Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Alice Miranda at School by Jacqueline Harvey

I am not sure how to write about this book. It is so utterly unbelievable it is more like a fairy tale cloaked in a realistic story. Or maybe it is a parody of British boarding schools. The repetition in the story reminds me of beginning chapter books for emerging readers (grades 2-3) but the bullying seems older and the narrator is a first grader who sounds more mature than most adults. She is a genius but developmentally too advanced for her age. So... let the fairy tale begin...

Once upon a time there was a 7-year-old who had the wisdom and vocabulary of a 70-year-old. She called a boarding school because she wanted to go there and was accepted even though her parents weren't ready and sobbed when they dropped her off. While walking around the school she met three adults all having problems and unhappy with their work situations. Like the good witch in Oz, she waved her wand (figuratively), and fixed their problems using mummy and daddy's money. When she meets the class bully, she can't seem to fix her, but she handles her with self-control and the maturity of an adult. The headmistress is also unhappy and takes issue with the little poppet that grows happiness around her like a field of poppies. The headmistress makes the smiling 7-year-old girl go through a series of unfair tests (a 3 hour SAT type test) which she does with the smile and joy of a saint. Will the poppet pass the tests and charm Miss Grimm, the headmistress, like she has everyone else?

Everything in the plot is unbelievable. So much so it is funny. It reminded me of the Willoughby's but not as extreme or with as many references to literature which is why I'm not sure if the author intended it that way or not. I think so. Maybe if I was British I would see more connections or more of a savvy reader.

The writing uses repetition of plot elements that will help a young reader but the vocabulary is higher than normally found in this type of book. It might be good for a high reader in grades 2 or 3, but the target audience is grade 4. The setting is in England with English vocabulary such as poppet - I love that word. The adults use that word when referring to Alice-Miranda, the 7-year-old, who works her magic on those around her making them happy.

The characters don't change internally. Alice-Miranda is always good and always says the right thing. the bully is one-dimensional and bosses everyone around because she's rich and thinks she owns everything at the boarding school. Alice-Miranda does wonder why she is this way but the reader never finds out. The headmistress changes internally. There is no great depth to the characters' thoughts and the plot is predictable. I actually enjoyed more of the outrageous and imaginative plot twists because they were so out there. Make sure to park disbelief on the table before picking up this book.

Discussions can surround themes of how to deal with being rich, dealing with bulllies, and sinning people over with compliments. The happy ending is going to please most young readers.

Reading Level 4.6
2 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Iron Dragon Never Sleeps by Stephen Krensky

Historical fiction books need to pedal the line between fact and fiction without drifting too far into either lane. Krensky drifts a little too far into the fact lane. They are interesting facts to be sure, but they propel the story more-so than the characters which makes the pacing slow in parts.

Winnie has gone with her mother to visit her dad who is working on the transcontinental railroad in the town of Cisco. While there, she learns  how the Chinese workers are providing invaluable aid in building the transcontinental railroad, except no one seems to recognize the fact. They are treated unfairly by the owners of the railroad and the white  townspeople which leads them to go on strike. When Winnie makes a friend with a Chinese boy who is 10-years-old, she is not sure if she likes him. She has to decide if she wants to strike up a friendship with him based on others opinions or what she sees with her own eyes.

The family has nice dialogue with the dad teasing the daughter and the parents joking. I thought these sections were more authentic than the interactions between Winnie and the Chinese boy, Lee. Those sections seemed forced because the author was pushing his message of prejudice and intolerance. I wished more had been shown versus told about the injustice suffered by the Chinese workers. The author shows a little and tells a little. Winnie is going against quite a bit of built-in prejudice represented by the townspeople. Even her parents support the townspeople's negative view of Chinese people. It seems that she would really have to develop a deep friendship with Lee to risk disobedience and break away from mainstream beliefs as a 10-year-old. Maybe if she was presented as more strong-willed. The friendship seemed rushed to me but a young reader might disagree and not notice it at all.

Facts on how the Chinese different customs frightened people and their expertise in explosives and working as teams are peppered throughout this quick read. The characters don't think in great depth on issues but they do question why people act the way they do. The ending with the red kite adds a pleasant emotional pull to the story that I wished had been more evident in the beginning and middle; some happens with the family but that is about it. Grade 5 students who are studying immigrants and hardships faced in the United States during 1867 will get plenty of information in story. It would be a good resource for students studying this topic.

Reading Level 4.4
3 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

Historical fiction is not everyone's cup of tea. Over the years, students have groaned when I ask if they like it,  "'s boring." I tend to like historical fiction especially if I'm learning something new. I learned bundles about leprosy or Hansen's disease in this story. Rachel Kalama lives in O'ahu in the 1890s when she is diagnosed with leprosy. She is sent to Molokai as a 7-year-old where she grows up in a convent with other girls suffering from the disease. The stigma with having this disease not only affects Rachel, but her family as well. Fear of leprosy was culturally rampant and family and relatives connected in any way with lepers were known to loose jobs, divorce, or move. Rachel's family experiences all of these and more.

