Category Archives: Children’s Books

Grown Up Science Books for Middle Schoolers

One of the things I wanted to emphasize in my book about homeschooling middle school (which you can still buy!) is how your middle schoolers reaching this new age makes them more fun to teach. You get to learn alongside them more. They have the ability to learn more complex information and discuss it in new ways, with new depth.

For science, that includes reading adult level nonfiction for many middle schoolers. It’s good to start slow with this sort of nonfiction. Read it aloud. Ask students to read articles. Magazines like National Geographic are a good place to start. But once they can do it, it opens up such a huge world of nonfiction reading, especially in the realm of science. Americans struggle with science textbooks and we all know that the science program options are limited for homeschool students. However, the amount of great science nonfiction for adults is terrific.

“Just read,” is also good advice for some kids for science and history in the middle grades. It’s great when you can do more and get hands on, but it’s also okay if you don’t have a formal curriculum and focus instead on engaging with good books and films. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are a few ideas to get you and your middle schooler started on reading popular adult nonfiction.

Image result for the planets dava sobelThe Planets by Dava Sobel
The Science: Astronomy, specifically covering the planets.
Difficulty: It’s a very short book, which makes it useful for kids without much reading stamina. The text is very poetic, which can be a barrier for some readers.
Why Read It: Sobel is a great writer and this little volume is just beautiful. It combines the history, the science, and the poetry and art about each planet in our solar system (and includes Pluto, since it’s a little older). This is a great read for a middle school astronomy study.

Image result for longitude dava sobelLongitude by Dava Sobel
The Science: History of science, geography and engineering, specifically the engineering of clocks
Difficulty: It’s very short, which makes it within reach for many younger readers.
Why Read It: Who says history of science can’t be fun? This book was so compelling that it was even made into a mini-series. This would be a great addition to early modern history for a science lover.

Image result for in the shadow of manIn the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall
The Science: Zoology, specifically the study of chimpanzees and a little about other primates.
Difficulty: This book is a very easy read overall. Goodall’s talkative style is what made it such a bestseller.
Why Read It: Most of the books on this list are by science writers or scientists writing about the science done by other people. This book is Goodall’s primary account of her own scientific studies. It discusses her methodologies and thought processes, as well as her observations. This is a science primary source. Aside from the fact that it’s just an interesting, compelling read, and enlightening about one of our closest biological cousins, it’s also important to read scientists writing about their own work sometimes.

Image result for michio kaku physics of the impossiblePhysics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
Science: Physics, primarily theoretical physics and astrophysics, with a little bit of engineering thrown in.
Difficulty: The concepts in some of these chapters get pretty heady if you’re not already versed in the basics of physics. The writing is accessible though, and the coolness factor helps make it more appealing. Still, not a book for a reluctant reader. One nice perk is that chapters stand alone, so someone can read a few parts they’re most interested in.
Why Read It: Kaku is one of the best writers when it comes to things like theories of multiple dimensions and time travel. This book covers all of the “cool” and out there physics concepts that young people like to imagine, like time travel and transporters.

Image result for the disappearing spoonThe Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
Science: Chemistry, specifically the elements.
Difficulty: This isn’t an easy book and it’s not short, but lots of interested middle schoolers have made their way through it. For interested students who need an easier read, there’s a new young reader’s edition that looks good, though I haven’t personally checked it out yet.
Why Read It: Kean’s account makes the Periodic Table much more interesting than anything else I’ve ever read on the subject. Little stories about each element’s uses and discovery make it really come to life. Parents should note there are a few adult leaning references, but I wouldn’t call it risque. This is a popular middle school read.

Image result for gulp mary roachGulp by Mary Roach
Science: Anatomy, specifically human digestion, with a lot of odd detours into side sciences.
Difficulty: The text is easy and talkative, however, Roach references a lot of popular culture and uses humor that might go above some younger students’ heads.
Why Read It: Mary Roach is one of the best science writers working today and her ability to make odd branches of science interesting is unsurpassed. A lot of the science she discusses is on the fringes, such as technology to see inside the body or the budding science of fecal transplants. However, in the process, she talks about the basics of digestion and generally gives insight into how scientists think and the difficulties of the human body. In addition to the books mentioned here, any of Roach’s work could be of interest to this age group, though she does occasionally tackle adult subjects, such as sex, in her writing.

