Category Archives: Children’s Books

Mushroom’s Techie Bookshelf

Mushroom shows off his BrickPi.
Mushroom shows off his BrickPi.

It has been interesting trying to foster a budding techie geek when I’m not really one myself. I’m not a computer ignoramus, mind you. I worked in the computer lab in college fixing routine problems and have picked up a lot of basic stuff. On the other hand, I’m not equipped to teach anyone what’s what, especially not for things like robotics or coding.

To some extent, I’ve just had to learn but I can’t say I’ve learned much. Mostly I’ve learned what to suggest that the kids themselves look into. This has been one of those beautiful things about being the parent of older kids. They sometimes know more about something than you! It’s so cool to see Mushroom excited about this stuff, talking a mile a minute about things I barely understand.

Since I’m so little use, luckily there are books and kits and so forth. Mushroom has taken to lugging some of them around sometimes, even hugging them and sticking them under his pillow. His joy when Make comes in the mail is off the charts. While a large part of his hobby is looking at projects, dreaming about the possibilities, and reading about how things are done, sometimes he also does things himself. He has gone through a lot of the most basic projects with his Raspberry Pi and Arduino. He did a project from Make turning his Pi into an old fashioned arcade games player and we downloaded lots of old games to play. He has gotten a really cool Brick Pi from Dexter Industries and begun to build little robots combining his old Mindstorms pieces with the Raspberry Pi. Overall, he’s slowly tinkering and learning, dreaming and imagining.

Super Scratch Programming Adventure by The Lead Project
This one is a bit of cheat. We had the older version of this book from back when Scratch was downloadable instead of all online. However, it was the very first programming book we ever got and it got a fair amount of use from both Mushroom and BalletBoy, who was obsessed with Scratch for awhile. The book uses a comic book format, which is obviously a good hook for kids. The projects are simple and it makes for a great jump start into Scratch. Really, Scratch is simple enough that all kids need to do is dive in and look at other kids’ projects, but sometimes some more traditional instructions are good encouragement.

 Make Magazine
This is really the gold standard in the maker movement. It’s more than just the sort of programming and electronics and computer projects that Mushroom is into right now and even when it has those, they’re often at another level of amazing. My mother saw Mushroom’s magazine and asked him could he make her the crazy backyard fountain project that was in there. Mushroom paid for his own subscription to Make and reads it very carefully, cover to cover every time it arrives.

Magpi Magazine
This is a pretty hefty subscription cost because this magazine, the official one for the Raspberry Pi, is British. You can find individual issues at some bookstores, but the best way to read it is online where you can get at least some issues for free. Mushroom really loves this magazine almost as much as he loves Make. It’s shiny and inviting and I know he wishes he could buy the paper version instead of reading on the iPad. As you might expect, all the projects and articles in here are for the Raspberry Pi. The Raspberry Pi is a tiny computer you can get for about $30. It’s made to be hacked and built into different projects and comes with software you can easily load on such as the kids programming language Scratch and a version of Minecraft that’s just for the Pi.

Adventures in Raspberry Pi by Carrie Anne Philbin
Mushroom says that this book is the best you can get for the beginner interested in doing projects with the Raspberry Pi. He did several of the beginning projects in the book before deciding that he was ready to try other things with his Pi. Mostly the projects seem to just introduce kids to different ways to use the Pi with languages like Scratch and Python and simple projects like making music on the Pi and turning it into a little jukebox.

Python for Kids by Jason R. Briggs
Okay, now we’ve gotten the books that I know less about. Mushroom kept thumbing through this one over and over though I think most of the Python he has learned has actually been through Code Academy, a free online tutorial for beginning coders in different languages, as well as by simply doing projects he reads about in other sources. Python is an older programming language, but my understanding from Mushroom is that because it’s so basic it’s used as one of the main ways to program the Pi and Arduino.

Arduino Workshop by John Boxall
Make: Basic Arduino Projects by Don Wilcher
Now we come to the Arduino books. Mushroom has both of these and has worked through a few projects from each, though his Arduino kit also came with a book of initial projects that he did most of. Arduino is a type of little controller that you can program to do all kinds of things. Through Arduino, Mushroom has gotten into breadboards and wiring things up. All of his first projects just involved getting various LED lights on a breadboard to come on and off in various ways and patterns. However, he has since played around with an Arduino Esplora, which he has used as a game controller and programmed to use a tiny screen.


Fall Book Roundup

This is our periodic round up of mini-reviews of just a few of the things we’ve been reading lately.

Read Aloud
The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Is it possible that this sequel is even better than the original? I think I like it even more than the first book. The writing is so beautiful and detailed and the characters and world are so well drawn. Calpurnia is the only girl in a large, prosperous Texas family in 1900. Her grandfather, a Civil War veteran, encourages her interest in nature and science while the rest of her family want her to be more feminine. In this book, the Galveston Hurricane, the greatest natural disaster in American history, is explored. Calpurnia becomes closer to her younger, animal loving, soft-hearted brother Travis, considers becoming a veterinarian when she grows up, and learns about the weather. Like the previous book, each chapter begins with a quote from Charles Darwin, though these are drawn from The Voyage of the Beagle. Build Your Library sells a unit study about evolution that uses the first book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate as a core part of the study. This book lends itself even more clearly to being used as the literary backbone of a science study. Calpurnia builds her own barometer, astrolabe, and other instruments, as well as dissects several creatures, such as a grasshopper and a worm.

