Saturday, December 27, 2014

Playing for the Commandant by Suzy Zail

I had one of those trips to the library, where every book I touched I knew was a gem. Here is one glorious, rich, challenging find from that visit:

Gestapo. Holocaust. SS guards/soldiers/ commandant. Aushwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Hanna. Karl. Family. Black C sharp piano key. I so appreciate the current offerings from YA authors centering on the Holocaust, and here Zail offers us a whole new view, that of a commandant's son. Much like some of my other writing, occasionally these blog entries write themselves. Not this one. I feel vastly inadequate as I try to represent what the story is about and in turn, how it touches me. Inadequate indeed.

Like so many other Jews in Budapest, Hanna and her family are hatefully transported out of their lives (again!) and into Aushwitz-Birkenau on Polish lands. As soldiers separate the family, her father tells her to tell the world about all the autrocities they are experiencing and what is unfortunately to come. While the tragic story continues as soon, only Hanna and her sister remain together. Ironically Hanna becomes the piano player for the commandant of Aushwitz. She travels daily to his compound, playing when he commands and waiting patiently while he is not in the piano room. In time, she learns she can take small food scraps from the kitchen, benefitting both her, her sister, and their block leader. The ugliness of surviving in a concentration camp brutalizes most moments throughout the book, but the tender, subtle sliver of light comes from the commandant's son Karl. He calls Hanna by name not number, and in numerous stark moments at his father's house, he sees the prisoners as humans. A musician and singer in his own life, Karl moves to the music Hanna plays. Ironically this story has romance in it, a move that completely surprised me and alters the story in such twisty ways.

Zail writes Holocaust stories regularly, some of which connect to her father's experience as a survivor of that atrocity. More than worth exploring, Zail brings us a rich story in Playing for the Commandant. Explore it.

Post-script: Thank you to the two commenters who helped me realize a major error in my framing of this book. Aushwitz-Birkenau is not and never has been a Polish concentration camp/; it was established by the Germans on Polish soil and in no way was created by the Polish people/government in any way, shape, or form. I apologize for my misstatements, and/or misguiding words and I greatly appreciate the views from readers.

Thank you, readers, who continue to expand my knowledge.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Torn Away by Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown is another of my fave authors. She wrote Hate List and Thousand Words, both reviewed on this blog. Torn Away is another winner from her. YA authors frequently surprise me with the subjects they write about, and Torn Away surprised me multiple times.

Her junior year is almost over when a massive and deadly tornado destroys much of what Jersey knows. Her sister and mother are killed, her stepfather goes missing, and as she waits under the pool table in the basement of her no-longer-standing house, she contemplates what in the world she will do to live again. Wickedly traumatized by surviving the brutal storm, she does what others around her are doing and begins her own searches. Days later (that actually seem like weeks through Brown's effective and "time-stopped" writing), her stepfather returns to the house; Jersey thinks she is somehow lucky he is alive until she realizes that he refuses to care for her, sending her to her long-disappeared and relentlessly-cruel father. Life seems unlivable; here again Brown brings a piercing clarity to her writing, to the storyline, and to a new-to-me world of the aftermath of tornados and living in Tornado Alley. As is usually the case with Brown's books, there is a glimmer of hope but it comes with great effort on several character's parts, accompanied by pain-filled costs. I had two questions inside when I reached the end of the story: When do we know what we have to let go of is worth letting go of? What do we need to have the strength to indeed let go?

This is a powerful tale to investigate. I would love to know how it reads for those who have survived such trial-filled experiences. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Paper Cowboy by Kristin Levine

Kristin Levine is definitely on my Top 100 Authors list, and as I read her new novel, I was reminded why. I read and reviewed The Lions of Little Rock earlier, a tale that rocked my world in several ways. Her audience here again is the young teenager, that serious and studying age when one gets a little quiet and asks seriously unique questions about the ways our world works. Levine knows her audience well, her writing reflects that knowledge like a still pond stutters rings when a rock is tossed in: slowly, consistently, and rarely ending.

The Paper Cowboy is the story of a young teen boy who would rather stir up trouble and bully folks than listen to the frequently resonating and difficult questions that pummel him inside. His bullying can be pointed to anyone, and in some ways, he is living out the ugliness his mom is throwing his way in her increasing emotional and physical beatings. His sister gets seriously burned in a fire and Tommy feels he is to blame for that, so he takes all the beatings his mother will lay out on him. He bullies school mates, one "Little Skinny" in particular. He escalates his nastiness to new heights when he places a communist newspaper in the stack of papers used to wrap purchased items at Little Skinny's fathers' store. Set in the 1950's US when McCarthy is out to accuse and prosecute any communist, real or imagined, the store's image never recovers the emotional and social beating Little Skinny's father takes because of that single page that wraps an item from the store. Tommy knows what he did was wrong so he searches for who the communist in his community really is while keeping his actions secret. Tommy is one bad dude, ugly in many ways, and as tensions grow for all of his mean actions, an equal and paradoxical questioning resonates inside of him. Kind adults and young people, forgiving and resilient, show up in interesting moments, offering Tommy new footing and ways of being.

