City Homeschoolers

Mushroom goofing off on the Metro escalators. (For locals, a working Metro escalator? I know, shocking!)
Mushroom goofing off on the Metro escalators. (For locals, a working Metro escalator? I know, shocking!)

I’ll try not to bury the lede on this post. I recently added a section up top in the menu for other DC homeschoolers. There seem to be so many more now than ever before so I gathered some of the resources I’m aware of and listed them there. In particular, we just navigated the process of getting free transit cards for the kids so they can take the bus solo around the city and the city’s explanation for how that works left a little to be desired so I thought a blow by blow meant for kids whose cards wouldn’t be set up for them at their boundary school was perhaps a useful resource.

But beyond that, I thought I’d just take a moment to appreciate how much we love life in the city. I have often shared a story from many years ago when I was on a road trip with the boys. Because we took a side trip to Okefenokee and then took back roads to get to our second family stop in north Georgia, we ended up passing through more small towns than I can count. I was pleased to see how many cute small town downtowns were being revived. “Look!” I kept saying to the kids, “Look what a cute town!” Also, since we were out in the country a lot, I said things like, “Oh, look at the pecan groves! Look at the wildlife! Isn’t it great?” Uh-huh. When we finally pulled into Atlanta and went in search of parking to go to the aquarium, Mushroom said to me, obviously mimicking my words, “Look! Look at all the buildings! Isn’t this cute? Isn’t this great?” His relaxation at finally being somewhere that seemed “normal” was palpable. DC isn’t exactly a city of tall buildings, but the feeling of “urban” was obviously home.

I think there’s an impression of homeschoolers that we’re all homesteading, do it yourself types, making our own soap or canning our own vegetables. Interestingly, I grew up a lot more like that, but I always remember the sense of enriched cultural life when I visited my grandparents’ home in New Orleans and I longed for that when I grew up. Obviously, the small farm types are one model of the homeschool life. However, we urbanites are a growing homeschool group too.

City life makes homeschooling easy in some ways. Museums, buses, millions of classes and opportunities… The number of things at our fingertips at any moment is mind boggling. I love that we have this opportunity to utilize all those resources. And I love the way that my kids feel comfortable with subways and buses and busy street crossings. Sometimes they take for granted a little bit that everyone has access to world class art museums and performances and the option of a million different classes, but mostly they are so confident with the city. It’s beautiful to see. And, of course, if we need a nature outing, there’s always Rock Creek Park.

To Co-Op or Not to Co-Op

Impromptu midday nature hike. File under stuff we have more time for because I committed to having more time at home this year.
Impromptu midday nature hike. File under stuff we have more time for because I committed to having more time at home this year.

When I first got into homeschooling and began to join the online community of homeschoolers, I noticed an undercurrent among the people who had been at it for a long time. “Homeschooling is changing,” they said. Sometimes as a complaint, sometimes in awe of the expanding community, sometimes just as an observation. I took their word for it, and I could certainly see that it had changed from the early days, but I didn’t feel it.

Well, I’m still a newbie by many standards, but I can tell you that I feel it now. Homeschooling is changing. Do I sound like a crotchety old timer? I feel a little like one sometimes.

In the last two years, four co-ops have arisen within a few miles from where I live. These aren’t the sort of homegrown co-ops that meet at people’s homes with a couple of families that were around when my kids were younger (like the one we still participate in). They’re incorporated non-profits with rented space and actual budgets or, in the case of a growing Classical Conversations group, part of a large national group. One of them is for kids to do up to four days a week. Another is for three days a week. The largest, which is new this year, is for only one day a week, but is so large that we’ve gotten some pushback from friends about not joining. As one friend put it, “It’s like everyone you’ve ever met all at one co-op.” Well, not quite, but it does seem that way sometimes.

Did I mention that I feel like an old fuddy duddy? I’m glad these options are suddenly out there and growing. None of them were around when my kids were starting out, which is really a testament to how quickly things are changing and I suspect they’re changing nationwide. But I’m also glad that charter schools in my city are growing and improving. I’m glad that online learning is growing and becoming a viable option for more families. I’m glad that the public schools in my city are improving. I’m just happy that more families, at least in my little corner of the world, have more options than ever before, many of which break the mold of sitting in a classroom all day. However, that doesn’t mean I’m jumping on the bandwagon for any of those things. Especially in the case of interesting new private school models and co-ops that rent their own spaces, these options are expensive. To join that co-op would run us several hundred dollars, not to mention a lot of free work hours from me teaching.

