Friday, December 30, 2011

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

My daughter has been after me for months to finish reading the Hunger Games series. I read Hunger Games shortly after she did last year and I enjoyed it. But my interest waned when I started into the second one, Catching Fire. I just couldn't get into it. I kept putting off reading it and putting it off.
Until I was on the plane home from a quick trip to overnight trip Florida where I offered a workshop for educators. On those two flights home, I couldn't put it down. So when I finished it, I made Alysa go immediately and pull out Mockingjay: I just couldn't stop reading then.

This dark conclusion to the series is a dense read. There are not many light moments in this book, but that seems to be the way life is in the place where they live. There isn't much laughter that I recall during my readings. Death, torture, threats, revenge all play wicked and regular roles throughout the series, but mostly in Mockingjay. And if Collins wanted us readers to be swallowed up by the ongoing fighting back against evil, then she wins in each of these books. Especially the third one. In a sentence, Mockingjay is the story of Katniss finding her way to settle with the her own inner battles of living in such an ugly outer land of living. That doesn't make sense, I know, so I will try again. Katniss, the main character, hates herself for living through the first (and second) killing game called Hunger Games, a brutal winner-kills-all death "game" created by the communist-like government of this dystopian world. Good appears to lose out regularly throughout the books, although there are plenty of good characters. In the third book, Katniss is selected to be the savior for the underclass/underprivileged working folks who vehemently disagree with the political misuse of power and control by the "Capitol." Yep: the bad guys. As the "mockingjay," Katniss works her way to having a purpose in life. As for the ending, the jury is kinda out: while Alysa and I thought it ended like an adult book, not usually what I find in young adult books, I have heard of others who loved it. Doesn't matter: still a totally worthy read.

The movie Hunger Games is coming out soon. The trailer makes the hair on my arms stand up, especially the mockingjay sound. This will be a big-screen viewing for me, and I feel certain Alysa will want to go with me. I just wonder what life there must really be like. In books like this one, as dark as dark can be.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Big Wish by Carolyn Conahan

I so enjoy simple, almost realistic, easy-to-create-mind-pictures-in picture books, and The Big Wish meets that criteria to a T. It is a great read.

Molly has a yard full of dandelions, and she is protecting it with a vengeance. She has a giant vision for all of those dandelions, and The Guinness Book of World Records folks will be involved soon. While neighbors seek to cut and control the weeds, but Molly sees this field of yellow with a completely different lens. She sees wishes being wished for on a massive scale. As she attempts to create a world record of wish making, she cares for the dandelions and invites wishes from all her townspeople. She struggles with what is the actual biggest wish to wish for, a plausible challenge for anyone who allow themselves such moments. The ending of the book closes in true picture book fashion, confirming both dreams and the human race eloquently.

This book would be a terrific read aloud for a class of young readers seeking a mentor text for dreaming, a family who hopes to explore what is possible, and adults who flat out want to enjoy a sweet picture book.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sleepaway Girls

I have always enjoyed books about summer camps and Sleepaway Girls by Jen Calonita was a perfect read for that. After reading it I actually searched for camps in Oregon that were looking for camp counselor this coming summer. I thought that Sleepaway Girls was the perfect book to curl up with on a cold day and drink hot chocolate. It was very well written and had a good plot. 

15 year old Sam doesn't want to spend the summer watching her best friend Mal with her new boy friend. Way to sappy, especially because Sam has never really had a real boyfriend. She decides to sign up to be a CIT (counselor in training) at Whispering Pines, a sleepaway summer camp. Sam finds that she gets more then she bargained for when she becomes the immediate enemy of Ashley, the CIT who stars in all of the Pines commercials and happens to be the owners daughter. It's not Sam's fault that she was in that silly Dial and Dash commercial for her moms company that happened to play twice during the Super Bowl. She hadn't even wanted to do that! But on the bright side, she found a group of super nice girls to hang out with all summer. They decide to call themselves the "sleepaway girls". And don't forget the adorable "peeps" as the camp likes to call the youngest campers of them all who Sam is in charge of with her Counselor Alexis. Sam also seems to be attracting the attention of a very attractive counselor Hunter. But dating counselors is strictly forbidden. And then there's Cole, another CIT who is very comfortable to be around.... 
Will Sam have the perfect summer she was hoping for? Full of new friendship, romance and life lessons? Read Sleepaway Girls to find out!

I loved this book! I liked how there were so many things that the main character learned about herself during the book. I also liked reading about the different activities and the kids at the camp. I think that being a camp Counselor sounds like a really fun job and it builds responsibility. It was the perfect read to escape into another world. I strongly recommend this book.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Zero by Kathryn Otoshi

I had heard alot about this book called Zero. I have had students in my classes recently who love Otoshi's work, I saw a preview of One at a literacy conference I attended in November, but to get the book in my hands took a little more work. Finally, I came across Zero at the library; I knew I had to read it. Otoshi wrote Zero in 2010, so this isn't a brand- new book. But it is fab, fab, fabulous. As I read it, I kept envisioning my nephews reading it and falling over in guffaws of the truthful challenge numbers can experience.

Zero is the story of a number zero finding validity in their being. I mean zero equals nothing, right? After a while, after some serious questioning by said character, Zero starts to consider her options. Like how to find value in what she has to offer. After a number of blunders with the other numbers, she finally finds her stride, discovers the magical opening that all zeros have: place value. As I think about the term place value, I find the word "place" a perfect descriptor. In this case, place means finding one's way, and in this book, Zero does just that!!

A stellar read, easy to enter and consider for all you number lovers out there: this book will make you smile at the possibility of openings in "place" values!!

Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea

In the mood for a funny picture book? Filled with voice and centered on a tall tale? One with funny drawings and terrific phrases? A book that will make you laugh and wonder what the truth is about how Levi Strauss got his start for real? Then search out this goody!!

This book made me laugh, wonder, and explore. I love the cover, which is exactly why I picked it up in the first place. By the second page, I was wondering just how accurate the representation in the text was. Stacy Innerst' illustrations caught my eye on most of the pages, particularly with how each one appears drawn on jean fabric. The vocabulary the author uses is just right, including phrases from the time period that take readers to the Gold Rush and San Francisco. I love how the author lets the story tell itself in a zany, imaginative, completely disconnected from history way, but includes true facts at the end of the book.  For me, the book tied drawing and tall tale completely and effectively into story telling.

I really enjoyed this read!! If you are looking for a funny, crafty tall tale, this one might be for you!!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Stars by Mary Lyn Ray and Marla Frazee

One of my favorite thing about children's picture books is the way they can bridge. The ones that work best for me invite any reader of any age to simply live through the book. This book, Stars, does that for me. I loved it the moment I read it at the booksellers' booth at NCTE, knowing that the inbreath I took upon seeing the cover was a good sign, and I ran my fingers over the cover when it arrived at my door a couple of days ago. I am presenting a workshop next week in Florida, and guess which book will be traveling with me? How did you know?

Stars is a story about stars: about where to find them, where to hold them, where to wish for them. It is a story about time and faith, about waiting and patience, and about the beauty of looking up. While reading it, I find myself thinking of spectacular star moments. I am reminded of laying on the rocks above 12,000' feet on a backpacking trip in Colorado with the Perseid Meteor Shower shooting stars all over a black sky. Gives me chills just to write about it. I think of walking out of our no-electricity/no-running water cabin in Oregon in the middle of the night because the glow of light shining on the fields surrounding the cabin made me get out of bed and see what was out there. I always know it is stars or moon not some alien invader-- just checking, were you?-  and it is always a perfect idea to go outside. And although this may put off a few readers, I am hoping some others will know what I am talking about here? Have you ever peed while looking at stars? If you have, you know how sweet this experience is. If you haven't yet, consider yourself invited. That is not in the book. Just so you know.

Simply written, it would make the perfect read aloud for any aged learner, reader, or star lover. In the midst of our electrically-driven lives, this book offers a moment to return to something glorious and discoverable every night: just look up. If you are lucky, you will see what I saw this morning: Stars.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

New Books to Consider

Most years in November I head to the National Council of Teachers of English Conference, a giant literacy playland for us literacy fans. I love seeing old friends who are active in national literacy issues. We talk blogs and technology, families and teaching, but mostly we talk books. Of course we love to talk about books because we are all rabid readers and we love, love, love putting fantastic books into the hands of our students. In this day and age of scripted reading programs and a national education agenda focused majorly on test scores, many of us see an even greater need to find incredible literature and craft more and more effective ways to include those amazing resources in our schools.

Of course one of the terrific offerings at this conference are all of the publishers showing off their new wares. Gone, I hope, are my days of taking books out of luggage to leave at the airport and cramming and recramming my suitcase at the hotel room before the trip to the airport, only to decide there was no way I could shut the zipper. This year I came home with only 16 pounds of new books. I was very proud indeed, given the family drooling for me to open the suitcase once I walk in, everyone hoping I brought them some paper goodie!! This year I came home with some new books that, while I have not read them yet, look particularly promising. Here is a small preview of two advance release copies (ARC's) that sounded the most intriguing to me.

Sway by Amber McRee Turner. This is an advance release copy (ARC) due out in 2012. The storyline sounded interesting: Mom comes home after 4 months being gone only to leave again. 10-year-old girl and Dad take off to find her, but girl needs some kind of magic to bring mom back, the kind of magic she has always had. But what I really found intriguing were the first two sentences of the books: Being awake all night long is not such a good thing when it comes from eating spoiled mayonnaise or hearing raccoons fight over garbage outside your window. but being awake all night long is a perfectly fine thing when it comes from gladness beyond the stars that you mom is coming home for the first time in four months. 

See, sounds interesting, huh?

The Rivals, the second book from Daisy Whitney sounds intriguing to me. Evidently this is the second in a series, the first of which is called The Mockingbirds: hmmm, guess my summer reading list is already growing.  This book sounds a little more gruesome than Sway. A teen girl discovers some bad cheating actions at her high school. She just happens to be the head of a secret society at the school that polices and protects the student body. As she further explores the situation, she discovers some separation and dishonesty that tries her integrity and her relationships mightily.

Wanna do the first few sentences test? Try this out:
I will pretend I know nothing. 

When she asks me about the Mockingbirds, I will deny everything. 

I won't reveal who we are and what we do, even though she has summoned me here to her inner sanctum "to discuss matters pertaining to the Mockingbirds." That's what the note says, the one her secretary hand-delivered to me moments ago on crisp white stationery, sealed with the official emblem of the office of the dean of Themis Academy. 

Alysa always laughs when she reads ARC's now, having noticed the typos in the books that I have brought home in the past. While this year I may not be able to get her interested in Sway (sounds good and important to the heart, something I would like!!), I have a feeling The Rivals might end up far from my bedside table, resting innocently in the stack in her room, where a few other books from my end of the house seem to have tiptoed to. At least I think that is how they got there...All I know is that I better get reading soon. Yes, soon. As soon as I finish up this workshop I am preparing. Or, given the entrance to both of these books, I may have to just start reading now instead.