Tag Archives: children’s books

May Books

Reading is trucking along at the Rowhouse.  Here’s some of what’s been on our shelves last month.

CountdownAudiobook
Countdown by Deborah Wiles
What a great audiobook rendition this was!  I’ve read both the book (when it first came out) and now listened to the audio with the kids and I’m not sure which one I like better.  The book takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and follows Franny, a girl with a somewhat dysfunctional family in suburban Maryland.  Wiles crams every single corner of the story with 60′s details about everyday things like the newness of McDonald’s and the changing music that Franny listens to on her sister’s records, to cultural trends and historical connections.  Franny’s father is in the air force, her sister is at college training with SNCC, her little brother is obsessed with astronauts and nuclear power.  The story is good too – Franny must face her fears and repair a relationship with a friend – but the “documentary” aspect of the story is the real draw.  In the book this takes the form of images splashed with quotes and short mini-essays that intersperse the chapters.  In the audiobook, sound effects and voice actors doing imitations of Kennedy and other famous figures of the day take the place of the documentary images.  Overall, a perfect listen for us as the story was exactly the sort of “everyday kid” story that Mushroom and BalletBoy are drawn to, but set amid duck and cover drills and old fashioned details.  Added bonus: the second in Wiles’s 60′s trilogy just came out this month.

One Crazy Summer (Gaither Sisters, #1)Read Aloud
One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams
You’re probably starting to sense a theme.  We are studying the 60′s at the moment, so this was another book I really wanted to use with my boys.  I just adore the strong language and the metaphors that abound in this book about three sisters who go visit their mother for the first time in 1968.  Their mother just happens to be a Black Panther and the book is filled with reflections on race that I hope will be illuminating for my privileged duo.  The opening scene, where the girls’ grandmother exhorts them to not be an embarrassment to their race certainly gave us a meaty conversation.  I spotted a history book at the library with photos of the Black Panthers, including some of the breakfast program and summer camp that the girls attend in the book.

379348School Read
10,000 Days of Thunder by Philip Caputo
We didn’t read all of this history of the Vietnam War, but it’s such a great book that it’s worth touting.  We’ve used the others in this nonfiction picture book style and the format is so terrific.  On one page, there’s detailed text about some aspect of the war and on the facing page there’s a full page image.  Shorter text boxes with facts and quotes line the edge of the narrative page.  This is just the sort of detailed history that the boys are on the cusp of really being ready for, so we have been using this one both for the history and for working on deciphering and understanding longer nonfiction texts.  Both the boys have really enjoyed studying the Cold War, but the Vietnam War has been one aspect that has left them asking a lot of good questions.  I’ve had to explain that hindsight is 20/20.

8230675Another School Read
I Feel Better with a Frog in my Throat by Carlyn Beccia
This hilarious and bizarre book of strange cures throughout history was at just the right level for the boys, who were both fascinated by the fact that, not only did people actually do this stuff, but some of it was stuff that actually worked.  The illustrations are colorful and interesting, and, of course, the subject is fun.  We used it to go along with our study of medicine, but it could easily be a good read with medieval history or just for fun.

The Return of Zita the SpacegirlGraphic Novel
The Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
Hey, lookie!  A new Zita!  I don’t know that this is our absolute favorite middle grades graphic novel series, but it’s really close to the top.  The boys were thrilled to get a third installment and devoured it faster than you could say spacegirl.  This one finds Zita again fighting for her life and for justice for others, her reputation again at stake.  However, a mysterious figure reappears to help and she may actually make it home this time.  If you haven’t given this series to your comic book readers yet, then please do.  It’s truly one of the sweetest, best drawn things out there for middle grades and chapter book readers.  Best of all, the boys got to meet the artist, Ben Hatke, at a local library event and have their books signed!

