Tag Archives: children’s books

March Books

Another round up of reading for you to enjoy.  We’ve recently moved to doing more independent reading at bedtime.  It’s a challenge to find the right balance in reading for my boys.  They like to read and don’t hate it.  On the other hand, if given a choice, they’d usually rather do something else.  And if given complete choices about what to read, they’d usually rather read a graphic novel they’ve already read.  That’s so important to do, but I also want to expand their reading time.  Doing it with snuggles on the bed and asking them to rotate between new and old, challenging and less challenging books, seems to be working right now.

School ReALWAYS REMEMBER ME: How One Family Survived World War IIading
 Always Remember Me: How One Family Survived the Holocaust by Marisabina Russo
We read a number of books about World War II and the Holocaust this month, but I really liked this very gentle introduction to the Holocaust that was one of the first we read about the topic.  This true story begins with a little girl asking her grandmother to talk about her photo album at a family dinner.  The grandmother keeps going where she usually breaks off and tells the story of how she and her three daughters all separately survived the Ho
locaust and managed to meet up again in the United States after the war.   The family’s good times in Germany before the war are the main focus and while the book doesn’t shy away from a difficult topic, it introduces it in a very child appropriate way, explaining the tragedy without focusing on the details.   The grandmother focuses on her good luck to have survived with so much of her family and to have the delights of a granddaughter to enjoy.  We did go on to read some slightly more difficult Holocaust stories, but I really liked this short picture book’s hopeful tone as a first stop.

Read Aloud
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
I chose this to be our second World War II read aloud after last month’s The Winged Watchman.  This one takes places in Denmark and tells just a tiny piece of the inspiring story of how the Danes smuggled more than seven thousands Jews out of the country just before they were scheduled to be rounded up for relocation by the Nazis.  The book focuses on one fictional family’s role.  Annemarie and her family must hide her best friend Ellen and get her to her uncle’s fishing boat to be taken away with her family to Sweden.  It’s a short book and like everything by Lowry, excellently written.

Absolutely Normal Chaos  RB/SBAnother Read Aloud
Absolutely Normal Chaos by Sharon Creech
As you’ll see from their required reading choices, both the boys have been keen to do “average kid” stories lately.  For the car, they want light fantasy (we’re still wrapping up Percy Jackson on audiobook), but for bedtime they want real kids.  I pulled this one off my shelf, remembering how great an “average kid” storyteller Creech is, but I admit I had forgotten how much the book focuses on main character Mary Lou’s first romance and kiss.  I remembered more about the book’s other main plot, involving Mary Lou’s cousin and the death of a neighbor, as well as the everyday trials of living in a very large family.  The boys both adored the book, especially Mary Lou’s slightly snarky voice and her ramblings about reading The Odyssey.  And they didn’t mind the romance a bit, interestingly.

The Thing About GeorgieMushroom’s Required Reading
The Thing About Georgie by Lisa Graff
This contemporary middle grades novel is about a boy facing a lot of everyday kid problems: his parents are about to have a baby, a new kid seems to be luring away his best friend, and a girl at school seems to really dislike him.  However, there’s a twist.  Main character Georgie is a dwarf and will never grow much taller than his current short height.  The book challenges the reader to see into Georgie’s world by asking them to do things that are very simple and realize that Georgie will never be able to do those things.  Mushroom found it to be a quick read and while it didn’t get raves, he said he enjoyed it very much.

The Landry NewsBalletBoy’s Required Reading
The Landry News by Andrew Clements
Yet another contemporary, “regular” kid book was needed for this month, so I pulled out this title from Andrew Clements.  We’ve read many of Clements’ books over the years and the boys always enjoy his characters and learning about the topics the characters learn about.  I think they also really enjoy reading about the dynamics of everyday classrooms.  In this book, the main character Cara learns about newspapers as she publishes her own, one that criticizes the teacher of her class.  BalletBoy finished it with new ideas for our co-op newspaper.  Good thing we’re editing it next.

The Beginning of EverythingFarrar’s Good YA Read
The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider
I really enjoyed this contemporary YA novel about a former sports star named Ezra who suffers an injury that leads to a life changing senior year with new friends and a new romance. The opening part, about a gruesome accident the main characters witness as children, is a little much, and a series of coincidences informs the neatly tied up ending, but overall the writing style was great, and I have to admit that even the gruesome accident made me sit up and pay attention.  I also really appreciated the end message of the story.  While Ezra wants to pin changes on the world around him, he has to realize that he’s really the master of his destiny.

Shatter Me (Shatter Me Series #1)Farrar’s Bad YA Read
Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
Why am I such a glutton for punishment?  I think it’s because I like a light series sometimes that I keep going back for more with these crummy dystopians and mediocre YA fantasy series out of the hope that I’ll find one that is actually fun (to be fair, sometimes I do find one, but not often enough).  I had a few mediocre YA reads this month, but this was the worst by far.  The book opens with an intriguing and promising beginning about a girl imprisoned in solitary for a mysterious but terrible crime.  A new person tossed in the cell adds tension, so I kept going.  Turns out no one can touch Juliette or she may kill them with a mysterious power she doesn’t understand.  Soon Juliette is out, there’s two guys interested in her (it’s like a formula with these things), there’s an oppressive military dictatorship with sinister goals (did I mention the formula?) trying to use her, and everything is just overemotional why can’t we be together nonsense with her true love (did I mention she’s named Juliette?).  I just skimmed the second half, but very little about it made much sense in terms of decent world building.  I guess there’s a resistance and she’s going to become a superhero.  Or something.  Not recommended for anyone with a brain.