Penny from Heaven by Jennifer Holm

We’ve really enjoyed all of Holm’s books inspired by her family history. This book takes place in 1950’s New Jersey, where Penny is caught between her mother and her late father’s large Italian family. Most of the book is light and funny, filled with vivid characters. Penny’s cousin Frankie is constantly in and out of trouble, her grandmother cooks only inedible food, her uncle sleeps in his car, her other grandmother wears only black in mourning for her father, even many years after his death. Meanwhile, Penny spends her time trying to sneak away and have fun despite all her mother’s rules. However, I have to issue a warning and a spoiler. More than midway through the book, Penny has an accident with a clothing wringer that is so gruesome I nearly had to pull the car over because we were all freaking out so much. It works out in the end, but it was really a pretty horrible accident.

School Reading
Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Laurence Pringle

This book is a great introduction to evolution. We are studying paleontology this year and I wanted to begin with a look at evolution. This book has such a clear text with such great illustrations by Steve Jenkins as well as illustrative photos. It was at exactly the right level for the kids to read independently and the chapters were very well organized. Evolution can be hard to understand, but this book explains it well, including the history of our understanding of evolution and how natural selection and adaptation works.

School Reading
Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age by Cheryl Bardoe

Because we had the opportunity to see an IMAX film that covered the same material during a homeschool science center day, we skipped ahead a little bit in our paleontology study to look at the Pleistocene animals. This book was very well written with great photos. It’s not long and was also at just the right nonfiction reading level for the kids. The opening part focuses on the find of a baby mammoth in Siberia. The mammoth was perfectly preserved and can now be seen in museums. The mystery of the extinction of the mammoths and their kin is also covered.


Mushroom’s Reading
Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales by Nathan Hale

Mushroom has been loving these nonfiction graphic novels and has already read several of them. Each book covers a different American history topic, generally with a slightly dark or violent topic, including several wars and the infamous Donner Party. Mushroom says he likes the first one, about Revolutionary War spies, the best. A lot of the nonfiction graphic novels that are coming out now are dry or formulaic, but this series has creative storytelling and good details as well as a friendly art style. I think it would appeal to a lot of the fans of the Horrible Histories series.

BalletBoy’s Reading
The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar

BalletBoy wanted something light to read and he picked this book off the shelf. It’s not one of Sachar’s better works, honestly. It’s part of a series of books about middle school kids. This one is about a boy who joins the popular crowd, but it comes with a price. Soon, not only is he not part of the popular crowd anymore, but he’s pretty sure he’s cursed. This is one of those books that explores all the awkward, sometimes terrible things that middle school kids can do to each other. The end message is positive and funny, but BalletBoy didn’t end up loving the book, in part because he felt uncomfortable with how the kids treated each other. My kids have definitely seen some doses of meanness, but maybe not in this same way.

Farrar’s (regrettable) YA Reading
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Why do I always get sucked into these? But good reviews, a little buzz, and an interesting concept and I was suckered into trying this book. In the end, I gave up on it toward the end, not quite finishing it. Mare is a poor “red” girl. She has no abilities and is subject to the powerful “silvers” and their never ending war. That is, until it’s discovered she does have mysterious powers and is swept into an arranged marriage in order for the royals to hide that fact. There’s a rebellion (of course), a love quadrangle (double of course), and a lot of hand wringing. There’s a twist that was a reasonable good idea, but on the whole the book fell very flat for me. It was yet another formulaic dystopian style YA novel with mediocre writing. Bah.



Book Roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten “Girl” Books My Boys Have Loved

Anyone who knows me knows I love to recommend books to people. I’m a children’s book nut and I like helping people find good books for their book devourers and picky readers alike. But often I feel like people who want book recommendations want to start in the wrong place, which is gender.

It’s important for all kids to be able to see themselves in the characters they read about (not to get onto a tangent, but that’s exactly why #weneeddiversebooks). Books are a mirror for our lives and help us understand our own experiences by identifying with others’ stories. However, I think it’s just as important that kids have the opportunity to read about different perspectives and that includes reading about what it’s like to grow up as a girl.

When people talk about the need for there to be books with strong female characters, the focus is usually to help girls become strong women. However, as the mother of boys, I think it’s just as important that boys read these books to learn how to respect, admire, and be understand strong women when they grow up. We do just as huge a disservice to boys when we don’t give them “girl” books as we do when we box girls into a reading corner.

So here are just a few of the many “girl” books my boys have read and enjoyed over the years. Many of them are books that are consistently on the “for girls!” lists.

Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Conner
Last Christmas, my sister-in-law gifted BalletBoy a very amusing picture book: Fancy Nancy and the Wedding of the Century, signed by the author. He had a great blush. Why is she giving me this? But I knew immediately. As a preschooler, BalletBoy had loved Fancy Nancy so very much that he had announced that he planned to marry her when he grew up. We may have grown out of Nancy a long time ago, but her girly, vocabulary rich, pink-loving charms were once really enjoyed here.

Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
Mushroom and I recently reread this one curled up in bed late at night. It’s probably no surprise that this would have been a much loved girl picture book for my anxious kid. Henkes’s world has many boy characters as well – we especially liked Owen too – but Wemberly has a special place for us.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munch
This classic tale of princess empowerment is funny for boys too. My boys always thought the picture of the annoying prince who needed rescue was very amusing. I especially thought it was good for boys to see that princesses can rescue them.

