Thursday, January 31, 2008


Now here's a book I loved! Realistic fiction, kids who don't have perfect lives, and a dog to boot!

Georgina Hayes' dad has left. She lives with her mom and her brother in their car, while her mom is working two jobs, struggling to make enough money to lease an apartment. One day Georgina sees a poster advertising a $500 reward for a missing dog. The poster is old, and she figures that dog was probably found a long time ago, but she hatches an elaborate plot to steal another dog and collect the reward money, which she will then give to her mom so that the family can move into a new apartment. 

Her scheme, however, doesn't work out quite as well as she had hoped. Georgina thinks she will only have to take care of the dog for a day or so, but things don't work out that neatly. She ends up finding help in very unlikely places and learns some very big life truths in the process.

Sometimes, when a kid is struggling, they just need to know that they are not alone, that other people have been through the same things they are going through, and that, too, they will survive. This is definitely one of those books.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Confessions of a Struggling Reader

I'm a struggling reader right now. I've currently working my way through CASTLE CORONA by Sharon Creech. I picked up that book, along with about ten others, at the Scholastic Book Fair in December, and put  it in the "To Be Read" pile on my bookshelf. I love Sharon Creech- WALK TWO MOONS and LOVE THAT DOG are two of my favorite books. But I'm not much loving this book.

Don't get me wrong. It's not Sharon Creech. She is, as always, a masterful story teller. Her character descriptions are wonderful- so much so that I have marked several to share with my after school tutoring group. Creech has captured that medieval fairy tale tone really well. The illustrations, or "illuminations" as they are called in this book, are by David Diaz, another one of my favorites.

And still, I'm slogging my way slowly, slowly, slowly, through this book, stopping frequently to count how many pages are left, considering, repeatedly, reading the last chapter and calling it done.

Why? Because I don't like fantasy. With a few exceptions, e.g. THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, I flat out do not enjoy that genre. I did not even read beyond the second book of Harry Potter, and as I recall, I stopped that one half way through.

Makes me think about the importance of fitting books to their individual readers. I am a fast reader, a capable reader, a reader who loves, loves, loves books and words. I'm having to make myself pick up this book, a book that has gotten good reviews, by an author I love, almost every night. And I can't wait to be done, so that I can pick another book that I do love, Barbara O'Conner's HOW TO STEAL A DOG is next on my pile and I can't wait to read that. 

I wonder, then, what is the wisdom of choosing books for my less capable readers or of trying to force them to read something that they don't care about? How can I expect them, as struggling readers, to get through books they don't particularly care about or want to read when I, as a very capable reader, can't even do it. 

Where is the wisdom in that?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Liar Liar- Barthe DeClements

This is an old book (copyright 1998) that I found when I was unpacking boxes from my move 18 months ago. Gretchen is a sixth grade girl; her mother and dad are divorced (one minor twist to the story is that she lives with her dad and her three brothers live with her mom), but basically pretty entrenched in typical sixth grade kinds of issues with friends and school. A new girl, Marybelle, moves to town. Marybelle tells a series of lies that creates major problems for Gretchen with her friends. 

This book isn't the best book I've ever read, nor is it the worst. I found it vaguely troubling, mostly because I know too many kids like Marybelle. She is new to town and is struggling to adjust, make friends, etc. On top of that, she comes from a fairly difficult home life. By the end of the book, the kids have basically ostracized her. Although Gretchen appears to have some level of discomfort with the situation, there doesn't seem to be much compassion or empathy or redemption for Marybelle. I feel badly for her, and for all of the other Marybelles I know…

Monday, January 21, 2008


Jacquelyn Mitchard is one of my favorite, favorite, favorite adult authors. I especially admire  her essay collection, THE REST OF US, because I think the pieces are so real, and down to earth, and they make me wish I could sit and have coffee with her some morning at Starbucks. I know we would be friends.

While I was at the Scholastic Book Fair, I came across CAGE OF STARS.I was surprised I had never heard of it or read reviews, but I threw it in the cart, simply because it was a Mitchard that I had not read. This weekend, I devoured it, and loved it.  It's not a kids' book, it is definitely written for adults, but I think there would mature middle schoolers or definitely high school readers who would enjoy it. 

Veronica (Ronnie) Swan is twelve years old, a Mormon girl living in a rural area in the mountains of Utah, when her two younger sisters are brutally murdered by Scott Early, a former pharmacy student, now struggling with schizophrenia. The book follows Ronnie and her family as they struggle through the swamp of their grief for the next few years.

Ultimately, Ronnie's parents find the strength and compassion to forgive Scott Early. Ronnie, however, cannot, and sets out to track down the killer and avenge the death of her sisters. She finds Early living in southern California with his wife and baby, changes her identity, and becomes the baby's nanny, all the while intending to inflict the same harm on Early's family that he had done to hers, years before.

