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’ve been looking forward to Peter Nimble since the moment I came across Jonathan Auxier’s website, The Scop. The site is simple, the sketches are fun...moreI’ve been looking forward to Peter Nimble since the moment I came across Jonathan Auxier’s website, The Scop. The site is simple, the sketches are fun and that might be the best “about me’ section I’ve ever seen. So to hear Jonathan was publishing his first middle-grade this fall, literally made me giddy. Then I found that this particular middle grade novel is set in a quazi-Victorian age, starring a blind-orphan-thief.
Here’s what I need: books that I can look a kid in the eye and say, “Trust me, you’re going to love this.” So that while they’re developing their reading (and thinking) strategies, they’ll fall in love with literature and see the relevancy for these skills. I’m looking for books that create “the circulation effect” (I pass off a book and by the time it’s returned two months later, I’ve seen it on 15 different desks). I’m quite confident that Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes will be one of those books.
First and foremost, Peter Nimble has an absolutely mesmerizing flow to it. It’s got all the fun of disenfranchised Dickens mixed with Phantom Tollbooth absurdity. Jonathan Auxier seamlessly blends these two very diverse attributes, strapping his readers to his back as he takes them along for a breakneck ride through complete obscurity. One minute you’re meeting his traveling companion, an enchanted horse-cat-knight; the next minute you’re giggling over a reference to 18th century burgling proverb. And that’s what makes this novel so much fun.
Auxier immerses you in this wonderfully substantial tale while relentlessly sprinkling in bits of humor at every turn. To really buy into fantasy, there needs to be in a believable world. In a lot of the high-fantasy for middle-graders that I’ve read, this tends to get a bit descriptive. Not that it’s a bad thing, most of the time it’s completely essential to the story. But for inexperienced readers who haven’t built the stamina to stick it out, such description can slow the story down to abandonment. Auxier does much of his world-building through an astute sense for humor. Thieving terminology and old sayings build Peter’s culture. This enables the author to spend less time creating the world and more time pushing Peter through it. And the reader can pick the rest up along the way.
By omitting the overly descriptive elements of fantasy, we’re left with a story that moves at a truly exceptional pace. Take my knees for example. I had an hour to kill before heading home for dinner. I made my way over to the beach with Peter Nimble in tow. Before I knew it three hours had passed, my legs were cooked, and I was late for family dinner.
The chapter structure and pace just work sensationally. Some end in total cliffhangers, others are satisfying bookends; all without ever feeling predictable or formulaic. Sometimes a section was wrapped up nicely when I assumed it would stretch out, while other times I thought I knew how a chapter would end only to be left with a dropped jaw and a yearning to find out where we’re going next. And all of this happens from the moment we set foot into Peter’s tale.
Right from the introduction it’s clear that we’re in the hands of a storyteller. It doesn’t feel like the characters or the narrator know something that you don’t. The information we learn in the beginning later becomes pertinent but it never comes off overly mysterious. There’s nothing wrong with employing those strategies at a story’s onset but doing so risks losing that audience that isn’t quite ready to pick out the questions they’ll need to keep in their heads for a few hundred pages.
Another major component of Peter Nimble’s flow is the manner in which we meet new characters and explore new settings. The story’s landscapes constantly shift without inundating the reader with detail. We grow accustomed to Peter’s new surroundings with him. Seeing as how Peter is blind, both he and the reader are exposed to the setting by moving through it. Characters too, flow in and out without coming off hollow or hurried.
But the essential thread that ties this novel together is Jonathan Auxier’s outstanding narration. I’m always telling my students, “You can’t talk to your reader unless you really mean it.” And when they ask me what that means, I tell them, “I don’t know. But go read Adam Gidwitz or Lemony Snicket.”
