When the Whistle Blows By Fran Cannon Slayton

Fran Cannon Slaytons’s When the Whistle Blows is a historical fiction novel set during the 1940’s. Sounds pretty typical, right? Wrong! This is anything but your typical historical fiction book and I think that is going to work in its favor when readers pick it up.

Jimmy is the youngest son of a railroading family in rural West Virginia. He and his two older brothers long for the day that they can join their father working on the railroad. But their father swears that will happen over his dead body- the railroad is dying he says, being replaced by the diesel engine. This is a book about life in a small town, about growing up with two older brothers, about dreaming and hoping, about scheming and causing trouble.

Where this novel rises to greatness is in the format. Each chapter is a small vignette, a snapshot in time. The chapters all take place on the same day, but in different years. The story begins on All Hallow’s Eve (Jimmy’s father’s birthday) in 1943 and ends on All Hallow’s Eve 1949. You are with Jimmy through events, both big and small, that shape his life. You watch him grow and mature, as you also watch his father weaken and grow smaller. Built like short stories, some of the chapters will leave you begging for more but Slayton effortlessly weaves the years into one another.

This is a novel that I think will appeal to a variety of readers. Dormant/reluctant readers will enjoy the chapters because they are small worlds unto themselves. They aren’t intimidating, which can often be a problem with novels on grade-level for dormant/reluctant readers. Underground/gifted readers will be able to dig deep into this story and analyze the changes that occurred during this time period. (In fact, I am going to booktalk this at the end of our Holocaust/WWII book clubs because it covers the same time period so differently). And this is a book that supports developing readers, because it allows them to bite off small chunks of the story at a time. Finishing a chapter can be a satisfying experience because it’s like finishing a short story. And for me, this was a fantastic read! I read it in bits and pieces this weekend (I just couldn’t find an hour to sit down and focus!) and had no trouble stopping at the end of a chapter because I knew I would be moving a year forward when I returned to the book. Of course, I was flying through the end of it, a bit choked up! *

Fran Cannon Slayton has written a quiet novel that will surprise many readers. Her prose is powerful, yet understated. Critics, teachers, librarians, and reviewers alike will love this one. But I also think kids will love it! Jimmy gets into plenty of trouble, causes a lot more, loves sports, and even manages to get some spying done. There is a secret society, a prank gone very awry, a graveyard hangout, and trains galore. I know When the Whistle Blows is going to fly off my bookshelf when I booktalk it!

When the Whistle Blows is a book that I think we will be hearing a lot more from when award time rolls around!

*This would also make a fantastic read-aloud. Teachers could share a chapter a day and not worry about missing a day here and there. The story is very strong, but the format allows for some time off without losing the momentum.

Newbery Predictions 2009

When I first began blogging I was inspired by Franki and Mary over at A Year of Reading.  Like them, I wanted to be able to read the Newbery before it was announced.  Little did I know that this endeavor would lead me to the kidlitosphere and a broader blogging spectrum of reviews, middle school language arts, and teaching.  But deep down, I still compete with myself, trying to predict the Newbery winner.  So here is my annual list, my picks for 2009!

(In no particular order, as I feel these are all distinguished and could take home the medal or an honor).

Newbery 2009 Predictions:

  • The Underneath by Kathi Appelt- Distinguished? Check. Gorgeous? Check. Phenomenal writing? Check. Appelt’s book absolutely stunned me when I first read it. With an unassuming cover, I figured it was nothing more than another animal story. I could not have been more wrong. The Underneath was my first read-aloud of the year and my 6th graders were totally engrossed in the story. Check out my review here.


  • Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson-  Historical fiction that kids actually want to read?  What more could a teacher ask for!  When I first read Anderson’s latest middle grade novel, I knew I wanted to share it with my students.  We just finished reading it together a few days ago and they loved it.  Living in NJ, they had tons of connections to the battles mentioned and the Revolutionary War in general, so they loved the setting.  And Anderson’s meticulous research makes this novel even better.  Check out my review here.  


  • Diamond Willow by Helen Frost- If distinguished writing and a unique style are what the committee is looking for, then Diamond Willow is the Newbery winner for 2009. A phenomenal story and a style that I haven’t seen anywhere else! Another one that my students loved (and the one that seemed the most accessible to all levels of readers). Check out my review here.


  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman- For some reason, I never got around to this one. Then a few weeks ago I saw it at the library and decided to give it a try. Wow, am I glad I did! A creepy story that will keep readers on the edge of their seats. Check out my review here!