For a lot of the new homeschoolers I’ve met recently, finding a community that meets several days a week in a formal setting is the ideal of homeschooling. I don’t disagree that it can work for some people, but it’s definitely not my ideal.

My ideal is following my kids’ interests and needs on an individual basis. My ideal is having a schedule that’s open and flexible enough to allow us to drop everything to go apple picking or fossil hunting or to see friends unexpectedly. My ideal is learning without an institution. We don’t always achieve those ideals, but none of them are served by being in a group several days a week. That, to me, sounds like school by another name. Potentially a better model of school, but still school.

There is something really inspiring about the way in which homeschoolers are creating these learning communities. Some of them are especially great for parents who work full or part time but still want to find a way to homeschool. However, one of the things I want new homeschoolers to know is that you can do this on your own too. You can educate your kids without a co-op if you want to. You can educate your kids without a curriculum too. I know it sounds crazy, but there’s a certain joy to reinventing the wheel for your kids and learning how to teach them by simply teaching them. Not only that, but there are a million models for making friendships and community in homeschooling. One way is by creating something that requires administrators and accountants, but another is by creating something small. We have gotten so much joy and love out of a free, informal co-op that is run as much by the kids as the adults. We have also gotten more social skills and teamwork skills from doing Destination Imagination than I think could be gotten in nearly any classroom.

So we’re sticking with our group of just a few kids and our activities that we already have. Maybe we’ll re-evaluate down the road, and see if I’m willing to give up a few more days of home school in favor of community school.


Elections for Young People – Free Download

I guess it’s just free downloads month at the Rowhouse. Last week, I put up my modernized version of Problems Without Figures, a century-old text helping students focus on the procedures and meaning behind the math, and today I have something to share that was written by the Husband.

This fall, my husband, Peter, has started a mini-unit on elections for Mushroom and BalletBoy. He decided quickly that none of the resources out there would be up to snuff for him. He wanted to create his own. Peter is a recovering political junkie. The cover of the ebook is actually memorabilia from his personal collection of political bumper stickers and pins. He’s worked in various ways in politics and political journalism for a long time. So, of course, he felt confident to just write an authoritative guide off the top of his head, just like he can name your congressman off the top of his head (we may not get to have one, but he can name yours!) and probably your governor too.

He was very sweet as he worked on this and very excited to create and share it with others. It’s truly an amazing little text that is both detailed and easy to understand. He wrote it with Mushroom and BalletBoy in mind, but I suspect it would be useful for many kids in elementary and middle school.

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Click on the image above to get it. The book is written to be read right now. Many of the examples and explanations deal specifically with the 2016 presidential race. At the end of most sections, there are questions to ponder in green text. At the end, there are a few web links and other resources. While obviously we have our own political views, the viewpoint is very neutral. Peter has been all over the political spectrum in his life so he knows how different sides think. This book is not about political issues so much as the process of becoming president. Why do people choose to run? Why do we focus on Iowa and New Hampshire? How do polls work? What does it take to win? Where do third parties stand? How did our system end up working this way? I think both liberal and conservative parents will find this guide completely usable.

I don’t talk much about Peter on this blog, but I’ll take this opportunity to extol his virtues. Long before we had kids, I told Peter we would be homeschooling them and he has been a complete supporter from the get go. He never questions that we’re doing a great job for our kids. When I was still teaching and the kids were very little, he was the first one to find us homeschool friends. While I do suffer occasionally from being the “default parent,” Peter is a very hands on father. He changed at least as many diapers as me and has dealt with at least as many tantrums and bedtimes and illnesses. He talks to the kids, plays games with them, takes them out to the park in the evening and on field trips, and reads to them at bedtime. Basically, I think he’s a superdad.