Ivy and Bean series by Annie Barrows
Not long ago, BalletBoy noticed a newer Ivy and Bean book he’d never read and picked it up sort of wistfully before putting it back and declaring he was too old for it. However, these books about two neighbor girls with very different personalities and a close friendship was one of the first chapter book series he read independently.

Ramona series by Beverly Cleary
Not that we didn’t also enjoy Henry Huggins or Ralph S. Mouse, but Ramona’s struggles from pest to older kid have been Cleary’s most loved books here. She is one of the most real characters in children’s literature, with some of the most real family relationships and struggles.

The Penderwicks
 series by Jeanne Birdsall
We loved meeting the Penderwicks again in the most recent book.
The books are so sweet and touching positive with such great sister relationships. We have read every one and loved them all.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This classic was a read aloud ages ago and both boys enjoyed Mary’s transformation from contrary to happy. They may have also really liked my poorly done accents. I highly recommend the beautiful Inga Moore version, which was the one we had.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
This fairy tale with a girl power twist was a much enjoyed story for both my boys, who both liked Ella’s unlucky tale. I like the determination that Ella has to show and the way the romance evolves through the story. The boys thought the movie wasn’t all that great, but I’m pretty sure everyone agreed on

11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass
Mushroom read this book not too long ago for pleasure reading. Wendy Mass has several more boy-centric titles, but most of her books are solidly female-centric. This light and funny one with a magical twist, with worries about middle school cliques and birthday party attendees, feels especially girl-centric. But he enjoyed it a lot and I like that the final message is so positive toward girls and boys continuing to be friends, even in middle school and

by Raina Telgemeier
This coming of age graphic novel was based on the author’s real life and deals a lot with learning to figure out who your real friends are and how to be yourself, lessons that both girls and boys have to learn. It has a cult following among girls, but I have noticed a lot of boys reading it as well. I’m embarrassed to say that I initially didn’t give this to either of my kids, thinking that it might be to middle school girly. However, Mushroom specifically asked to read it. Clearly, he knows that “girl” books aren’t just for girls.


The Book Talk

booktalkIf you have a kid who just loves to read everything you throw at them, then you’re lucky. Mushroom and BalletBoy like to read, but they’re not quick readers or book devourers most of the time. Frankly, they’re picky readers.

I think a lot of parents throw their hands up when it comes to picky readers. Sometimes I feel the same way, but I try to reframe my mind to see it as a challenge, not a problem. Starting a book is hard business, even at age ten. Really, even at age not quite forty, it can be a pain to get over that hump.

There are several ways to help kids overcome that hump a little easier. One way is to be willing to read the first chapter aloud to kids. Another is that if it’s a new book, it may have a book trailer. However, I wanted to talk about a more old-fashioned, personal method, which is the book talk. Many teachers, reading specialists, and librarians know the book talk, which is an old method that used to be used in schools a lot to try and hook kids’ onto a book.

Book talks are super simple. They’re exactly what they sound like. You talk about the book’s plot, characters, and themes to the child. You might read a blurb about the book or the opening page or just a short excerpt from an exciting moment early in the story. Mention what other books it’s like and what genre it falls into. Since you’re likely book talking to just one or two kids, you can be extra specific. Think of it as an ad for the book. Be lively and positive about the book. You’re trying to be the hook.

Remember that for kids who are reluctant or picky readers, previewing the book may be an important first step for reading. These kids don’t like to commit to a book only to discover it’s all wrong for them. If it takes you a couple of weeks to read a book, then in the life of a kid, that’s like a marriage. You want to know what you’re getting into first. So while you’re not giving the climax away, some kids will want to know the gist of the plot. And some kids will want to get warnings. Does anyone die in the book? Is anyone bullied? Is there anything else sensitive souls will want to know?

It’s easier to book talk a book you’ve read, but I’ve talked up many books I haven’t read. Just read the blurbs, glance at the opening page or two, and read a few reviews, such as on Amazon or Goodreads. You’ll get enough to talk about the book for two or three minutes, which is really about how long a book talk should last.

We use this method a lot. The other night, Mushroom had finished all his current reads, as well as two new to him graphic novels and he came to me and said, “Do me a book talk.” I pulled out five books and talked each of them for a couple of minutes. He took one… Then asked me a few minutes later if I would download a kindle short story that goes along with the book Wonder. The book talk doesn’t always work. But I know that the plots and idea of all those books are now swimming around in his head. So that’s something.

Reading Short Stories

We changed up how we do reading at the rowhouse a little more than a year ago. We used to do “required reading” from a list of books. The kids had to choose one book per month. I think that was an okay system, but we began to find it difficult to keep up. If my kids were voracious readers, it might have been perfect. However, as it is, they’re just not. They enjoy reading, but they’re not stay up all night readers. And while I had chosen good books at their level, I found that my central goal of wanting them to just read more wasn’t being met by pushing them to read specific books.

So we dropped that. Now, instead, we do an hour of required reading before bed nearly every night. The only requirement is that they read something new to them for at least half of the reading time. In other words, a new book for at least half an hour and then rereading a graphic novel is okay if it’s what they want, which it is sometimes. This has filled that goal a lot better. They read a lot of what I would consider “junky” books, but they also routinely choose interesting books by good authors. Most importantly, their fluency and reading enjoyment has improved, so that goal is met. They read more books than they used to, which is great.

