Category Archives: Children’s Books

Math With No Numbers

Can you do math without numbers? The answer is obviously yes.

Several years ago, I read about someone asking for more math problems without numbers and thought to myself, huh? What’s that even mean? What would it look like? From there, I discovered the vintage book Problems Without Figures by S.Y. Gillian.

Reading on, I discovered exactly what a math problem with no numbers looked like.

If you know the width of one stripe on a United States flag, how can you find the total width of the red stripes?

See what I mean? In order to answer the question, students need to know how many stripes are on the flag and how many are red. They need to understand that to find the total width, they’ll need to choose an operation. In this case, they need multiplication. And in order to answer the question, they’ll have to explain it, because the problem doesn’t tell you the width. The only way to answer is by explaining your process.

See how sneaky a numberless problem is? Sometimes numbers worm their way in there, and several of the problems in the original book did include a number or two. However, most of them were like the problem above. They made students really think about the process of solving the problem.

When students face a word problem, they often revert to pulling all the numbers out and “doing something” to them. They want to add, subtract, multiply, or divide them, sometimes without really considering which operation is the right one to perform or why. When you don’t have numbers, it sidesteps that problem. For students who freeze up when they see the numbers, this can be a really good way to get them to think about their process with math.

That’s been an increasing focus in the wake of Common Core to get kids to be able to show that they understand the math they do. This is a very old fashioned approach that does exactly that.

However, when I first read Problems Without Figures, I saw that Denise Gaskins, the author of the excellent Let’s Play Math, pointed out that it could really use a rewrite. Excited to give it a try before using it with my own kids, I did just that for the first few dozen problems and went on to use them off and on with my kids over the last few years.

Recently, I pulled out the book again and decided to give it a full facelift and publish it. Some of the problems just have updated language. However, for many others, updating didn’t seem to make a ton of sense. Take this gem:

I know the length of a field in rods and the width in feet, how can I find how many acres it contains?

Kids are barely familiar with acres today and rods are entirely bygone as a system of measurement. Some problems like this got rewritten. I added problems with meters, for example. However, some of the problems just needed a totally new take. I tried to add a lot more problems about figuring out how to navigate all the choices we have nowadays.

If you plan to leave approximately a 20% tip on your restaurant bill, what’s a quick way to calculate that amount?

Overall, this was a really fun project. I hope other people find it useful! You can find it on Amazon.

Using Picture Books to Teach Short Answer Questions

Click here for a PDF of some examples to try this with your middle schoolers.

Ah, the “short” answer question. We all know that the answers to these aren’t short, especially not when you first start getting them and they feel like you’re practically writing an essay in response. They appear on tests, on reading comprehension sheets, on all kinds of assignments starting by the end of middle school and continuing all through college.

A lot of kids (and Mushroom is one) seem to get these from the get go. They understand more or less how to structure an answer to one of them. It still takes them practice. Some of the things kids struggle with when give complex questions include:

  • Not answering all the different parts of the question.
  • Not giving any specific examples from the text.
  • Not giving any quotes from the text,  even when prompted to do so.
  • Having trouble finding evidence from the text.
  • Answering the question in overly vague terms, such as, “Yes, they do,” or, “He’s really good at it,” or other such answers that may be correct, but are too unspecific.
  • Not drawing a connection between the different parts of an answer to make it clear that they go together in one, overall answer to the question.

Basically, learning to do these questions takes practice.

But sometimes, there’s a kid who just can’t do them at all. BalletBoy was such a kid.

I should not have been surprised. After all, this was the same student who could read a detailed children’s book, understand all the information, and then, when faced with writing a summary, write a meandering summary of one detail mentioned on the fourth page and all the things he knew about it, most of which weren’t mentioned in the book at all.

So, what do we do when faced with a student who is stuck? Always, take it backward. Back it up and see if you can make it simpler.

I pulled out the picture books and made him dive in with some questions about those instead. We started with The Sneeches. How does McBean exploit the sneeches and what is Seuss trying to say about capitalism? I pulled out One Morning in Maine next. How does McCloskey highlight the theme of growth and change over and over in the story?

Each time we tried another question, he got a little better at it. He wasn’t especially good at first, but with the books he’s reading for school, he’s often struggling with the content. It’s meant to be a little challenging so that’s fine, as long as the struggle isn’t too much. However, struggling with the content of the books and the questions was too much, especially when these types of in depth questions are still a little new. So instead, practicing the questions on content that he is decidedly not struggling with at all, like picture books, has been a good call.

The best part was that after we had done a few picture books, he said, “That really helped.” Guys, that’s about at effusive as the praise gets with thirteen year-olds, especially for school subjects.

Anyway, if you want to try this, pull the picture books off your shelves and just make up questions. I think fairy tales and folk tales would also work well for this. And, to get you started, I wrote up some of the questions we’ve used and threw in a few more since we’ll likely keep doing this off and on to practice different types of reading questions.

You can download the questions I made by clicking HERE or on the image at the top.

Short But Meaty: Middle School Books for Less Prolific Readers

You may dream of reading thick classics of literature, long YA historical novels, and piles of other great works in middle school. But not all kids are up for those choices. Some kids read fine but rebel at required literature. Others have reading issues. Others excel at nonfiction and want to keep their required books as short as possible. Basically, there are lots of reasons that the dream of starting in on the canon of Western lit may not be happening at your house like you anticipated.

