A List for Middle School Readers and the “Right” Book….

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Last week a visitor to our middle school asked what, in my opinion, are the books every middle school student should read. A tough question. Middle school is such a short time, and there are lots of good books for those in-between years. But there are certain stories that reflect this particular time in a kid’s life – and provide thoughtful and supportive passage to young adult reading.

Knowing that hundreds of memorable books (fiction and nonfiction) for middle school readers are painfully not included, here is a “desert island” list of ten:

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (The moving and funny story of Junior, a Native American boy who leaves his reservation to attend a public school. One of the most powerful coming-of-age novels ever written.)

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Feed by M.T. Anderson (A satire about our media-dominated lives for the mature middle school reader. Given the dominant place of devices in teenager’s lives, this story about kids with chips in their brain sparks questions about consumer culture.)

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The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (Published in 1967, the classic story about the socioeconomic barriers between two groups of teenagers – the Greasers and the Socs)

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The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jimenez (Autobiographical short stories about the life of a Mexican family working in the fields of California)

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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (so many reasons – cultural literacy, humanizing complex and challenging topics, an introduction to discussions about race and gender and class, a good story…)

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The Giver by Lois Lowry (The classic Newbery-winning novel that inspired Katniss and many others.)

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Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (I included this because over many years of working with middle school students, this is a novel that kids continue to read and talk about. At a time in their lives when they are struggling with the idea of “groups,” this is a story about the power and challenges of nonconformity.)

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Countdown by Deborah Wiles (a “documentary novel” that takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It’s got everything – a coming-of-age story, pop culture, the beginning of political awareness, changing relationships with family and friends….)

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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (A memoir in verse. Woodson tells the story of growing up as an African American in South Carolina and Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s. A combination of poetry and inspiration, this is a book for your nightstand table.)

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The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney (I selected this book for two reasons: first, because it honestly conveys the impact of war on young lives today. As much as I believe kids can learn from the atrocities of past wars, The Red Pencil is set in an overcrowded Sudanese refugee camp – and contains a hopeful message for kids who live in conflict. Secondly, it’s about the power of education. Amira, the protagonist, dreams of going to school and knows that learning and books and her red pencil are literal tickets to opportunities and possibilities.)

ResizeImageHandler.ashxThere are lists everywhere we look – on Buzzfeed and blogs and on our phones and in our pockets. If we were making a list of famous list makers, we would certainly include Peter Mark Roget, the creator of Roget’s Thesaurus.  If you know a child who loves words and lists, you need to introduce them to Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s new picture book biography – The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus. I loved their earlier collaborations, especially A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, but this is literally one of the most beautiful picture books I’ve ever seen. A mix of words and images that tell the story of a boy who was passionate about words and lists, The Right Word will appeal to children (and adults) who love to play with language and write lists. After reading this book, you will be forever grateful for the thesaurus – which, to be honest, I have taken for granted for far too long!  One of the most interesting facts I learned/discovered/ascertained is that Thesaurus is “a word that means ‘treasure house’ in Greek.”

Two final pictures….

First, I saw this in The Believer and loved it so much that I cut it out and laminated it! This is my life story in graphic form….

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And, a Halloween note….my sister sent me a copy of A Halloween Scare in Ohio for our library. As you can see, I am working with our students to be sure they can name each of the 251 cities in the Buckeye State….

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Fallingwater, Reading, and a Firetruck….

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On Saturday, thanks to some frequent flyer miles, my husband and I flew to Pittsburgh and then drove another two hours to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece, Fallingwater. It’s not easy to get from here to there, but we said “someday we will see it” for twenty years – so it was time. A good call. It would have been worth it if we had to travel five hours by plane and then drive for another five.  Built for the Kaufman family between 1936 and 1939, Fallingwater seems to appear out of the woods, a seamless melding of nature and building materials. There are places where it is hard to distinguish between the outdoors and the indoors. Luckily, the Kaufmans owned lots of books so beautifully designed shelves were a part of Wright’s design. Here are some pictures:

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The only book (that I could find) on both the Kaufman’s and our bookshelves is My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley. I’ve never read it, but now I want to.

A bonus to the travel was time to read – one book on the way there and another on the flight home. I loved them both:

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Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

One of my favorite books of last year was Rundell’s debut novel, Rooftoppers, so I was excited about this one even before seeing its beautiful cover. The story of Will, a girl who has a golden childhood growing up with her loving father and friends in Africa, Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms is a magical novel. Will spends her days running freely with animals and her best friend, a black boy who works at the farm where Will’s father is the manager. After a tragedy strikes, she is forced to move to London and attend a boarding school where negotiating the social dynamics is more challenging than her life on an African farm. She escapes from the school, but then has to navigate streets very different from the world she knows. Will is a wonderful character – strong and smart and good hearted. I didn’t want it to end.