  • Tennyson by Lesley M.M. Blume- I know this is a title that hasn’t been mentioned on many prediction lists, but I am trying to be its personal champion! Tennyson is a lyrical, poetic story that is dark and gothic. I read it back in May and it’s still on my mind. I would be thrilled to see it take home a medal on Monday, because I think it so deserves one! Check out my review here.


I know where I will be on Monday morning.  My class and I will be listening to the announcements over the web, with my cell phone nearby (t0 receive the Tweets in case we have any technical problems!)  Regardless of who wins, there are a few authors across the country who will receive a life-changing call on Monday morning.  I can’t wait to find out who those authors are!


(And I still have more reading to do before Monday!  On my pile? Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing up Scieszka, The Porcupine Year, and Bird Lake Moon.

Predicting the Newbery as a Class and 21st Century Literacy

We are almost finished reading Chains as our current read-aloud. Both classes have about 25 pages to go, and they were begging to read more today! We ended right after Isabel escaped from the potato bin. The greatest sound in the world is the united groans of 20 6th graders begging you to continue reading a read-aloud!

Seeing as the Newbery will be announced in a little over a week, we have slightly altered our read-aloud plans. I plan to finish Chains tomorrow, complete with an awesome discussion.  We then have Monday off for Martin Luther King Jr., Day.  My class begged that we read Diamond Willow  beginning on Tuesday.  After considering the logistics for about a second, I said, “Of course!”  At 108 pages, and with a lot of white space, I think we can finish it before the announcement is made.  Then we will have read three books that are on numerous mock Newbery lists.

Diamond Willow will present some interesting challenges.  The diamond-shape poems and the bold words throughout need to be viewed to be appreciated.  I think I will show the book using my document camera.  This way the students can see the poems as I read them, just like if they had the book in their hands.  It’s the first time I will be combining technology and literacy this way, and I can’t wait to see how it goes!  Will the experience of reading the book on the board, via the camera, be the same as reading the book in your lap?  It should be a lot of fun and I can’t wait to find out!

And now January 26th will be even more fun!

Newbery Award Discussions

Last week I did a quick Newbery unit in my 6th grade class.  We reviewed the history of the award, the terms, criteria, and rules.  We also read articles about the recent Newbery controversy and discussed them as a class.  It was amazing to hear my students’ thoughts on the award and the recent controversy and I think we all learned a lot!  But my favorite part was the end of the unit- I had my students write me at least a paragraph explaining whether they thought Chains (our current read-aloud) or The Underneath (which we previously read as a read-aloud) deserved to win a Newbery or Honor on January 26th and why.

I was stunned by the responses I received!  Some of my students wrote over a page, expounding the virtues of one or both of the books.  They were extremely passionate in their opinions, so I wanted to share a few with my readers.


“I think that The Underneath should win because I like how it tells different problems happening with different characters.  If you don’t understand one problem that’s going on you may understand another one.  I also liked in The Underneath  how at the end all the characters come together.  ”

“I think that Chains should win the Newbery because it is a good book with real info and sometimes you think Wow I have it good.”

“I think that both Chains and The Underneath should be honors.  The Underneath should not just be in the honors but it should win…It should win because it keeps you thinking and it keeps you reading.”

“I think that Chains will win the Newbery and The Underneath will be recognized as an Honor book.  Both books have great writing in them and the authors really did a good job with the character development.  In my opinion, Chains is written better, but The Underneath is good, too.  I can’t wait until Jan. 26th!”

“I think Chains and The Underneath both have a chance of winning the Newbery.  Chains is very interesting and seems like I am actually in the Revolutionary War.  I like this book because it is suspenseful and you don’t know what will happen next.  I like how bad things keep happening and Isabelle doesn’t give up.  The Underneath is a book that I liked but I thought it was hard to understand. ”

“I really believe that Chains should win.  I believe there should be a change.  Since we now have an African-American president, we should have an African-American book.  This books is fantastic because because it has true facts about American history.  I feel this book should win over The Underneath because The Underneath is about imaginary things. ”

“I believe The Underneath should win the Newbery Award.  I think because it has lessons to teach the reader.  It tells the stories about the struggles of life and how to get through it.  When the animals in the story get into difficult situations they seem to find a way out.  It also shows the sacrifices we will make for friends and family.  For example, when the mother cat saves Puck from drowning. ”

“I think The Underneath should win the Newbery Award.  I think because it was a great book and made my class so emotional.  I saw and heard crying when the calico cat died.  I heard rage when Ranger was beaten.  I saw happiness when Garface died.  But most of all tears of joy for Grandmother helping Ranger, Puck, and Sabine and when they all ran away together as a family.”