And so I give you an alternative to giving up: the short but meaty middle school novel. Middle grades and young adult novels started becoming tomes in the wake of Harry Potter two decades ago. But many older classics are shorter. What follows is a list of twenty books that are all about 200 pages or less (page counts can vary greatly by edition, obviously). All of them have rich themes, language, or both.

2839

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Pages: 143
Difficulty: This book is fairly easy to understand.
What it’s about: A boy becomes friends with a new girl who lives nearby and they invent an imaginary world together, where she encourages his love of art and imagination.
Why it’s worth the read: This book tends to starkly divide readers, which is interesting in and of itself. The very jarring, sudden death of one of the main characters causes some readers to feel betrayed by the quiet narrative up to that point. However, the author wrote the book that way on purpose to try and reflect her own child’s experience of a friend’s death. There are class and economic themes as well as family relationships all worth discussion, but the main theme of grief is the reason to read this story.

47281Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Pages: 137
Difficulty: This is a very easy read in language and style.
What it’s about: This is the story of how a Danish girl and her family help their Jewish friends escape to safety on the eve of being rounded up by the Nazis. It’s one of the gentlest Holocaust related novels you’ll find.
Why is it worth the read: The writing isn’t a standout, but the themes around the Holocaust are really important ones and discussion of the true story of how the people of Denmark saved so many Jews from the Nazis is a really inspiring story. It’s told with such a child’s innocence and exploring how that innocence changes during the novel is an interesting topic of discussion.

22232Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Pages: 186
Difficulty: This is a fairly easy read.
What it’s about: A formerly homeschooled girl begins attending a suburban high school and really shakes things up. The narrator slowly develops a crush on her but has to figure out how important fitting in is to him.
Why is it worth the read: The tension between conformity and individuality is basically the tension for all middle schoolers. Discussing Stargirl and Leo’s various choices is one of the meatiest discussions you’re likely to get at this age for many kids.

3636The Giver by Lois Lowry
Pages: 208
Difficulty: This book is very much on the easy end.
What it’s about: A boy grows up in a seemingly perfect society and is chosen to become the next Giver. However, as he acquires knowledge his peers and even parents lack, he may never fit in again.
Why is it worth the read: The ideas and themes that are thought provoking and discussion worthy in this dystopian novel. Imagining a world without color and passion can spark discussion, as can the costs of living in a utopia where everything is orderly. What are we willing to give up for such a world? What is the value of conformity? The ending of the book is nebulous (there are sequels, though they don’t pick up the story right away) and talking about why the book ends where it does is also worth the time.

18131A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Pages: 211
Difficulty: It’s not a hard read, but for a novel that has a great deal of plot, it also has a lot of discussion of ideas, which may not carry all readers forward very easily.
What it’s about: This book is difficult to describe. In a nutshell, Meg, her brother, Charles Wallace, and her new friend Calvin, are taken by three mysterious alien women to help save Meg and Charles Wallace’s father, who is being held captive on a strange, evil planet.
Why is it worth the read: There’s an amazing looking film adaptation coming soon! If that’s not enough, the ideas about good and evil are thought provoking and worth discussing. Readers may identify with how Meg often feels like she’s not the special one. Exactly what makes IT so evil, and what makes the darkness so pervasive and how we see it in our own world are all wonderful discussion topics. The science tie ins to dimensional theory and hyperspace may also hook some readers.

598117Sounder by William Armstrong
Pages: 116
Difficulty: The language in this is pretty simple, but the fact that it’s slow moving in places as well as a small amount of colloquialisms and dialect can make it a little harder for some readers.
What it’s about: This is a coming of age novel about a black boy in a sharecropping family. He and his dog, Sounder, survive hardships after his father is imprisoned.
Why is it worth the read: This Newbery gem isn’t read like it used to be. However, its depiction of racial issues and poverty in the Jim Crow south still have a lot of resonance. Reading this book and pairing it with some modern discussion of how small tickets and fines can keep poor people always under water would be a good way to bring the issues even more to the forefront. The language is stark but beautiful, so it’s also worth a read for the writing. There are many other great books by African American authors that are commonly read in middle school, but most of them are a lot longer. This is one of the shortest books on this list.

1852Call of the Wild by Jack London
Pages: 172
Difficulty: The vocabulary level and excellent descriptions make this a difficult read for many kids. It’s a good stretch book for middle schoolers.
What it’s about: Buck is a well cared for city dog who is sent to the Alaskan wilderness and must learn to survive.
Why is it worth the read: Obviously, this book is worth a read for its status as a classic. It’s a good choice for nature lovers since the power and cruelty of nature are major themes. The descriptions of the landscape are excellent, as well as Buck’s transformation as the story goes on. The whole theme of survival of the fittest is one that’s full of meaty discussion potential.

84981Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
Pages: 132
Difficulty: This book is fairly easy.
What it’s about: The Tuck family has the ability to live forever. A young girl, Winnie, joins them, but learns that their lives are not all others might imagine.
Why is it worth the read: Babbitt is just a great storyteller and created a very good fable in this book. The language is easy to read but rich with metaphors. The book begs the reader to consider immortality for themselves and what they would do in Winnie’s place.