Levine amazes me. Her book is 330+ pages long, an uncommon book length for this age group, but not a page is wasted. The storyline both deep and realistic, she aptly weaves her own memoir-like history into this tale. I love how she reveals her mission at the end of the text, offering information that both surprised and further engaged me. This is a difficult and beautiful read, worth engaging in during our winter season. A beautiful tale without question.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fox's Garden by Princesse Camcam

Looking for a beautiful book and story? This is a great world to touch into then. Fox's Garden is a lovely tale told through detailed and elaborate drawings. I have only two of the illustrations here; each of them state confirmingly the need for you to hold this gift in your hands and read it. Share it with others, peruse it yourself several times, and consider just what might happen if you found a fox at your door.....

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Just a few quick words... let you know I will post soon about The Paper Cowboy, The Farmer and the Clown, Fox's Garden, and Torn Away. Just as soon as we get back from having Thanksgiving din-din at the farm.

But first a goodie from Naomi Shihab Nye....

So Much Happiness

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.

But happiness floats.
It doesn't need you to hold it down.
It doesn't need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records…..

Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,

and in that way, be known.

I am grateful you read these words and this blog. Grateful for your friendships and the gifts you give the people in your life. Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for all the Letters by Oliver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers is quite a character. How in the world did he think up this book? Short stories for each letter of the alphabet? Quirky stories, funny, with great drawings, all connected through our amazing alphabet.

I am not sure which I like more, the stories or the illustrations. I am not sure at all which letter I am most drawn to...likely all of them, depending on the day.

Adults will be equally engaged by the least I was!
And the storyline within each letter is instantly accessible, a treat to read aloud or silently. 

I only dare you to read the stories and illustrations without laughing....see what you think!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

We buried our family dog last Saturday. Losing a dog is always difficult for me, and the pain I felt saying goodbye to Bandit seemed endless. I just happened to be reading Ann Martin's new book Rain Reign at the same time; that turned out to be an okay thing, and maybe even good.

Martin wrote A Dog's Life: The Autobiography of a Stray years ago, and I loved that read. Martin is a prolific writer; her website shows a whole bunch of titles I have not even touched yet. I may be inaccurate but based on the content of A Dog's Life, I see Martin as knowledgable about dogs. When I saw Rain Reign, I did not hesitate to check it out. Martin weaves together Aspberger's, relationships, and homonyms all into a artful mosaic-like story. Her content surprised me and further engaged me (and even has me hearing more homonyms!).  In short order, Rose's dad brings home Rain the stray dog and gives the dog to Rose. Times are hard at home, a giant hurricane comes and wreaks havoc, and Rose actively struggles with behavior stemming from her Asperger's. Said father lets Rain out to go to the bathroom during the flooding aftermath of the storm and Rain doesn't return. Rose and her uncle (very interesting and lovely relationship here) search for the dog, eventually finding her as well as discovering some more of the mystery of Rain. I refuse to say more here because I don't want to spoil the book for you, but suffice it to say that there is light within the great dark story that Martin paints as Rose's life.

Looking for a new great dog book? Looking for a terrific new y.a. novel? Looking for more on Aspbergers? Wanna know more about homonyms? Here you go, on a silver platter: Rain Reign.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

I love Shannon Hale's work. She writes the Princess Academy books, a total fave of Alysa when she was in 5th and 6th grade. I read a couple of the books then too--just to join together with my little one and support her new swallowing-books-in-one-day practice way back then. Well, the divine Mrs. Hale has a new gem out, The Princess in Black.
Oh-yeah, this one is our next read aloud in my class! I could be wrong, but I predict my kindergartners will be right at my side, clamouring for more!! Princess Magnolia may very well become our new heroine, a monster-stopping chiquita not to be reckoned with. She keeps her black clothes hidden and her monster-stopping skills at the ready. Her monster alarm is a ring whose tone alerts her to monsters on the prowl--come on, her castle just happens to be right next to a hole in the ceiling of the monster's home. She has a sweet steed waiting to receive its alert via hoof resonance. And then there is Duff the goat boy....not sure where he is gonna do in the next book in the series but I have a feeling we have sort of Batman and Robin with way more smarts, curiosity, prowess, and way less power-structure, Batman-knows-best, Robin here. I swallowed this book just this morning, refusing to let freshly-made homemade waffles deter me from finishing. And a question nuzzles in me: who is this Duchess Wigtower? Just curious.

I fully believe you, dear reader, will LOVE this new one from Shannon Hale. The illustrations by LeUyen Pham are totally the cat's meow, representing and engaging all in one. If you want to seek out more before you order the book, check out the link below to Shannon Hale's new page on the book:

Saturday, October 25, 2014

I think one of the things I love most about Patricia MacLachlan's writing is how it enlivens my thinking with images. As I read this brand-new gem from Ms. MacLachlan, I could seen tons of details: the porch, the steps, the river, the bridge, the family van, the chickens, the sleeping situation when they camped under the overhang, the cow....the list goes on and on. I just see characters and settings, live and stills, all alive in my head.

Lucy can't sing. But her teeny brother who most folks think can't talk can. And he sings with her every night. Or for her. Lucy gets sort of lost in the day to day of life, trying to figure out where she sits in all of it, what she might be as she grows up. Then the family travels down to her great aunt's house to help out when the river rises and Lucy has all sorts of moments to figure out who she is and what makes her tick.