This is a thriller, a page turner, a can't-put-it-down, even though you know you should be cleaning house,  or folding clothes, or doing school work. It's also a story of love, revenge, compassion, sin, and forgiveness. I loved it!

Monday, January 14, 2008


The Caldecott and Newbery were announced today. The last couple of years, I haven't even heard of many of the books. This year, thanks to following the kids' lit blogs,  I did ok, actually better than usual. 

I read it and loved it and Isaiah, one of my non reading middle school sons, read it one sitting.  I'm surprised, a little, that it snuck in under the picture book wire.

Yet another terrific read by one of my favorite picture book authors. Mo Willems always amazes me with the way he packs so, so much into his pictures and develops such great stories with such a minimal amount of text!

I haven't read this one. Found a copy on Amazon for $2.79 tonight and snapped it up.

I read and loved both of these. I would have been really happy to see either of them win. 

Sunday, January 13, 2008


I always want to be open to stretching myself as a reader. Right now, I'm about two-thirds of the way through an ARC of  THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX. The book, would, I guess be classified as kind of futuristic science fiction, which is not a genre I regularly read. I'm really enjoying the book, however, and carried it around all weekend, greedily grabbing a few pages here and a few pages there. It's a really suspenseful book, and knowing that I have a super busy week ahead, I'm having to fight off the urge to read the ending and just see how it all ends up.

Jenna Fox is a seventeen-year-old girl, an only child, who is in a coma after being involved in a horrible accident. She finally awakens more than a year later, and gradually discovers some shocking truths about her new life. The book is set approximately 20 years from now, and incorporates some really interesting/troubling ideas about biomedical engineering, and what is/is not crossing the line.

As I am reading this book, I keep thinking about I AM LEGEND, a movie I saw over break. In that movie, a doctor develops a cure for cancer. The cure goes bad, however, and much of the world is wiped out by a group of "mutant humans" who have no hair, no pigmentation and are very, very aggressive. Will Smith is one of the only humans left in New York City, where he lives with his dog, Sam. I didn't especially like the movie; the idea of living completely alone like that was really troubling to me, and there's one part, involving Will and his dog that was to me, as a dog lover, absolutely heartbreaking (I won't tell in case you are still going to see it). 

My two middle school sons and all of their friends, however, ABSOLUTELY LOVED this movie. I think it would really grab their attention if I said, "You know how much you liked, "I AM LEGEND?" Well, here's a book that deals with the same kind of issues. I think they'd be knocking each other down to get to the book. I can't wait to finish it, so I can share it with them. 

Monday, January 7, 2008

Book #2: The Wednesday Wars

Just finished The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt.  Another amazing story- funny, serious, poignant, and a great glimpse into the late 1960's. Holling Hoodhood is  in seventh grade. He is a peculiarity- a Presbyterian in a town that seems to be made up mostly of Jews and Catholics. On Wednesday afternoons, half of Holling's class goes to the Synagogue for classes, the other half heads off to Catechism. By 1:55, it's just Holling and his teacher, Mrs. Baker, whose husband is serving in Vietnam.

Mrs. Baker is not entirely thrilled with having one student for the afternoon. After several afternoons of cleaning the rat cage, clapping erasers, etc., she decides to teach him Shakespeare. (I have to make  very non-literary admission that I'm not a huge Shakespeare fan, probably because I never had a teacher who loved Shakespeare and made it come alive for me). Mrs. Baker helps Holling fall in love with Shakespeare, and also work through some typical middle school problems. 

This book has a million great scenes- Holling very reluctantly dressing up in yellow tights and having his picture in the local paper, a pair of classroom rats devouring a pan of cream puffs that Holling has purchased for his class, another scene later where the custodian decides to clean all of the debris the rats have collected in the ceiling, and still another where the rats chase Holling across a field.

As funny as the book is, it offers a great glimpse into the Vietnam War era, including one chapter, also where Martin Luther King, Jr. dies. I could definitely see reading it to a middle or high school history class. It also offers great opportunities for kids to think about their relationships with their parents. Holling's mom and dad seem very distant and uninvolved in his life- they don't go to his play or sporting events. Holling's dad, a self-centered architect, is particularly troubling to me. I bet a lot of kids (and probably lots of adults too) could identify with this very distant dad.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Book #1, 2008: LOVE STARGIRL by Jerry Spinelli

I've been floored, the last few days, in reading kid lit folks' posts- fifty books read in 2007, one hundred books, two hundred books. I love to read, and can't think of anything I'd rather do than sit  for a day with a great book. These days,  though, most of my reading is squeezed into little snippets. We have the 30 minutes of family reading time each night, but otherwise, I do two pages here, or three pages there, usually waiting for various and assorted practices to be over-- right now it's basketball. Generally, it takes me about a week to finish a novel. 