231804The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Pages: 192
Difficulty: Some of the bygone language may throw kids off, but overall it’s not a very difficult book.
What it’s about: This is a story of 1950’s era teenage gangs. When a fight leads to a death of a rival gang member, the main characters have to deal with consequences of their actions.
Why is it worth the read: The themes of violence and youth are still ones that resonate today, especially with class overtones like in the novel. The extent to which people are a product of their environment and to which they can change their fates is also a theme. It’s also still just a compelling read for many kids.

4381Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Pages: 158
Difficulty: The language is somewhat old fashioned and may be difficult for some readers. The themes are definitely more adult than some other books on this list.
What it’s about: In a future dystopia, the main character has the job of burning books. However, as the story goes on, he begins to question whether or not that’s right.
Why is it worth the read: The themes definitely hit you over the head in this one. There’s nothing subtle about book burning as the story’s central plot. Even the melodrama in the characters’ personal lives is over the top. However, sometimes over the top is good for readers this age. And no one does over the top but thought provoking like Bradbury.

13642A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
Pages: 183
Difficulty: The language in this is definitely a stretch for some readers.
What it’s about: This is a coming of age story about a young man named Ged who becomes a wizard. He must grow up and undertake a quest to defeat a mysterious dark force that’s after him.
Why is it worth the read: This story is so dripping with archetypal plots and characters that it nearly bursts at the seams with them. It’s incredibly well-crafted and the writing is strong. However, introducing students to these recurring archetypes in writing is a must and this book is one of the best for doing that. Reading it will enhance any fantasy reader or movie watcher’s enjoyment of the genre by deepening their understanding of it.

18553The Cay by Theodore Taylor
Pages: 105
Difficulty: The old fashioned style of this book and the dialogue written in dialect may make it a slight stretch for some readers.
What it’s about: A boy is shipwrecked and blinded and must turn to an impoverished West Indian man to help him survive.
Why it’s worth the read: I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of this novel, but some people really love it. Taylor does a great job of building up the adventure and survival elements of the story and those are things that many students love. The racial and class issues at the heart of the story are obviously worthy of discussion. In some ways, the story feels a little pat by today’s standards, so that’s definitely something to bring up in thinking about the book as well.

87226Crash by Jerry Spinelli
Pages: 176
Difficulty: This is a pretty easy read.
What it’s about: Crash and Penn, two seventh grade students, are opposites in almost every way. A series of events bring them together and force Crash to change his bullying attitudes.
Why it’s worth the read: This book covers a great deal of ground in short time. There are references to literature, history, and religion. There is a lot about friendships and bullying as well as family relationships. Penn’s religious beliefs are worth a discussion. It’s also just a very identifiable “everyday kid” novel for most middle schoolers.

15595The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman
Pages: 128
Difficulty: The language is very sparse and easy, however, some of the style and historical terms might throw off some readers.
What it’s about: A young, homeless girl in the middle ages is taken in by a midwife and trained, but she may lose her confidence before she ever delivers a baby.
Why it’s worth the read: This book has one of the most amazing, beautiful passages in a children’s book about confidence and the loss of it. While the story is from the middle ages and the details are true to life then, the author does an amazing job of making the themes feel very contemporary and very much something middle schoolers will identify with, especially girls.

139253The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Pages: 110
Difficulty: This is a surprisingly easy read, though the style is probably different from what most students are used to and smatterings of Spanish may throw some students off.
What it’s about: This book is a series of short tales about a Latina girl growing up in Chicago.
Why it’s worth the read: The writing is often lyrical and compelling. The story looks at coming of age issues like identity through a different lens than most other novels. Racial identity and immigration are both strong themes of the book as well as women’s roles. It’s very short, but it packs in a lot of worthwhile topics to consider.

39963A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
Pages: 160
Difficulty: The language isn’t too difficult, but it’s not a breeze either.
What it’s about: These are short tales about a brother and sister and how they spend summers with their grandmother during the Depression.
Why it’s worth the read: This is a hilarious book. I can’t think of many books better for looking at characterization and humor in writing. The writing makes a great creative writing model as well.

24780The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
Pages: 190
Difficulty: The old fashioned language is denser than some students may expect, though the plot is straightforward.
What it’s about: Taran is an assistant pig-keeper who gets swept up in a quest and a fight against an invading bad guy with a prince when his magical pig is kidnapped.
What it’s worth the read: Like A Wizard of Earthsea, this book is a classic of fantasy and reading it brings a better understanding of the conventions of the genre as well as archetypes in literatures. It’s also just a very well crafted, well-written, classic quest story. It’s a good book to read for sense of place as the writing vividly brings to life a world that only exists in imagination.

24783Westmark by Lloyd Alexander
Pages: 184
Difficulty: The language is slightly dense. Some students may struggle with it.
What it’s about: This is a fantasy story without magic. In Westmark, Theo becomes a wanted man through a mistake and ends up traveling with a con man and a homeless girl who is more than she seems.
Why it’s worth the read: This series explores ideas related to the Enlightenment in a sort of fake European country of the 1800’s. It especially looks at what makes good governance, why freedom of the press is important, and how power corrupts. What people can morally do to survive when hunted by the law unjustly is also explored. This first volume of a series just touches on those issues, but it does it within a lively story and a short page count.