This is a sweet read; those of you who have been reading this blog for awhile know that I (Andie) love MacLachlan's work. For instance, Edward's Eyes. WOW. Awesome read. This read is almost as good in a different way. But still important, still worth picking up, still totally worth figuring out with Lucy what makes her tick and why. Fly Away. A great autumn, windy-rainy day kind of book. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Just Call My Name by Holly Goldberg Sloan

The author of I'll Be There has come out with a sequel that will keep you hopping in suspense and hoping for a decent outcome. I loved I'll Be There, and reviewed it here:

"...Emily knew how to do manipulation techniques to solve derivations in calculus using a graphing calculator. She knew how to conjugate Spanish language verbs in six ­tenses. But she had not been taught about psychopaths..." 

Sam and little brother Riddle now live with Emily's family at their house. Safe from their crazy, abusive, controlling, unpredictable father who is in prison, Sam has started community college and Riddle starts talking a little after years of silence. Emily continues to attend high school, and younger brother Jared dreams of a brother not quite like either Sam or Riddle whom he secretly and seriously dislikes. Add in a new twist in the form of a gal named Destiny--racy, seemingly intrusive, and totally unafraid of anything, Destiny runs through life with the throttle wide open. Here is a little opener into her life from well into the story:
"...Destiny took a deep breath. 
Well, he didn't scare her. 
She exhaled. 
He did scare her. 
He totally scared her. 
But she hadn't struck out on her own as a kid by being scared.
Or maybe she had.
So maybe she had used her fear to her advantage. Taht was another way to see it." (Page 264)

I liked this book for the way the author uses fear to several of the character's advantage, like she did in I'll Be There. I also loved the character development, though honestly I didn't like Destiny until way, way later in the book. What about you?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara

Looking for a new alphabet book? An alphabet book that grips all of us by the shoulders and encourages us to do the right thing in so many moments of our lives? An alphabet book that is for so many more than the usual alphabet-book audience? Here is your book:

Try this page on for fit:

And this one:

And then go get the book to read to your family or classroom or self....and then go change the world, one step, one gentle word and message at a time.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses

Many of my students have been read to before, but they don't seem to have read many of the books I bring in. So note to self: keep bringing in books! Tons of them, in fact! I am constantly checking out a spread of goodness from all sorts of amazing authors and illustrators, and one of my goals is to read tons and tons out loud this year. One new-to-most-of-them book was Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses.

Pete is the cool cat, always searching out some trouble or another, seeking to save the day for those around him. This book finds him using magic glasses to change characters' feelings from negative to positive. I know my students love the illustrations of Pete and his buddies. They noticed all sorts of details in the pictures, which is then simple for me to use as a mentor text into their writing in class. They also appreciated the humor of the basic storyline. Pete the Cat books always have some catchy phrase that is repeated throughout the books, and this one is indeed something my students enjoyed.

I look forward to searching out some of the older Pete the Cat books. I understand the storyline is even more engaging. I know for certain that I will bring in more Pete....we all need some magic sunglasses some days!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

I Stink! by Kate and Jim McMullen

I never thought I would talk so much about garbage trucks. But my students loved this book and asked for me to read it over and over so I thought I would share.

I Stink! is a keeper. Loud, in your face, and straight-up honest about what a trash truck does. The alphabet list of all that a trash truck picks up (non exhaustive, of course!) is funny, the reality of when a trash truck is used helps young people connect with mornings, jobs, and more, and the sound effects are just fun to call out.

This is definitely one to seek out if you are searching for an engaging book all about stinky stuff.  I hear the McMullans have a new one out---I'm Brave!  These reads are just right for my young read-aloud crowd of kindergartners. Happy searching out the stinkiness of life here in the U.S.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

If You're Reading This by Trent Reedy

Reedy wrote a couple of other YA novels, both of which draw on his experience in the military.

Imagine what it might be like for your father to have been killed years ago in the Afghan war, and then one day, mail arrives from him? For you, with no return address? His handwriting, his stories, his voice: all captured within a letter written distinctly for and to you. In If You’re Reading This, author Reedy twists the reader’s perspective into a what-if mystery. When a letter arrives from his father, he doesn’t know what to think or do. The mystery grows as more letters arrive, and the wishes of his father grow more obvious. Since Mike’s father didn’t make it back from the war, he wrote the letters to ensure that when Mike turned 16, he would have the opportunity to hear what his father wished for him as he grows up.

And indeed Mike takes his father’s wisdom and advice, making decisions to join the football team and pursue dating a girl he really likes. But there is a circling tension that comes from Mike not telling anyone about the letters and his decisions sometimes need the support of a parent first. Mike gets himself into hot water pretty deep, pretty fast. But you gotta keep reading to see where it all lands. Find this book if you are hungry for a story about a football-loving, book-smart, curious young man who wants to be like his little-known father in all of the best ways. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

A picture book with a mentor text or a nonfiction memoir with a mentor picture book?

Trudy Ludwig's brilliant book (illustrated by Craig Orback) offers a unique if difficult window into life in Nazi-occupied  The book is in fact about Alter Weiner's life, before, during, and after the Holocaust. His is a painful and beautiful story, filled with grimness and hate as well as kindness and hope. Here is a particularly meaningful quote from the middle of the book.  A German factory worker gifts him with a sandwich. Midbook, he writes,

"To this day, I don't know her reason for feeding me. What I do know is that she gave me the energy and hope to survive. Her acts of kindness also made me stop and think: How can I believe all Germans are my enemy when this woman, a German, had risked her life for me? That's when I learned my most important lesson in life: There are the kind and the cruel in every group of people. How those you meet in life treat you is far more important than who they are."
Gifts from the Enemy

From A Name to A Number is written by Alter Weiner, the same person who is the sole focus of Gifts from the Enemy.
While I have only read parts of this text, I have found it remarkable. It is a dense text and most definitely a difficult story to hear. Weiner frames his life alongside the happenings in Nazi Germany, his life before, during, and after living in several concentration camps for 35 months!!! Weiner continues to speak publically; his website gives offers a brief glimmer into that world. His purpose remains clear: to not have another Holocaust occur.