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An Age of License by Lucy Knisley

A combination graphic memoir, travelogue and coming-of-age journal, An Age of License is the cartoonist’s third book – following French Milk and Relish. Knisley was able to travel to Europe thanks to an invitation to a comic convention in Norway. As she travels through Europe, she experiences a love affair, visits friends and relatives, and eats lots of good food. It’s the way Knisley addresses the anxieties particular to twenty-somethings that is most moving. Her drawings and words capture the uncertainties and enthusiasms of a young person beginning their life and being hyper-aware of the choices being made by others. During her travels, Knisley meets people and has experiences that help her to think about what she wants. An Age of License would be a lovely gift for a young adult, especially if they are planning a road trip.

This was kind of funny….

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I had a class yesterday and the kids were happily looking at books by Julia Donaldson. We read The Gruffalo, and then I put out some other books by Donaldson for them to look at. It was all going well, but there are some things that even a creature with “terrible tusks and terrible claws and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws” can’t compete with……a firetruck. As soon as it pulled up in front of the school (an electrical issue), this is what happened to my class….

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Report From the Book Fair….

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imagesimagesIt’s book fair week again – they seem to come around faster every year!  This is a Scholastic fair and regular readers know I have mixed feelings about the book fair giant.  There are always good books in a Scholastic Fair. Charlotte’s Web is here and The Day the Crayons Quit and The Year of Billy Miller. That being said, those books can get lost in the space devoted to “book-like” products – books that include a cheap necklace or other trinkets. It’s hard for “regular books” to get a child’s attention when the Lego book comes with an action figure. I appreciate the opportunity for our parents to get together and talk and make play dates and purchase books for their child’s classroom. And it made my day when a 6th grade student walked into the book fair and said….”This is better than Halloween!”  But looking around during a quiet moment makes me question Scholastic’s commitment to reading for its own sake – and not just to making money by selling stickers.

I understand the argument that there are kids for whom getting the stickers leads to engagement with the book and may inspire them to explore other titles. The child who is really excited about the Lego story may improve their fluency and confidence. That’s awesome. It’s one of the main reasons we have the Scholastic fair at the beginning of the year – and a more book-centered fair in the spring when the kids are selecting their summer reading. We also hide many of the products (masquerading as books) in boxes during the fair. Most of what Scholastic sends is available to our students, but there are a few items that go way over the line – and cannot be honestly sold in a BOOK fair. So – don’t tell the kids – but some of the products are behind the cases.

In the meantime, I keep pushing Sisters by Raina Telgemeier and Bear’s Loose Tooth by Karma Wilson.  And, admittedly, the Doc McStuffins Doctor Kit is pretty cute….

Check out these pictures….

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This is the result of our Selfie project in which our 4th, 5th and 6th graders took pictures with their favorite books. It’s great to watch the kids look for themselves and comment on their friend’s selections.

A final picture….

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My friends at Buttonwood Books and Toys let me take their sign based on Oliver Jeffers’ incredibly cool book, The Day the Crayons Quit, when they were ready to rotate the display. The kids are enjoying it in the Library…

 

 

 

 

The Horn Book at Simmons…

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In her keynote address during Saturday’s Horn Book conference, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, the author of No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, told us a story about a process to “weed” books from the school library in New Mexico where she is a youth services librarian. She talked about how painful it is to let go of books that do not circulate, but are important to library collections and the value of making them available for that “one child.”  All librarians have been there. Many times I’ve held on to Caddie Woodlawn and the Betsy and Tacy books that haven’t been checked out for years and take valuable space on our crowded shelves, but I want Caddie to be there so she can be found by just the right reader.  Vaunda even admitted to being tempted to checking them out herself to improve their circulation numbers – a thought that’s crossed my mind!

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Vaunda also spoke about libraries as places to affirm a vision of who we are. It made me think about Inly’s collection. It certainly reflects our curriculum and our school’s mission, but it was a good reminder to stand back and look again – to be sure it represents all of our students and gives them all a place to, as Vaunda said, “find a place for their feelings.”