Homeless BirdHomeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
Pages: 192
Difficulty: The writing is pretty easy in this book.
What it’s about: A young girl is sent to an arranged marriage in India, but when she becomes a widow, she has to figure out how to make her own way, even though she’s still only a child.
Why it’s worth the read: Whelan is really good at conveying complex historical and contemporary themes in a simple way through a straightforward story. This is no exception. Gender, religion, and tradition are all strong themes in this book. The symbolism of the title and the various homes that Koly finds are good ways to look at symbolism. It’s excellent for learning about one side of contemporary Indian life (it would be wise to pair it with something else, such as a film, that shows other aspects). There are literary allusions to the great writer Tagore and reading some of his poetry would be a good tie in for the novel.

165149The Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi
Pages: 176
Difficulty: The language is fairly simple in this plot driven story.
What it’s about: A Korean family struggles with what to do as World War II ends and their country is divided, with them on the wrong side of the line. It’s written like a novel, but it’s actually a memoir of the author’s childhood.
Why it’s worth the read: This is a great look at history that has deep connections with current events today. It’s also a good story of political oppression and how individuals deal with it.

 

 

 

What We’re Reading

Read Alouds
The Austin Family books by Madeleine L’Engle
Loyal blog readers may recall that last year I held down my children and forced them to read L’Engle’s most famous work, A Wrinkle in Time, and they really disliked it. It was the moment I had to really face that they simply wouldn’t love the books I had loved. But luckily, I tried again on the L’Engle front (I was a bit obsessed with her as a middle schooler and the heartbreak at their refusal to enjoy her work was intense) to much, much better results. L’Engle’s Austin series, about a contemporary family and their everyday struggles, has been a much bigger hit here. The books focus on one of the middle children, Vicky, and her struggles to grow up and find her place in the world. In Meet the Austins, the family temporarily welcomes an orphan, Maggy, who was raised very differently than them.  They struggle to adjust her to their small town, positive thinking lifestyle. In The Moon By Night, the family takes a cross-country trip to visit Maggy in her new California home, all while Vicky is trying to figure out her place in the world. Vicky is twelve in the first book, but nearly fifteen in the second. There’s a romance with a young man, Zachary Gray, who they meet camping and who follows the family from campsite to campsite, in part to romance Vicky. He’s much more grown up and pessimistic than Vicky or her family and it creates one of the primary tensions in the book. We’ve just started the final book in the original set (there are a few others with Vicky that L’Engle wrote at other times), A Ring of Endless Light, which deals with the approaching death of Vicky’s grandfather while she helps a young scientist study dolphins and deals with Zachary’s attentions again.

The books were contemporary to L’Engle’s time as she wrote them, but that was the early 1960’s and they now read like historical fiction in many ways. References to “phonographs” and other outdated technology litter the pages, as well as early 60’s fears about nuclear war and slang vocabulary like “slob” and “beatnik.” Overall, the kids have loved the books. They have sparked lots of discussions about the philosophy shared in the books, the quotes, and the attitudes of Vicky and her family. The family are religious and artistic and thoughtful so there is often a great deal of food for thought. The rich, meandering sentences have also been great for longer dictations. However, the time period is also occasionally a barrier. The kids were shocked by the idea that it might be seen as acceptable in any way for a seventeen year old to follow a younger teen around the country when her parents didn’t approve and she was ambivalent. “He’s a stalker!” they said, something I’m guessing previous generations of readers didn’t take from Zachary’s behavior. In general, the romantic element of the story has been a mixed element for my 12 year olds, but that’s more of a reflection of their age than anything else.

Mushroom’s Pleasure Reading
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall
Mushroom has really been tearing through books lately and he read this one with a great deal of focus and interest. It focuses on our very own fair city in the 1960’s and features a work of art we’re well familiar with, The Throne of the Third Heaven, which we’ve visited many times at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The book explores an imagined friendship between the main character, a young boy who has just lost his father, and the “junk man” who is working on his artistic masterpiece. This book, which had a touch of deep thinking and a lot of interesting issues, was right up Mushroom’s reading alley. He had read a review of this one and wanted to read it right away.

BalletBoy’s Pleasure Reading
Click Here to Start by Dennis Markell
I picked this new book up a couple of months ago in Portland (it’s not a trip to Portland unless you get to go look at books in Powell’s!). It’s about a boy who uncle leaves him a treasure in his will, but only if he can find it in the escape room style game that he turns his apartment into. I like that this genre of fun, light mystery books for kids has been growing lately. Books like this one, the Winston Breen books, and the Lemoncello’s Library books are perfect for a certain sort of reader. Click Here to Start has an added video game motif running throughout the story. A perfect light read for both Mushroom and BalletBoy.

Graphic Novel Reading
Red’s Planet by Eddie Pittman
Pittman is a former Phineas and Ferb writer and artist. The story here, about a girl from Earth who accidentally finds herself in space, dealing with a motley crew of characters, is reminiscent of Zita the Spacegirl. The full color art is lovely and imaginative. So… you’d think with a pedigree like that and an appealing story line that this would have been a huge hit here, right? Meh, the boys said. It was just okay. I also felt like there was some magic missing in this one, though I can’t say exactly what. Overall, though, I think it’s as much that Mushroom and BalletBoy are starting to outgrow this particular level and style of graphic novels (just as they have really hit boom status in the marketplace). So I’ll say highly recommended… for the 8-10 year old set.