However, I found that as they got older I had another goal. I wanted to push them to read more difficult writing and practice closer reading, such as marking up a text, pulling out quotes, discussing and supporting your opinion, as well as beginning to look at literary elements. Reading one novel a month hadn’t met that goal because everyone was reading something different. We can do a little of that with poetry at poetry teas and also with read aloud novels, but I wanted to add another component, which is why I turned to short stories.

Short stories are perfect for close reading. You can introduce kids to classic authors and stories in a much less intimidating way. You can really pick apart a story from start to finish and feel like you had a meaty discussion. Everything in a short story is condensed so that things like the plot arc become clearer and things like character development and message have to be done with the bare minimum.

To keep it simple, I decided to make it one short story a month. I printed a bunch and put them together. We have mostly stuck with it and I feel it has worked really well. When I initially introduced this and asked the kids to underline and mark things in their copies, they weren’t at all sure what to do. But as we have practiced, I’ve seen them get more adept at finding the things I ask for, such as examples of metaphors, places where you can see a character’s motivation, descriptive writing, examples of irony, or other things. They’ve also gotten more eager to sit and discuss the story, which we do at a special poetry tea time, of course.

I chose stories by looking at lists and short story collections. A few of these we haven’t gotten to yet because we’re not finished with the year, but I thought I’d put our list here. Lists of middle school short stories was a good starting point, but many of the classic stories, such as “To Build a Fire” and “A Sound of Thunder” are ones I wanted to save for various reasons.

Good places to find short stories:

  • Best Shorts edited by Avi is a great collection with stories just right for this age.
  • Shelf Life edited by Gary Paulsen is a good collection with a more contemporary feel.
  • Guys Read series edited by Jon Scieszka has several volumes with different themes and is continuing to add more. The stories are chosen with boys in mind, but they’re really just great stories by a variety of authors and the “boy” angle can really be ignored. Many of the stories are by popular contemporary authors. For example, the fantasy collection has a Percy Jackson story. However, they also include some older and classic authors.
  • This list is an excellent list for middle schoolers, compiled by polling teachers on a popular education site.

The Stories I Chose for Fifth Grade

“The Fun They Had” by Isaac Asimov
A great one for homeschoolers because it imagines a very dull sort of future homeschooling. And a good one for talking about the ways that we perceive the future and what’s important for learning and childhood. An easy and quick one to read.

“Zlateh the Goat” by Isaac Bashevis Singer
A parable style story about a boy and the goat he can’t bring himself to take to be butchered.

“Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes
This was one of our best hits, which inspired a great conversation about human nature and laws. A classic short story about a woman who catches a thief and instead of calling the authorities, takes him home for supper.

“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
A perfect Christmas season read. The classic story of literary irony. This one was a great hit.

“Scout’s Honor” by Avi
A great funny kid story from author Avi’s childhood. He and his city friends try camping without really knowing what they’re doing.

“The Grown Up” by Ian McEwan
This is from McEwan’s collection of short stories about one boy called The Daydreamer. This one is essentially like the movie Big in short story form.

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calabaras County” by Mark Twain
The language in this story is a slight stretch for some kids, but the story is great for thinking about dialect and untrustworthy narrators. Plus, it’s funny.

“Nuts” by Natalie Babbitt
A funny take on the devil as a trickster. This is from Babbitt’s collection of stories about the devil.

“Miss Awful” by Arthur Cavanaugh
A story about a nice teacher and a mean one. A good one to talk about authority figures.

“The Third Wish” by Joan Aiken
A modern feeling fairy tale. A nice one to potentially read with other stories about wishes, such as “Wishes” by Natalie Babbitt and “The Stone” by Lloyd Alexander.

“All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury
The classic anti-bullying story. Just an amazing short tale. We actually read this with our co-op, but I had to include it on this list because it’s my favorite of all time. Bradbury has many others that are appropriate for middle school, but this one is perfect for upper elementary too. Note that there’s also an excellent short movie of the story, which can be easily found online.


Writing Projects: Poetry Collection

I wrote a little while ago about how after we finally finished up all the projects in Brave Writer’s Partnership Writing I decided to keep coming up with more for us. While sometimes it’s nice to have a writing project that dovetails with another subject, a co-op topic, a contest, or a real world need like writing a letter, it’s also nice to have writing projects that are focused on writing and language as their own interesting things. The projects in Partnership Writing were great like that. We played around with secret codes, wrote little reports using the five question words, made up our own island chains and wrote about them, made catalogs to sell weird products, and more.

I posted already about the thumbprint biographies we made. They were fun and short. Before that, we did a poetry collection project for our writing project and it was also fun, so I thought I’d post about that as well.

Step One: Poetry Teas and a pile of books

As one might expect, we started this project with a poetry tea and actually held a couple more than usual during the course of the month. We don’t do poetry tea every week, but this forced us almost to do so, which was nice. In case you don’t know what poetry tea is, it’s when you pull out your pretty china, clean off the mess from the table, make or buy something tasty and sweet, and sit around for an hour reading poetry with the kids. In our house, we take turns reading poems and sometimes discuss the poetry as well.

In preparation for this project, I checked out a slightly larger pile of poetry books, thinking especially about exploring different forms. These included:

The Creature Carnival by Marilyn Singer
This book, in addition to just being fun, has poems with great varied and interesting rhyme schemes. Many of Singer’s others books are similar in how they use different forms. Her Mirror, Mirror is a book of reverso poems that we would have checked out as well if we hadn’t already read it a million times.