Numberless Problems for Today – Free Download

In my last post, I linked to a really cool vintage resource called Problems Without Figures. As I pointed out, I decided to update it so I could use it with my kids more easily. I didn’t update the whole work because it was very long. I did the first 150 problems, which is a little less than half, but I thought I’d share my update here with you. It’s free to download. For more about the types of problems, the reasons to use a book like this, and how to use the book, have a look at my previous post. Below, I’m going to talk a little more about the changes I made to the book and why. I can’t promise that every problem in here is perfect. I’m pretty sure I thought through everything, but I didn’t have a professional editor. Feel free to send me any corrections and do tweak any problems to make them make more sense for your kids if needed. Note that the nature of these problems is to include superfluous information, have answers that are impossible to get without more information, have multiple potential solutions or paths to a solution, and to have “trick” problems where the answer is much simpler than the problem implies. None of those things are necessarily errors. Again, see my previous post for more about these problems.

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I changed the problems in a couple of ways. A large number I left the same or simply updated a word or two to be less old fashioned (such as “shall”), including some of the old fashioned problems about farms and orchards and the like, simply because it’s nice to have different perspectives occasionally. I updated the language in a few problems. For example,  instead of buying marbles and penny candy, kids are buying Legos and other contemporary items. For others, I changed the situation or the measuring units for a problem to be more up to date but tried to keep the spirit of the question. However, for several problems, I couldn’t come up with a modern equivalent so I completely rewrote the problem to be more contemporary.

Doing this was an interesting process for me. It let me think about how math has changed over time. Much of the original book was out of date because of the situations it portrayed. It assumed the readers were familiar with agriculture and farm animals. However, much of what has changed is the math. There were several measurement units that are simply not used anymore, such as the rod as a measurement of length. Other measurement units are in use today and students may have a general sense of what a bushel or an acre is, but they are less a part of everyday life. In general, while measurement math is still a key component of everyday math and we have the complexity in the US of having to go between customary and metric measurements, this book drove home for me how it was an even bigger share of the everyday math people used a century ago. For one thing, we tend to deal with standardized sizes of things much more often. Doors, windows, pieces of paper, tablecloths, picture frames, etc. are all standardized. If we want to know how much land we own, we look it up instead of measuring. If we build something, we tend to follow preset directions instead of making them up ourselves with all the accompanying measurement challenges.

On the other hand, there are types of math that were never or almost never covered in the original book. For example, there were only a couple of problems involving averages. There were no problems involving estimation. There were no problems involving statistics or ratios. Very few problems involved fractions or percents, which surprised me. There were no problems involving permutations or combinations.

Life today is more complex with more choices. We tend to need to know more about combinations and permutations just to order off a menu or decide how to buy something or what to wear. We have to evaluate more complex data and statistics to understand a news article or a scientific claim on the internet. We’re used to bigger numbers. None of the numbers in the original book were very big. These days we’re used to hearing about numbers in the millions and billions. Our tax code and economy are much more complex, meaning that percentages come into play a lot more often. When the original book was written, people lived with a cash economy and prices were more straightforward. It’s different now.

When I tossed out those few problems from the original, I tried to replace them with ones that asked kids about making the sort of decisions that we often have to make using math these days. So there are problems about how to make basketball matchups, how to choose which toilet paper to buy, how to know if a statistic is reasonable, and other more modern conundrums than how many acres in your fields or how many fence posts you need.

Numberless Math

BalletBoy has always gravitated toward just getting his math done. Ideally, he likes to have a page of all the same sort of problem, let me remind him how to do them, and then just do them all. However, as he’s gotten older, this has meant a struggle for him to some extent. As the math gets more complex, with more to remember, not having a strong foundation in the whys of math has led to more and more difficulties for him. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you may note that he’s jumped around programs in the last year as a result. I’ve been trying to honor the fact that he’s pretty good at getting the algorithms memorized while still helping him understand the whys. Finding the right approach hasn’t been easy. Most things have been too easy or too hard.

Recently, the author of the excellent Let’s Play Math blog pointed me to the vintage book Problems Without Figures, which you can find as a pdf here. I immediately fell in love a little bit. Many of them have numbers, but there’s usually missing information so they can’t be “solved.” Instead, the question is focused on the process. If given this and this, can you find that? How would you do it? What other information might you need? Many of the problems can’t be solved unless you know more information. Others are easy, but they require a lot of steps. A ton of them require that you move between different measuring units. Many of them are filled with superfluous information.