Brennert captures the paranoia and lack of knowledge regarding how people contracted Hansen's disease and wraps it in an emotional story from the eyes of Rachel from age 5 to 81, with a chronological focus on her as a young child, teenager, and middle-aged woman. Brennert is ambitious covering 1891-1970 and he has done quite a bit of research. He mixes in religion from old Hawaiian myths to the conversion of Christianity. He does a good job not getting preachy but leaving it up to the reader to figure out the answers. The author's note is interesting and there are book club questions as the end. 

Yep, it's a great book club book - there's plenty to mull over. Just look at the wide variety of reviews on Goodreads. One reviewer pooh-poohed the entire story because of the Japanese immigrants adopting a girl and insisting this would never happen. The reviewer lived in Japan which she felt gave her authority on the matter. She's probably right and her argument is sound, but  the adoption is such a minor part of the story that I didn't think it discredited the whole book. The author gets the leprosy right and the historical events occurring over an 80 year period. I was impressed with how much history Brennert covered in this book. It is loaded with facts too. I thought he did an excellent job showing them rather than telling but I can see some readers wanting more of the emotional side of the character. It was plenty emotional for me, I cried more times than I care to admit. The injustice and devastation of having this awful disease moved me plenty. Normally, I tiptoe around this kind of book not touching it, but Brennert doesn't linger on the tragedies and has most of the characters choosing hope and joy over bitterness with life.

The characters have to deal with death on a daily basis. Oftentimes this type of book is so depressing it is hard to read, but Brennert usually adds humor and hope following a tragic event. He straddles the fence quite  well in this area and also avoids becoming preachy in regard to religions and one-dimensional characters. The internal motivations of most characters are examined and explored giving a depth that allowed me to connect with them. He builds a community of people on Moloka'i that have many different personalities; most good-hearted and some not; most good-natured and some not; most accepting and some not. You get the picture. A mixed bag of characters in a small town.

The setting and tone of the story are set in the beginning quite well with Hawaiian culture, language, foliage, and geography. The contrasts between old Honolulu and modern Honolulu are sprinkled throughout, as well as, the slower historical changes that take place on Moloka'i. "Certain things stood out in memory, she couldn't say why: the weight and feel of a five-cent hapa'umi coin in her pocket; the taste of cold Tahiti lemonade on a hot day, palm fronds rustling like locusts high above, as she and her brothers played among the rice paddies and fish ponds of Waikiki." Brennert captures the clash of eastern and western civilization and his love for the Hawaiian islands rings through the eyes of Rachel like a church bell.

If you like nonfiction or history, particularly history on diseases, then I would recommend this book, but if you are a "'s boring" type person then happy pickings elsewhere for a book more to your liking.

4 out of 5 Smileys

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

I am always on the lookout for higher level books that I can give to high readers in grades 4 & 5. This book got some high reviews on Goodreads so I checked it out of the library to see if it was an okay YA book to purchase for an elementary library. It isn't. But it is a well-written book with great pacing and character development. It is a romantic fantasy and explores themes of love and religious fundamentalism during the historical period when Christianity replaced the mythological gods.

Ismae's mother is dead and her step father hates her. He is abusive and is marrying her to another man just as violent as himself. The villagers regard her with fear and persecute her as well as her step father, because her real father is Mortain or the god of Death. On her wedding night she is horribly abused and rescued by the village herbwitch who sends Ismae to the Convent of St. Mortain where she is safe and trained as an assassin. She hates men and is willing to embrace the convents ideology that killing is okay as long as it is ordained by St. Mortain. This is done by seeing the mark of death on a victim and Ismae discovers that not only has her father, Mortain, endowed her with this unique gift, but others as well.

Her assignments embroil her in a plot to stop overthrow the duchess of Brittany, which would lead to a French invasion. She is forced into a partnership with Duval, a man she doesn't know if she can trust. She relies on her gifts from her father to lead her through the duplicity of the court but when Duval questions her murderous actions she begins to question the convent's training and wonder if what she is doing is right or wrong.

The convent section is skimmed over with not much depth on the martial arts training. It mainly setups the minor characters of the Abbess, Crunard, Sybella and Annith. It shows more of the friendships and a little brainwashing as the girls spew doctrines and doxologies. The girls seem a little too nice to be assassins but then I probably wouldn't connect with the characters if they were psychopaths. Sybella is probably the most believable assassin because she is the most unhinged. I would have liked to have seen more of her character in the story. I thought she was interesting.

The first person narrative focuses on Ismae resisting her emotions and trying to not fall in love. She's really likable, sensitive, and kind which makes her somewhat unbelievable as an assassin and because of those qualities I kept expecting some trauma or deep regret after killing her first victim she doesn't have an emotional breakdown. She questions the killing but I thought she'd pray to St. Mortain or do more. It doesn't take from the story but it did cross my mind. I couldn't put down this fast-paced, fun read. Not easy to do with a 550 page story.