Two rich books, filled with stories of an awful time in our history. I struggle to close this entry, wondering what words fit. Maybe his will be the missing puzzle piece. Here is Weiner's closing to From A Name to A Number:

"Just as the homosexuals, the Jehovah's Witnesses, communists, and others were murdered not for what they had done or said, but for what they were. I was a victim of insane cruelty for no offense or sin--just for my faith. I was condemned though never accused of any offense.

I have been clamoring to konw why! Sometimes I wish I could pretend that it did not happen, but it did. Regretfully, it may happen again if we let prejudice and evil rein." (229)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Chu's First Day of School by Neil Gaiman and Adam Rex

I don't know what I am going to read aloud on the first day of school yet. I may read Nest, I may read Farmer McPeepers and His Missing Milk Cows, or I may read Chu's First Day of School.

Neil Gaiman has some serious author chops in a number of genres, so he is no slouch. And this book reveals its storyline in unique and pretty darn funny ways. If you read Chu's Day, the first book about Chu, you will already know that his nose does some serious damage to anything around him once things get stirred up. And in this one, the first day of school offers Chu just such a sharing opportunity.
Totally fun, funny, and an enjoyable read aloud.

It's a short book, with a catchy storyline I feel certain young people would enjoy. I mean it sat on the NYC Bestseller book for quite a while. I still don't know what I am going to read aloud on that first day....I may just have to read all three!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Counting to D by Kate Scott

Loved this read! The main character leads us through her teen life living with dyslexia, with a bunch of brilliant friends who come in and out of the picture in really interesting, engaging, authentic ways. I think what I loved most was how the main character and her new boyfriend seemed totally natural to me. I mean I could imagine two teenagers who are like, and my high-school teacher friends could talk about students who seemed like, these students. I also loved loved loved how the author unveils dyslexia. She actually has dyslexia (and figured out which font dyslexics can best read) (seriously!)(I have so much to learn!) and wrote using that lens very effectively.

Sam has some serious baggage that she is trying to cover up as a new student at a high school in Portland (hometown, baby!!) (oh, did I say I loved that too? I did.). Her schedule includes 5 AP classes--a seeming record for a sophomore. But as the story continues, we learn more about Sam and how those challenges twist and tense her life and those she is in relationship with. She hangs out with a crowd of brilliant students who call themselves the Brain Trust, an intimadating group to most, it seems. But the Brain Trust has its own fragile issues, and Sam gets to play a decent role in a key demise of the group. Greater, wicked-smart Sam unearths some of her own confusions and caps down on living life as herself rather than what she believes others want her to be like.

This would be a perfect read for teachers who want to know more about what it is like to have dyslexia, teens who want to read an authentic text with a primary storyline focused on dyslexia, or someone looking to learn more about teens who are struggling to find their foothold in growing up. Can't wait to read Kate Scott's new book, scheduled to come out this fall. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

nest by Jorey Hurley



life cycle






Read this.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Breakfast Served Anytime by Sarah Combs

Combine summer, "geek camp," a teen who plans to leave the state after her senior year, and the twisting surprises of friendship and time, and you have a great book. Sarah Combs crafts a fabulous first novel in Breakfast Served Anytime--I LOVED IT!! Alysa has it now, at my nudging. Hope she reads it soon and gives us all some response. I am guessing she will sit in the same camp as I do on this book.

Rising senior Gloria heads off to "Geek Camp," a few weeks at a local university with other teens she has never met from around the state, all of whom Kentucky wants to dangle a carrot in front of hoping each of these brilliant top-of-their-class students will choose to attend college there. She and the few others in her writing class receive cryptic notes from their professor, initiating the first of many mysteries and explorations together. Through the practices of solving these mysteries and in turn figuring out what their teacher wants them to connect with, they find themselves and each other, unfolding answers to their life questions and creating solid friendships during the journey. The writing is superb, the storyline tremendously solid and unique, and if I were a teen, I would really want to read this book. I loved it. Seriously.

Find it. See what you think....I am guessing you will be like me and want Sarah Combs to keep writing! 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Another fabulous summer read!!!

Isn't that a lovely cover? Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague just rocketed my faves of the summer list last week, and the cover shot offers a sweet capturing of what readers are in for. I am not usually a big time-travel kind of gal, but this one sold me caught me off-guard and hooked least how the authors told this story. This weaving of current day with the 1930's was a tall order, and twisting two seemingly separate storylines together encouraged me to imagine the authors plotting and scheming over morning cups of coffee. However they came up with their ideas, I enjoyed the read.

Short synopsis: teenage Margaret is confident her father is innocent, but she cannot figure out how to prove it. In time, she concocts the plan with the help of best friend Charlie, his grandfather, and a few other supportive characters. The time travel piece works, the seemlingly real ways the characters work together, and the visual images the write conjured for me all helped me really get into this book. I loved sitting in the sunshine, eating lunch and reading about Margaret, Charlie, and their attempts to unearth her father's freedom.