BalletBoy’s School Reading
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
This was a challenge book for BalletBoy. One of his school topics this year, chosen by him, was time travel, so it seemed like the time was ripe to do a classic novel like this. He didn’t love it and there were a lot of moments that we had to pick through it and discuss what was really going on. I remember reading it when I was younger and the narrative is unsatisfying in places, especially the abrupt resolution. However, the issues it brings up are interesting, with the two strains of humanity developing into the Eloi and the Morlocks. And Wells does a good job with the reveal of the time traveler’s realization of who the Morlocks really are. Overall, I’m glad I assigned it.

Mushroom’s School Reading
The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane by Russell Freedman
This was a Newbery honor book from several years ago. It was a great length with the right level of text for Mushroom covering the lives of the Wright Brothers. It interweaves the Wright brothers’ quotes and photos into the text. I assigned it as part of Mushroom’s study of the history and science of aviation, one of his big topics for the year. He read it fairy quickly and retained the information well. However, if this review sounds lackluster, it’s because the book was really just okay all the way around. The old photographs throughout the text were nice, but the book design feels woefully old fashioned compared to the layout of newer nonfiction books at this level. And we agreed that the text just wasn’t that amazing. I would like to see more nonfiction books under consideration for the Newbery in general, but we’re a little unsure what made this one such a standout.

Farrar’s YA Reading
American Girls by Alison Umminger
This YA novel was an interesting tale. Fifteen year old Anna “borrows” her step-mother’s credit card to run away and stay with her sister in Los Angeles for the summer. Back at home, things are a mess with her parents, her school, and her best friend. In LA, her older sister, an actor, helps her stumble into making some money doing research for a director who is filming a movie inspired by the Manson girls. She alternates time doing her research and hanging out on the set of what is basically a Disney sitcom, flirting with one of the stars. To say that there’s a lot going on here is an understatement and by no means are the loose threads all tied up in the end. The setting is a bit wild, as are all the Hollywood characters and the background information Anna keeps reflecting on about the Manson murders. I can’t say I loved this book, but in the end, it was a compelling story. Anna was believable and I liked how she kept managing to do all the wrong things by accident and with good intentions. I think that’s pretty much what being a teenager is like much of the time. Definitely a teen read what with the references to abuse, drugs, and other vices, but Anna herself is pretty tame and there’s nothing graphic going on here.

Our Favorite “Issue” Books

Not too long ago, I posted about how my kids just aren’t that into fantasy books. And I bemoaned it all. Alas! Alack! What I didn’t emphasize so much is how Mushroom in particular actually does like another sort of book that I wasn’t a huge fan of as a kid – books where kids have some sort of issue to overcome or face. We’re talking books with illness, death, depression, learning differences, and other such challenges for kids. These, for whatever reason, are right up Mushroom’s alley.

But that’s okay. “Issue” books, if done right, aren’t a bad thing at all. I talked about how fantasy helps kids face the darkness, and so do some of the books about death or illness in the real world. And they can give kids a different perspective on life, that of someone who is different abled or who had a unique experience. So I give you a list of some of our favorites, though keep in mind that this is just a taste of what’s out there. Some of these Mushroom has read and loved and others he has yet to discover, but they’re books I really like. There are some great young adult books in this category, but I stuck to books in the middle grades age for this list.

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
This is a book about a girl with cerebral palsy who is unable to control her movements or even communicate. Underneath, she’s brilliant, but until a computer arrives to help her speak, no one knows and everyone underestimates her, treating her like she can’t ever become smarter than a young child. This is a classic story of overcoming disability and others’ preconceptions. Draper is an amazing writer and Melody’s reality really comes to life in this book.
The Issues: Cerebral palsy and giftedness.
Appropriate for: Any age. This is one of those books that’s aimed solidly at middle schoolers. Like many on this list, it’s fine for younger readers, but best appreciated by about 9 or 10 years old and up.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
This book was such a smash hit that I’m sure most people are aware of it. It’s quickly becoming one of those modern classics that makes the “must” list for kid reading. Auggie has a deformity that is immediately obvious and causes most people to feel extremely uncomfortable or to shun him. For the first time in his life, he attends school and tries to fit in and make new friends. The story is told in changing voices that are extremely well done. Palacio has issued a second book of extra chapters or stories that can be added to the understanding of the characters.
The Issues: Physical deformities and bullying.
Appropriate for: Nearly any age, though it might be worth waiting a little on this one. Probably best appreciated by age 8 and up.

The Thing About Georgie by Lisa Graff
Georgie is an average kid with average problems. He and his best friend might be growing apart. A girl at school occasionally torments him. His parents are expecting a new baby and he’s not too happy about it. However, Georgie is also a little person and he worries that many of his problems stem from his size. This is a great little book because the problems Georgie faces are so relateable. However, Graff occasionally pauses the narrative with “assignments” for the reader, to illustrate how different life is for Georgie, how furniture, musical instruments, and the world in general just aren’t made for him.
The Issues: Being a Little Person (dwarfism).
Appropriate for: Any age. The reading level on this book is a nice lower end middle grades level as well.