Choose Your Own Adventure Books 1- 6 : Box Set : The Abominable Snowman, Journey Under the Sea, Space and Beyond, Lost Jewels of Nabooti - R A MontgomeryPleasure Read
Choose Your Own Adventure Books
After a conversation with the Husband, a box of these were ordered and the boys have both been enamored with them.  They’re the same old, extremely cheesy books you remember from your childhood.  I think the ones we have include being a prisoner of giant ants, fighting evil aliens, racing across the African desert, and battling natural disasters.  The writing is beyond dreadful and the plots are bizarre at best, but there’s something so much fun about reading a book in second person where you can actually change the outcome.  Both the boys read a few of the books in the Choose Your Own Adventures chapter book level series, which I highly recommend for reluctant readers who are trying to make the leap from easy readers like Frog and Toad to longer things but seem too stuck to make it all the way.  This older, classic series is also good for reluctant readers.  My less than reluctant boys can finish multiple plot options in well under an hour, so they’re a very quickly consumed item.

Treasure Hunters (Treasure Hunters, #1)Mushroom’s Reading
Treasure Hunters by James Patterson and Chris Grabbenstein
Mushroom started with Grabenstein’s sublimely fun Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and was moved to write anything else by the author.  His other books were co-written for literary bigwig Patterson, so Mushroom next read and loved I, Funny then dug into this heavily illustrated novel about twins (twins!) who are homeschooled (homeschool!) and travel the world with their parents looking for treasure (if only!).  I didn’t read the whole thing, but the set up is cool and the illustrations are very cute.  At the start of the story, the parents go missing and the siblings embark on a series of exciting adventures to find them and treasure.  Mushroom says it’s “pretty good.”

The Lost Hero (The Heroes of Olympus, #1)BalletBoy’s Reading
The Lost Hero by Rick Riorden
We finally wrapped up all those Percy Jackson books, but I told the kids that if they wanted to dive into the other Riorden series, they were on their own.  Both the boys promptly demanded to read The Lost Hero and BalletBoy is currently in the middle of it.  They both give it thumbs up and have been talking about it together.  I admit that I really enjoyed Percy Jackson when it first came out, but reading other books by Riorden has spoiled their full charm for me as he seems to be sort of a one note writer, sort of like that actor who you think is brilliant in their first role, then by their third movie, you realize that no matter what part they’re playing, they play it the exact same.  I feel a bit like that about Riorden’s writing voice.  Still, he obviously knows how to craft an exciting tale and I’m not at all sorry to see that the kids have hooked on to this series that picks up right where the Percy Jackson books leave off.

The Place My Words are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their WorkPoetry Tea Find
The Place My Words Are Looking For selected by Paul Janeczko
We continue to do poetry teas regularly and one of my favorite parts is looking for new books to strew on the table (or, more recently, on the picnic blanket) when we sit down with baked goods to read poetry.  This book is a nice find.  It’s an older book that features good poems by a good selection of poets who write for children, including big names like Naomi Shihab Nye, Cynthia Rylant, and Gwendolyn Brooks.  The poems are well selected, but most of the authors have short pieces about the process of writing included as well, which is what made the book a nice find.

Finnikin of the Rock (Lumatere Chronicles, #1)Farrar’s YA Read
Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
I have always been a great fantasy lover, so it’s great when I find something new in fantasy that’s worth reading.  I think I may have said this before on this blog, but fantasy is really where it’s at in YA the last few years.  Publishers are still churning out dystopians, but in terms of quality storytelling and solid writing, high fantasy is really where it’s at in the imaginative YA literature category.  Finnikin of the Rock is about a young man whose kingdom is closed off by a curse while the inhabitants suffer inside and the refugees suffer in poverty outside.  A woman with the ability to see inside other’s dreams may be able to help, but first they have to rescue the kingdom’s missing prince.  The writing is solid and the details of the world and the characters are very well drawn.  I’m not in love with the fact that it’s a story of one woman, surrounded by men.  This is not a story that passes the Bechdel test.  However, it was still an enjoyable YA read.

The Real Reason We Miss Reading Rainbow

reading

There was a small, exciting moment yesterday when I thought I had read that the classic show Reading Rainbow was coming back.  Sadly, it’s not.  Instead, host Levar Burton managed to fund a project to expand Reading Rainbow content on different web platforms.  Good for him, I guess, but not the same as a whole new season of such a great show.

For those who don’t know, Reading Rainbow was canceled several years ago when PBS decided to shift their focus in their reading programming entirely to teaching reading mechanics, as well as focusing more on younger viewers.  Thus began the era of shows like Super Why and the new Electric Company reboot, shows that are mostly about rhymes and phonics and sounding out words, shows that are aimed closer to the preschool set than the upper elementary one.

