Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver

Liesl is locked in the attic by her evil stepmother. She is sad because she wasn’t able to see her sick father in the hospital and talk to him before he died. When a boy ghost, Po, comes to visit her, she asks him to find her dead dad and tell him she misses him and say, ”Goodbye.” At the same time the alchemist’s apprentice, Will, has accidentally delivered a box of powerful magic to Liesl’s house instead of her father’s ashes. When Liesl decides to runaway and bury what she thinks is her father’s ashes a chase ensues that throws Will, Po, and Liesl together fighting  against all sorts of nasty people trying to stop them.

The author has nice details so that it is easy to imagine the place and characters. The characters don’t change much from beginning to end and the villians are more like bumbling idiots which makes it less scary for younger kids. The pacing might be slow for some readers because of the lack of tension. The stepmother tries to kill Liesl and the kids are bound up against their will but there is a good adult in the bad bunch that looks out for them. There are not many surprises with the plot and the characters are innocent and naive. The book does look at death and where people go after they die but it isn’t in depth. A good book for an elementary library and an advanced younger reader. The vocabulary is high.

Reading Level 6.5
:-) :-) :-) 3 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Inheritance (book 4) by Christopher Paolini

Whew! I’m done. I brought this book on a trip and at 850 pages it was like lugging around a barbell. Eragon’s quest has finally ended in the last of the Inheritance Cycle books. The story begins with the Varden, (rebels  comprised of dragons, Urgals, dwarves, werecats, humans and elves who want to overthrow the villian, Galbatorix), capturing cities on their way to Galbatorix’s headquarters in Urubaen. Belatona is the first city to fall followed by Roran leading a suicide mission in an attempt to capture the city, Aroughs. Galbatorix is a tyrant who destroyed the previous riders who ruled the land and whose purpose is to control everyone and everything that breaths in Alagaesia. He does not see himself as a dictator who leads by fear and tries to convince the Varden rebels to join his cause. Nasuada, current leader of the Varden,  is captured and tortured by Galbatorix and Eragon must lead the Varden into a desperate battle against Galbatorix. Assisted by Arya and the leaders of the Varden they battle their way to an exciting climax.

The detail the author put into creating Eragon’s world called, Alagaesia, is truly amazing. The author has created his own language and detailed the mountains, lakes, and cities so they come alive and it is easy imagining their colors and shapes by the reader. Most of the characters change in some way in this story. Eragon matures and is less rash and temperamental. I did think the beginning was slow mainly because I didn’t think Roran changed and I couldn’t get into his story as he fought the battle at Aroughs. Much of the dialogue is about strategy for overtaking the city and battle scenes. Others will like the details. Once Eragon gets in the story I couldn’t put the book down. The battle scenes and magical war between Eragon and Galbatorix is interesting. I liked at the end how Paolini mixed the magical traps Eragon was trying to get through with Roran fighting outside.

I didn’t particularly like the ending. It didn’t make sense nor was it necessary for Eragon to isolate himself to that extreme. It felt like Paolini was saying goodbye to Eragon rather staying true to the character. But it was still fun and I enjoyed the book immensely!

Reading Level Young Adult
:-) :-) :-) :-)  4 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, November 25, 2011

Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins

Fifteen-year-old Burmese teen, Chiko, wants to be a teacher, but the government wants him to be a soldier. Forced against his will to join the army, Chiko learns to survive with the help of his street-wise friend, Tai. In the book, Bamboo People, by Mitali Perkins the issues of human rights and prejudices toward minorities are explored in the country of Burma/Myanmar.

Chiko is an intelligent, kind boy whose father, a doctor, has been imprisoned for resisting the government. Tai who befriends Chiko has also benn forced to join the army against his will. Tai has been living on the streets with his sister and knows how to survive against bullies such as those at the military camp. Chiko teaches Tai to read while Tai teaches Chiko how to fight. The two develop such a close bond that they consider each other brothers and are willing to sacrifice their own life for the others.This is part one of the book. In part two, we meet Tu Reh who hates the Burmese for persecuting and killing his people, the Karenni. When Tu Reh finds an injured Chiko he must decide whether he will kill him or help him to live.