Dogku by Andrew Clements
This picture book tells the story of a stray dog taken in by a family with a series of haiku.

The Oxford Book of Story Poems
A nice collection with appealing poems of a variety of lengths and from a variety of time periods.

A Kick in the Head by Paul Janeczko
I don’t love this collection that much, but it’s perfect for this project because it has examples of more than two dozen different poetry forms.

African Acrostics by Avis Harley
Exactly what it sounds like. Acrostic poems about African animals, but very well done.

Neighborhood Odes by Gary Soto
A collection of odes to childhood all set in a Latino neighborhood.

There are plenty of other options out there, of course. I never try to overthink book selections too much. I generally rely on the library and try new things often. While I learn about new books from blogs and recommendations, I find even more by just running my fingers over the stacks.

Step Two: Write lots of poems

photo 3 (5)Armed with various poetry books filled with a wide variety of example poems, we began to write our own poems. We tried a couple of different poetry forms for our writing time a week. We didn’t do everything we could have done and if you poke around online you can find dozens more potential poetry writing exercises, these are just the ones we chose.

photo 4 (2)I’ll add that for whatever reason, despite the fact that I have read tons of totally free form modern poetry to my kids, they are very stuck in the poems should rhyme mindset and this didn’t really break them of it. BalletBoy even wanted his haikus to rhyme, despite me only reading unrhymed haikus as examples (because when have you ever read a rhyming haiku anyway?) and entreating him that it was really not intended to rhyme, he still wrote two that had internal rhymes. In the end, I think that’s okay. I once attended a how to teach poetry to kids conference where the speaker bemoaned the kids who wrote cutesy rhymed poems as having gotten bad instruction and several times slammed the famed children’s poet Jack Prelutsky. But kids like mine love Jack Prelutsky. If that’s the kind of poetry that really speaks to them, then of course that’s what they’re going to want to write. And they should.

  1. Haikus
    A haiku is 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables. We read several traditional haiku, as well as the book Dogku. I emphasized how a haiku is really a quick thought, a simple reflection. Haikus are often about how something looks or feels. They’re often about nature or everyday life. We practiced chin wags to measure syllables, just a reminder. Then we each, me included, wrote about half a dozen or so and shared them as we finished. They’re so quick and easy to try, even if not every effort is a stunning success.
  2. Couplets
    A couplet is two lines with the same number of syllables and an end rhyme. We looked for pairs of rhymed lines in Marilyn Singer’s poetry books. We made up couplets aloud for awhile then turned to writing them. I had not intended for this to be the case, but both boys immediately wanted to write longer poems comprised of couplets so I let them do so.
  3. Found Poems
    A found poem can be made a couple of ways. One way is to photocopy a page from a book and mark out words in black marker, creating a poem out of the words that you leave unmarked out. We used the second way, which is to make a poem from words found and torn out of magazines. We all did this assignment. I had a lot of fun making a poem about hide and seek after I saw that phrase repeated in an old ad campaign in a magazine. BalletBoy found words about food and Mushroom clipped words about animals and put them together to make a poem. This was a relatively long activity, but once the poem was finished, there was no revision needed, and it certainly looked cool made of all those cut out words.
  4. Odes
    An ode is written to praise someone or something. To get kids writing odes, I think it’s fun to encourage them to write an ode to something they really love but is unexpected, like their favorite shoes or a chocolate bar or a computer game (imagine how many “Ode to Minecraft”s we could get). Mushroom immediately started in on an ode to the inventors of the computer. The only real rule I gave them was to write lines of praise, but Mushroom set his into couplets.
  5. Acrostic
    Acrostics are those poems where the first letter of each line spells another word, typically the theme of the poem. We started this one by reading acrostic poems. It’s typical for kids to write acrostics about themselves, but I let them choose anything they wanted. Both the boys wrote a few, all of them with short 4 and 5-letter words.
  6. Free Verse
    I introduced this by trying to get the boys to choose a color to write about. Other suggestions I’ve seen for starting a poem from scratch include writing about the seasons, or about a specific memory, or about a meal. They tried, however, in the end, this exercise was mostly a flop for us. They were so attached to rhymes and forms that this one didn’t fly.
  7. Limerick
    People associate limericks with bad rhymes, but since my kids were so excited by really specific forms, I thought they would enjoy this one since it was still short enough and light enough for them to try out, unlike something like a sonnet. In fact, they enjoyed writing them very much, even though the results were very silly.
  8. Other ideas…
    We also read some story poems and talked about epic poetry and tried our hands at writing a story poem. BalletBoy loved it and included his in his collection. However, partway into the exercise it felt like it was probably too big a thing for me to have asked and it was just a fluke that it took off so well with one kid. So maybe only a good one to try with real poetry lovers. That’s all we did, but there are plenty of other poetry exercises and forms out there. For younger kids, a diamante is a really good form to play with (we have previously written those a few times). Cinquains are similar to diamantes and also have a very set form where kids can fill in words, so they can also be a good choice. Concrete poems, the ones that form a shape, can also be excellent and there are lots of good books of concrete poetry to share with kids. And, of course, there are many other forms of poetry and starting points. For us, the whole idea was just to try different things and play around with poetry forms.