There’s nothing wrong with shows like that (well, I have a totally separate issue with Super Why’s complete dumbing down of fairy tales, but that’s a rant for another post).  In fact, teaching reading mechanics is critically important.  Without phonics, no one can actually, you know, read.

In the last decade or so, the pendulum has swung very firmly from a more whole language approach to reading to a more mechanics based approach with schools moving to put in phonics programs and drill kids on reading mechanics.  Don’t get me wrong, it needed to do so.  Schools had turned whole language into a very simplified drill of sight words which wasn’t really serving most kids in learning to read.  PBS’s programming shift is just part of the trend toward teaching phonics.

However, the reason that everyone loves Reading Rainbow and got so fleetingly excited about it’s potential return and even funded Burton’s Kickstarter so generously is because reading is not phonics.

Reading is stories.  Reading is going to other worlds and traveling in time.  Reading is poetry.  Reading is escape.  Reading is finding yourself in a book.  Reading is learning.  Reading is how the world works and why the sky is blue and how big dinosaurs are.  Reading is inspiration.  Reading is fun.  Reading is meaning.

Phonics, as important as it is, is not meaning.  It’s just mechanics.  It’s the notes, not the song.  Reading Rainbow is so beloved so many years later because it talked about the songs, not the notes, something that it feels like we’ve gotten too far away from in early reading instruction sometimes to me lately.

When children can’t see the point of what they’re learning, then they don’t have the same motivation as when they do.  Supposedly, PBS’s refocusing on phonics was supposed to be especially important for lower income kids who might be most struggling with reading mechanics.  However, the same kids are the ones less likely to see reading modeled in their lives.  In general, learning about the reason why we read, feeling inspired to actually go read a book, not just gain the ability to sound out the words, seems so essentially important.  That’s what Reading Rainbow brought.

So Reading Rainbow may not be coming back, at least not the way many of us might wish, but here’s in praise of reading for meaning, reading for content, reading for fun, and generally loving books and stories and beautiful words.  Here’s to just let me finish the chapter before you turn out the light.  Here’s to why don’t we take a look in a book to find out.  Here’s to toting around your book wherever you go.  Don’t just share the sounds of the letter A, share that love of words and books.

April Books

If it seems like a slightly supersized edition of our monthly book round up, that’s because the kids have been reading more.  In a fit of annoyance at the upteenth reread of half a graphic novel, I changed our required reading system completely to become a required hour of reading before bed with anything they wanted, as long as it was new and it wasn’t literally all graphic novels.  Good things ensued.  We are still doing short required reading books for things I want us to discuss together.

The True Meaning of SmekdayAudiobook
The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
I read this book on my own awhile ago, and had completely forgotten how hilarious it is.  It tells the story of Gratuity “Tip” Tuchi, an average eleven year old faced with an alien invasion after her mother is abducted.  Humans are supposed to report to a new human preserve and Tip decides to drive, but meets up with an alien on the run named J. Lo. and the plot only gets crazier from there as Tip’s road trip becomes an epic cross country drive in a hover car, being shot at by new aliens, and finding out the truth about Roswell.  There are not enough middle grade science fiction novels out there in my opinion (fantasy abounds, obviously) and this one is a fun one for older elementary and middle school.  The narration on the audiobook is excellent, with a really great choice of narrator for Tip’s voice.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper CranesRequired Reading
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr
This is such a short little gem of a book.  Most people will know the story of Sadako, a young Japanese girl, who like so many after the dropping of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, developed cancer and died young.  We read this one together and discussed it as a sort of counterpoint to the nonfiction book Bomb by Steve Sheinkin, which we read aloud.  Both the boys felt the story was sad but touching and wanted to immediately make paper cranes for Sadako after finishing the book.

I Funny: A Middle School Story (I Funny, #1)Mushroom’s Reading
I, Funny by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
While the name on the author line of this book is Patterson, Mushroom found it when he asked had Chris Grabenstein, the author of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, written anything else.  Turns out he co-wrote several books with bigger name authors, including this two book series about a kid who wants to become a stand up comedian but can’t stand up because he’s in a wheelchair.  I didn’t read it, but Mushroom had a very favorable report and is halfway through the sequel and convinced BalletBoy to read it as well.  He says the jokes were funny but that the book is actually very sad as you learn about the accident that put the main character ended up in a wheelchair and killed his parents.