One of the other speakers was Andrew Smith, the author of the 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for his young adult novel, Grasshopper Jungle. I’ve read and heard rave reviews about Smith’s book for a while and intended to read it before Saturday, but then I started reading Smith’s more recent novel, 100 Sideways Miles and loved it. As I read that book, I kept thinking about how similar the relationship between Finn and Cade (the novel’s two  main characters) is to the relationship between Theo and Boris in The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. In between sessions, I made my way over to Smith to ask him about it. He has not read The Goldfinch, but plans to – but in any case, it was fun to meet him. During his remarks, he talked about wanting his books to honestly reflect the lives of American teenagers.  “I try,” he said to “give kids tools to navigate their world.” As you know if you’ve read any of Smith’s novels, some of his characters liberally use the “f-word.” Of course, some teachers and parents object. But he made a good point. First, he said, “how many times does the average high school kid hear that word in a day?” It does reflect their lives. Smith also said that there have been people who say that word “hurts” people. But, he asked, what about words like “fat, gay and stupid,” used in demeaning ways? Don’t those words have the power to hurt more?  Worth thinking about….

I also participated in a breakout session called “The Class Gap: Money Matters.” The group was an interesting cross section of educators who work in both schools with financial resources and schools with many students who live in poverty. Some of the questions we addressed were: how does class appear in books? What language can we use to initiate an open discussion about class? What are our shared assumptions? Does a book reinforce or challenge our assumptions?” Hard stuff, but worth talking about. Overall, a really good and challenging day.

One more thing – a big pumpkin and a cute small child:

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One of our parents grew this in their backyard, and it weighs more than an NFL linebacker!

Loree Griffin Burns Visits Inly…

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“What does a scientist look like?” Loree Griffin Burns asked a group of 4th, 5th and 6th grade students today at Inly. As she expected, there were suggestions of lab coats and glasses and top secret government operatives working in labs. But as Loree explained during a lively session with our students today, scientists are people “who pay attention.”  “If you have senses, you can record science,” she told them.  Based on her book, Citizen Scientists, Loree shared inspiring stories about kids and adults who listen to frogs and watch ladybugs and capture – and release – butterflies.

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My favorite part of the day was witnessing Loree’s enthusiasm for science during five sessions with students between the ages of 6 and 14.  One of her PowerPoint slides about a frog watching project reads: “Coolest. Thing. Ever.”  That seems to sum up her attitude about the wonders of the natural world.

From where I was sitting, I could see the faces of our students watching Loree, and there were awesome moments of seeing a completely new idea or question occur to them. Loree explained why the declining honeybee population is threatening to the environment. Bees pollinate flowers, she told the kids, and with more chemicals in the atmosphere and fewer places for them to “buzz around,” many of their colonies are collapsing. She also talked about the complex world of the beehive. Especially interesting was learning about undertaker bees that are responsible for removing their fallen comrades from the hive.

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Citizen Scientist is only one of Loree’s five science books for young readers. She started the day by describing the life cycle of a butterfly, the subject of her beautiful picture book, Handle With Care, to a group of six, seven and eight-year-olds.  And in its starred review, Kirkus called Loree’s newest book, Beetle Busters, “a splendid example of science controversy in everyday life.”

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The story about the Asian longhorned beetles is incredible – and started, quite literally, near the science writer’s own backyard when beetles began showing up in central Massachusetts. Scientists believe that the beetles came from China where they were in the wood used to make shipping pallets. The pallets traveled on a ship to Boston and ultimately found their way to Worcester, Massachusetts. The beetles then “chewed themselves out” of the wood and began to invade the nearby forests. To eradicate the beetles, Worcester embarked on a program to cut down 30,000 trees and chip them into mulch. Loree made a complicated and challenging scientific challenge accessible to our middle school students. As she explained to the students, “Worcester sacrificed their trees to save others.”

Between sessions, I asked Loree about the science writers she admires. Not surprisingly, she mentioned Steve Sheinkin, the author of Bomb, Sy Montgomery, the author of several excellent Scientists in the Field books, and Sally Walker, the author of Civil War Submarine. I was especially interested to learn about Walker’s new book, Ghost Walls: The Story of a 17th Century Colonial Homestead.

Loree’s next project is a young adult book about the human drama behind the discovery of the structure of DNA. Just from the short description she gave me, I’m already looking forward to reading it.

 

 

Photo Edition….

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There were so many excellent photo ops in the Library this week that I can’t resist sharing them with you….

Here are a two pictures I took during a classroom visit – which explains why I keep my phone handy at all times! Good reminders of how happy books make us:

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Below is a painting one of our students did as her book project for Grace Lin’s novel, Dumpling Days. In the third volume of the Pacy Lin series, the heroine of The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat, visits Taiwain for her grandmother’s 60th birthday celebration. The words above the birds below read: “This is the painting Pacy made in the book Dumpling Days. It has the three birds Kiki, Pacy and Lissy. The bamboo and the birds are colored. It was fun!”

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During a parent meeting this week, I was watching Tallulah select a book to read during the meeting. Clearly, she was having trouble finding just the right one. But maybe the book at the very bottom of the basket will be perfect!