Bad narration is intolerable and insulting to the reader, which makes discovering quality narrators that much more satiating. Auxier guides us through Peter’s story without ever tipping his hand or pandering to his readers, unless he’s doing so intentionally, in which case, it’s pretty damn funny. He’s constantly dropping bits of humor that range from explicit to embedded to ludicrously sarcastic. And we haven’t even touched the most impressive part…
Our main character is blind. The disability drives the story without ever becoming preachy or asking the reader for sympathy. It’s refreshing to have a main character whose handicap is the source of his success (without him having to learn some character trait by coming to terms with the disability). In fact, frequently, the disability becomes the butt of many a pun. Good. We certainly want to teach our kids to treat everybody, able or handicapped, with respect. It’s nice to see Peter isn’t discluded from good-natured humor at his expense, like so often is the case when disabilities appear in children’s literature.
Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes is sure to be hit with middle grade boys and girls alike. At times it’s utterly absurd; others, rich and poignant, but it always remains sensationally obscure. And if nothing else, it’s that current of obscurity running throughout the novel that will charge its readers and keep them chuckling until the last page.
It’s my job to get emerging readers the skills they need to be proficient with text. But what good is a skill set if you can’t find a relevancy in it? I say I have just as much a responsibility to help my readers find both. Many times, it requires some salesmanship. And, a salesman is only as good as his product. Books like Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes makes engendering students to take ownership of their reading easy. It’s the caliber of story that is simply… Fantastic. (less)
"I've been naive. I've taught you to live in a world I wanted to exist, not one that actually does."
Nothing makes me happier than to blindly stumble i...more"I've been naive. I've taught you to live in a world I wanted to exist, not one that actually does."
Nothing makes me happier than to blindly stumble into a great story. With the right recommendation, even the flap is a spoiler. Boo Nanny is the first reason to fall in love with this book. As Moses tells it, she takes in wash from the white people in town which clues us in to the time period. Jack Thomas, dad of Moses, works for a newspaper, the first black daily. Over the next 120 pages we coast through Moses's 5th grade summer, getting a feel for life in post Civil War Wilmington, North Carolina. The black community is thriving. Firefighters, police, lawyers; Jack serves in local government in addition to reporting the news. Race certainly isn't ignored but given the time and location, the lack of animosity is heartwarming.
Boo Nanny's superstitions hint at trouble to come but it isn't until 160 pages in that we get our first taste of just how ugly racism is. Until Moses and his dad wind up caught in the middle of a white supremacy demonstration, injustice was served as something you persevere through. The kind of everyday belittling where you kept your chin up and eventually you would change attitudes. The first half of the book lulls you into a 10 year old child's view of his world. The second half exposes a hatred that forces Moses into adulthood.
For the first few days I had to set goals, fifty pages here, twenty-five there. There was no way I was putting Crow down once Moses and I reached that turning point. And about 3/4 of the way through, I began fearing the worst. That this novel was actually based on true events. Sure enough the historical note is absolutely infuriating.
Barbara Wright took her time suckering us into believing this was a story about the country on its way up. Which it was. Until, through intimidation and violence, the once prosperous city of Wilmington is taken hostage by a vigilante militia. As heartbreaking as the back half of the story was, it's nothing compared to historical events depicted as Crow unfolds. Wright expertly stitches together speeches, documentation, and historical figures to weave a story that reads like fiction. But, as is too often is the case, the facts are far worse than anything invented.
The vigilantes eradicated the city of its upstanding black citizens through threat of violence, re-segregated neighborhoods, and passed legislation stripping black citizens of their votes; effectively laying foundation for the Jim Crow mentality that persisted for another 160 years. And that's not the infuriating part. What causes me the most trouble is that this story remained untold until a commissioned report on the riots was released in 2006.
Crow is brilliantly told. It certainly couldn't have been easy crafting the first half of this story knowing what was about to transpire. It was good enough to make me ignore the warnings peppered throughout. Here's the problem. I desperately want every student to experience and understand this event. Crow delivers the horror of racism directly to the heart. But, this story requires patience. A patience that I'm not sure the majority of my students have.
So, how do we build it? Well, one way would be to make it a required read. However, Diary of Anne Frank is required reading for entering 7th graders and in 5 years, I still haven't found a student that hasn't hated it. That's the problem with forcing people into a story. Then there's reading it aloud. If all you have is 15 minutes a day (max), you're asking kids to stick with you for at least 3 weeks. What about several excerpts from the first half, straight through the second? If you have an opinion, I'd love to hear it. (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)
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)