Image result for packing for mars mary roachPacking for Mars by Mary Roach
Science: Astrophysics and engineering, as well as more odd detours into side sciences.
Difficulty: All of Roach’s books have the same feel. They’re easy to read and she’s a talkative writer, but she also references pop culture and has a quick wit that might be too fast for some younger students.
Why Read It: Yet again, Roach’s sense of humor and ability to make science seem fun and approachable is unmatched. In this book, she imagines all the different aspects of getting ready to take humans to Mars, which includes a lot of the little practicalities like food, toilets, beds, and clothes. Parents should note that there is a chapter about sex in space. When I assigned this book for school, we just skipped that one.

Image result for surely you're joking mr feynmanSurely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman
Science: Feynman was a physicist, but this book just touches on his work and is more of a memoir.
Difficulty: This is an easy read. Feynman’s charm was part of what made him a popular figure, and it comes through in this writing.
Why Read It: This book isn’t so much enlightening about science itself, but rather what drives a person to be interested in science, how creative thinkers in science think, and how to approach problem solving in science. The memoir is really about various episodes in Feynman’s life and he tells little stories about the internal clock, lock picking, ant trails, and other things. He talks a good bit about his work on the atomic bomb here as well. Parents should note that there are references to things like drinking, drugs, and a nude models in a chapter about art, as well as some risque language. The opening chapters, which are much cleaner, can be read on their own if you want to tackle the book, but not deal with trickier conversations.

Image result for the soul of an octopusThe Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
Science: Zoology, especially animal cognition, or how animals think
Difficulty: Montgomery has an easy, engaging style. It’s not for reluctant readers, but most interested middle schoolers could tackle this one. It’s also a perfect length and filled with light anecdotes.
Why Read It: Many middle schoolers are deeply interested in animals and zoology, so this is a great tie in for that interest and hopefully would expand a student’s interest from pets to more unusual animals. It tackles a lot of bigger questions about how animals think and how aware they really are of us and the world around them. There aren’t easy answers to these questions and our understanding of them is changing all the time, so the juicy discussions you can potentially have from a book like this are excellent.

Image result for the code bookThe Code Book by Simon Singh
Science: Cryptography, the science of codes
Difficulty: It’s not for reluctant readers, but this is definitely a book middle schoolers can tackle. The math can get a bit hard to understand, but the historical anecdotes help the whole story feel engaging. There’s also a young reader’s edition. I use that in my Simplify class about codes. I’ll be teaching a mini-version of that course, including with the young reader’s edition, again this summer.
Why Read It: Secret codes are so much fun to learn about. This is a topic that I think inherently appeals to middle schoolers. Plus, it shows off how math has practical applications and how interdisciplinary topics like history, politics, math, archaeology, and science really are. There are a lot of fun ways you can extend this as well, by doing cryptoquote puzzles or writing you own codes.

Is It High School Worthy?

Look, you are in charge of your own homeschool. Your kids are your kids. You know them and what they’re capable of. Lots of people have special situations and the joy of homeschooling is that you can cater to what your kids need. It’s absolutely great that we can tailor a class around a student who needs remedial texts or extra supports.

However, if you’re writing a high school curriculum and including multiple books that the publisher recommends for grades 3-7 or grades 4 and up or ages 9-14… then maybe you need to rethink. And if you’re looking at high school programs that are based around multiple books that are geared toward upper elementary and middle school readers, I beg you to think long and hard about whether you’re doing your student a disservice. In the last couple of days, I looked at two different programs that did this that claimed to be high school level and I’ve seen others in the past. I worry that some homeschool parents aren’t choosing these for kids who specifically need lower level reading or an easy class, but because they simply don’t realize that this is not appropriate for most students.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes children’s books can help illuminate a subject in a new way. I used to read Yertle the Turtle to kick off a study of the French Revolution when I was teaching high school history in the classroom. I always recommend to students doing their own research that if a topic is truly brand new to them, to start with children’s reference books, which break information down in a way nearly anyone can approach. Heck, I do it for myself for topics I don’t know much about. Plus, some books are timeless. A student can listen to The Little Prince as a young child and get one meaning, then read it again as a young adult and find a new one. I just included the fable-like Haroun and the Sea of Stories in the high school program I’m writing. It doesn’t have one right age range or message.