The writing in the book has short chapters with terrific descriptions of what it is like living in Burma. The plot is full of tense moments and life-or-death situations. The characters go through internal and external conflicts making it a page turner. The ending did not resolve all the issues and wrapped up too quickly. I thought that Nya Meh had been in contact with Chiko’s dad when they told the story of her being taught medicine by a Burmese doctor when she was captive and when Tu Reh said that the photo of Chiko’s dad looked familiar. Also, the story of how Tai ended up in Yangon should have been explained more. It was glossed over. 

Many of the boys are interested in the girls in this story. While nothing happens, Chiko and Tu Reh think a lot about girls and what they like about the the two that have caught their eye. The book is violent with children dying and a bully who is a captain. The recruits handle the bully well and support each other. There is also hints of verbal and physically abuse toward young teenage girls such as when Tai worries about his sister, Auntie Doctor doesn’t want Ree Meh to come with to the clinic because she fears for her safety, and Nya Reh when she was imprisoned by the Burmese. Nothing graphic is explained. A terrific book with a not so terrific ending.

Young Adult
3 out of 5 Smileys

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Conor’s nightmare starts the day his Mom starts her cancer treatments. He dreads going to sleep. When he looks out his window in London, England at 12:07 he sees a monster outside, but it isn’t the terrifying one from his nightmare – in fact it doesn’t frighten him at all. The monster tells Conor 3 stories that are more like parables. Each story can be interpreted different ways and it isn’t until the end that it becomes clear the meaning of all of them. The monster tells Conor that that in return for his stories Conor must tell one as well. Meanwhile Conor is dealing with a bully at school, a father who has remarried and lives in America, a grandma he doesn’t get along with or like to stay with, and the pity of classmates and teachers at school. Plus, he won’t face the fact his Mom has a terminal illness.

This is a well-crafted story with suspense and actions from characters that are unpredictable and puzzling. It is a quick read with deep themes to explore such as death, grief, loss, bullies, murder, friendship, family relationships and more. It isn’t a scary book as the cover suggests. Just so you aren’t surprised, the first story the monster tells has a man and woman “coupling.” I think the author wanted to show the woman trusted the man. Also, Conor retaliates against the bully at school so violently that the bully ends up in the hospital. I’m not sure if kids will like this book. It’s targeted for a younger audience but the themes are much older. I wonder if it is a book that adults will gush about and kids will not because it deals with death and grief. It was on a Newbery list but I would recommend it for older readers.

Reading Level YA
:-) :-) :-) :-) :-) 5 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, November 18, 2011

Slob by Ellen Potter

Owen is fat. Really fat. He's 57% fatter than most 12-year-old boys. And he's a middle schooler. Ugh. He wasn't always that way. Food for Owen Birnbaum fills the ache in his stomach that comes when he thinks of his past. Hints are slowly revealed as to what the tragedy is that happened to Owen and his sister, Caitlin or Jeremy. Caitlin is dealing with the past by joining the club GWAB, Girls Who are Boys, where she cuts her hair, wears boys clothes and changes her girl name to the boy name, Jeremy. Owen builds a contraption called the Nemesis, a device that will go back in time and capture a specific moment. Owen thinks it will make things "right" for both of them and put to rest their awful past.

Owen is picked on at school mercilessly by other students and his bully gym teacher, Mr. Wooly. When Owen's oreo cookies are stolen from his lunch every day, he sets out to find the thief.  He thinks it is Mason Riggs, an outcast like Owen, who has horrible burns on half his face and is rumored to carry a knife in his sock. Owen comes up with a plan to catch Riggs in the act, but things don't turn out as he planned. While the story is realistic the ending reveals the mystery of the missing cookies with an unexpected twist.