Counting By 7’s by Holly Sloan
Early in the story, Willow’s parents die in a very unexpected accident, leaving her completely alone. Willow is a genius, profoundly gifted in a variety of ways, but stuck in a school where her talents are largely unrecognized. She seizes on to one of the only people she likes, a Vietnamese American girl who saw the same disaffected school therapist once a week. Willow manages to move in with the Nguyen family and slowly transforms their lives as well as the therapist who is supposed to be helping her.
The Issues: Parental death, learning disabilities, giftedness, and depression.
Appropriate for: The writing in this book is sparse and not too hard, but the perspective can feel very heavy and dark. Probably best enjoyed by age 9 or 10 and up.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
There’s so much packed into this little book, it’s pretty amazing. The narrator, Caitlin, has autism and is struggling to deal with her brother’s recent death in a school shooting. Through therapy sessions at school, new friendships with younger students, and finishing a project her brother started, she learns to get closure and move on. There are allusions to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird throughout the story, adding an extra layer of depth to an already packed tale.
The Issues: Autism, school shootings, and sibling death.
Appropriate for: This is one of those great books that straddles the gulf between middle grades novels and slightly more graphic or grown up young adult fare. The school shooting isn’t graphically described so younger kids who are more comfortable with dark fare should be okay with it and it’s not a difficult read, but especially with all the literary allusions, I’d save it for about age 9 or 10 and up, just because most kids will get more out of it at a slightly older age.

El Deafo by Cece Bell
This is a graphic memoir about the author’s youth growing up deaf. Bell became mostly deaf at a young age and was helped to hear in a mainstream classroom by a special device that her teachers wore that would broadcast their voices right into her ears. At first, she felt like an outcast, but as time went on, she came to see it as a superpower, especially when she realized that she could hear the teachers gossip or use the bathroom when they forgot to turn it off. The art in this book – the characters are all rabbits – is very sweet. I’ve mentioned it on my blog before because it’s one of Mushroom’s all time favorites. The messages are all positive and it’s one of those stories that can be enjoyed by kids of all ages.
The Issues: Deafness.
Appropriate for: Any age. The reading level is relatively low. Great as a “serious” graphic novel read for a reluctant reader.

Joey Pigza Swallowed a Key by Jack Gantos
So many books feature kids who are contemplative or quiet or generally “good” kids. That’s not this book. Joey is a kid who can’t sit still, who constantly makes the wrong choices, who simply can’t seem to help himself from bouncing off the walls. I have to admit that while my kids liked a lot of Gantos’s other work (and if you ever have a chance to see him speak, he’s a great speaker!), this series wasn’t for them. However, I love Joey and have seen some former students who really identified with these books. I’m glad they’re out there and they’re definitely worth a read for a lot of kids. These are funny, fun books.
The Issues: ADHD and divorce.
Appropriate for: Any age. Gantos does a great job of explaining how Joey is “wired” differently. However, I suspect that many younger kids wouldn’t fully understand that Joey’s “bad” behavior isn’t entirely his fault, so I wouldn’t automatically hand it to a precocious young reader. Written at about a 4th grade level.

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer Holm
This is a graphic novel with bright and cheerful artwork, but a darker subject gets introduced partway through the story. Sunny has gone to stay with her grandfather in his retirement community. At first, it’s like a vacation, but soon it becomes clear that she’s there because her family needs to deal with drug and alcohol abuse by her brother back at home. The story doesn’t really flinch from showing the negative behavior that her brother’s drug use led to. However, it also has the humor that’s characteristic of all of Holm’s books. Overall, a great book.
The Issues: Drug and alcohol abuse.
Appropriate for: We liked this book, but I think the marketing on it really missed the mark. We even saw Holm discuss the book before we happened to read it and had no concept that it was an issue book that dealt with some dark moments. The cover and back flap make it sound light and fun. When you add in that in the graphic novel world the Holm siblings are mostly known for the younger kid friendly Babymouse and Squish series and that the reading level on this graphic novel isn’t much higher, the drug abuse seemed to come out of left field. I would say at least age 8 or 9 and up unless it’s a topic that a younger child already has some familiarity with because of family history. And because the reader may be expecting a different sort of story, introducing it by saying that it covers some difficult issues is probably a good idea for any readers who don’t like to be blindsided.

Crash by Jerry Spinelli
I could have put a lot of Spinelli’s books on this list, but this one, about a bully in the process of reforming, is one of his best. The main character is a stereotypical jock who likes to pick on a stereotypical underdog. However, when his uncle suffers a stroke, he begins to understand how his priorities have been all wrong. From the outside, the book sounds pat, since the former bully and his former victim become friends. However, Spinelli’s writing and good characters manage to help the book transcend the afterschool special cliches.
The Issues: Bullying and family illness/disability.
Appropriate for: Any age. The social and friendship issues covered make this book best for about age 9 or 10 and up. It’s written at about a fourth or fifth grade level.