Step Three: Choose and Revise

photo 2 (14)After doing two or three days of poetry writing exercises a week for about three weeks, we were left with a nice pile of rough draft poems. I told the kids to choose three or four poems they wanted to revise and polish for their collections. Some of the poems, we decided were fine with very little change. BalletBoy chose a haiku that was lovely just the way it was. Mushroom chose his limerick and we agreed that changing it beyond fixing the spelling and capitalization would ruin the rhyme scheme and the form.

For other choices, we agreed that revision was important. BalletBoy’s acrostic about birds was good, but we agreed to look through the thesaurus for stronger word choices. Mushroom’s set of couplets about a carnival were cool, but we agreed they needed a couple more in order to feel like a full poem and make it clear that it was about the whole carnival. He added a couplet about another ride and one about the carnival food: “Have a hot dog and funnel cake / Or try a burger and cheap steak.” We spent a couple of days working on revising all of the poems, then fixing spelling as the kids and I typed them up.

Step Four: Publish and Share

photo 1 (14)

Once they were typed up, I let them put each poem on a separate page and choose its font and formatting and add images. BalletBoy made his whole collection this way, except for his found poem, which was already made up of clipped magazine words and phrases. Mushroom left room to draw illustrations on one of his pages. They each made a cover and we stapled the poems together. Of course, you could make a little book or put them in a nice folder. We’ve done things like that for many other writing projects, but this time, after all the work on the writing, we kept it pretty simple.

Finally, the boys both proudly read their poems to the Husband, who thought they were pretty cool. Overall, this project came out much better than I could have wished. I don’t think either of my boys are “natural” poets, whatever that means. However, this was a fun way to play with words and think about language and strong words and phrases, as well as creative rhymes.

Early Winter Books

Well, it took me a little while to get back to the book roundup. Sorry, folks. We were not reading a ton in the last couple of months, in large part because we’ve been so busy. It’s hard to read before bed when you’re not getting home until past bedtime! But there have been a few books fit in, though you’ll note there are more of my reviews than the kids’ this roundup. They did a lot of rereading old Wimpy Kid and Calvin and Hobbes. Ah well. Probably about right for hectic times.

Read Aloud
The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones

Straight off enjoying another Chrestomanci books, we dove into this one. It’s typical Diana Wynne Jones, with a twisty plot and lots of complexity. If you don’t know the Chrestomanci books, they take place is a series of connected worlds. In one world, Chrestomanci is the enchanter with nine lives whose job is to make sure everyone uses magic fairly and follows the rules. This book tells the story of how Christopher Chant became Chrestomanci, though not before he gets neglected by his parents and then caught up in a magic organized crime syndicate run by his uncle. Chrestomanci, that is, Christopher in this book, is such a great character. He cares about people and doing the right thing, but is always managing to come off like a jerk. In this book, you can see how he became the mysterious and witty character he is in the other novels. Mushroom and BalletBoy have been enjoying this one so much that I have a feeling we may read Conrad’s Fate, one of the later books where Christopher is also a child, very soon.

Another Read Aloud
The Potato Chip Puzzles by Eric Berlin

This is the second book in the Winston Breen series. We loved the first one over the summer and the kids enjoyed this one just as much. In this story, puzzle lover Winston gets put in a team to win a bunch of money for his school from a snack food company with a quirky owner. Teams must run from puzzle to puzzle, solving them all to win the prize, but one team is cheating, trying to knock the other teams out of the race. As with the previous book, there are usually two puzzles per chapter – one that’s integral to the story and one that’s just a diversion. They’re number, maze, word, and other sorts of puzzles and generally very innovative and fun. Also pleasing is that the story isn’t just a structure for the puzzles. It’s also pretty well-written in its own right. Kids who enjoy “everyday kid” type books should definitely give this series a try.

School Read
Murderous Maths: Secret Life of Codes by Kjartan Poskitt

I really do love the Murderous Maths books, even though they always take us forever to get through. They take us forever because they’re packed with serious, brain-bending information and because we always have to stop over and over in the middle of reading them to figure out the math and try out the various things they suggest. This book was no different. I have the Murderous Maths box set, but realized recently that there are a bunch more of these out there not in the set! Several of them, including this one, are easier than some of the ones in the set (which go up to calculus, for goodness sakes). This one was particularly packed full of good activities and lots of complex ideas about how to make codes. Overall, a fun read.

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

It took a lot of strong arming to get the boys to listen to this one in the car. I’m not sure what was so forbidding about it, but for some reason it did not catch their fancy. And the tropes of high fantasy, which abound in this story, are less familiar to Mushroom and BalletBoy, who have cut their teeth mostly on the low fantasy worlds like Harry Potter and the aforementioned Diana Wynne Jones sort of books. However, they slowly sank into it. The narration on the audiobook is really wonderful. And the story is just as great as I recall from my own youth. Taran is a lowly assistant pig-keeper who gets swept up in a quest to find his charge, who happens to be an oracular pig (she can tell the future). On his way he meets a heroic prince, a king who wishes he were a bard, a snappy girl who is training to be a sorceress, and a strange but loyal creature who latches on to him. It’s the start of a great series that is based loosely on Welsh mythology and had me obsessed with all things Welsh as a kid.

BalletBoy’s Read
Heads or Tails by Jack Gantos

After we saw Gantos speak earlier this year at the National Book Festival, it became clear that the boys were determined to read more of his works. I happened to have this one on the shelf and BalletBoy decided to read it. It proved to be a pretty quick read for him and he says he liked it very much, in part because it’s very funny. He keeps reading me little snippets that honestly, make no sense, but which send him into peals of giggles. Like many of the author’s other works, he, himself is the main character, though one hopes that many of the wacky events have been exaggerated for literary purposes.