There are also several trick problems. My favorite, by far, is the one that asks how you can find how old a coin dated 56 B.C. is. Obviously, a coin couldn’t be dated that (think about it…). The author of the book suggests that these should be sprung on students. I’ve already given the kids a few of these but warned them to look out for them. They were delighted to discover them and felt very clever doing so. I think it’s really good for kids to realize that the answer isn’t always straightforward, that it might be easier or harder than they anticipate, or that they might need different information than what you’re given or expect to need.

In general, I like the focus of having kids doing math that’s not about getting “the answer.” It changes the focus of math and makes it feel more approachable for BalletBoy. It helps kids with their writing as well. Mushroom has been using the Arbor School algebra series, which requires a lot of writing. I wish we had been doing these for a little while in preparation because they really focus a student on writing out a clear, step by step set of instructions for solving a problem. However, the small nature of the problems makes it feel like a doable task. Mushroom has struggled with the writing in the Arbor School series because it asks that he summarize everything he learned and give his own examples. This is such a small chunk and so specific that it builds good logical writing and thinking skills. Basically, it’s a great thing for kids to do for math, writing, logic, and thinking skills. Explaining how to solve a problem is just good across the board.

You may notice that many of the problems in the book are outdated. In order to easily use it with my boys, I updated the language for us. My next post is about that process and I’ll link to the updated version if you’d like to use it.

First Week of De-School

I tend to just dive into work, but with one more visit from relatives and other things going on, it didn’t seem like a good idea to start in on regular math and writing and so forth last week. Then again, I hate when we have our “Box Day” and then we don’t actually use anything for a couple of weeks because, you know, life.

I decided instead to break out some of the fun stuff and take a few field trips. It worked out well and I think it got all of us into a better frame of mind for school. Is it possible that homeschooled kids need some deschool learning now and then? We’re constantly doing stuff that’s out of the box and our daily school looks so different from kids in most brick and mortar schools. Yet I still found we needed a week of doing something different every day to break that sense of learning as sitting down at the table. Routines are good, but so is breaking away from a routine.

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Our “Box Day” celebration was anticipated for weeks beforehand. Its the day we open up all the fun school supplies and get to see the new books. This year there were lots of dinosaur books.
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We played more games this week. The Husband played Appletters with us on Box Day morning.
We had family in town so we visited the monuments, including Einstein, where we had not been in awhile.
We had family in town so we visited the monuments, including Einstein, where we had not been in awhile.
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We’re studying dinosaurs this year! Also, grandparents treated the kids to a visit to this cool climbing gym where all the walls looked like different crazy things to climb.
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We played with the Zometools and did some of the introductory lesson plans.

We also had a chance to see our co-op friends, we went to the Museum of Natural History to play with the fossils, Miles played in a marimba concert, we cuddled to books on the sofa and raided the library for a tall stack of dinosaur books, and tried our hands at math problems with no numbers (more about those in a future post). Overall, a very good week.

Celebrations of Arbitrary Lines

Originally, I didn’t really plan anything to mark the passing of the boys from fifth grade into sixth. However, they heard about school kids having elementary school graduation and immediately wanted to know what I had planned. Nothing, I admitted.

Every new school year brings new challenges and I’m always aware of moving forward, striving to be better, trying to – not keep up with peers, but to be mindful of what peers might be up to. However, I try to de-emphasize this stuff with the kids. You’re doing the work that’s right for you, the challenges that are right for you, making progress for yourself. And, honestly, since they have friends of many different ages on different sides of various arbitrary lines, I don’t want them to get the idea that they’re “ahead” or “behind” anyone in particular. They’re just on their own paths.

But then I thought… You know, arbitrary lines can be fun. Arbitrary lines are why we celebrate the new year and birthdays. They’re why the new millennium was so much fun to celebrate. They’re why we all hold up our hands and scream (what? that’s not your tradition?) when we cross a state line on a road trip. And they’re why, when we passed this, driving through Namibia, we absolutely had to pull over to the side of the road in what was otherwise the middle of nowhere and take a picture. And, let me tell you, when something is in “the middle of nowhere” in Namibia, it’s like another level of middle of nowhere.


So I decided, hey, let’s celebrate the crossing of this arbitrary line. I whipped up graduation caps from craft foam and string we had in the art supplies and we took these photos. (In case that sounds too crafty, I promise that it was absurdly fast. If you have a kid approaching an arbitrary line, all I did was make a circle of foam to fit on their heads then hot glued a square on top of it and taped a little tassel on. I’m sure it would work with cardboard or even stiff paper as well.)