February Books

Well,  I think we can all agree that, as always, the end of the horrible, horrible month of February is a cause for joy.  But we did read some good books.  Our book round up for the month.

The Winged WatchmanRead Aloud
The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum
I picked this as a first fiction read aloud for World War II.  It is about the final days of the war in Holland.  Two brothers, Joris and Dirk Jan, each do their parts to work against the German occupiers.  Gentle Joris is so young he cannot remember a time when war was not a way of life and Dirk Jan is just old enough to yearn for the adventure of working for the underground resistance.  The brothers help their neighbors, help save their dog, hide people from the Nazis, and deliver secret messages.  All around them, Holland is ravaged by the war, but living in a farm community has sheltered the boys from the worst of the starvation that others experienced.  It’s a lesser known book compared to some World War II titles, but we found it to be a nice balance between gentle and true for a period that was full of horrors.  We’ll dive in with some slightly darker fare next.

The Whipping BoyBalletBoy’s Required Reading
The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
BalletBoy felt that last month’s book was on the long side so he scoured the Newbery list for the shortest title and promised to balance it with something longer on the next go around.  It’s a medieval story with a fairy tale feel that contains a good dose of action and adventure as a prince and a lowly born boy end up thrown together.  BalletBoy said the book was, “Okay, I guess.”  I really like it, but not a ringing endorsement.  Oh well.  Last month he was really won over by the required reading book, so I figure you can’t win them all.

"Wonderstruck"  from author/illustrator Brian Selznick highlights themes of loss, grief and reunion. He did in the Caldecott Medal-winning "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." Mushroom’s Required Reading
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznik
This was another specific book request for required reading.  Clearly, as usual, we’ve drifted away from the required reading list.  At this point, I told the kids that any Newbery winner or honor title is fair game.  This book tells two different stories, taking place decades apart, simultaneously.  One is told in words and the other in pictures.  The stories interweave and come together in the end.  Just like in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Selznik uses this unusual form to tell a compelling story.  Mushroom was really happy with the book and while the book’s density has to do with the many pages of illustration and not the high word count, he seemed especially pleased to have read something that was so thick.

The titan's curse.jpgAudiobook
Percy Jackson and the Titan’s Curse by Rick Riordan
We’ve done these as audiobooks because the kids weren’t keen to read them on their own, but were keen to hear them.  The narration is good.  It fits the story.  And I’ve been telling myself that they’re nice light fare to vaguely review for the National Mythology Exam, which the boys are both taking this week for the first time.  I really enjoyed this series myself when it first came out.  Since Riordan’s various other series have shown him, in my opinion, to be a bit of a one note writer, my love for the books has diminished, but I have been reminded what made them popular in the first place, namely that they’re fun and Percy’s slightly stunned, slightly snarky voice really works well for the plots.

Boxers & Saints, by Gene Luen YangGraphic Novel
Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang
Both Mushroom and I read Boxers, and I additionally read Saints.  I’ve been a huge fan of Yang’s work for awhile now.  This two book set is about the Boxer Rebellion in China.  My college major was focused on Chinese history, so I really appreciated the historical side of the story, especially the complex motivations of the characters.  Both stories have an element of fantasy in them, but the fantasy also helps to illuminate the way real people felt and thought at the time.  The way the books tie together at the end is cleverly done.  I think the books stand with Maus as entries into the great tradition of historical fiction in graphic novels.  BalletBoy did read Boxers, but it’s not one that I would have suggested to him yet.  He was interested and I didn’t feel the content justified me taking it from him, but be aware that there is a good deal of violence in the story.

If You're Reading This, It's Too Late (Secret, #2)BalletBoy’s Pleasure Reading
If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late by Pseudonymous Bosch
I’ve been trying to wean the boys off reading and rereading the same few books, so BalletBoy immediately picked this book back up with some relief.  It’s a tricky balance to strike between pushing them to read something new and letting them read whatever they like.  However, his pleasure at picking this up again after a hiatus and his quick progress tells me I was right to put a temporary kibosh on Wimpy Kid rereads at bedtime reading.

human body books for kisSchool Reading
Human Body Detectives by Heather Manley
I had gotten a really good deal on the ebook versions of this series and I assigned them as independent school reading this go around.  They are just the right length for that, as the kids can read them in about twenty minutes or less.  I’ve written before about my desire for living science books to mesh both quality writing and detailed science together in a way that makes the science feel integral to the story.  This series isn’t perfect.  I wish the science was a little more in depth and that the writing was a little more engaging.  The science is very focused on “healthy living,” which is good, but also as much about lifestyle as science, though certainly it was a lifestyle message I could get behind.  The art is okay but certain words in the text get extra illustration around them, which I found distracting and odd.  However, it does mesh the story with the science reasonably well and there is solid information in the books, so I’m not complaining too hard.  Because the books are sold to the school market as an educational series, I’ve seen them mentioned a lot in the homeschool world.  If you can get a really good deal on them, I do think they’re worth it, especially for early elementary.  Each book also contains some simple activities about the topic in the story.