It has been rainy here in Portland these last couple of days, but the sun is trying to come out. Maybe this book and a lunchtime read are in your future.

Friday, July 25, 2014

2 more great summer reads!!!

My book cup continues to runneth over. Lots of books waiting for me to dive are two recent reads that I really enjoyed.

Words with Wings by Nikki Grimes

Grimes is a brilliant author, and Words with Wings lies within that brilliant category. Written in verse, she captures the mental meanderings of one young middle-grade daydreamer. As is most often the case, the adults around her blame her for screwing around, not focusing, being lazy....until they see under their judgments. Kudos to Grimes for the multiple angles she crafts for us to spend intentional moments focusing into the world of daydreams.

The author brings quiet and introspection to the pages in this book. I read it in one sitting, unable to stop reading I was so engaged. Grimes does a masterful job of helping us think like her main character and further offers the reader occasional hints on how to daydream ourselves. She also documents again how young people will teach us, if we will only listen.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall
The third in a series, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette was a perfect summer read. It is placed in summer at a beach cottage with the ocean licking the coastal seawall just steps away. As usual, the Penderwicks are a tight-knit bunch, although oldest sister Rosalind is away with friends on her own vaca and recenlty-remarried father is away with new (and endearing) wife and newly-youngest son on their honeymoon.  Second-oldest sister Skye is in charge of Batty and Jane, and while stressed that she will never live up to Rosalind's competence, she gives it a good go. The girls are staying with their aunt, and good-friend-who-comes-with-serious-history Jeffrey becomes a houseguest as well. Some neighbors throw in a few twists and turns making for an exciting summer vacation for all involved. Count on moose sightings, a billion golf balls, piano playing, and one gigantic huge massive surprise in this read. I am serious: huge. Smart move by the author to tie this in, really smart and engaging!

Birdsall writes with a quiet calm in her Penderwick books. The first book in the series The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy would be a lovely read aloud. I really enjoyed meandering through a few days with the clan in that book. I have not read the second one The Penderwicks on Garam Street, but I would not be surprised if it offers a similar engaging calm that great summer reads offer. I may have to seek it out when I crawl out from under the pile I have gathered for myself this summer.

Evidently there will be five books when the series is complete. Her website states that she will not review screenplay possibilities until then. Ohh, might there be a Penderwicks movie in our future? What fun!!

Friday, July 18, 2014

2 Great Summer Picture Books!

Summer has finally arrived, and with it, came a wealth of fabulous reads....I can hardly keep up. Because of this plethora, the next few weeks' postings will feature a couple of great books each. ENJOY!! This week we are posting two really fun picture books.

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
Spires wrote Small Saul and a graphic novel series with Binky the Space Cat, both of which I need to seek out. I recently used the most magnificent Thing as a stepping off point in my work with teachers. Interesting things happen when you start with the lurking possibility of failure! 

I will be honest: I expect if my mother read this book, she would see me in it. If you know me, you might even say that is me on the cover...except I would be wearing shorts and my hair would not be as neat. But, dear reader, do you see yourself in the book? 

The girl in the book creates. She always has her "trusty assistant" at her side. She is always gathering, imagining, scheming, and building. Until one day when her work doesn't work, when she can't make the thing she really wants to make. She gets ticked and blows her top. "It is not her finest moment." But how does she find her way out of her anger? What lies beyond her failures? 
You gotta read it to find out. Great artwork, phrasing is just right, and enterable for any age reader. Loved this one.

My Teacher is a Monster! by Peter Brown

Peter Brown is known for his masterful writing. I loved (and use in my classroom) The Curious Garden, and Mr Tiger Goes Wild has recieved numerous awards. Here we get his take on the nasty, mean teacher, yeah, the one who looks and sounds like a monster. As usual, his illustrations lead us into that dastardly world immediately!

Bobby obviously is the most perfect boy in his school. Mrs. Kirby yells, roars, stomps, and makes life in general ugly for said perfect boy. Life becomes really ugly one day at the park. There he sees.....the dreadful MRS. KIRBY!
But as is often true in picture books, some surprises occur...
Brown offers us a fun reflection on days in schools and the people whom we interact with. And, as a teacher transitioning into the kindergarten classroom, he gives me a terrific tool for a read aloud and an even-more solid message: look beneath the monster. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Juggling Fire by Joanne Bell

Orca Publishers, an independent Canadian children's book publisher, is into putting out high-interest, environmentally-conscious reads. They published the series Seven; I loved the book Devil's Pass by Sigmund Brouwer and reviewed it here: Fire reads somewhat similiarly--teenager trying to figure out their way in life, who their allies are, and how they will deal with all the crap that comes flying at them. The storyline, the character development, and the writing all held me captive; the setting came alive right in front of me.

If I had had books filled with female teens moving through the Alaskan wilderness alone seeking to unearth life's mysteries, I believe my life's course might have been different. Not that I didn't do my fair share of exploring, but the high country always held a little more risk than I felt comfortable biting into by myself. Juggling Fire is set in Alaska in Yukon Territory. Rachel's dad has not returned from the much-needed nothern-Yukon alone time that he set off for a year prior. Rachel decides that since he didn't leave a suicide note at home, there is more to the mystery than him simply killing himself since struggling with depression. With her mother's support and a plan in place, she sets off for the family cabin, remotely placed into the wildnerness and more than a week's hike from their home nearer town. Rachel competently and comfortably hikes in with her dog, finding the route as a grizzly follows her. The self-discovery embedded in this book offer a sweet glimpse into some of the thinking one might experience as a solo hiker in some gorgeous country. The resolution of the story holds great merit, and I loved how the author wove purpose throughout her tale. Her writing reminds me of Will Hobb's work that I love so much.