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Then we went out for a fancy breakfast. Every was gratified. Hooray for crossing lines!

This Is Why We Do Portfolios

Mushroom hard at work.
Mushroom hard at work.

I often think of portfolios as being for me. Technically, I suppose, they’re for the threat of the state, but honestly, I taught in schools that used portfolio assessments and I came to believe in them strongly, which is why I would do them even if I wasn’t supposed to keep records of our education (which, by the way, are never checked).

I have an older post about how we do portfolios here. It’s probably due for an upgrade, but things are basically still the same. We toss everything into a box until portfolio time. Then we go through it and the kids choose their best work from all the art, worksheets, dictations, math workbook pages, projects, and so forth. They write a short self-assessment, I write an assessment, and then it all goes in the portfolio in plastic sleeves, which makes it look super neat and pretty.

Every time I do it, it’s a huge boost for me as a teacher. Homeschooling can be lonely, as they say. You don’t get feedback about how you’re doing and it’s easy to lose sight of how things are going. It’s hard to feel like you’re getting anywhere. Putting together the portfolio, with the list of all the books we read, field trips we took, and all those examples of work is such a huge boost. You can see the progress and it’s very gratifying for me as a teacher.

For the last few weeks, Mushroom’s anxiety levels have been up. He’s had trouble finishing up his work for the school year simply because he’s been so keyed up with worries about everything and nothing. The moment he started to go through his work, he lit up with joy. By the time he had compiled all his examples, he was glowing. Seeing all the work he did over the summer was a huge boost to his self-confidence.

I’m reminded how important it is to celebrate our kids’ work and how it doesn’t have to be done with anything but a figurative mirror. Having the time and space to pause and see what he had done was a great experience for him.

Difficult Thoughts on Homeschooling and Race

A warning to readers. This is sort of a personal exploration post about a lot of things. I rarely post much about politics. One of the things I enjoy about the online homeschooling community is how it gives me a peek into different perspectives on the world. But every once in awhile, I share some of mine beyond simply the practical stuff, the parenting trials, and the books we’re reading. I promise, next post about math instead.

Last week, I listened to This American Life’s two part series about integration in schools today called “The Problem We All Live With.” I think a lot of homeschoolers only pay attention to school education news in limited doses. Many of us have had bad experiences with schools and know that even supposedly good education news can rile us up. This has been true for me at times as well, but I’m also interested in the education world in general. I have strong feelings and opinions from when I used to teach in schools. While sometimes school stories do make me want to gnash my teeth, I’m drawn into them often.

This story, about the increasing segregation in schools and the lack of movement toward integration overall, was depressing and teeth gnashing to say the least. It followed two districts where integration is happening and the difficulties of making it work in the face of angry parents. The second district had a story that was especially familiar to me. You see, during most of my youth, I attended schools that were much more integrated than most apparently are, in part because of a magnet program that drew mostly white suburban kids to mostly black city schools, just like the program profiled in the second part of the story. It was, for me, a great experience. I can remember clearly before heading off to middle school my mother saying to me that one of the things I needed to think about was that I would need to be comfortable being in the minority as a white student. I don’t remember that being an issue to me. On the contrary, I’m so glad I had that experience. It was not always as rosy a racial harmony picture as all that, but it was, overall, a positive experience for me.

A few things make this difficult to reflect upon. First and foremost, we live in the inner city in a very racially diverse neighborhood. While the schools weren’t good when we first came here, they’ve improved greatly. If I wanted to, I could enter the charter lottery and send my kids to one of several diverse urban schools that are really, all in all, not bad places. And I’m all too aware that, whether they mean to or not, white parents have been the driving force resegregating schools, in part by moving but also in part by choosing educational alternatives to keep their kids away from what is seen as the wrong kind of culture in schools. One of those alternatives is homeschooling.

