Long long ago, I lived in a world without awesome books. I'm certain there were plenty of wonderful books, of course. Unfortunately, there were bad ex...moreLong long ago, I lived in a world without awesome books. I'm certain there were plenty of wonderful books, of course. Unfortunately, there were bad experiences. There's only so much not-loving-books a kid can take after hearing "give it fifty pages you'll love it!" I stopped trusting anything without pictures. For years and years I disavowed reading. All the while, the distance between myself, reading logs, and book reports grew and grew. I got comfortable, complacent. My resolve gently softened, my distain weakened. That's when something strange happend. Somebody just like me who loved baseball and violent movies and video games handed me a book. I'll admit, it did sound interesting... for a book. But, I had been down this road before. I knew better. Passages describing the living room and feelings were sure to ruin it. In fact, that would be the exact reason I would read it. I'd prove myself right, again. I'm sure you know how this story ends. I liked the book. I read more books. I hatched a plan. With just the right help, I was confident I could avenge those lost years. I'd go undercover, patiently train to become... a teacher. Classrooms are a great place to find distressed readers. I would rush to the nearest phone booth and emerge... with A Tale Dark and Grimm.
There's been a surge of books for reluctant readers in the last few years, a very good thing. There's a wide variety of both graphic and illustrated novels for both boys and girls. They contain all the same thoughtful story elements as a traditional novel in an approachable format. It's enabled my most reluctant readers to include 20-30 books to their GoodReads shelf. I want my kids to read graphic novels as much and as often as they'd like. I also want them to read text novels as well.
In traditional novels the mind is worked in a very different way. When students work with the words alone, the mind gets to wander off the end of the line and into the margins. It creates the scenes between lines of text, behind them, under them. The mind is not only working to interpret the story, it's actively creating and reshaping images based on what the words are giving them. It's a jump from one format to the other.
Based around fairy tales, TDG and In A Glass Grimmly aren't easy books. The fairy tales kids were supposed to hear are difficult. They're the stories that confirm what kids already know, it can be dark and dangerous place out there. Of course, we want to protect children, but protecting them also means preparing them for the world. Adam's books are challenging. At the scariest of times he ask kids to inward, to think about their own courage and persistence. The genius lies in the way Adam brings the kids to this level of thought.
Enter: direct narrator. The stories aren't just narrated. Adam not only narrates his stories, he speaks directly to his readers in clear, bold type. Beginning as humors warnings, he provides commentary on the nature of the story, especially when things are about to get scary. The style is genuinely funny, without ever feeling like a gimmick. But, as the story goes on it becomes a very sneaky-smart way to help readers interpret the more difficult themes of the fairy tales. The humor makes you look forward to his commentary and the commentary helps you interpret the story. It's an engaging strategy for those who benefit from the extra guidance and for those who don't necessarily need the help, it's every bit as entertaining.(less)
I'm not going to pretend I don't love a story that tears at the heartstrings. Conventional wisdom dictates that boys are supposed to want plot driven...moreI'm not going to pretend I don't love a story that tears at the heartstrings. Conventional wisdom dictates that boys are supposed to want plot driven adventure or some good potty humor but I've always had a great response from boys to stand-above character driven stories as well. So, the back story to my experience with One For The Murphys: This one appeared on my radar last summer thanks to the ubiquitous Dr. Susannah Richards. I picked up a copy and passed it to one of my 5th graders and asked her to check it out for me and let me know if it was something I need to read. That was on a Friday. Monday morning she insisted that I read it. In fact, she was so adamant about this insistence that another student overhearing our conversation begged for the book. Of course, I made a big stink about it being my turn while our argument drew the attention of a few others. I relented, sat back, and watched the book jump from desk to desk until every one of my girls had tore through it. I was a little surprised when Emily, who had finished the majority of the story in a day or two, came to me before independent reading expressing that she didn't want to finish it. When I asked why, it was because she didn't want to cry this early in the day.
Finally, after hearing the story about the creation of story, I sat down to experience what all of those students went through this year. I totally understand where Emily was coming from. Lynda has put together nothing short of an emotional masterpiece. My tears started rolling a full hundred pages before the end of the book. Uh oh. So why do I think Murphys is such a stand-above story? Carley. Carley is by far the most compelling character I've ever met. When a story impacts you as forcefully as Carley's does, unpacking why she worked so well is nearly as exhausting as her experience.
As they say, it begins at the beginning. The gravity of Carley begins its pull from the first chapter. She's in the back of a car annoying the social worker by clicking and unclicking the door locks. It's the perfect unique action speaking volumes about both Carley and her situation. When the social worker asks her to "Please" stop, Carley comments, "I love it when people use the word please but they sound like they want to remove your face." What a perfect observation of a universal truth. I'm sure there's not a kid on the planet who doesn't understand this truth that Carley so perfectly articulates. Done. I love her. Page one.