Farrar’s YA Read
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

I really enjoyed this YA book about twin artists. It’s told in two perspectives at two different times. Noah tells the story of the events leading up to the time when their mother dies just before and after they turn fourteen. Twin sister Jude steps in with a very different voice two years later. Noah is struggling with figuring out he’s gay, trying to establish a relationship with his father, trying to understand his mother, and falling in love for the first time. While he struggles, Jude seems happy and popular, but two years later, Jude is at an art high school completely distraught over her mother’s death, barely speaking to her twin, and superstitious to the point of mental illness while Noah is the one that seems happy and well-adjusted, though completely different from his younger self. The contrast between the two parts makes the story feel like a mystery, compelling you to understand what happened between the two characters. Great writing certainly doesn’t hurt either. Nelson’s style, especially how she described those teenage feelings of anger and depression, really resonated with me. One of the best YA books I’ve read this year.

Farrar’s Other YA Read
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

This is a story about a girl and her super wealthy family and their summers spent on their very own island retreat. Main character Cady loves her cousins and their friend Gat, with whom she has a budding romance, while her mother and aunts bicker all summer. Cady has suffered a traumatic brain injury and can’t remember some of the previous summers, which makes for both a mystery and a lot of really short, vaguely poetic sentences apparently. There’s a big twist ending, though having read that there was a “big twist ending” I admit that I saw the twist coming, at least somewhat. This book has made a bunch of best of lists for YA this year but I’m mystified as to why. The upper class characters are mostly spoiled jerks and I didn’t find reading about them particularly innovative or new. The mystery is sort of interesting, but the writing nearly killed me. It wasn’t beautiful, it was just sparse, disjointed, and sometimes confusing. This definitely wasn’t on my best of lists.

Farrar’s Graphic Novel Read
Neurocomic by Hana Ros and Matteo Farinella

I was intrigued by this graphic novel about the inner workings of the brain, which I saw on a best science books of the year list. The book’s design is lovely – hardcover with shiny silver designs. Plus, the art is really approachable. My reaction to the book itself was a bit mixed. On the one hand, the narrative was sort of weak and I had hoped that the information would be a bit more in depth. As it is, I actually knew most of this information about how the brain and nerves work. On the other hand, for what it is, the narrative isn’t terrible. Writing a vehicle for information story is always tricky, after all. I liked the ending a lot, actually. And with a different eye, such as toward using this as a great introduction for teens or really anyone without any lay knowledge, it’s really good. So I thought I’d include it here in case anyone has any middle or high schoolers ready to learn a bit about neuroscience. Overall, I like that there are a growing body of science comics out there. I was unimpressed by the Max Axiom series, but this book can join the work of graphic novelist Jay Hossler as a useful way to think about its subject matter in comic.

October Books

Time for our monthly book roundup. What we’re reading and liking and occasionally not liking at all.

School Read
Old House, New House by Michael Gaughenbaugh

It’s been a few months since I felt a big, strong wow about a nonfiction book we read for school, but I give this book a huge wow. It’s out of print and a little older, but if, for some reason, you decide, as we did, to embark on a study of houses or architecture anything along those lines, then you absolutely must have this book. It tells the imaginary story of a boy whose parents have just purchased a ramshackle Second Empire Victorian in the midwest with the intention to restore it to its former glory. Curious about how houses have changed over time, the narrator reflects on the houses owned by his aunt (a Brooklyn brownstone) and uncle (a San Francisco late Victorian) and cousins (a colonial farmhouse). That leads to a conversation with his grandfather, who grew up in a Sears home and eventually purchased a post-war suburban ranch home. Then with his mother, whose ancestors were from the south and lived in Greek revival plantation style homes. Basically, the whole thing just spirals from there into every sort of house style you can imagine and every relative and ancestor the narrator has seems to live in a different sort of home. All this is explored while his new home is being renovated. The illustrations were incredibly detailed but also accessible to kids. The story is a bit cram everything in, but somehow the book makes it work. I had a slight quibble with the book’s adoration of Victorians and mild disdain for Greek revivals, but I suppose everyone has to have a favorite style. Really a great long form picture book and very worth seeking out.

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

So, so funny! I had skimmed over it when it first came out and I know what Gaiman’s sense of humor is like, so I knew we would enjoy this one, but the audio version, read by Gaiman himself, was just divine. The story set up is that a boy and his sister are home with their father while their mother is away. There’s no milk in the house, so their father runs to the corner store to get some for their cereal. Returning much later than expected, he begins to tell a whopper of a tale about what took him so long, a story that involves alien invaders, a time traveling dinosaur, and an exploding volcano god, among other things. At end twist and turn, the father makes sure that the kids know that even know he may have been fighting for his life or dangling by a rope, fortunately, the milk was safe in his pocket, though it occasionally emerges to save the day or fulfill a prophesy. The book is incredibly short. We listened to the whole audio version on one field trip to go apple picking (though, to be fair, those apples were really far away) and I don’t think I’ve ever heard this kids more disappointed to finish an audiobook (except for maybe Fake Mustache, which is tied for funniest audiobook ever).