The writing has nice character development and a slow revelation of the tragedy. Nima, the man from Tibet, is a refreshing and unique character. I wasn't sure why the author had him be a smoker. I would like to ask her that question. Maybe so he didn't seem so perfect and wise? He is only 21 years old in the book. Some might think the start is a little slow but I liked the character development. The plot takes off pretty quickly and the tragedy is revealed about two-thirds of the way through the book.

A teacher at our school said that this book is a great read aloud.

Reading Level: 5.0
:-) :-) :) :-) 4 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Outcasts by John Flanagan (Brotherband Chronicles book 1)

If you liked the Ranger's Apprentice series you will like John Flanagan's new series that follows the same formula. Instead of Will, there is Hal. Instead of Halt, there is Thorn. Instead of Horace, there is Stig. All have flaws and strengths. There is plenty of action and humor throughout the story. This formula works and it's highly entertaining.

Hal is an outcast in Skandia because of his mixed parentage. His Mom, a former Araluen slave, was set free by his Skandian dad who later married her. Hal is an inventor and talented navigator. The Skandians revere muscle over brains.  Hal's never known his dad, Mikkel, who died in a battle with Thorn, his best friend, at his side. Thorn promised  Mikkel to look after Hal; however, Thorn lost his hand right after Mikkel died and fell into depression. It wasn't until Hal was 10 that Thorn made good on his promise and turned his life around. Now, Hal is 16 and entering Brotherband, a training ground for young boys before they become skilled Skandian warriors and seamen. He ends up leading a team of outcasts, boys who are chosen last because of what the others view as defects. Not only does Hal's team learn to work together, they become good friends, warriors, and sailors.  Read this story to see how the outcasts struggle to win contests and learn what it means to stand up for what's right.

The plot moves at a fast pace and the characters are engaging. I enjoyed the descriptions of sailing and how Hal created a new type of sail. The adults usually do the right thing but not always. The bully in the story is really completely consumed with winning and I thought the adults could have addressed this more. This character doesn't change from the beginning to the end. Hal wants to be accepted by the townspeople and struggles with being an outcast. Stig probably changes the most as he tries to control his temper. A minor thing that I didn't think worked well with the story was how it began. I thought the book could have started when Hal makes his failed invention that floods his Mom's kitchen and that the story of how Thorn ended up involved in Hal's life could have been slowly revealed. It's all thrown at the reader at the beginning. Well, almost all. I did like the surprise later on. I just thought Flanagan could have sprinkled it throughout to create more suspense in the beginning.

A fun, entertaining book.

Reading Level 6.3
:-) :-) :-) :-) 4 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt

I'm picking this as a Newbery contender for 2012. Doug Swieteck has moved to a new home in "stupid" Marysville, New York. His school is stupid. His house is stupid. His neighbors are stupid. Yes, Doug has an attitude. The reader learns why as the story reveals an abusive brother and dad. When Doug meets spunky Lil Spicer he makes an unlikely friend who gets him a job at her father's grocery story and isn't afraid to give him a piece of her mind about his "stupid" attitude every now and then. Doug goes to the library that has three rare volumes of James Audubon's, Birds of America, where the librarian teaches him how to draw. Doug relates the photos of the birds to what's happening to the people he meets in the story. He has not had an easy life and he uses art to make sense of reality. He changes from someone who feels he has no self-worth to one who can draw and act. He gains confidence in who he is and changes the people around him in the process. But it isn't easy. He is wronged by his brother. Wronged by the PE teacher. Wronged by the Principal. And on and on it goes. However, each of those people redeem themselves in other ways and there is no complete villian, except the thief at the end.

There is a gaggle of trouble that follows Doug. First, he has to deal with his dad losing his job. Then he has to deal with a dad who hits him. Next, he has to deal with a brother that's a bully. Follow that with a  brother coming home seriously injured  from Vietnam. And a PE teacher who is bullying him. And a brother accused of stealing. And Audubon's book  being sold off piece by piece. ... the story just piles up layer on layer.  But eventually Doug sorts it out and everything is "okay for now."