Living in the bush seems to be something the author knows a little about. Evidently she spends as much time as she can at her cabin above Dawson, also in the Yukon. A couple of years ago, my family and I travelled up to Alaska, spending time fishing and exploring a bit. Vast space, that land, and well beyond much of my comfort level for exploration (read: what am I supposed to do if I come across a bear?!). I can imagine, had I come across this author earlier in life, I might have found my own way to figuring out life up North. For now though I will be content reading books like this one. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

I bet I have read this book 100 times. I first read it as young teen and will always recall my mother's answer to my asking for a dog, a real dog...not some small drop-kick thing (oops, sorry to you small-dog lovers) but a real dog to be by my side through thick and thin, a buddy whom I could talk to and dream big with and explore all of the wilderness outside my door. She said, "No." Now I read it about twice a year, and I still disappear into those gorgeous Ozark Mountains, hunting with Billy and his dogs in my head.

After I got my first teaching job, I waited until my fourth day in a new city to get a pup of my own. Ren was a dream dog--wiggly, soft, and all mine. He would do anything for me and yet he did a bunch for himself---chewing up parts of the rental house, running away, peeing smack dab in the center of my bed in the middle of the night, dragging a bird's talon to me after a quick escape from his leash at the beach (let me tell you: that was a disgusting treat!). But I knew Ren was dedicated to me like nothing I had experienced. We were pals through and through, and little could get inbetween us. We explored all sorts of places in the 11 years he and I were together, and while he was no Little Ann or Old Dan, he was all Ren and maybe the most amazing dog I will ever have.

I recently learned something new about Wilson Rawls, the author that I found amazing. Evidently the story in the book is autobiograhical, down to growing up scrap poor, his mama teaching him as best she could, and not having enough money to buy paper and pencil. As a teen, he left home as a teen to find work; he also started writing then, keeping all of his stories in a trunk. Before he married his wife, he took all of the stories out of that trunk and burned them. When she learned of the bonfire of his more that 300 stories, she demanded he write one for her to read. In three weeks, he recreated the bones of the book and gave it to her, leaving the house for several hours in his deep worry of his spelling errors and lack of grammatical knowledge. When he called her a few hours later, she told him to come work on it with her so they could send it in. That was the beginning of what became Where the Red Fern Grows. Here is a link to that little piece of history:

And right after you finish checking out that story on Jim Trelease's website, I know you are gonna want to go get a book and a dog, and not necessarily in that order.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Girl and The Bicycle by Mark Pett

I have been stopped by a bike again.

This time it was "the girl," out with her brother being a kind older sister, when said bike leaps into the picture, demanding mental screen and dream time. Girl heads home to dream and scheme, deciding she can earn money and buy the bike of her dreams.
She works and works, collecting coins and dreaming. Finally the magic moment comes. She goes to the bike shop to buy the bike, but the window is empty.

I refuse to tell you more. It might stop you from seeking out this wordless picture book or from needing to reread to figure out what happened or from engaging your metacognition and the myriad of stories that beg to be grappled with from this brilliant story. Pett offers us readers a sweet set of moments with this beautiful text. I know that my kindergarten students and I will explore this one in depth this fall.

For now, I remain stopped by a bike again.....

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Just finished this revealing gem over a bowl of cereal and fresh raspberries. Ahh, the joys of summer: freshly-picked berries and reading through a meal. Love it!! And I loved this book! I enjoy Sue Monk Kidd's writing, the rhythms and weavings she masterfully places on the page.  This story caught me from the start, and the author's pattern of alternating between storytellers held me close. And the ending: whoa. That is an ending.

Briefly Kidd frames the story of Sarah Grimke, a Charleston-born wealthy slave-owner's daughter, who will grow up to become one of our nation's first feminsts (for real--this story is historical fiction), and Handful, one of the slaves on the plantation, back in the early nineteenth century. Their relationship offers us a window into the trials of boundaries, societal views, and breaking out of the confines at the time and place in the U.S.'s trialful history. Kidd writes with a quiet, growing tension in her work, and The Invention of Wings subtly swept me along until poof! I could not put it down. While I assumed some of the grim actions of slave owners and society in general were true (treacherous and true), I hadn't connected the historical implications of her story until I read her notes after I finished reading the story. I loved learning about techniques slaves used to capture and communicate their life stories on quilts. I also appreciated the author's thorough notes at the end of the book, opening up a whole new world of story-telling for us to witness.

We recently watched 12 Years a Slave, and I occasionally connected the two sets of stories. The most soul-stopping for me is how we treated slaves. I struggle to write about it here; I continue to be both moved and grieved by some of the new details that I have come to understand through these two resources.

The Invention of Wings is most definitely a worthy read. If you like Sue Monk Kidd's earlier work, you will indeed enjoy this one as well.