This magnetism from the beginning can create an interesting problem. If the bar is set so high from the start, how can you pull a reader along without the character falling? Some books succeed because of excellent plotting, some because the storytelling is outrageously good, some because of unique settings, some because the whole is greater that its part; there are millions of ways for a book to be successful. One For The Murphys is a cut above precisely because each and every character we come in contact with is three dimensional from the moment we meet them and they remain true throughout the entire story. This seems like a simple statement about good writing but to pull that off when your novel revolves around an emotionally driven idea, the level of complexity is beyond fathomable. Not a single character flaw ever felt cheap. Not a single relationship felt forced. And above all else, the development of the characters- and thus, the story shines bold and brilliant. When that succeeds, you look forward to crying not because of a forced sappiness but because One For The Murphys remnids you just how lucky we are that we're human beings and how refreshing it is to feel such intense emotions.
I know the girls will be an easy sell. This year will be about getting the boys on board. (less)
I’ve been testing out Scholastic’s new Branches title, Eerie Elementary: The School is Alive. It’s recommended for grades 1-3. This should speak to it...moreI’ve been testing out Scholastic’s new Branches title, Eerie Elementary: The School is Alive. It’s recommended for grades 1-3. This should speak to its quality: before I read it to a class, I feel obligated to make a public service announcement. “If you feel uncomfortable at any point, you’re welcome to get up, get a drink, take a walk, or find a book to read somewhere else in the library.” So far, nobody’s left but several second graders definitely gripped a neighbor for support.
Sam is Eerie’s newest hall monitor, a position he’s none too excited about. Little does he know the job responsibilities go far beyond reminding his friends to be in class on time. Hand selected by Mr. Nekobi, the aging grounds keeper, Sam quickly discovers that his job isn’t keeping students punctual, it’s keeping them alive. Eerie Elementary eats children and it hasn’t been fed in a very long time. With Mr. Nekobi aging and his replacement still new, the school knows it’s the perfect time to strike.
Unlike Goosebumps, this one gets scary in a hurry. It doesn’t take more than ten pages to find some seriously creepy scenes. One at a time locker doors slam open and shut forcing Sam into the clutches of the gnarled oak tree outside. Everyone else may hear the ticking of the clock but only same can hear the tick-tocks morph into the ba-bumps of a beating heart.
This is an amazing step for early chapter books. Short but vivid sentences, engaging illustrations, and brilliant pacing throughout captures the ability and attention of even the most hesitant readers.
A brilliant leap into the wonders of time travel. Wholly original concept, characters that hold up against the very best, and a world you don't want t...moreA brilliant leap into the wonders of time travel. Wholly original concept, characters that hold up against the very best, and a world you don't want to tear yourself away from. Here's one expansive story that defies conventional wisdom about the length of middle grade literature. Put this in the hands of any kid who rereads Harry Potter. It will give them hope that there are other books in the world just as satisfying. If not more.(less)
Not my kind of book. I don't mind a tear-jerker but the injustice of captivity is too much for me. I read the first half of the book earlier in the ye...moreNot my kind of book. I don't mind a tear-jerker but the injustice of captivity is too much for me. I read the first half of the book earlier in the year but it was so troubling that I put it down. Katherine Applegate gives Ivan, a silverback gorilla, tourist attrition held at a local strip-mall, a voice that drips with torment. Most impressive was her ability to do so through complacency rather than through outrage. Ivan is content in his domain. Through conversation with the other "attractions" these relationships feel old and familiar. His observations, routines, and conclusions about his world reveal an utter defeat. It's the authenticity of his voice that makes this tale so disturbing. There isn't a time when I questioned his perspective as a gorilla. It was just too real. I really don't want to believe that life can wear you down to a point where you just give up, accept your situation, and make the best of it.
I really wanted to see Bomb receive the medal. I wanted that utterly enthralling non-fiction to hold literature's most esteemed honor. Thus, I was disappointed to see Ivan win. His story would always be beautiful, I wanted Bomb to be emulated, remembered. But, I knew it was an uninformed opinion so I picked up where I left off. After seeing the work in it's entirety, my feelings haven't changed. I still would have preferred Bomb. But, there is no question, this certainly is a book extremely worthy of its distinction. Beautifully sparse and equally majestic, the writing stayed as crisp as it was poetic, which is often the problem I find with novels in verse. Ivan brings the substance deserving of the medal. It was a good choice.
Plus, Three Times Lucky got an honor! All told, this committee did a bang-up job representing a variety of interests. I'm glad I finished the book after it medaled. There was no shortage of distinguished standard-fare not represented in the selections. Ivan truly is a cut above and I have no quarrels. (less)
Looking for a book that contains nothing but awesomeness? Spy School’s your book.