CosmicBalletBoy’s Reading
Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
This is another book I’ve never read that BalletBoy picked off a shelf after seeing a positive review.  The story is a strange one, but I can see why he picked it because it’s exactly the mix of reality and weird that both my boys enjoy in a book.  BalletBoy says that it’s really a book about dads and being a dad.  This is because the main character, who is just a kid, but a kid who happens to look like a middle aged man, poses as the father of his friends in order to enter a contest to go into outer space.  But when they actually win the contest and go, he has to be the one in charge.  BalletBoy liked it enough that he kept talking it up to all the grown ups he met and even reading them passages from it.

A Tangle of KnotsMushroom’s Also Reading
A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff
This one I read alongside Mushroom so I can review it too!  After reading The Thing About Georgie, also by Graff, Mushroom asked to read another of her books and we choose this one, which takes place in a just one degree away from reality world where everyone has a Talent.  A large cast of characters, including a girl who bakes perfect cakes, an orphanage director who’s too good for her job, a sinister shopkeeper looking for the perfect peanut butter recipe, and a boy with a Talent for getting himself lost, alternate chapters.  Their stories all intertwine and meet at a final cake bake off.  Cake recipes intersperse some of the chapters.  I liked the book, but I didn’t love it.  I really enjoyed the magical realistic feel, but there were places where I didn’t think the story fit as well as it wanted.  Mushroom also liked it, but found it hard to keep track of some of the plot lines and didn’t think the ending was satisfying enough.

Lone Wolf (Wolves of the Beyond, #1)BalletBoy’s Also Reading
Wolves of the Beyond: Lone Wolf by Kathryn Lasky
This series takes place in the same world as The Guardians of Ga’Hoole, a series BalletBoy refused to read when he was on his “only animal books” kick.  But he found this one at the book store and decided it was better (based on the cover, I presume).   It’s not necessary to have read that series to appreciate this one.  It follows Faolan, a wolf cub who is born with a twisted foot and therefore an outcast from the pack.  Raised by a bear and then helped by an owl, he has to figure out who he is and find his way back to a pack.  BalletBoy said he liked it but is debating reading the next one.

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous WeaponRead Aloud
Bomb: The Quest to Build and Steal the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
This nonfiction book was an excellent stretch read aloud for the boys and a great way to finish our World War II unit and lead us into the Cold War.  The book focuses on the personalities who built the bomb and the spies who fought over the information.  It’s a really complex tale, filled with all kinds old time spy craft and bits of information about how atomic chain reactions work.  It took the boys a little while to get into it, but by the end of the book they were definitely hooked.

battlingboycover.tiffGraphic Novel
Battling Boy by Paul Pope
This graphic novel was a Christmas gift that sat on the shelf for a little while before being rediscovered and read by both the boys last month.  It’s set in a world that looks like a sort of gritty mix of the present, the old west, and the future.  An old hero has died and the main character must rise to become the new hero.  After reading most of the way through, Mushroom suddenly looked up from it and said, “Hey, this is a hero origin story!”  The art is slightly rough and the story ends on a cliffhanger, but it looks like a sequel is already scheduled to come out later this year.

The Lost Art of Keeping SecretsFarrar’s YA Read
The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice
This book wasn’t technically a YA novel, but it may as well have been since the protagonists were all in their late teens and very early 20′s.  It fits into this emerging genre of books about college aged characters but since it’s a few years old, I suppose it couldn’t qualify for such new marketing.  I picked up this one because it was a recommended book for people who liked I Capture the Castle (this blog’s name inspiration) on Goodreads.  It takes place in postwar England, where the main character, Penelope, lives in a decrepit old manor house with her beautiful but lonely widowed mother and aspiring rock star brother.  When Penelope meets a new friend, Charlotte, she is swept up into Charlotte’s family and more interesting world.  Of course, she also has her first romance.  While the book didn’t reach anywhere near the quality of the book that led to its recommendation, I really enjoyed the setting and the classic coming of age feel to the story.

 

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.

rollAudiobook
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.

235117Audiobook
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.

museum
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.