A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass
This is one of my favorites and definitely by favorite by Mass. The main character, Mia, has a secret that she’s kept for many years. She can see sounds and numbers have colors. Mia has a love-hate relationship with her abilities. She loves them but she also worries it makes her different from everyone else and it makes math incredibly difficult. However, early in the story, she realizes that it’s part of a condition called synnesthesia. The rest of the story is about Mia coming to terms with her condition as part of her identity and helping the people around her understand her better. Unlike a lot of the books on this list, Mia doesn’t have a huge amount of hardship to endure (her condition acts like a learning disability in some cases and she deals with tricky middle school growing up stuff). However, it’s a great one for getting into the head of someone who sees the world differently.
The Issues: Synesthesia, a condition that’s like having your senses wired incorrectly.
Appropriate for: This is one of those books that’s on the bubble between middle grades and young adult. There’s nothing inappropriate per se, but there is some mild romance and a tiny bit of early teenage rebellion. Fine for nearly any age, but probably best appreciated by 9 or 10 and up. The writing is right at that level as well.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
This is our current read aloud and I’m remembering what a good job Creech does interweaving all the different threads of the story together. I’m about to give major spoilers in this blurb, so apologies. The main character, Sal, is on a cross-country trip with her grandparents to visit her mother. Along the way, they encounter adventures and she spins a tale, ostensibly of her friend Phoebe, though Phoebe’s story has some parallels to her own, as well as some big differences. The book does a good job of portraying Phoebe and Sal’s different reactions of anger as well as drawing out the mystery of what happened to Sal’s mother. The realization that she died isn’t entirely unexpected, but it’s nice the way Sal’s refusal to accept her mother’s death keeps the reader questioning whether their own instincts can possibly be correct.
The Issues: Parental depression and death (spoiler!)
Appropriate for: Another book that’s really tailor made for the middle school age. Nothing inappropriate, though the early romantic tension between some of the kids gives it a slightly older feel. Fine for any age, but best appreciated by age 9 or 10 and up. The writing is perfect for 5th or 6th grade level.

I, Funny by James Patterson
I feel funny including one of Patterson’s churned out ghostwritten novels on a recommended list, but honestly, this series has been so beloved by both my boys that I feel like I couldn’t not toss it in here. Obviously this is on the light end as “issues” goes and the writing isn’t as stellar as some on this list. However, there’s a sweetness to this concept and a sensitivity in how Patterson and co-author Grabenstein deal with it. Jamie Grimm wants to be a stand up comedian, but he can’t stand up because he’s permanently in a wheelchair. However, a nationwide contest may be his ticket to fame and humor. This one is perfect for kids who want a mix of light and dark in their reading.
Issues: Physical disabilities, parental death, and adoptive families.
Appropriate for: Any age, though I wouldn’t recommend it as a read aloud. It’s a longer book in terms of page count, but the writing is a very easy read. There are illustrations throughout.

The Book of Marvels

IMG_0971

You may know that some homeschoolers have a bit of a mania for old books. In a lot of circles, older = better. I’m not of that mindset entirely. For one thing, a lot of old books are riddled with racism, sexism, and incorrect or outdated information. Others just aren’t that great and never really were. But every once in awhile, we find a gem.

The Complete Book of Marvels by Richard Halliburton is such a gem. I picked it up to possibly read bits of as part of our geography unit this spring and I have fallen in love with it a little bit. Halliburton was a well known name back in the 1930’s when he was writing and traveling constantly. However, he disappeared (and almost certainly died) in an accident in the Pacific Ocean just before the US entered World War II and his name was mostly forgotten. Now, this book, a compendium of his greatest two-volume work, is tragically out of print.

The book covers several dozen “wonders” all over the world. Halliburton gives background or history about the place and then launches into a sort of second person plural voice, guiding “us” by saying where we step, what we see, what smells waft past us, and how we got there. He has based his telling on his own experiences, of course. The wonders themselves range from places of great natural beauty like Victoria Falls to modern cities like New York to ancient ruins like the Great Wall of China and famous castles like Carcassone. Many of Halliburton’s choices are unexpected. I have to admit that even as a pretty well-versed traveler, a few were basically unknown to me.

It’s a snapshot of the world between the wars. He visits the Soviet Union, colonial Indochina, and even meets Ibn Saud on the outskirts of Mecca. We liked looking at the chapter about our own city, seeing the Mall with just a few scant museums, the patches of trees that are long gone in aerial photos, and the general sense of the city of eighty years ago.

It’s important to note that Halliburton was a man of his time. He assumes a white, Christian, American audience. Multiple echoes of subtle racism pop up throughout. For example, the Europeans of Pompeii are “just like us” but the daily life of the Aztecs was “savage.” Non-white groups often get labeled with wilder adjectives in Halliburton’s writing. It’s something to discuss if you’re attempting to be a culturally sensitive reader but except in a few places, it was manageable as long as we could discuss it and the quality of the book overall offset my problems with it. However, there’s one chapter where I nearly lost my taste for his work. Don’t read the chapter on Timbuctoo. I pre-read it aghast twice. It’s a pretty bizarre tale that involves him alternately trying to indulge and beat (yes, hit) two children who are supposedly slaves (I say supposedly because while I’m sure slavery continued in Timbuktu even after the French outlawed it, I’m not sure if these children were really slaves or not given the story). It’s a pretty ghastly tale, not so much because anything extraordinarily bad happens (beyond the extraordinary evil of slavery in the first place) but because of the complete offhandedness and supposed humor with which he tells it. While he meets with Ibn Saud and marvels at the wonders of India or Japan or other non-white cultures, Halliburton comes off as open-minded and trying his (somewhat limited old time southern American) best to understand and respect the cultures he encounters. But when he goes to the heart of Africa, it all goes out the window and he’s baldly racist.