Homeschooling among minority groups is growing, in part to escape the segregated attitudes in schools. Recently there was an excellent article about the growth of African-American homeschooling in my city and several others about the rise nationwide. However, it’s still disproportionately white. And the tribal mentality in homeschooling means that sometimes different religious groups don’t even mix, much less different racial groups. I’m also sadly aware that the racism in some elements of homeschooling are much closer to the surface than in other places. Some of the most popular homeschool programs include racist language, read older literature that is filled with racial stereotypes, and filter American history through a providential lens, one that emphasizes that Europeans (and not anyone else) were given this country by God.

That’s not why we chose homeschooling. We avoid those sorts of materials. I’d homeschool if we lived in a ritzy suburb or a rural area or even a foreign country. I decided to homeschool years before we moved here, years before we had kids even. Some homeschoolers decide on this path after seeing their local school or even after experiencing its negative impact on their child. But we chose it because of the benefits of learning at home, not because of the negatives of being in school.

But, by doing so, we’ve removed our kids from their environment in many ways. There are no other homeschoolers my kids’ age in walking distance the way school friends would be. We travel, sometimes half an hour or more, to see friends, mostly in the suburbs. There is some diversity in our group of extended friends, but mostly it’s very white. It does not reflect the neighborhood around my kids. They have, in the last year or two, started to make more neighborhood friends simply by being old enough and confident enough to be outside at the parks and strike up friendships. Still, when I reflect on this, it makes me uncomfortable, to say the least, that we leave our neighborhood, where the kids are more than half black and Latino, to see our friends, who are almost all white.

However, I get that few parents want to sacrifice their ideals about society for their child’s education. When I think about Civil Rights parents, willing to send their kids into atmospheres of hatred and derision, I’m constantly awed and astounded by how difficult that must have been. I made education decisions for my kids, not for society as a whole. I don’t plan to change even though, I’m aware that for society as a whole to shift, sometimes people have to make decisions that are not great for them in the short run in order to make a better future in the long run. Sending my kids to school wouldn’t change much, but when everyone makes the decision to opt out, for whatever reason, that’s bad for the people who don’t have the resources to opt out, whether by moving away, starting a private school, or homeschooling.

There’s no easy answers, but it bothers me sometimes that homeschoolers like to bury their heads in the sand about some of these hard truths. We would like it to be simple that we’ve made the right decisions for our kids and would like to pretend that dropping out, tuning out, and isolating ourselves is without broader consequences both for us and society. Like I said, we homeschool, I believe in homeschooling for all sorts of families, and I don’t plan to change. But listening to those two stories is a heavy weight in a way.

The only silver lining, I hope, is that schools aren’t always much better when it comes to teaching tolerance and valuing diversity. By homeschooling, I can expose my kids to more diverse authors and literature than they might meet in schools as well as a more well-rounded history of the world as a whole. At least, that’s what I hope.  So I strive to teach my kids to recognize their privileges in the world, including the privilege of being educated at home.

Book Roundup

I’ve gotten out of the habit of doing our periodic book roundups. However, as always, we’ve been reading. Here’s a few things from our shelves from the last few months and I’ll try to get back to doing more book blogging again.

School Read
Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd
We took this book out of the library and let it inspire our final project for fifth grade: graphic design. This was such a readable book for my design loving kids that they both read it for pleasure reading first before I could assign it, which is a rare occurrence around here indeed. It’s a well designed book (as one would hope) and filled with great visual examples. The text also breaks down important elements of design in a way that’s simple for the reader. At the end there are ten projects for readers to try so they can do their own graphic design. As always, the kids has their own takes on how to do the projects, but it was a really good introduction. I highly recommend it.

Nonfiction Practice Reading
TIME: Modern Explorers
We have struggled a lot to hit the right length and difficulty level for nonfiction reading in our house. I may write more about this in a future post, but in the meantime, I found a good solution for now, which was to seek out adult magazines geared toward more casual readers by simply running through the offerings at the bookstore. This one has been the biggest hit. It’s a special issue of Time about explorers in all different fields: medicine, oceanography, outer space, climbing, and more. There’s a nice variance of lengths and both the boys have been excited by what they read. The opening article, about twin astronauts, was especially interesting to them. The writing is at a high enough level to be challenging, but not as challenging as many other publications geared toward adults and the length of the articles is just right, which has been a key element for my not so fast readers.