Public Service Announcement: Please Use Reading Levels Responsibly

I posted about this on a certain other social media the other day, but I was so bothered that I wanted to vent a little more.  While the boys were in the Lego Movie (which they loved), I decided to skip out and run errands.  I ended up at the Barnes and Noble next door, which was sort of interesting because I never go to big box book stores these days.

As I walked through the children’s section to see what they were promoting (which is the sort of dorky children’s book thing I like to do), I overheard a conversation between a mom and a daughter, who looked to be about ten years old.  The daughter was holding a copy of Scat by Carl Hiaasen and trying to tell the mom why it was the book she wanted to read next.  The mom was clearly about to buy a book, but she was dubious about this particular book.

“Tell me the level again.”

“It’s a 5.6.  But I can read it.”

The mom made unsure noises.  “No.  You’re only supposed to have a 5.5.”

Before I left the area, the mom had stuck Scat back on the shelf and had a pile of other books for the daughter to consider.  Meanwhile, the daughter was looking resigned.  They were going to get something, but it wasn’t going to be the book she wanted.

I’m not totally sure who’s to blame for what I hope we can all agree was a travesty of reading encouragement.  I suspect it’s not the mom, but rather a teacher or school that gave out rules or guidelines about what kids “should” be reading.  I’ve seen that some schools require students to read only books in a certain range and I think that’s what this was.

I used to find RL’s really annoying, but I’ve gotten to where I see that they can be helpful for parents who don’t have any context for children’s books or authors beyond just a few titles they remember from their own youth.  However, it makes me angry to see how they’re misused so terribly.  So, for your consideration, some guidelines on how to use reading levels responsibly.

Pleasure reading in a luxe grandparent bed.
Pleasure reading in a luxe grandparent bed.

1. Know what these numbers actually are.
There are several reading level systems.  RL levels are easy to understand and probably the ones that a parent is most likely to use.  The first number is the grade level, the second is the month of the grade.  So a RL 4.3 means it should be an appropriate book for a fourth grader in the third month of school.  Lexile and DRA levels are a little more complex and don’t correspond to grade or age.  Especially with Lexile levels, there’s a wider range of what is considered “appropriate” for each grade.  If you need to use those systems, then begin by looking up a few books you know well to see their numbers and get a feel for the scale.

The numbers are mostly determined by a computer.  That means they can be skewed or not follow common sense.  The computer doesn’t know that Of Mice and Men is a great work of literature, so it doesn’t mind giving it a lower Lexile score than Twilight.  The computer doesn’t know that the 6th book in the A to Z Mysteries chapter book series isn’t actually two and a half grade levels more difficult than the first book.  Special vocabulary, slang, fragment sentences, and more can all throw off the level.  And the level doesn’t always take into account things like the length of the book, the depth of the content, and the size of the text, all of which can matter a lot to a young reader’s ability to read a book.

If you’re looking at the levels, the best resource is the Book Wizard from Scholastic, which allows you to search and browse books by RL, DRA, Guided Reading, and Lexile levels.  It’s not always a great site to find a new book because nearly every American children’s book currently in print is listed there and the site won’t distinguish except by level.  But if you want to know the level of a particular book, it’s the best place to find it.

2. Interest level and adult directed labels can help you pick a read aloud, but otherwise ignore them.
Lexile has long had an “AD” label on their books.  This means that the book is “supposed” to be read aloud by an adult to a child.  Scholastic has added an “interest level” to their system.  It indicates the grade and age that a book “should” appeal to.  It can be useful to know that a book with a high RL can potentially appeal to younger kids.  In other words, the content or story is appropriate and interesting to younger listeners because then you know you can try it as a read aloud.  But take it with a grain of salt.  If a second grader isn’t interested in animal books, the interest level being right obviously isn’t going to change that.  And don’t discourage kids from reading “AD” books in their reading ability or interest level books that are supposedly below their age.  These designations are extremely subjective.

3. Treat it like an estimate – a very rough estimate.
Because these numbers are determined by a computer, there’s a margin of error.  Assume that any book might have a level that’s a good year (or a hundred points in Lexile or ten in the DRA) off.  Don’t get dogmatic about the numbers.  They’re very general.

4. Use it to know about what level your child is reading.
If you look up the RL or lexile level of a few books your child found challenging but enjoyable, then you’ve just found out what level they read at.  Then you can use that level to find other suggestions.

5. Give more weight to award winners and classics.
If a book is a Newbery winner or a well-known classic, then never worry if the level is “too low.”  These are books with meat to them beyond sentence structure or vocabulary.  These are almost always worth reading.

6. Give more weight to recommendations from real people.
An informed children’s librarian or your local bookstore children’s department will be able to give you better advice almost every time.  Another parent or another child at school who just read a good book and is passing it on word of mouth will also have better advice.  Trust the people, not the computer.

7. Remember that kids need lower level books for fluency.
While many parents dream that their children will progress constantly up, reading only the best quality books, the truth is that kids often find a stage and stick with it, reading comfortable books or returning to easier novels even when they’re technically capable of more.  The Lexile website talks about this as if it’s a terrible thing, saying children are “easily bored” by writing below their reading level.  But children often need to read to build their fluency and stamina as well as to solidify understanding of how story works and to gain information.  No one sits down to read for fun if they’re bored by a book.  Books that are “easy” can help with all of those things so children still learn from them.  In our house, we try to balance this by having one required reading book a month that is meant to stretch the kids a little, but not limiting pleasure reading.