“I think The Underneath should win the Newbery- or at least an honor book- for many reasons.  One reason she should get the award is because her book is a page turner for children.  I am a child and I know I loved the book. ”


Those are just a few of the opinions in my two classes.  Between all of my students, the votes are pretty evenly divided between Chains and The Underneath.  But every student felt that they both fit the criteria and deserved to at least win an honor on January 26th!  I just love how passionate they are about both books and how invested they are in the award ceremony.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Bod, or Nobody Owens, lives in the graveyard.  He has been raised by ghosts since the night his parents and sister were murdered in their beds, and he has learned a few tricks of the trade.  He can walk through walls in the graveyard, Fade so that humans can’t see him, and even dreamwalk.  But he can’t leave the graveyard because the man who killed his family is still looking for him.

The Graveyard Book was an awesome book.  It is only the second Gaiman book I have read, but I loved it.  It’s certainly obvious within the first few pages why this book is being batted around as a possible Newbery contender- the story is frightening, the storytelling is complex and gorgeous, and the kid appeal is huge.  The entire book was just creepy, but without giving you nightmares.  I hate horror stories, but I loved this!  And Bod is just a great character, as are all of the ghosts in the graveyard who serve as his surrogate family.

This is a great book that will resonate with boys and girls alike.  It’s creepy, funny, and heartwarming all at once.  I would not be upset at all to see this one walk away with a medal on January 26th!

Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell

For some reason, Shooting the Moon sat on my TBR pile since last May. I kept meaning to read it and never quite got to it. However, when it was nominated for a Cybil in the Middle Grades category, it finally made its way to the top.

Why did I wait so long to read this?!

Shooting the Moon is about Jamie Dexter, an army brat whose father, the Colonel, has been moved around from base to base.  She is army through and through, and would go fight in Vietnam this instant if she was old enough.  Her father loves this about her, but she is always struggling to get his attention, as her older brother is a star football player and real “daddy’s boy”.  During the summer, Jamie’s dad helps her get a job at the base rec center, volunteering with the soldiers.  It is here that she meets a new friend and learns how to develop her own film.  This newfound photography talent is something she hopes will make her father proud.

Jamie’s whole life changes when her brother, TJ, enlists and is scheduled to be shipped out to Vietnam.  Her world is turned upside down when her army father doesn’t want TJ to enlist.  This goes against everything Jamie believes about her family.  And while TJ is in Vietnam, he sends Jamie film to be developed–pictures that he takes of his daily life. The pictures begin to tell the story of the war of of TJ’s life there.

This is a powerful story that will remind many readers of today’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It is the story of how war affects an entire family and how a family deals with a young son that volunteers to be sent to war. It is the story of a young girl growing up and finding herself.  And there is the amazing thread of photography woven throughout the book. It is historical fiction that doesn’t read like historical fiction.  I imagine it will connect with students who love war books, coming-of-age stories, and realistic stories.  It will appeal to boys and girls alike.  Plus, it is a slender book and a quick read that just happens to pack a powerful punch.

Brooklyn Bridge by Karen Hesse

Karen Hesse has outdone herself with this one! I love her work, and The Music of Dolphins was one of my favorite read-alouds this year. Her verse novels are wonderful and Out Of The Dust is a Newbery award winner. Lately though, Hesse has been taking a break from writing novels. Her last novel was published in 2003. When I saw that there was a new Karen Hesse novel coming out this fall, I knew I had to read it, just to see what she had been up to. I did not expect the masterpiece that I encountered.

Brooklyn Bridge takes place in New York City at the turn of the century- 1903. Joseph and his family are lucky. They seem to have achieved the American Dream. You see, Joseph’s mom and dad are Russian immigrants. They were doing all right, running their candy store in Brooklyn and being part of the neighborhood. And then they saw the Teddy Roosevelt cartoon in the newspaper. That Teddy Roosevelt cartoon depicted President Roosevelt declining to shoot a baby bear on a hunting trip. Suddenly, Joseph’s life is turned upside down, thanks to his mother’s brilliant idea to make two stuffed bears inspired by the cute cub. Those bears catch on like wildfire and suddenly the family is spending every waking moment

You’d think Joseph would be happy to be entering the upper-middle class, to be achieving the American Dream his parents struggled to attain. Except that now his parents have no time for him. He spends his time watching his little brother, hanging out with his sister (who is pretty cool for a little sister), or being quality control for the burgeoning teddy bear business. It seems like his dream of visiting Coney Island will never come true.