In fact, I chose Spy School for a book group I run for 4th grade rel...moreLooking for a book that contains nothing but awesomeness? Spy School’s your book.
In fact, I chose Spy School for a book group I run for 4th grade reluctant readers. We meet every week. Week one, I give them a long-read (novel) If they’re half way through by the next week, I feed them some graphic novels or other perusable non-fiction. When I pulled out Spy School, they were a little intimidated by its length. “Do we have to have it finished in two-weeks?” I told them not to worry, try for 100 pages a week and if you need an additional one, our next book is an illustrated novel that will give you time to finish Spy School. Now to the book for a moment. I read them the first chapter and they were totally into it.
Obviously, the CIA plants special questions into all those standardized tests the kids are taking these days. How else would they determine which kids have what it takes to become the next generation of spies? Ben Ripley arrives home from school one day to find none other than the Alexander Hale sitting in his living room, ready to whisk him away to a top-secret academy.
What perfectly believable rationale to get a rather sensational premise off the ground. But before the book begins, Gibbs slipped in a classified document (with all the names and specifics blacked-out) perfectly luring the reader into asking just exactly what is going on behind the scenes?
Gibbs wastes no time on goodbyes or Ripley’s feelings about leaving his life behind. Instead, he throws both Ripley and the reader right into the action from the moment they arrive at the academy. Spy School is under siege and within moments, Ripley is caught in the middle of a fire-fight.
Not only was I on the edge of my seat, I was pleasantly surprised to find a bit of strong language in only our second chapter. In fact, after the second “word-in-question” I put the book down to think. I knew it was middle-grade, so what did S&S do about the age recommendation? I knew it couldn’t be 12 and up. So 11 and up, maybe? Nope, it’s 8-12. I smiled. Of course. I mean, Ripley’s in the middle of his first gunfight. It seems perfectly appropriate that there might be some “dangerous” language used. And if you’re an 8-12 year-old boy, tell me you wouldn’t think that’s pretty cool? Back to the book club...
So, it’s the day after I gave the book to the group and I walk into a fourth grade teacher’s room to ask a question while her kids were reading. I totally unaware that 4 boys from the club are in her class until on my way out the door I hear my name whispered. I looked over and the boys had the biggest grins on their faces. Whisper shouts of, “I’m already on page 72.” and “I read for over an hour last night.” and “This book is awesome!” rang out. So what was I to do? Reply, “And there’s swearing!” to which they all enthusiastically “Yeah-ed.”
At any time, did I feel that the book needed the saltier language? Not really. Was it a well-played tactic? Well, Spy School hits all the right boy-book-notes without the language: guns, action, double-crossers, action, cliff-hangers, and there’s tons of action. I really liked that Gibbs injected the language right into the second chapter. Consider it an act of goodwill towards his target audience. It’s nothing that will offend the majority while at the same time it buys him some serious street cred.
Now, a less tactful author might use such a ploy to buy himself some time to character build or some other boring literary element. Not Gibbs. Trust me, there’s not a dull moment. Gibbs’ potty mouth pays it forward for something much more essential to the story he’s telling. Sophisticated vocabulary. This is Spy School here folks. The best of the best in the country. Do you think they go around talking like little grade schoolers? No way. For every swear, there was a word I had to look up. While context shouldn’t present too much of a problem, weaker decoders might opt for this one to be read aloud. Just please, don’t stop to make sure they know the meaning of every word. Pick a few great ones here and there and get out of the way. ‘Cause Spy School moves faster than a Michael Bay movie. (less)
From an informational stand point, by far the strongest text I've come across. Possibly ever. This book should be held up as the example for just how...moreFrom an informational stand point, by far the strongest text I've come across. Possibly ever. This book should be held up as the example for just how significant a role text formatting can enhance a non-fiction reading experience. The main passages on each page are as stylistically potent as the information it contains. This is quite the abstract topic matter, astrophysics. So, how do you make that accessible to a young audience? By connecting and relating to more concrete concepts. Each passage relates the aspect of the black hole covered to more observable phenomena, progressively building the concept as you travel through a page. This brilliant progression is also followed chapter by chapter. Using evident text interpretation strategies, like comparing and contrasting, DeCristofano uses devices like first illustrating how a black hole is like a whirlpool, then following that up with a section entitled, "Even though a Black Hole is like a like a Whirlpool, A Black Hole is not a Whirlpool."
Concepts are never simplified, the stylistic elements of the writing like, "But you know what? A black hole isn't a monster. It's not even alive. That means it can't lurk, eat, or belch. It has no dar, destructive desires. Of course, you may have already figured this out. But you know what else?" Excite the reader to flip the page without ever feeling like they're being talked down to.