8. Use it for suggesting books to kids, not making rulings on books kids find themselves.
Many parents don’t know what’s new or good to read out there, or hear vaguely about books but don’t know what the reading level is.  That’s what RL lists are made for.  From it, you get an estimate and know if the book is something that might be worth suggesting, buying, checking out, or strewing for your child.  But when a child has a book they want to read, don’t even bother.  If a book is too hard or so easy it’s boring, a child will naturally move on.  Let them figure it out on their own.

January Books

We missed doing a December Books post, but I have enjoyed doing this round up of the books we read in a month.  Of course, we read many more than just this, but it’s nice to hit some highlights.

School Read
The Dust Bowl Through the Lens: How Photography Reveal and Helped Remedy a Natural Disaster by Martin W Sandler
We read aloud most of this book about one of the worst natural disasters America has ever faced.  It has a format that I’ve seen and appreciated in other books, where a page of illustration faces a page of text about one aspect of the overall topic.  The photos, many of which would be easily recognizable to students of American history, are still poignant and compelling.  The text tells the story of the people, the environment, the government interventions, and the art that arose during the Dust Bowl.  I especially liked how the book explained the role of photojournalism, both in this crisis, and in general.  A really good resource.

Read Aloud
Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan
We read this great book back in December, actually, but it was one of the only things we read other than Christmas books, so I skipped doing a December books post, but wanted to highlight it now since it was such a great little novel.  This is the story of Rachel, whose parents are poor British missionaries in east Africa in 1919.  When the Flu Pandemic comes, Rachel is left orphaned and is swept up in a plot by her wealthier British neighbors that takes her away from her beloved Africa and all the way to England.  Whelan does such a good job of telling surprisingly compelling historical stories.  Her works show children characters they can relate to, but who are also realistic and true to their time periods.  Her books entertain and teach about history, which is often a tricky line for historical fiction.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's LibraryAnother Read Aloud
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein
We have several more heavy read alouds coming up, so I thought this light and breezy piece of fun would be a good interim book.  Kyle Keeley and several of his friends and school rivals find themselves invited to spend the night in the new library before it even opens.  But the library’s kooky benefactor, Mr. Lemoncello, has more in store for them than they expect and Kyle has to use his love of games and puzzles to win the prize.  Think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with puzzles to solve.  It’s definitely a fun, appealing book.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
I chose this book about an African-American family in 1933 Mississippi to go along with our study of the Great Depression.  The Logan family has a precarious position as black landowners.  Cassie, the narrator, tells of the difficult process of learning about the truth of segregation, something her parents have managed to shield her from somewhat, but which cannot be hidden as a series of attacks occurs in their small community.  In the culmination of the book, one of the children’s friends is accused of assault and is nearly lynched.  It’s a classic and incredibly well-written, but I had forgotten just how dark the story becomes as it goes on, and how much violence is portrayed in the book.  However, I’m not sure that you could tell this story without that violence.  At the end, BalletBoy exclaimed, “How can that be the end!  Nothing got better!”  But allowing things to get better would have been an historical lie.  We discussed the “small victories” that the family has in the book.  Cassie manages to humiliate the white girl who mocked her.  They get the money to pay their mortgage.  The father manages to prevent the lynching of their friend.  It was a difficult read, but very worthwhile and it spawned a number of good conversations, so I’m glad we listened.  The narration on the book is excellent.

Star Wars: Jedi AcademyMushroom’s Pleasure Read
Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown
This book is basically Star Wars meets Wimpy Kid.  Roan is a young boy whose dreams come true when he’s invited to attend the Jedi Training Academy.  Of course, once he arrives, things are not everything they’re cracked up to be.  The book is filled with little jokes about the Star Wars universe crossed with a modern school.  Roan’s report cards and notes in class and so forth intersperse the text and pictures.  It’s a funny, light little book.

hoot book cover imageBalletBoy’s Required Reading
Hoot by Carl Hiassen
After reading half of Savvy then deciding he didn’t really like it (this is a pattern with BalletBoy, who has read the first half of more children’s classics than I can count), BalletBoy switched to this lighthearted environmental novel.  It’s the story of Roy, a perpetual new kid, who ends up making new friends and helping lead a crusade against a pancake house that is about to build a new restaurant that will destroy the habitat of some endangered owls.  It was on the long side for BalletBoy for required reading, but about halfway in, he decided he really liked it after all, and finished it quickly.

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated AdventuresMy Middle Grades Read
Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
This book just won the Newbery award last week.  It had been on my mental “to read” list for awhile, so I was excited to dive in when a friend loaned it to me.  It’s the story of a girl who loves comics and a squirrel who becomes a very unlikely poetry writing superhero.  There’s a lot to love here.  The concept is funny and sweet.  Flora imagines comic-esque captions over everyone’s head and constantly refers to “Bad Things Can Happen to You!” a segment from her favorite comic.  Ulysses the squirrel has a great backstory (he’s sucked up a vacuum) and a great love of donuts (who doesn’t love donuts!).  It has all the hallmarks of being great.  But…  I just didn’t love it.  The quirkiness began to feel forced to me.  The rhythm of DiCamillo’s writing, which I usually adore, just didn’t feel right to me.  So in the end, it’s not my favorite of her work and I admit that I’m a little baffled as to why it won the Newbery.