Similar to Graceling, Eona, Trickster's Choice, The Demon King.
Young Adult
4 out of 5 Smileys

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Revenge of the Shadow King by Derek Benz & J.S. Lewis

Blue lightning bolt boy. That's Max. The only clue to his superpowers is thunder, the color blue, and electrical energy that crackles over his skin. Unfortunately, not enough is explained as to how Max got these powers. This is just one of many missing plot elements that makes this story fall short of its potential, BUT, students will like this series. There is plenty of action and the monsters are fun and scary. Just don't go looking for deep character and plot development. It ain't there folks.

WHOOHOO, the setting is in Minnesota -  I'm thinking this will be fun - the state I grew up in. But it wasn't. Fun that is... The setting could have been anywhere. Max lives in a rural town in Minnesota. The authors don't capture the agrarian, small town atmosphere and don't have much by way of details. Max's dad is a billionaire landowner, but it isn't clear why the family doesn't live in Minneapolis by the major airport for dad or Mall of America for mom. Perhaps if they had moved to Avalon after their divorce so Max's mom could be by her mother it would have made sense. But this is just one of many questions I have throughout the book. So all you Minnesotans out there, don't read this for local flavor.  WHOOHOO, most readers will say, over the creepy Slayer goblin who scares the bejeebers out of Max when he shows up in his bedroom in the prologue. There's nothing like a sharp-nailed creepy killing monster at the top of the food chain threatening human beings to hook a reader. You will like that.

Max plays a card game with his three best friends called, Round Table, that is being taught to them and played by Iver, an older man who owns an antique shop. When the characters on the cards come to life and Max discovers a powerful magic book, he unleashes a monster that wants to rule the world. The monsters not only take over a fellow student turning him into a faerie, they attack adults and unleash chaos on the weather and inhabitants of Avalon. Will the four save the world?

The adults move the plot along in a contrived way. They do not react in normal ways to things that happen to the kids especially in the scene where the four pass out from smoke inhalation and are almost burned to death. Rather than being worried about their health, the adults instantly blame them for the fires and ground them. Max's mom is particularly dippy. Iver doesn't explain circumstances either when he saves their lives. Instead he withdraws and makes cryptic comments.  Other times I have a glimmer of hope for the adults, such as when Ms. Heen sparkled some blue energy of her own. I thought, oh good, we will finally find out how blue boy got his powers. But we never do. She's just another member of the blue energy wonders. Emphasis on wonder. Even Iver has a brilliant blaze of light that he unleashes on a goblin. But it isn't blue. And it isn't explained. 

The characters are not really developed and don't have much internal conflicts. Max is upset about his parents divorce but it isn't explored much. The villains are one-dimensional with no complexities or understanding as to why they became the way they did. Ray was jealous and that's about it. Blackstone is greedy. Max's mom has no redeeming qualities that I could see. Iver is supposed to have a connection with the kids but that isn't developed well either. He doesn't explain things to them after he saves their lives and as their mentor he should have explained the existence of goblins and their connection with the cards. Harley is the big strong friend. Ernie is the clown. Natalia is the brain and adult voice of reason reminding the others right from wrong. That's it in a nutshell. Blue nutshell, that is.

The plot meanders and I couldn't picture a time frame for the setting. The kids have email, but no cell phones. Natalia rides a banana seat bicycle which is what I rode in the 70s. The girls are wearing dresses at school and I'm picturing my moms generation. The setting never took root for me. There is plenty of action even if it jumps all over. There are portals with tests and monsters trying to kill the kids most of the time. It oozes external tension even if it doesn't always make sense. If you can overlook the plot inconsistencies and don't care too much about characters, you will enjoy the hopscotch action in this fantasy novel. I think I'll even read the sequel. I've got blue wonder.

Reading Level 5.1
2 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Teacher Leadership by Charlotte Danielson

Three classes, 50 pages in papers, and I am soooooo glad I ended the whole caboodle with this book. I created a few lessons that I am going to use at the start of the year and was able to reflect on best practices. I also can see why I love our school. We are doing so many things well that it is no surprise I can think of many teacher leaders throughout the grade levels.

Teacher leaders are individuals who see a need or gap in student learning and address it in a way that influences others beyond the classroom. Not only are teacher leaders able to manage the process of change to improve student learning, they are able to inspire and motivate colleagues and others in pursuit of the goal they are trying to reach.

I really liked how Danielson phrased concepts and theories. It got me thinking about how I can change my way of interacting with students, colleagues, and parents. What are the qualities of a teacher leader? Am I a risk-taker? Do we have a culture of risk-taking at our school? Do I collaborate? Am I respectful? Clear? Creative? Flexible? What creates a culture of professional inquiry versus one that is autonomous? How does a culture of collaboration enhance and improve student learning? How can teachers take the negative aspects of punitive behaviors and turn them into moments of “opportunities for learning?” How can teachers partner with the parents and community? Good questions. Good stuff.

I am a specialist and I had to think a little differently for some of the sections but many books focus on the classroom only and I'm used to adjusting theories to fit my situation. There are some good student and teacher surveys in the appendix that can be used for individual classrooms and you can apply changes within the classroom.