working on my own list, but in the meantime check out Fuse #8 for her ideas!

A little off-topic

Happy birthday to me!  🙂

June issue of Edge of the Forest

The latest issue of Edge of the Forest is out!  It’s an awesome issue!  Here are some highlights:

The Edge of the Forest will return the first week of August with the July-August issue and a technical redesign.

The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante

Anyone who knows me can vouch for my extreme (okay, maybe overboard) love for everything butterfly related. Naturally, Cecilia Galante’s The Patron Saint of Butterflies immediately caught my eye.  Now, what most people don’t know is that I am fascinated by religious fanaticism, cults, and communes.  When Galante’s book surfaced near the top of my large to-be-read pile, it immediately caught my eye.  Once I began reading it, I couldn’t stop.

Agnes and Honey have been best friends their entire lives. Lately though, they seem to be growing apart.  The girls have been raised on a religious commune known as Mount Blessing.  The people of Mount Blessing are very religious and allow Emmanuel, their leader, to control all aspects of their life.  Agnes loves being a Believer. She firmly believes that the traditions and strict rules at the Mount Blessing  are there to make her a better person- a perfect person. But Honey hates Mount Blessing and  Emmanuel.  She sees the commune in a more realistic light and she knows that much of what goes on there is wrong.  She is miserable, and this is causing a rift between her and Agnes. The only bright spot is the butterfly garden she’s helping to build, and the journal of butterflies that she keeps.

When Agnes’s grandmother makes an unexpected visit to the commune, she uncovers the child abuse that is going on and that the Believers are covering up.  Honey, who has no parents in the commune,  has always viewed Agnes’ family as her own.  She opens up to Nana Pete and admits that Emmanuel has beaten her.  Nana Pete is horrified and plans to help Honey.  Then, Agnes’s little brother is seriously injured and Emmanuel refuses to send him to a hospital.  Agnes’ grandmother and Honey plot to take all three children and escape the commune. Their journey begins an exploration of faith, friendship, religion and family for the two girls, as Agnes clings to her familiar faith while Honey desperately wants a new future.

I couldn’t put this book down.  It is very timely, as I could see some similarities between Honey and Agnes’ exposure to the outside world and the fate suffered by the FLDS children in El Dorado, Texas recently.  Galante tells the book in two voices, with the chapters alternating between Honey and Agnes.  This allows the reader to see two sides of the story while still realizing that both girls have their own prejudices about their background and their home.

Cecilia Galante has an author’s note at the back of the book, in which she shares her own experience growing up in a religious commune in New York state.  While her experiences influenced her writing, she makes it clear this is not a biographical story.  However, her own experiences clearly shape the book and the story is the better for it.  I loved this book and recommend it for anyone interested in faith, religions, growing up, and the current events taking place with the polygamists in Texas.  A great book for book clubs!  I can also see this being used in the classroom because it would spark some great discussions!

Poetry Friday

Yesterday was our last day of school.  I was very sad to see this class go, as they have been wonderful this year!  Most of my students are big fans of Guitar Hero (the video game), so there was a lot of singing at dismissal.  Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” was the biggest hit!  It may not be the best choice for Poetry Friday, but it makes me smile to think of my kids singing at the top of their lungs!

Out for summer
Out till fall
We might not go back at all

School’s out forever
School’s out for summer
School’s out with fever
School’s out completely