Graphic Novels Round Up (Yet Again)

December didn’t have a ton of books other than holiday reads, so I thought I’d do another graphic novels round up instead.  The boys received a huge pile of them for Christmas, so they’ve been reading a lot of them.  You can find some previous graphic novels round ups here and here and here and here.  There’s even more if you want to dig through the archives.  Really, if it’s a children’s graphic novel, there’s a decent chance we’ve tried it.

City of Light, City of Dark (Paperback) ~ Avi Cover ArtCity of Light, City of Dark by Avi and Brian Flocca
This graphic novel by Avi is older but I had never seen it, so I was glad that it was reissued.  Two kids must find a special token to save their city before it’s too late.  The city is a sort of alternate New York, threatened by a race of beings called the Kurbs.  Avi is not usually a graphic novel writer and it shows in this wordy story with slightly rough black and white drawings.  Kids used to easier children’s graphic novels may be surprised by the amount of text on the page in this book.  But Avi is a great writer and it’s very worth the read.

George O'Connor PoseidonThe Olympians by George O’Conner
This full color graphic novel series about the Greek gods and goddesses is reasonably well done.  Because we’ve been deep in prep for the National Mythology Exam, anything that helps has been snatched up, so we have several of these out from the library at the moment.  The depiction of the stories is pretty accurate, but there’s nothing special about the art or the interpretation.  The mishmash of stories in each volume does reflect the best tales about each god, but also breaks up the continuity of some of the myths.  The kids haven’t been especially gaga for them either.  I’d recommend these mostly for myth mad kids.

Graphic Universe’s Mythology Series by various authors
Continuing on the mythology theme, we’ve also had several of these graphic novels out from the library recently.  I’m not a huge fan of this imprint, which churns out a number of educational comic titles (I previously wrote about my disappointment with the Max Axiom series, also published by Graphic Universe).  However, these simple, straight retellings were a much bigger hit with Mushroom and BalletBoy than the Olympians series.  We’ve had Perseus and Hercules here recently and they’ve been good, quick reads and the boys have taken out some of the non-Greek mythology titles as well.

To Dance CoverTo Dance by Siena Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel
BalletBoy received this short autobiographical graphic novel about a young ballerina for Christmas.  The full color art is lovely and the story is realistic and well written.  BalletBoy was thrilled to see the main character reading A Very Young Dancer illustrated clearly.  There are a lot of adult and older teen graphic novels that are autobiographical or tell contemporary stories, but most graphic novels for kids still tend toward the silly or fantastic end.  This was a nice little change of pace.

Tommysaurus Rex (Paperback) ~ Doug Tennapel Cover ArtTommysaurus Rex by Doug Tenapel
This story about a boy who gets a pet dinosaur is funny and strangely sweet.  The main character’s dog dies and the dinosaur, who he finds while staying with his grandmother, becomes a sort of dog replacement.  The full color art is detailed and quirky.  The boys previously received Tenapel’s Cardboard for their birthday and BalletBoy really enjoyed this one just as much.

Super Dinosaur Volume 1 TP (Paperback) ~ Robert Kirkman Cover ArtSuper Dinosaur by Robert Kirkman
This collection turned out to be terrifically silly.  It’s definitely not on the literary end of graphic novels, but Mushroom really enjoyed it.  It’s about a boy whose father, a genius scientist, discovers that the earth is hollow and intelligent dinosaurs live inside.  With the help of a T-Rex and some other dinosaur friends, they fight another genius scientist who happens to be evil.  And did I mention that the narrator is a cocky child genius himself?  After some initial text, there’s not much to the dialogue and the superhero style art tells much of the story, so many kids newer to reading may enjoy the series.

The Dodgeball Chronicles (Knights of the Lunch Table, No. 1) (Bo... Cover ArtKnights of the Lunch Table by Frank Cammuso
This easy to read, full-color graphic novel was a hit for both boys, who took only an afternoon to read the first volume.  The story parallels the Arthurian legend, but sets the story at a middle school where the battles are dodge ball and the sword in the stone is a stuck locker.  The story is fast and silly.  Both the boys are excited to get the next two volumes.

November Books

541844Read Aloud
Angel on the Square by Gloria Whelan
I chose this historical novel because of how well it covers the Russian Revolution.  In the story, Katya, the daughter of a noblewoman, becomes the playmate of Stana, better known as Princess Anastasia.  However, a close family friend, Misha, keeps trying to tell her how precarious the situation in their country is and as the book progresses and the first World War begins, followed by the revolution, Katya sees it all.  I’m a big fan of Whelan’s historical fiction, which brings history to young readers in ways they can really relate to.  I taught this book years ago in school, but I wasn’t sure about reading it.  However, the kids really loved it and it provoked lots of interesting discussion.