Friday, June 13, 2014

me since you by Laura Wiess


Books with storylines of loss and turning inward often swallow me, but this one took me by surprise. I was mistaken in my belief that the biggest loss in this book would be the bridge-jump that Rowan witnesses. Rowan loses far more, and author Wiess wisely makes us wait until a third of the way through the book to get it. But still, hers is a grim story...that is until right close to the end, something made me turn my head massively. This is a difficult read, absolutely, but it also is worth it totally.

I heard you: what the heck, Andie? How can you so slightingly say someone committing suicide in a book is not that bad? Not what I meant for sure, but wait 'till you read this to see if you agree with how I wrote what I wrote. This is a tough book to write about, and I wonder how difficult it was for the author to write. She seems to know a whole bunch about the key focal points she writes about. Okay, I heard you: duh, of course she does. But no, wait til you read me since you and you will understand what I am saying. The way she writes this entire book is stunning.

Quick synopsis: Teenager Rowan is struggling and giving her parents a hard time. Father is a cop, comes home to set Rowan straight, gets called to a bridge jumper right near their house, and does not succeed in getting the jumper to rethink things. Father struggles massively, gets put on leave, depression takes over. Mother tries to do what she thinks is best, daughter tries to figure out how to deal with her majorly struggling father. Rowan meets amazing young man who comes with his own significant story. Father hits crisis point, Rowan can't figure out how to help him, mother can't figure out how to help him, he gets worse and Father, Boyfriend, Rowan all have their lives intertwine is remarkable ways.

This book lives on the edge. I loved that. It was difficult to read at times, but if I can't cry while reading a book, where can I cry? Fascinating. Great read. Check it out. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Boy on the Edge by Fridrik Erlings

This could be a hard review for me to write. Have you ever read a story that left you wordless as you read? That is what happened to me while reading Boy on the Edge.

Erlings, an Icelandic author, sets this story out on the edge of alot of things. For one, the physical setting is a home with some property outside of town next to a giant cliff leading down to the Icelandic- frigid coastal waters. Two, he frames the parental figures on their own edge: the mother figure is soft and motherly, warm and compassionate, and utterly unseen and cruely dismissed by the father figure, a fiercely frightening and frightened priest who seeks to command and demand others do his bidding and every single action he spouts off about or utters. Third, the boys who come to stay at this foster home are on their own sort of edge, being removed from their own family-of-origins to stay with this "family" while they serve out a sentence and do their penance. Which takes us to Henry, the main character. Henry has difficulty putting into words his thoughts and feelings. He experienced some pretty judgmental crap early on and has resorted to not talking much to simply survive the trials that make up his life. He makes friends with a giant bull, one of the herd of bovines that he cares for. As a teen, he watches and listens, tossing around in his mind what friendship can mean, what unhealthy relationships do to a person inside, and what kindness can do to one's relationships. In time, Henry finds his own way to "speak" with kindness to humans, and in turn, creates his own home.

This was a powerful read for me. I truly found this quiet book both remarkably written and breathless as I read. A small disclosure: as I came into the final pages, I literally sucked in my breath, stunned at the turn of events. I had not even imagined.....see what you think when you read it. You might be on the edge like I was...

Friday, May 30, 2014

No Place by Todd Strasser

I am so glad I read this book. I loved how the author wove teen issues AND homelessness into a plausible storyline. In a long-and-drawn-out-breath, Dan's family moves from their middle-class (and somewhat snobby) lives to living at his uncle's house (a less-than-desirable-home) to Dignityville, a homeless encampment established with support of the city where Dan lives. The real issue of the book becomes clear the further in you read: people have differing beliefs about homelessness and they will go to all sorts of lengths to defend their stance.

Dan is your average white teen, buff from working out as a star athlete and happily draped on an equally narrow-minded girlfriend. But he shades homelife from his friends: his mother never regained employment after losing her job 5 years ago, and now his dad is unemployed and can't find work. Things go from bad to worse in the money department, and finally the family loses their home. They move into Dan's mother's brother's house, only to find the uncle's attitude toward homelessness fiercely judgmental and his parenting heavy-handed at best. After a giant blow-up, Dan's family moves to Dignityville, the exact place Dan has spoken unkindly of. And Dan's living situation becomes no longer hideable. No spoiler alert gotta seek this one out yourself to see what happens next.

This book helped me stand a tad bit closer to what life could be like for a teenager living without a home. I realized while I was reading this book that I don't often lay my hands on YA books with homelessness in them and will be looking for them more in my book hunts. This book is winning awards too: International Reading Association's Young Adults' Choice award and American Library's YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Award and recommended as a quick pick for reluctant readers. I can certainly see why. Strasser, an accomplished author, wrote a sweet yet difficult text in No Place.

*Special note: author Strausser created a Pinterest page on homelessness. Check out his website to see what he put together.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Edge of The Water by Elizabeth George

Looking for a little light/ not-so-light YA mystery? Eager to add a reading experience with a selkie to your collection? This second in a series captures alure and intrigue, all for readers to engage and tussle with.

The story picks up where it left off with Becca still sort of hiding out on Whidbey Island, Derric being her heartthrob, and a decent group of both supporters and flimseys all circling around the two. They are kinda outcasts, Becca and Derric: Becca landed on the island because her mother dumped her there hoping she would hang out with some friend who had in fact died, and Derric had been adopted from Rwanda. Becca has some keen friends though who don't seem too bothered by her "aud box," how she deflects the inner speakings of those around her. The twist of who they are together continues throughout the book.