But, my absolute favorite aspect of this book is how respectfully the denser information is presented. Take, well density, for example. On page 15, in a table at the bottom, the author comparatively takes you through the density of snowball sized objects. First a fluffy snow ball, showing the reader how many grams (37) it weighs, then relating that weight to something concrete, a slice of bread. This, of course, helps readers gain a better understanding of a black hole, measurement, and the concept of density. As the table progresses it becomes even more fascinating, a hard-packed snow ball, a rock, a ball of plasma from the sun, before finally showing the black hole's density.
I can't count the times I've worked with my students about reading the ancillary information on a page of informative text. More often than not, in a text book the information contained in a table is fine. It presents facts. But DeCristofano shows us how effective that information can be when it's designed to wow you. That's what the concrete relationships do, I found myself with a better picture of grams, density, and the universe.
So, this and Steve Sheinkin's Bomb are my two favorite non-fiction books that I've ever read. While Bomb is and should be the example of non-fiction narratives for young adults, I think Black Hole might be even more important because it's a tightly packed informational text. Taking nothing away from the amount of work it took Sheinkin to turn the events surrounding the bomb into a story, I think it might be even more of a challenge to take an abstract concept and present it in an informational format that usually lacks true engagement. I guess I'll count myself lucky to have two non-fiction books this year that I can hold up and say to my students, "It doesn't matter what you're reading about, when the information is presented well, you will be fascinated. And if you're not, it's probably the book's fault." I hope between DeCristofano and Sheinkin, this is the new bar in non-fiction writing. (less)
I have nothing against the heartfelt tearjerker. Oh, did this one do it for me. The ending had me crying to the point of snot leaking out of my nose....moreI have nothing against the heartfelt tearjerker. Oh, did this one do it for me. The ending had me crying to the point of snot leaking out of my nose. I won't say any more about the end than that.
When you hear the premise, two girls burying their dead foster mom in the garden, you're bound to have some preconceived notions. Appropriate? Believable? There is no need worry. In this case, the concept of death is much easier on the emotions than either of the girl's backstory. We simply needed the adult out of the way for story's sake. And what a story it was. (less)
Every now and again when we get really lucky, we encounter a story that reminds us why there’s nothing in the world that compares to finishing a reall...moreEvery now and again when we get really lucky, we encounter a story that reminds us why there’s nothing in the world that compares to finishing a really good book. For a reading teacher it’s an essential reminder that we must do more than deliver skills to kids. We need our students to experience what it’s like to lose themselves in a story. It is with the utmost reverence that I express how Jonathan Auxier’s forthcoming title, The Night Gardener has captured the very essence of a good story’s power. It’s a tale so etherial, it made the world around me feel two dimensional in comparison.
Plenty of great books keep you entertained from the first page to the last. For me, the mark of an exceptional book is how much I remember about it weeks, months, even years after I’ve finished. It’s been six months and I can still feel the story. I can picture Constance’s ring falling off of her finger and the need to put the book down for a moment so I could take in how the action of a ring hitting the floor could evoke such terror. The deep pride I felt for Molly, who could take an ordinary button, what little she has to her possession, and transformed it into a sense of security for her brother. And Kip, who’s cheery, confident, and courageous demeanor preserved Molly’s true north. It’s not just the world, and characters, and tone of the book that still resonates. As I read it, I recall vivid details about how the effected my life.
On the way home from NCTE in Boston I marked my page with my finger as I handed over my boarding pass so that I could pick the story while I waited in line to step on to the plane. I was lost in the world of the book and at the same time, I was proud to publicly share the act of reading. The next evening I helped friends consolidate some furniture into a storage unit. After we finished, they offered to take me out for a bite to eat. I hesitated. I was thrilled to help but dinner seemed optional even though I did have to eat. When they questioned my dejected response, I explained how hopelessly lost I was in world of The Night Gardener. It wasn’t just the story that seared itself into my memory. I viscerally recall the experience of this book affecting my life. Rarely reading as a kid, the few books that did reach me created this type of memory. I saw myself as reader differently. With its suspenseful spookiness, vivid world, endearing characters, and expert pacing, my hunch is that this is a book that will inspire the same feelings for many, many kids.
I’m thankful forThe Night Gardener. It’s a story that helps us see the person that we are and the person we want to become more clear. It’s a story that uniquely conveys to middle grade readers that good and evil within the human condition is not dichotomous. But most importantly It’s a story that enthralls and entertains.
So if you’ve read the book already, go out and pick up a copies for the readers in your life. I fully believe there’s no better way to engender the respect and adoration of a child than to hand them an engrossing story. By getting this book into the hands of as many readers as possible, we can all do our part this week to tell bookstores and publishers that we want more stories like The Night Gardener in the world.
More about the book, links, and videos of the author