Joseph knows he is lucky. And he is grateful. But he misses his parents. And he hates that the neighborhood kids look at him differently now that his family is making more money than average. I know it sounds like Joseph is a whiner, but his hurt and confusion ring true. I think a lot of kids will identify with his desire to have his parents around. It is all too similar to kids today who live with two working parents. And his desire to fit in with his peers without drawing attention to himself reminds me a lot of some of my students.

Interwoven throughout the chapters are shorter chapter which focus on children very different from Joseph and his family. The bridge children are the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. They live under the Brooklyn Bridge, forging a strange sort of family. They congregate there every night to try sleep and stay out of harm’s way- for some that harm is their families, for others it is the police or City of New York. Some have nowhere else to go, others have run away from horrific situations. These kids watch out for each other, share with one another, and simply try to survive from one day to the next.

For much of the book, it seems like the bridge children are only mentioned as a foil for Joseph and his family. It is not until near the end that the tragic connection between them is revealed. I was swept up in this climax and turning pages at a mad pace, trying to tie together the clues in my head before the answers were revealed. Hesse is a master storyteller

Brooklyn Bridge is another one of those books that defies conventionality. It is clearly a historical fiction novel, but it also includes dashes of magical realism and a pinch of a ghost story. This is one of the reasons I think this books skews toward a slightly older audience, probably 12 and above. The dual stories and genres that are presented might be a bit difficult for a younger reader to grasp.

Hesse also touches on some heavy topics, including a terrible scene where a Cossack brutalizes a young girl in Russia. There are also horrible beatings, violence, and there a few allusions to suicide. While none of these scenes are over the top or even particularly detailed, they are there. This would make a great read aloud for a middle school class and I can even see some high schoolers reaching for this book. It will be great for reluctant readers because the protagonist is older (14) and the story skews to an older audience. And it doesn’t preach! It’s not that heavy-handed historical fiction that kids dread reading. The story flows and the historical aspects are an integral part of the story without jumping out at the reader.

Hesse has really outdone herself with this one. Dare I say I heard the word “Newbery” whispered over and over as I turned the pages? Hmm….I just may have.

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.

Trouble by Gary D. Schmidt

A few days ago, Susan over at Wizards Wireless was kind enough to loan me her ARC of Gary D. Schmidt’s newest novel, Trouble. Schmidt’s Newbery Honor-winning The Wednesday Wars was one of my favorite novels of 2007 so I was looking forward to this one!

I was very excited when I received it and began reading immediately.Trouble is very different from The Wednesday Wars. Where “Wednesday Wars” was funny, poignant, and sometimes even gut-busting, “Trouble” is poignant, full of sorrow and pain, and haunting at times.

Throughout his life, Henry Smith’s father told him that if you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you.  This mantra guides Henry’s life – along with his mother, father, sister Louisa, and older brother Franklin.  However, you can’t avoid Trouble forever, and one night it comes crashing down into Henry’s world in the form of Cambodian immigrant, Chay Chouan. When Chouan’s truck strikes Franklin one night, the resulting racial tensions tear apart quaint Blythebury-by-the-Sea and Henry’s family.

Henry is caught between anger and grief.  Is his brother the All-American hero that the town views him as?  Or is he flawed, maybe even more flawed than most human beings?  How did Trouble find the Smith’s?  Unsure of what to do, he sets out to do the only thing he can- climb Mt.  Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine, which he and Franklin were going to climb together.  Henry, Black Dog (whom he rescued from drowning), and his friend Sanborn set out for Mt. Katahdin without telling their parents.  The journey teaches them more than they ever could have imagined and Henry slowly begins to understand himself, his family, his ancestry, his town, and the world around him.

I loved this book.  “Trouble” had tears in my eyes at some points and made me angry at other points.  Chay Chouan’s family history is heart-wrenching and heartbreaking.  Henry struggles with the possibility that his revered older brother may not deserve the adoration he always so readily accepted (and that Henry so readily offered).  It’s a magnificent picture of one boy’s coming-of-age in a world plagued by Trouble.

Even though I loved “Troub;e”, I don’t think this is a novel many of my students will pick up.  While “The Wednesday Wars” had a voice that attracted 12-13 year olds, I don’t think Henry’s voice will resonate with my students.  I would recommend this to an older audience.  The story is beautiful and I couldn’t put the book down! I wouldn’t be surprised to see this novel on most shortlists for the Newbery in 2009.