The School Story by Andrew Clements
Mushroom was on a huge Clements kick last year, but he didn’t make it to this particular book, so we took it out on audiobook for the car.  After listening, I can say it’s not one of my favorites.  All of Clements books have a sort of magic about them where kids dream big and accomplish big things.  In this book, a young student writes a novel so good that it becomes an automatic property in the publishing world.  While I have enjoyed seeing how newspapers, camping trips, big concerts, amazing words and comic book empires come to life in Clements’ books, for some reason, this one strained my credulity a little more.  However, the boys both enjoyed it and the author’s books always have solid writing.

11594337Mushroom and BalletBoy’s Required Reading
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
Both boys ended up reading this wonderful little book that won the Newbery this year.  In case you haven’t read it, it tells the first person story of a gorilla named Ivan who lives in a mall as a tourist attraction.  Ivan’s life and story are extremely sad, but through the intervention of a little girl and a young elephant, the ending isn’t as tragic as the start.  It sounds like an odd topic for a children’s book, but Ivan’s voice is wonderful and the story provides a lot of potential avenues for discussion.  One thing the boys and I talked about was how the book turned the traditional plot structure of rising action leading to an exciting climax followed by a resolution on its head completely.  Instead of looking like a mountain, the book’s plot feels like a valley, as Ivan’s story only gets sadder until, about two thirds of the way in, it hits a terrible rock bottom before Ivan can begin to take control of his life.

SecretofthefortunewookieeMushroom’s Pleasure Read
The Secret of the Fortune Wookie by Tom Angleberger
After some pestering, BalletBoy finally got his brother to read all the Origami Yoda books.  I saw Mushroom carting this one around and then I saw BalletBoy pick it up to read it a second time.  While I sometimes wish the boys would read new fun books, I know there’s a big value in rereading as well, so I have been trying to let it go.

Big Nate on a RollBalletBoy’s Pleasure Read
Big Nate: On a Roll by Lincoln Pierce
While BalletBoy got his brother to read one of his favorites, Mushroom got him to read a Big Nate book.  Having only read a few of the comics, I can’t review this one much.  Only to say that BalletBoy read it nearly all in one go, which is generally a sign a book was enjoyed.

Justice League Unlimited 1Comic Book
Justice League Unlimited
Both boys have turned to more traditional comic books more lately and this title from DC has been a popular pick here.  I don’t think they’ve seen the cartoon of the same name, but they’ve been reading these short, one off stories on the iPad and BalletBoy seems especially drawn to having a superhero comic to read and follow.  While the habit can get expensive fast, most short comics through DC and Marvel’s respective apps are only 99 cents, which is less than trying to buy individual paper issues.  Titles are also rated by age and the ratings so far seem pretty fair to me.  This one, for example is rated 9+, though I think it would be fine for younger kids too.

14290364allegiant-coverFarrar’s YA Reads
Champion by Marie Lu and Allegiant by Veronica Roth
Okay, I read Allegiant last month, but I thought I’d toss them both together because they were both disappointments to me, despite the fact that I didn’t even have high hopes for either one.  Both books are dystopian novels that finish off their respective series.  In Lu’s Legend series, two characters from different walks of life must deal with a repressive government trying to reform.  In Roth’s Divergent series, a girl must decide how to act when the classification system she lives under falls apart.  Both series introduce some interesting elements that should be fodder for discussion.  In Champion, which government is better or worse: a flawed meritocracy or a free market where the government is run by corporations?  In Allegiant, whether our lives are determined by our genes is the central question of the final book.  In the end though, neither book really lived up the potential of its first entry in the series and the exploration of the issues was pretty shallow, even for YA.  I think it’s just an indication of how done this subgenre of YA really feels to me.  However, with a Divergent movie on its way and the number of young teens I saw carting around Allegiant over the last month, maybe it’s not as done as I wish it was.

1037241School Read
War Game by Michael Foreman
This book about four young soccer playing British friends who join up in World War I was beautifully done.  It’s hard to read anything about the first World War that isn’t just utterly tragic, and this book was no exception.  All four of the characters die at the end of the story, their blood on the snow in one scene becoming the red of the poppies in the illustration on the next page.  But before their deaths, they have a final moment of glory playing soccer against the Germans in the Christmas truce that occurs in the first winter of the war.  We’ve been struggling through World War I and there are so, so many amazing resources for it.  However, this book has been my favorite so far.

Balancing Acts

Somehow we made it through all of October without doing hardly any field trips and none that were just us.  We did have a couple of things planned that fell through due to illness, but really, it was just inexcusable.

It’s hard sometimes to balance the need to be home and get stuff done with the need to be engaged and spontaneous out in the world.  If I wanted my kids’ education to be only book work and occasional projects all proscribed by a teacher, I could have sent them to school.  But doing that book work and putting in the time on those fundamental skills is important too.  I posted before about how “fourth grade” felt like a watershed to me, about how I feel like we need to be putting in our time on those skills.  However, that doesn’t mean that learning has to become flat and dry or that we can’t still get a lot out of being expeditionary learners.

With that in mind, we finally made it out last week.  Morning work had to work with our listening book, The Calder Game.  The book proposes a sort of game where you think of things in fives – objects, pictures, words, ideas, anything.  So we’ve played around with drawing and then writing little five word poems or five word ideas.

Once we were all dressed and ready, we headed out to do Panera School, just checking off math, spelling and a book for science.  Then we headed to the National Gallery with little sketch books.  We wandered through leisurely then spent a long time in the Calder Room sketching and watching everything move.  Do you know, it’s actually fun to sketch a slowly moving mobile.