Life heats up from the start as some marine biologist shows up on the island hoping to get up-close footage of a jet-black sea lion. The mystery ensues from there: what is this non-shedding sea creature? Who can get close to her? What makes Annie tick? Who is protecting whom on the island? How long can Becca live in a treehouse? And what will Seth's grandfather do if he finds out? These questions and so many more....all waiting for you in The Edge of the Water. 

Friday, May 16, 2014


Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando

Roomies is the wonderful tale of two girls who live on opposite sides of the country creating a relationship over email after finding out they are going to be roommates their freshman year of college. Elizabeth, or EB, is thrilled when she finds out who her roommate is and quickly sends her an email. Growing up as an only child, EB longed for a roommate to go through the experience of having a basically crazy mom and an absent dad. She's a little nervous to move all the way from New Jersey to San Francisco but she is confident that she will have at least one new friend in her roommate Lauren. Lauren on the other hand DIDN'T want a roommate. After living with six siblings, a roommate was the last thing she wanted and now her new roommate EB is emailing her and asking her to show her around San Francisco because she has lived there her whole life. Lauren's initial skepticism turns into wonderment as she develops a strong friendship with EB. Neither of the girls are really sure why they feel so comfortable sharing things with each other that they wouldn't tell anyone else, but both anxiously await the next email. From new romances, college worries and family problems, Lauren and EB share it all. 

I really enjoyed this book and admired how one character was written by Sara Zarr and the other by Tara Altebrando. The book switched between Lauren's point of view and EB's so I found this very clever because the different writing styles made the communication between the characters more realistic. College is quickly  approaching for me personally and this book helped me look forward to that journey and possibly having a roommate. I liked how the book didn't disclude any of those anxious feelings people have as they prepare to leave home and tapped into some of the more raw emotions. Overall it was a great read that I could not put down. I highly recommend this novel.    

Friday, May 9, 2014

Moon at Nine by Deborah Ellis

Popular author Ellis talks about how honored she is that the "real" Farrin shared this story with her. What? It is true?

Of course. Of course it is. And what a heart-wrenching true story it is to hold. I can only imagine what Ellis is referring to. Farrin's story, told as accurately and detailed as Ellis could, took my understanding of all sorts of life experiences and expanded those many times over. Ellis' engaging story telling frames an experience that I believe would change my life; it appears to have changed both Ellis' and Farrin's. And in turn, changes ours.

Farrin is a high-school student in Iran, living with her well-off family and watching her mother snark at the conservative Shah. At school, she meets Sadira, a quiet and yet outgoing, comfortable-in-conflict, studious teen whose father remains her only living family member. The revolution continues to threaten life daily, and nightly air raids and shootings are simply factual. Farrin and Sadira's friendship grows through the trials of fear and power misuse both at their school and in their country; over time as they come closer, they realize the dramatic differences between their two families. Found in each other's arms, they are punished severely. I won't spoil the ending for you. A difficult read, this piece of historical fiction remains important to read and contemplate. And then consider how to change our world.

Thank you, Ms Ellis and Farrin.

Friday, May 2, 2014

the sound of letting go by Stasia Ward Kehoe

My nephew has autism, and I actively seek out resources to learn more about the disability constantly. Those of you who hang with me know that when I start talking about my sister, the conversation will soon turn to Harry. He is amazing to be around---always smiling and engaging and trying to engage me and saying my name and gawd, I just find him amazing. I love to watch him--I could study him for hours. You likely already know how much I get stoked studying young people--I am simply amazed at how they make connections, invest what they know in what they do, how they think. I study them endlessly when I teach young people, and I take a ton of notes and percolate relentlessly. Harry is brilliant (every kid really is), and how he does stuff is so cool. Like when he puts together puzzles or plays with matchbox cars, it is simply amazing to watch how he does it. It is even interesting (for me!) to watch how he hunts down his older brother, the wise and compassionate Will Grey, and smacks him. Seriously---he does this to get Will Grey's attention, to remind Will Grey that he is still there. At seemingly random times. Not surprising--brotherly love--but it is the way he does it. Crafty and wicked smart.  So the question: does this have anything to do with the autism he has been diagnosed with? I think so.

Author Stasia Ward Kehoe has a new fan with her new book. In this sophomore novel, Kehoe frames her protagonist through a world of sister. Daisy loves her brother Steven but because of the seemingly endless challenges her brother offers the family through his autism (not sure if that is the right way to frame it so correct me here if i am off), she plays third parent regularly. At first she figures her parents are getting a divorce but no: an unexpected bombshell hits and explodes within her family and in turn within her. This story captures the challenges of life within a family dealing with teenagers (both Daisy and Steven fit that category), the challenges of a child impaired by autism, and a whole host of other trials known through Daisy's life as a high-school student. I loved how Kehoe writes this one in verse. Some of her phrasing is just gorgeous. There is a deep simplicity to this story, but the author so richly and sparingly uses words that I often simply paused, taking moments to breathe into her writing. 

I have long wondered how my nephew Will Grey might communicate what it is like to have a brother who among other gifts has autism. I wonder if he would choose song or writing. I wonder what he might say. I have seen a number of sweet and informative pieces on TED Talks and You Tube connected to brothers and sisters and autism. This book however seems to take the cake in writing from that particular angle. Sweet and yet phenomenally difficult, it is worthy of reading and digesting. the sound of letting go. Thanks, Ms Kehoe for writing the book.