Sunday, August 4, 2013

Maus by Art Spiegleman

Maus is a Holocaust story like no other.  With the Jewish people depicted as mice and the Nazis depicted as cats, this graphic novel shows the terrors of the Holocaust from the perspective of a man telling his son about his past. 

First Impressions
I liked the way the Holocaust story is told in this book.  I caution readers against it, however, if they think they are getting a cute little story about a mouse and a cat.  Make no doubt about it - this is a story with brutal truth being told about one Jewish man's life during the Holocaust.  The terrors are only slightly less than they could be if the pictures were done with human characters. 

American Born Chinese by Gene Yang

Using three separate story lines, Yang weaves three seemingly unconnected characters into a plot that involves everything from modern-day prejudices, ancient Chinese folklore, and acceptance.

My Impressions
I think the part of the book that would really hit home with this audience is the section with Danny and his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee and the section with Jin Wang.  Many middle school aged children are so worried about how they appear to others.  This book does a good job of blending the embarrassment of Danny and the awkwardness of Jin Wang into characters that reflect the feelings of many students in middle school.  By connecting to these characters, students will then understand the feelings that come with being the new kid in school that is from a whole different country than the rest of the class.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Being Dead by Vivian Van Valde

This is a collection of short ghost stories where all of the main characters are teenagers.  There are seven stories in the book that include ghosts that are both angry and basically confused.

My Impressions
I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked this book.  Short stories are difficult for me to enjoy simply because I want to know more about the characters than a short story allows me to.  However, ghost stories really lend themselves to this type of genre.  Also, I typically have many students who come to me looking for a "scary" book, and I don't know where to send them.  There's always Goosebumps, but many of my middle school students have matured past that series.  This book would be a great one to put in their hands. It also has the creepy factor that many of my students are looking for without the gory, horror that is sometimes inappropriate for this age.

I also liked that there was a variety of lengths to the stories within this book.  There are seven stories, and three of them are much shorter than the other four.  It breaks up the monotony of reading one long story after another.  The style of story in the short ones is also a bit of a break from the longer stories.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Orchards by Holly Thompson

Kana is sent to Japan after the suicide of a fellow 8th grader who was bullied by Kana and her friends.  She learns to work the orchards with her family and begins to understand that doing nothing when you should really be doing something can be just as harmful to people.

My Impressions
** SPOILER ALERT ** I had a hard time getting into this book because the style of poetry she used had very little punctuation. I always tell my students to read until the punctuation tells you to stop. This would have been bad advice with this book. It just seemed very halting in the flow of words.

Having said that, I did enjoy this book. The part of the story about her moving to Japan to find a way to deal with the suicide of one of her classmates was a little boring, but I loved the way she kept reflecting on the death of the girl by talking to her in her story.

Suicide is such a tough topic. This book uses such rich wording to bring the topic front and center. At the end, when the girl who thinks she caused the suicide from the beginning of the book decides to take her own life, it just sends home the message even more. Suicide is an epidemic and we need to openly talk about it. This book gives us a platform to do just that.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Shattering Glass by Gail Giles

When Rob and his friends decide to make the school laughing stock into one of the class favorites, the whole school is in for a shock.  Simon turns the tables on everyone and turns them all into victims - including himself.

My Impressions
This book was set up in an interesting way. I didn't realize it until about halfway into the book, but I was reading the falling action and resolution at the beginning of every chapter through the use of interview-like quotes from the main characters. Frankly, I probably wouldn't have finished the book if it weren't for those quotes. I didn't like any of the characters and I felt like none of them acted like real high school aged kids. 

When I reached the end of the book, there was such a let down in wrapping it all up that I had to go back and read the quotes at the beginning of each chapter again. It gave me a sense of closure to the events that happened at the end of the book. I was so intrigued by the structure of this story. I've never seen anything like it. I hated the characters, I didn't think the actions were realistic, but Giles did a good job of keeping just enough mystery in it to keep me reading.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Postcard by Tony Abbott

Jason's grandmother has just passed away and his dad needs help going through her things in Florida.  When he gets a mysterious phone call asking if he is smart enough, Jason sets out on a journey of discovery about about the city of St. Petersburg, FL, old families and their strong ties, and about the grandmother that he never really knew until now.

My Impressions
The story within a story aspect of this book had me very interested.  At certain points, I felt like I was watching an old black and white movie complete with detectives in smoky offices talking about dames.  The story of Jason and his friend Dia and their search for the next chapter of the story that would tell them more about Jason's grandmother was just as good, though.  Abbott did a very nice job of going back and forth from one story to the next by having Jason and Dia explaining to each other how the old story went along with the mystery they were trying to solve.  And the crazy characters that we meet along the way are very entertaining!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman

When Elizabeth gets a job at the library near her home, she has no idea that there is a secret room in the basement that holds objects from the Grimm Collection.  These magical objects even include the mirror that belonged to Snow White's stepmother!  When the objects begin to disappear, Elizabeth has to figure out who is taking them without being considered for the crime herself.  