However, it is our job as parents and teachers to push our kids to read beyond children’s books in our homeschools. That same high school program I’m writing also includes classic literature like Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. There’s no one canon students should read. However, I strongly believe high school students should be reading classic literature, both recent and ancient. Students should be engaged with difficult texts. They should be learning to engage with meaty books and primary source texts. When they read about history or science, it should be books written for older teens or adults.

We should not send kids to college who got credit for doing all their history reading for four years in graphic novel form or studied science with books intended for 7th graders. We should not send students to college who have only ever read young adult literature. I love YA books and they include many literary gems. Including a few YA books for required reading in high school is a great thing to do. However, it should not happen at the expense of reading more difficult books as well. Kids need to be challenged in their reading.

Not sure what high school students should be able to read? No matter how you feel about Common Core or actually using any of the ideas in your homeschool, the exemplars text list will give you a sense of what most American college track students are expected to read. The high school books include titles like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. As much as I enjoy quality YA and middle grades books, they will not prepare a student to suddenly be able to dive into texts with that level of complexity. I want my kids to be able to read books like that because they’re important, essential books.

Earlier this year, I ranted about how we protect our kids from difficult topics in history and culture too far into their education. High school students have to be confronted with the real history of slavery, the Holocaust, and other such difficult and controversial topics. However, I think we’re not doing it in a vacuum. A lot of families are giving their kids an exciting middle school level set of readings for high school. That’s in terms of both emotion and reading level. I’m really begging you. If you have a bright or average homeschooled teen, look at your reading lists and make sure you haven’t dumbed them down or bought into a program that dumbs down an appropriate education.

Puzzles, Codes, and… online classes

At the moment, I’m up to my ears in secret codes, brain teasers, riddles, and logic puzzles. Seriously! I’m in the midst of planning one of the classes that we’re offering for middle schoolers over at Simplify Homeschool.

Part of me is nervous about all the balls we have up in the air right now. We’re still podcasting, still helping clients, and we have a high school humanities core that’s about three quarters finished and currently being beta tested by Mushroom and BalletBoy (I’ll post most about that soon, but BalletBoy gives it a thumbs up and Mushroom grumbles about it, though that can be said about his  reaction to nearly everything except attending theater performances these days). But now we’re also starting these online classes! It’s a big undertaking. Our class page just went live, so you can actually sign up now (or share, please share for us!). I think I’m actually most excited about keeping my feet a little bit in with the middle school world. Middle schoolers are the best people.

But more about those codes and puzzles!

The book I’m using for the class is a young reader’s edition of an adult book. I love young reader’s editions because they bring content that’s almost within young people’s reach to within their grasp. This one is The Code Book by Simon Singh. The one with the blue cover is the young reader’s edition. As I go, I have also had the Murderous Maths book Codes: How to Make Them and Break Them by Kjartan Poskitt sitting at the table with me as well as the Murderous Maths book that covers permutations and combinations, Do You Feel Lucky, also by Kjartan Poskitt. If you don’t know Murderous Maths, they’re so fun and whimsical. While they look like books for younger kids (and can be appreciated by them sometimes), the math is mostly at a middle school level. The other two books I’ve been looking at that are excellent are Top Secret by Paul Janeczko and a cheapie Dover book called Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing that’s by the esteemed Martin Gardiner.

The math of the codes is really fun. I feel like we don’t do enough math of counting and probability with students, and this is closely tied to that.

However, I have to admit that my real passion when it comes to puzzles is word puzzles, not math ones. I love a good crossword. I love puzzles like the trivia puzzles on the NPR show Ask Me Another even more. Or the sorts of mystery puzzles that are in Art Fraud Detective or The Great Art Scandal by Anna Nilsen. I thought about using those mystery books for the class, or the wonderful art mystery series for upper elementary and middle school that begins with Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett. But instead, I decided there’s really no other book series for puzzles than Eric Berlin’s Winston Breen mysteries. Each book is packed full of puzzles, most of them the sort of witty word puzzles with anagrams and so forth that I love. Eric Berlin also runs an amazing puzzle service that’s free called Puzzle Your Kids, that you should absolutely sign your kids up for if you have any interest.

This is all just to say… teaching is fun. Hopefully teaching online will be fun. And if nothing else, I got to dig through a lot of great resources, which is almost always my favorite thing to do.

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.