Note that this is not a Calder. It’s by Nancy Graves and is the only work in the “Calder Room” at the National Gallery that isn’t by Alexander Calder.

It was fun to see the other museum goers peer over the kids’ shoulders at their tiny sketch books to see what they were up to while the kids were intently looking and drawing.

Afterwards, we headed home, full of art and happiness.  The kids were so thrilled by the day and the field trip that they really shamed me into remembering how completely essential it is to get outside, to do things other than just the stuff that looks like schoolwork.  It is a balance, with all the parts of our education hanging together like one of the Calder mobiles we drew.

October Books

Since I’ve been doing less specific book blogging, I thought I’d try a monthly book roundup with the best books we’re reading.  We’ll see how that goes.  Obviously October is over, but here’s the highlights.

The Human Body (Hardcover) ~ Seymour Simon (Author) Cover ArtSchool Reading
The Human Body by Seymour Simon
We always have piles of books for school reading, but I’ve been especially appreciating the Seymour Simon body series.  They’re so perfect for independent fourth grade reading.  They’re long and in depth enough to be challenging, but not so long or detailed to be overwhelming.  I also like the illustrations in the body series.

Calder Game (Hardcover) ~ Blue Balliett (Author) and Bre... Cover ArtAudio Book
The Calder Game by Blue Balliett
We’re to the final entrance in this art detectives series and it’s just as pleasing as the others, which we’ve listened to or read in the last year at various points.  In this volume, Calder Pillay leaves his Chicago neighborhood to visit England with his father and encounters an Alexander Calder sculpture that is about to be the victim of a crime.  Meanwhile, his friends Tommy and Petra are left back at home with a terrible teacher and a shaky friendship.  I love the way that Balliett lets balance be a theme in this book.  Things are unbalanced everywhere, which, of course, plays right into the art theme.  I read this one myself when it first came out, but I’m enjoying listening to it again.  We need to get to the National Gallery to visit the Calder Room, where I don’t think we’ve actually been in at least a couple of years.  The kids remembered some of the specific sculptures referenced in the book, but it is nice to have a reason to go see them again.

Black Hearts in Battersea (Paperback) ~ Joan Aiken (Author) Cover ArtRead Aloud
Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken
From art mysteries to historical ones (or alternate historical, anyway).  I let this be the first read aloud of the year and we all really enjoyed it.  In this story, which takes place in an alternate late-18th century London, Simon, a young orphan and artist, comes to London to find a friend and instead finds a plot against the government.  There are a series of wild misadventures, including a shipwreck and a balloon escape.  The book is a bit slow at first and the dialect took even us Anglophiles a little while to ease into, but in the end, it was greatly enjoyed by all.

Darth Paper Strikes Back: An Origami Yoda Book (Hardcover) ~ Tom... Cover ArtMushroom’s Pleasure Read
Darth Paper Strikes Back by Tom Angleberger
After puttering around with many different birthday gift books, Mushroom settled on reading the second Origami Yoda book and said he enjoyed it very much.  BalletBoy has already read them all and liked them so much, he went as Origami Yoda for Halloween.


The Name of this Book Is Secret (Secret Series) (Paperback) ~ Ps... Cover ArtBalletBoy’s Pleasure Read
The Name of This Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch
I haven’t read this series, so I can only pass along that BalletBoy has enjoyed the first book very much, enough to stay up too late reading it and enough to demand that I buy banana chips so he can make the main character’s special trail mix recipe.  It is in the grand and very recent tradition of books that address the reader directly and when the book tells him to pay close attention or use the bathroom before reading a chapter so he won’t need to be interrupted, he always takes it very seriously.

Cardboard (Paperback) ~ Doug Tennapel Cover ArtGraphic Novel
Cardboard by Doug Tenapel
The boys received this graphic novel for their birthday.  It’s dark and a little bit odd, about a cardboard creation that comes to life and gets out of hand.  It’s full color and had an interesting style.  They both really enjoyed it and Mushroom especially is looking forward to reading more by Tenapel, who has many graphic novels for kids and adults.

Savvy (Paperback) ~ Ingrid Law (Author) Cover ArtMushroom’s Required Reading
Savvy by Ingrid Law
This is such a wonderful little book.  It has been on the long side for Mushroom, who is a slightly slow reader.  However, he has enjoyed getting to know Mibs and figure out her savvy, or her special power, with her.  He was very intrigued by the idea that you could have a contemporary fantasy like this one, where things are magical, but also very realistic.

Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt! (Unforgettable Americans) (Paper... Cover ArtBalletBoy’s Required Reading
Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt by Jean Fritz
Yet again, I got suckered somehow into letting a book that wasn’t on the required list count for the required reading time.  However, after reading a short picture book biography of Teddy Roosevelt for history, BalletBoy asked could he please read something more in depth about the president.  I happened to have this on hand and it was hard to say no to his request.  It was nice to see him read some longer nonfiction for the first time.  Both the kids have grown up playing in Teddy’s shadow on Roosevelt Island, so I think it’s nice BalletBoy wanted to learn more about him.