The first novel I finished in 2008 is LOVE, STARGIRL by Jerry Spinelli. I loved this book. I read STARGIRL several years ago. I'm not, unfortunately, one of those readers who remembers everything in great detail. I do remember that book was about a girl who was a total nonconformist, and Leo, the boy she loved, who found himself pulled between Stargirl and the "roar of the adolescent crowd." Ultimately the crowd won. 

In this book, Stargirl and her family have moved far away. Stargirl is no longer trying to fit into a high school crowd, instead, she is home schooled;  mostly she seems like a smart kid who figures out what she wants to learn and sets out to learn it. The book, written in the form of a very long letter to Leo is about the relationships she forges with a variety of people:

• Dootsie- a five-year-old free spirit who becomes Stargirl's best friend
• Marge- owner of the local donut shop
• Charlie- an elderly gentleman whose daughter drops him off at the cemetery every morning, so that he can spend his days with Grace, the love of his life, who died four years ago. 
• Alvina- a rough and tough eleven-year-old tomboy, who fights with everyone she meets
• The town agoraphobic, a woman who has not left her house in nine years
• Arnold- he is hard to describe. I couldn't tell, throughout the book, if he was just a little different, or mentally ill, or just one of those kids who never fit in at school and never quite recovered. At any rate, he plays a key role in the book.
• Stargirl's dad- who left his longtime job as an engineering supervisor to take a job he had always wanted, as a milkman
• Stargirl's mom- a costume designer
• Perry- the town charmer and "bad boy" who steals Stargirl's heart

The strength of this book, in my opinion, are these amazing characters and the relationships they form with each other. They are so, so real! This is not a book I would probably give to elementary kids, unless they were pretty mature readers and thinkers, but the characterizations are so wonderful that I may pull a few out to use when I work with fifth graders on a fiction unit later this month. I also loved the  way Jerry Spinelli pulled all of the characters together in last couple of chapters, and even brought in Stargirl's wisest and most trusted mentor from the first book.

A very satisfying first read…

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

New Year's Resolution

My friend, Terri, says that she doesn't make New Year's Resolutions, because she can never keeps them. Instead, she makes a list of all of the things she would like to learn, do, or try during the new year. The list has to have as many things as she is years old. I'm not sure I can think of 48 things I want to learn this year, but I can think of one.


I want to be able to make posts two or three times a week, and I want, eventually, to be able to post pictures of books, and pictures from my digital camera, when I learn to use it, which is also on my list of things to do in 2008. 

Anyway, here is the first post for January 2008. Some great books I've read in the last month:

Another great sports story by one of my new favorite writers. A 12 year-old-girl whose mom has recently passed away sets out to meet the father she has never known. The relationship is greatly complicated by the fact that her father is Kirk Cameron, one of the the most famous players in the NBA. 

Third grader Clementine's class is having a talent show. Everyone is supposed to participate, but Clementine doesn't think she has a talent…A great read for friends of Junie B.  and Ramona!

As the mom of two very reluctant middle school boy readers, I'm always on the lookout for things I might interest them in reading. Stanford Wong is a middle school basketball star, who fails Language Arts and has to go to summer school, instead of the basketball camp he had planned on attending. A great read- funny, short chapters, but also dealing with some very real middle school issues. I liked STANFORD WONG so much that I went on to read EMILY EBERS, which is about the same three characters (Stanford, Emily, and Millicent Min) during the same summer, but is told by Stanford's new friend, Emily. Emily's mom and dad have just gotten divorced, and Emily and her mom have moved cross country to begin a new life. Again, funny and fun to read, but dealing with divorce, friendship and other very real middle school-ish issues. One of my next reads- MILLICENT MIN GIRL GENIUS

• ELIJAH OF BUXTON- Christopher Paul Curtis
An amazing work of historical fiction by one of my favorite authors. Elijah is the first free child born in Buxton, a town founded by freed slaves just north of the US/Canadian border. Elijah has a friend who is saving money to buy his wife and children out of slavery. When this money is stolen, Elijah and his friend set out to retrieve it. 

• MISS SPITFIRE- Sara Miller
A biograpical novel about Annie Sullivan. Told from Annie's point of view, this novel begins as Annie arrives at the Keller home and meets Helen. She is faced immediately, first with "taming" Helen, who has not been expected to obey adults, follow rules, use table manners, etc., and more importantly, with helping her to understand how language works. An engaging read- perfect for fourth or fifth grade readers. I also thought, several times, about what a great read it would have been for my Language Acquisition classes at UCD! 

A very clever book about one year in the life of a middle schooler, told entirely through artifacts such as notes, report cards, grocery lists, and bank statements.