My Impressions
This book was a lot of fun to read!  The very idea of the plot had me wondering if the author was going to be able to pull off something so clever without coming across cheesy.  She did!  I loved reading about fairy tales that I had never heard of, and Shulman did a great job of making sure her readers didn't get lost in descriptions of things that might not be familiar.  And, I loved the character of the history teacher.  The fact that a teacher might have a mysterious double life makes for a fun ride for both kids and adults!  Don't forget that much of the story takes place in a library - complete with pneumatic tubes used as a delivery system and a reading room for patrons!  And, by the way, if anyone out there knows where I can pick up an application for this job, please let me know!

The next book in this series is based on creatures and inventions from classic science fiction novels including a time machine!  The book is called The Wells Bequest.  Um, yes, please.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher

Eddie Proffit is having a bad month.  His father was killed in a tragic accident, and then his best friend was too.  Lucky for him (or maybe not), his friend is still with him - at least in his dreams.  And it's a good thing too, because he is in for the fight of his life when he decides to take on the local preacher about a book that a local religious group wants to have banned.  

My Impressions
Anyone who has ever read anything by Chris Crutcher probably knows that he is one of the most banned contemporary authors in America.  This is something that he has been fighting for much of his writing career.  With The Sledding Hill, Crutcher decided to do something out of the norm (and perhaps a little crazy).  He wrote a book that purposefully did NOT include any cuss words or situations that might alert the censors.  He wanted this book to stand on its merit alone.  No one was going to be able to use the same reasons for trying to ban this book, too.  His story is not so much about Eddie Proffit and his friend Billy.  It is about censorship.  It is about giving teens the right to choose what they want to read and the right to read about situations that are authentic.  

Another interesting tactic that Crutcher used in this book was putting himself in the book as a character.  He is a minor character, but the book that is under scrutiny is one written by Crutcher.  It's not a real book that Crutcher wrote, but it makes a statement nonetheless.  He made some bold choices with this decision.  I love it that he made it so that the kids were the voice of reason.  He made it so that the writing of this book within a book was something that spoke to kids' hearts and helped them deal with things that they couldn't before.  I think that all teachers hope a book will do that for each student - at least once in their lives.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Book Trailer - The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This isn't your typical WWII book.  Yes, it has a German family hiding a Jewish man from the Nazis, but the book goes so much deeper than that.  Take it slow, and savor the beautiful writing.  It will be your next favorite book!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Book Trailer - The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen

Hannah learns the true meaning of sacrifice in this classic book by Jane Yolen.  Children today will understand why it is so important to always remember.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Book Trailer - Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Read this beautifully written book by newcomer author Ruta Sepetys.  This work of historical fiction set in the early 1940's makes for a memorable journey through Lithuania and Siberia like you have never imagined.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

Mockingbird is about a ten year old girl who has Asperger's Syndrome.  She recently suffered the loss of her older brother and protector through a school shooting at the local middle school.  Caitlin desperately wants to find "closure" and show her dad how to do it along the way, but it's much harder than she ever thought it was going to be.

My Impressions
I loved being able to see the world through Caitlin's eyes.  So many times we think we know what is going on the mind of others, but with children who have Asperger's Syndrome, we only think we have it all figured out.  Watching Caitlin deal with the emotions of losing her brother, of trying to help her father, of trying to make friends in a world of ambiguity, and of trying to find closure, opens our eyes to a world beyond what most people can imagine.  How do you wrangle emotions when you don't really know what an emotion feels like?  How do you help your father with the loss of a child when you deal with things in black and white?  How do you make friends with the other girls when they are desperately trying to set themselves apart from the "weirdo" whose brother was shot?  Kathryn Erskine did a beautiful job of making the reader aware of all the emotions involved.  It's a story about a school shooting, but from an angle like no other book I have read.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Ivan the gorilla has lived in his domain for most of his 27 years.  His only friends at the Big Top Mall are Bob the dog, Stella the elephant, and Julia, the daughter of the custodian at the Big Top Mall.  When tragedy strikes, Ivan sets out on a path to make sure the newest member of the little group does not suffer the same fate. Along the way, Ivan discovers that self-preservation is just as important as helping others.

My Impressions
This is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read.  Written in a simplistic format that reads like poetry, we discover Ivan and his friends through Ivan's own thoughts and feelings, but this book goes beyond the typical books that are narrated by animal main characters.  At the beginning, the reader sees the world through the eyes of a gorilla who has been taken from his home and family in the jungle and placed in a cage.  By the end of the book, however, the reader is seeing things from the perspective of a human who is cheering on the liberation of Ivan and his friends.  One of the best things about this book is the simple way that Ivan thinks.  It really inspires the reader to imagine what is really going on.  We are never told that he is going to create his own billboard to help save Ruby - we discover it along with Julia and her father.  We don't really know what the nice lady from the zoo looks like - we can only guess that Ivan thinks she is beautiful with the description of having hair the color of "ants crawling on a rotting log in the jungle."  And, because this book is based on a true story, everything comes alive at the end when the reader is compelled to research the real Ivan.  The Newbery Committee finally got one right with this one!