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Finally….pictures from yesterday when all of our 4th, 5th and 6th grade students took selfies with their favorite books. I was especially interested to see what books they would select, and for the most part, it was just what you might guess – many kids chose one of the Harry Potter novels, Wonder by R.J. Palacio or a book by Rick Riordan. But there were surprises as well….Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory made it into a few pictures as did books by C.S. Lewis.  The kids didn’t have to ask what book I would choose – one of them handed Charlotte’s Web to me!

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Although it will never replace the story of Wilbur, Fern and Charlotte in my heart, I did read an engaging book this week that will be on my holiday recommendation list…..The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm, a lovely middle grade novel about the wonders of science, the challenges of getting older, and finding your passion. At the start of the book, 11-year-old Ellie is facing lots of changes: beginning 6th grade in a new school, a best friend who has joined a team and has less time for Ellie, and divorced parents who love their daughter but have lots going on in their own busy lives.  Into all of this steps a teenage boy with a passion and talent for science. He looks a little familiar to Ellie because – as it turns out – it’s her grandfather!  He has discovered a way to reverse the aging process and thinks he may win a Nobel Prize. Naturally, it’s a bit awkward for Ellie who now goes to school with her grandfather. I work with middle school kids every day, and I don’t know one of them who would be okay with that!

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The best part of this book is its genuine enthusiasm for science. After some conversations with her grandfather (and classmate), Ellie starts learning more about Jonas Salk, Robert Oppenheimer and Marie Curie which made me start to think about curriculum connections and how perfect The Fourteenth Goldfish is for classroom discussion – and for young scientists!

The Kirkus Prize – and Two Recommendations…

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The finalists for the Kirkus Prize, a new annual award for fiction, nonfiction and young people’s literature were announced today. There are six from each category, and the winners will be announced on October 23.  What makes this new award stand out from a crowded list is the prize – $50,000 each to the three winners. By comparison, the Pulitzer Prize comes with a $10,000 cash prize.

The three judges in the young reader’s category are an impressive group: Dr. Claudette McLinn, the director of the Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature; Linda Sue Park, the Newbery-winning author of A Single Shard; and John Edward Peters, who has served on the award committees of every major children’s book award.

The six finalists are….

El Deafo by Cece Bell (just read this – see below)

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant (picture book about a very important person in every writer’s life!)

The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza by Jack Gantos (the finale of the Joey Pigza series of middle grade novels)

The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnston (Admittedly, the first I’ve heard of this young adult fantasy)

The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell (so happy about this one! Regular readers may remember a post about Mitchell’s book. If you missed it, here’s a link:

http://sommerreading.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/the-freedom-summer-murders-by-don-mitchell/

Aviary Wonders Inc.: Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual by Kate Samworth (instructions for building your own bird!)

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I moved Cece Bell’s book to the top of the reading list this past weekend – and am not at all surprised that it’s a finalist for the Kirkus Prize. I closed Bell’s touching and inspiring graphic memoir thinking about the award stickers that will certainly be added to the book’s bright blue cover. Cece Bell lost her hearing to meningitis at the age of four. After that, during the school day, she began wearing a Phonic Ear, a listening device, with cords coming out of a box that hangs around her neck- obviously a device she felt uncomfortable about wearing. The Phonic Ear certainly helps Cece to hear at school (sometimes too well), but it’s awkward. The book takes place in the 1970s when the technology wasn’t as subtle as it is today. Her descriptions of learning to read lips is funny, but there are heartbreaking moments, especially when she goes to a slumber party and the other girls continue to talk when the lights go out. It’s especially great that Bell draws her character with rabbit ears, a perfect metaphor for the importance of hearing. We talk a lot with kids about how it might feel to “be different.”  El Deafo could be an essential part of the conversation.

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Another book I read this past weekend was on the long list for the Kirkus Prize – The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Told in first person free verse, The Red Pencil is the story of 12-year-old Amira, a Sudanese girl.  At the opening of this moving novel, Amira lives happily in her rural village with her parents and younger sister.  She is especially close to her father whom she calls Dando. “In Dando’s arms, I can fly,” Amira says. The only group she has been taught to fear are the Janjaweed, a militant group who, as Amira’s mother tells her, “attack without warning.”  “If they ever come – run,” she tells her daughter.

Amira lives in a traditional family and, although she desperately wants to attend school, her mother disapproves of girls being educated in things other than caring for her family. After an attack by the Janjaweed, Amira travels to a refugee camp where she continues to dream of school. A visiting teacher gives her the red pencil of the book’s title, and Amira begins, with the support of a kind family friend, to understand the power of words and images.

A final note….the picture at the top of the post was taken at school and was not posed. A colleague called my attention to this cute scene of two brothers waiting for the bus at the end of the day!