Luckily, the focus is mostly on the wonders themselves and, in the case of the architectural wonders, the civilizations that built them long ago. What does it feel like to climb Mt. Vesuvius or fly over Mt. Everest or emerge through the doors into Reims Cathedral? What does Angkor Wat really look like? What gives the spray from Iguazu Falls feel like? These are the sorts of questions that dominate the book and are definitely without issue. In those places, the text doesn’t feel old or stilted or out of date at all. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve read a chapter only to have the kids say with wonder, “Can we go there?” It’s because he makes the reader really want to see these places. The language has made wonderful dictation and copywork passages as well. He is a great writer with such vivid descriptions. I can easily see why he became a celebrity at one time.

I know that as classics go, Around the World in 80 Days is a common one to tackle with a geography study. We did read that as well recently. However, this book has been more fun in many ways. It covers more places. And because it’s mostly episodic, we have skipped our way through it a little bit, not reading absolutely everything. Since the book is out of print, if you’re in search, I would say $40 is a steal (that’s about what I paid), but it routinely costs more than double that so check your library. It joins the ranks of other great vintage books we’ve discovered through homeschooling like Grammarland and Builders of the Old World.

Reading Nonfiction

IMG_0722

A year ago, I got the kids the Horrible Geography box set from a used bookseller. These are some of the least known of the “Horrible” books and have a different author from any of them, but they’re in the same vein. Chapter books with wacky facts and silly titles that are meant to appeal to kids who like a good offbeat story.

I asked Mushroom and BalletBoy to read one for school and it was a huge bust. They hated it. They hated it because they were really struggling with reading nonfiction. I was seeing it across the board as I tried to get them to read things like The Scientist in the Field series or other longer nonfiction books. They simply couldn’t keep focused on most of them.

This came as a big surprise to me. Neither of my boys are precocious or voracious readers, but they were able to tackle meatier fiction books on their level. And we had been reading aloud piles of nonfiction for years. They always seemed to retain something from it, interrupting to discuss and ask questions that indicated they understood it. This was not to say they’re perfect listeners or anything, but I didn’t realize we’d have so many problems with nonfiction.

It was very frustrating. However, I decided to dial us back and focus on that skill. How could I help them get better at independently reading nonfiction and showing that they had grasped what they read? I ended up trying a variety of things and it meant taking them backward to simpler materials.

A few weeks ago, as we started a unit on geography, I asked the kids again to pull one of those unread Horrible Geography books off the shelf. This time, each kid took the book and flew through them in just a few assigned reading sittings then gave me a quick oral narration that showed they had understood what they read. That’s when I realized we had really come a long way on this issue and I’m pleased with what we did.

Here are some of the strategies I’ve been using to help them get better at reading nonfiction:

We backed up to much, much easier nonfiction.
While reading aloud more complex works was an exciting element of hitting the middle school years, I realized they just weren’t ready for reading the same things on their own. Thus, we went backward to reading things like the Who Was biographies, the Adler Picture Book Biography series, and other such simpler fare. I had to recognize that while these seemed too easy for them, a lot of the books I wanted them to read actually had higher reading levels, more like 7th and 8th grade. Plus, when you need to back up, it’s good to find your footing at a level where you can get really comfortable.

We focused on shorter readings.
Most of the read alouds we were up to were things we read over at least a day or two, but I realized for nonfiction practice, the shorter, the better. So while things like the Who Was books were good, they were actually too long in some ways. We needed things that were just a couple of pages. One great source for super short nonfiction pieces are some of the Cricket magazines, such as Muse and Dig.

I resorted to workbooks.
When it became clear that to BalletBoy, the “main idea” was whatever he took from the reading, however obscure the detail, I decided it was time to do some really basic work and bought a Main Ideas and Summarizing workbook during Scholastic Dollar Days. We didn’t even get halfway through with it before he had dramatically improved. Sometimes, it just takes a worksheet.

We used narration.
I started requiring more narration, both written and oral about everything they read. I also insisted that narrations contain the main ideas of what they read. Previously, I had been okay with more meandering narrations or narrations that focused more on their own reactions or on details they found interesting. I pushed them to do narrations that contained more summary and had them redo a lot of narrations for awhile.

We did more buddy reading.
While using worksheets was useful for BalletBoy, Mushroom needed a lot more of this technique. He’s not quite as strong a reader and tends to skip words when he’s flustered so making him slow down and read aloud was good, as was reading alongside him to help him when he got stuck.

We moved into articles for adults.
As they got a little better at reading, instead of moving to longer and more complex children’s books, we moved into reading news articles, typically about science or culture. While written for a general adult audience, these pieces were shorter and that was the key. They couldn’t read a long National Geographic article, but they could tackle a three or four page article from National Geographic’s History magazine, which turned out to be a good resource. Sources that have “Article of the Week” links were also good since they were specially chosen news articles for the classroom. Keeping things short meant they could read and not get lost in what they were reading about, even if the language and topic got a little more complex.

I let them pick their reading.
Practicing this skill was more important than me assigning specific readings and having some level of control can go a long way, so I usually gave them some level of choice about what to read. Even when I wanted them to read about a specific subject, such as last semester’s dinosaurs unit, I would spread out an array of different books for them to choose from. That’s one of the benefits of a decent library.