Required Reading
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
We do very little required reading, but I did choose a couple of shorter books to be read by all three of us at the same time then discussed at a poetry tea and this is the one that finished up our school year. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a boy named Jess, a middle child in a poor, rural family who dreams of being an artist. Leslie moves in next door and they quickly become friends. Leslie’s family is affluent, there because they’re fleeing the city for a country oasis. She’s different, smart, and well-read. She introduces Jess to a fantasy world and they play games in the woods across the creek. However, on a fateful, stormy day when Jess isn’t there, she is swept into the creek and drowns. I know this book is divisive for many. Some people feel utterly betrayed by the story and Leslie’s very unexpected death (there is some foreshadowing, but it’s limited). However, I felt like the book is one that has a strong impact on readers and generally elicits a strong response. I talked to the kids about how the book is sad and that there’s a surprise shocking thing that happens. Even with the warnings, BalletBoy cried when he read about Leslie’s death and it led to a lot of good conversations, which was exactly the goal of having a required reading book like this one.

Mushroom’s Serious Read
Counting by 7’s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Mushroom has a book type these days, one that can best be described as “issue books.” He likes books where difficult things happen to kids or where kids have to overcome various issues. That’s why I was sure this book would be right up his alley. Willow, the main character, is profoundly gifted, but also misunderstood by everyone but her parents. Unfortunately, they die in a terrible accident, leaving Willow on her own without anyone. A bizarre cast of characters step in to help her out, but slowly, as Willow resurfaces from her grief, she’s the one who helps them out. I read this one alongside Mushroom and we both really liked it.

Mushroom’s Graphic Novel Read
El Deafo by Cece Bell
You know how I just said that Mushroom likes “issue books”? Well, here was one that brought together his two great literary loves in one volume: a book that was both an issue book and a graphic novel. What could be better? El Deafo won a much deserved Newbery Honor last year, hopefully making it the first graphic novel to be honored among many. The characters are all rabbits, but the story is based on the author’s own childhood. Cece loses her hearing and must adjust to having an awkward hearing aid, but one that soon helps her hear in places that no one else can. It’s a story that’s both serious and funny.

BalletBoy’s Serious Read
The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne
BalletBoy generally refuses to listen to any books I suggest for him so he always runs through the shelves and finds his own interesting titles, often of books I’ve never heard of. That was the case with this book, which is a sort of fanciful tale about a boy who is born floating. In a twist a bit like the classic Rudolph Christmas special, Barnaby’s parents are ashamed of his unusual state and do everything they can to hide it, that is until Barnaby floats away to have a series of adventures. BalletBoy really loved this book and immediately dove into another book by Boyne (who is probably best known as the author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). I only skimmed a bit of it, but I can’t say I was as enchanted as he was, still, I think the fairy tale and moral qualities of the story appealed to him as a reader.

Farrar’s YA Read
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
This Printz award winner from last year begins like a typical teenage boy book. Narrator Austin is a bit of a stoner, a bit funny, a bit confused about his sexuality, and a bit disgusting in the way that teen boys can be. However, after introducing the characters, the book slowly veers into science fiction as a virus that ends the world by turning people into giant bugs is unleashed thanks to a series of accidents. This was one of those darkly fascinating books for me. It really stayed with me for weeks afterward and I liked how the book swung from being one sort of book to being another entirely. Austin’s voice reminded me a little of the main character from Youth in Revolt – a teenage boy who is both disgusted with himself and yet unable to stop himself when it comes to poor decisions. But by the end of the book, it felt like I was in a comedic Starship Troopers. This book is definitely not for everyone, but I liked what Smith had to say in his thank yous about how he wrote it just for himself, just because. Obviously, that led to a unique, interesting book.

Farrar’s YA Graphic Novel Read
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
I read this all in one sitting because I was so compelled once it got started (I know, not so hard for a graphic novel, but still). The setting is a sort of alternate universe where medieval values and trappings live alongside modern technology. At the start, the title character Nimona, a young teen with a medieval punk look, offers her services to the most famous super villain, a man who washed out of being a knight after his arm was destroyed in a jousting explosion. It quickly becomes clear that Nimona, who happens to be a shapeshifter, is dangerously unstable and bloodthirsty. The story makes you feel for her despite the high body count she racks up. But as the story continues, it becomes less clear who the good guys and bad guys even are and what Nimona is as well. I highly recommend this one to anyone who likes a good graphic novel. I liked the balance it struck between humor and seriousness.