The writing in this book is terrific - as Doug would say! Schmidt uses the words stupid and terrific throughout the story with stupid decreasing in use as Doug comes to like the town of Marysville. Terrific has two meanings such as terrific as in bad and terrific as in great.Doug is a smart-aleck kid who is good at heart. Oftentimes I don't like first person narration because of the limited viewpoint but Doug describes the people around him in such a way that gives a sense of what the people in the town are like. The only negative is that the plot is unbelieveable. But it is such a wonderful read that it is easy to suspend disbelief and get lost in the story.

Reading Level 4.3 (I don't agree with this. I think it should be higher.)
:-) :-) :-) :-) 4.75 out of 5 Smileys

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

Miller is a 6th grade language arts teacher who requires her students to read 40 books a year. She creates a culture of reading by training students to read every day. Much of the book centers around why this is important in education and how teachers can fail to create a community of readers. It doesn't go into great detail on how she sets up her classroom on a daily basis.

I found some of the information helpful. I am going to try the, Reading Interest-A-Lyzer by Sally Reis, that can help me determine interests of readers. It is a list of 17 questions on reading habits and interests. I'm going to have grade 4 students use Google Docs and answer the survey. Then I'm going to pull books based on the interest and reading level of the student. I'll blog about it on my professional blog. This book was helpful in getting me to reflect on practices that I do with students that promote or get kids excited about reading. Some parts of the book didn't apply to me but I just skimmed them. It would be more useful to a language arts teacher.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

After Happily Ever After series

The book, Rapunzel Lets her Hair Down, by Tony Bradman from the After Happily Ever After series is a fun read. Rapunzel is sharing breakfast with her husband who talks about how much he loves Saturdays. He can play sports all day long and do whatever he wants.  Rapunzel, on the other hand, hates Saturdays because she has to wash her hair. It takes the help of 12 servants and lasts well past midnight. Rapunzel wants to cut her hair but her husband says, absolutely not! She also tells her husband she'd like to play sports and he tells her that girls are not good at sports. Ooooooh, now Rapunzel is mad at him. She concocts a plan to not only fix her hair problem but show her husband that girls can play sports. Funny and entertaining.

Reading Level 2-3

:-) :-) :-) :-) 4 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill

In this fantasy/creation story/mystery (pick your genre), Kelly Barnhill unravels a compelling story about Jack, who is sent to stay with his Aunt and Uncle in a house that literally moves, because his parents are getting a divorce. Jack makes friends with Wendy, Anders, and Frankie as the four try to uncover the mystery of why children are disappearing in their town called, Hazelwood, Iowa.

This story is well-written, creepy, weird, fun, and abstract. By abstract, I mean it deals with the spiritual realm of souls and good and evil in one person that separates into two beings. The book reminded me of the picture book, Zen Ghosts, by Jon Muth which is about a woman whose soul separates into two beings. In Zen Buddhism it is called a koan which means the reader can't intellectualize the story and come up with a logical conclusion. The book also reminds me of creation stories that involve Mother Earth. Some might not like the bittersweet ending. It isn't happy; however, it does have hope.

Some minor things were I didn't think the characters developed enough in their friendships to warrant the actions at the end. It seemed somewhat rushed and inauthentic. It seemed out of character that Jack kissed Wendy. I didn't think they were that close. Maybe if they hugged it wouldn't have stood out. It did seem authentic that Frankie wanted to rescue his sister. Maybe the problem was there were so many characters, Jack got a little lost in the shuffle. Plus, Wendy steals the show from Jack. She's fast-talking, fast-swinging, and strong-willed ... an absolute riot. An interesting and creative book.

Reading Level 5.5

:-) :-) :-) 3.75 out of 5 Smileys