Fangirl (Hardcover) ~ Rainbow Rowell Cover ArtFarrar’s YA Reading
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Yes, like everyone else, I read Allegiant this month.  But forget about that. Let me just gush instead about how much I love, love, loved Fangirl.  I liked it so much that I (blush) actually reread it because it went by too quickly.  Basically, the story follows neurotic Cather to college, where she has to deal with other people (other people being terribly difficult to deal with), her first romance, and choosing between the writing her professor wants her to do and the fanfiction that has garnered her a massive online following.  Meanwhile, Cather has to help her father and her twin sister with their own crises.  Bits of Cather’s fanfic end each chapter.  By the end of the book, not only was I in love with Cath, but I was dying to read the imaginary Simon Snow series about which she writes her fanfiction.  It’s clearly an alternate Harry Potter, but Rowell makes Simon Snow seem much more darkly appealing.  If only it really existed.

A Few Weird Books

We recently had the extreme pleasure of listening to Fake Mustache by Tom Angleberger on audiobook.  We’re relatively new to audiobooks.  Mushroom and BalletBoy didn’t love them when they were little and we have eased slowly into listening to them more regularly over the last couple of years.

Fake Mustache was by far one of the biggest hits we’ve done so far.  The book was well narrated, with two readers who had just the right accents and inflections.  The story is hilarious and preposterous.  From start to finish, the book had us in stitches with the bizarre occurrences and characters like the novelty shop run by a very masculine woman, the grabby hand that grabs anything, the disguises that work too easily, and the TV show where the stunts are real but the singing is fake.

The oddities of Fake Mustache reminded me of other weird children’s books and I thought it was worth sharing a few more, on audio or not.

Fake Mustache: Or, How Jodie O’Rodeo and Her Wonder Horse (and Some Nerdy Kid) Saved the U.S. Presidential Election from a Mad Genius Criminal Mastermind by Tom Angleberger
Odd Plot: Lenny Flem realizes that his best friend Casper may be using his new fake mustache to rob banks and then steal a presidential election.  With a little help from a pre-teen rodeo star, Jodie O’Rodeo, he has to try to stop him.
Weirdness Example: The mustache allows the wearer to hypnotize a group of wandering accordion players into robbing a bank.
Funny Name: If Jodie O’Rodeo, Lenny Flem and Fako Mustacho aren’t enough for you, the mustache has a name too: The Heidelberg Handlebar #7.

Five Novels by Daniel Pinkwater
Odd Plots: Five short novels are included in this collection, including Alan Mendelson: Boy from Mars and my favorite, Young Adult Novel.
Weirdness: The counselor that the main character sees in one novel advises him to take a week off school and smoke cigars.  Also, ice cream is prepared with pizza in the microwave in another book.  And an obsession with dada art and Grape Nuts touches off an epic food fight in another.
Funny Names: Samuel Klugarsh, Harold Blatz, Hades Terwilliger, Winston Bongo…  I could go on.  Pinkwater is genius with names.

A Whole Nother Story by Cuthbert Soup
Odd Plot: When an inventor creates a time machine, he must grab his kids and run for their lives from an assortment of unexpected villains, including spies with a super smart chimpanzee.
Weirdness: The family evades the bad guys with the help from a dog who sees the future.  Also, did I mention that a sock puppet is a pretty big character?
Funny Name: Even common names like Jough Psmythe get a silly twist.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar
Odd Plot: This classic story is about a school that was built the wrong way, with all the classrooms on top of each other, instead of next to them.  Each story follows a different character in one class.
Weirdness: A much hated teacher is turned into an apple and give to the recess monitor for lunch.
Funny Name: Mr. Pepperadder is the name of the assistant cook.

Scientists in the Field


We have recently discovered the Scientists in the Field series and have been loving them.  This is a relatively recent children’s book series written in partnership with the Smithsonian.  The books are very detailed and meaty.  Most have several chapters and more than fifty pages of small text with beautiful color photos.  They’re too detailed for most early elementary readers and are perfect for upper elementary and middle school.  They cover topics in every major branch of science, but like every aspect of children’s books, there are vastly more about the life sciences than anything else, which is part of why I didn’t know this series until someone mentioned it online.

Once I looked it up, I realized I had seen several of the titles already, including one about oceans and waves and another about Mars that I deemed cool, but too complex for the kids way back in first grade.  We had also read one, the book Hidden Worlds, about microscopy.  I raved about how excellent Hidden Worlds was here back in the fall and it’s still one of my favorites of the ones we’ve read.  I was thrilled to discover that there were dozens more like it out there!

Unlike so many science books for kids, the goal of these books is not to introduce vocabulary and concepts about a topic, though they may do that too.  Instead, the books follow a scientist or a group of scientists and use that as a jumping off point to tell a story.  Some books talk about a specific project or expedition.  Others talk about a scientist’s life and work.  I love how detailed the books are not just about scientific theories and methods, but the practical parts of being a scientist.  In Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, the expedition’s packing list is included to give you an idea of what it’s really like to do field work (don’t forget the 48 rolls of toilet paper!).  In Project Seahorse, we learn about the life of a fisherman whose livelihood is impacted by the scientists’ work.  

It’s also great that each book shows different types of scientists at different points in their careers.  In The Bat Scientists, one of the scientists is the founder of a worldwide group and one of the foremost experts in his field, but others are field scientists doing different jobs and with different backgrounds.  In other books, we meet students and interns.  All of this is a great way to show kids all the different types of careers and paths there are in science.