Mushroom’s Read
From Norvelt to Nowhere by Jack Gantos

We adored Gantos’s Dead End in Norvelt, which we listened to on audiobook earlier this year, and we had the great pleasure of seeing Gantos speak at the National Book Festival. However, I have to admit that Mushroom hasn’t just loved this sequel, which he says is slower and not as funny as the first book. Having not read it all myself but having tasted the beginning, I’m finding this hard to believe, but I said I’d be sure to include his take. The first book was a quirky murder mystery. This sequel picks up where the previous book left off on the trail of the murderer. The author’s alter-ego, the narrator of the story, heads out on a road trip with his elderly neighbor to get to Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral and possibly catch the murderer. Even if Mushroom didn’t love it, I may pick up our library copy and finish it myself.

BalletBoy’s Read
P.K. Pinkerton and the Deadly Desperadoes by Caroline Lawrence

BalletBoy really likes to pick out random library books which he judges by the cover. He liked the stylish western cover on this one, so he decided it was the book for him. I have read some of Lawrence’s better known Roman Mysteries, but I haven’t read this one. However, BalletBoy gives it a big thumbs up. He says it was funny and that he liked the mystery element. It’s part of a series that takes place in the old west, following a boy who becomes a detective. In this first book in the series, he is on the run for his life after his parents were killed and must escape from the titular deadly desperadoes, who are after his mother’s only valuable property.

Light Reading
Return to Planet Tad by Tim Carvell

While everyone waited for the new Wimpy Kid, both boys read this book on the side. Mushroom read the first book last month and BalletBoy joined him in reading it this month. It’s in that same snarky Wimpy Kid style with lots of pictures about a typical middle school boy and typical middle school embarrassments and misadventures. The main character, Tad, keeps a blog where he tells his thoughts and jokes. A quick, funny, light read aimed at boys. Yet another I didn’t read myself (this blog post seems full of those this go around) but I heard a lot of the jokes read aloud when someone thought they were really funny. Not high literature, but a good way to pass an evening read for this age.

Farrar’s YA Read
The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey

This is the second book in Yancey’s YA trilogy about an alien invasion on earth. Aliens in ships high above the earth slowly destroy humanity in waves, first knocking out technology, then flooding the coasts and sending a plague. With each successive wave, more people die. When the first book picks up, the aliens seem to have begun the fifth wave, possibly taking human bodies, but what exactly is going on is left somewhat unclear. While it’s an alien tale, the story has a sort of post-apocalyptic zombie feel. This second book didn’t compel me as much as the first book at the start. While the first book stayed for a long time with protagonist Cassie before moving on to just a couple of others, this book jumped around more from the beginning and I admit I didn’t love Ringer’s voice at first and she really dominates this book. However, by the second long chunk of her voice, she began to really grow on me and the ending had me interested again as a potential twist is brought out. What if the aliens aren’t alien at all? Yancey is a great writer who knows how to tell an edge of your seat tale. This is a dark series, even for the dystopian filled YA of these days, but it’s worth reading.

September (and some August) Books

Time for our monthly what’s everyone reading wrap up. Or, honestly, past time. Sometimes I get a little behind!

Audio Book
The Colossus Rises by Peter Lerangis

This is the first book of the Seven Wonders series, which is one of those “If you liked Percy Jackson, try this” sort of series. It’s about four kids who are the descendants of a long gone civilization, but who also carry a mysterious gene that may kill them. A mysterious institute is keeping them captive on a secret island. I wanted something that would be a fun, light car read so we gave it a try. There are some positive points, but mostly we were all very let down. The narration on the audio is fine, but the story is just a mess. There are so many details about this imaginary world of Atlantis, most of which didn’t make enough of an impression on us that we could keep them straight when we needed to. The main characters are mostly flat. There’s a lot of action, but some of it is pretty gross (the combat and mortal peril scenes were just a bit gruesome in places for no apparent reason). The reason that these four kids are being kept by this mysterious institute was simply not believable. It’s supposed to be a mystery, but it didn’t play very well. And finally, worst of all, the book ended mid-action. I don’t mind a cliffhanger, but this was just in the middle of stuff happening. I’ve been trying to teach the kids about how a good story can leave you asking questions, or leave itself open for a sequel, but it has to resolve something in order to be a finished story. This book resolved nothing. Overall, a big thumbs down.

Another Audio Book
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

This series is billed as YA, but there’s not really anything in it that is inappropriate for younger readers. Since we are embarking on a steampunk unit of the kids’ choosing, I got this one on audio for us to enjoy. It’s a complex story in an alternate 1914, where Germany and its allies use “clanker” steam based technology including giant metal walkers, and Britain and its allies use Darwinist based technology by breeding impossible “beasties” that do their work for them. Just like in real history, the two sides are on the brink of war. In Austro-Hungary, Prince Alec flees with his tutors after his father, the archduke, was murdered. In England, Daryn Sharp, a young girl who has disguised herself as a boy to join the military, embarks on a giant airship powered by a sort of floating, hydrogen belching whale. Obviously, the two meet for a giant adventure. The world building is so great in this steampunk adventure. The narration on the audiobook, by Alan Cumming, is also pretty excellent. While I really love this series, I have to admit the kids took forever to warm up to it, but by the time the two characters had met and the action had gotten moving, they were into it.

BalletBoy’s Reading
The Homework Machine by Dan Gutman

Both my boys really love stories about everyday kids, especially when they’re slightly funny or have just a slight touch of magical impossibility. This one fit the bill, and BalletBoy enjoyed it so much that he read it while it wasn’t evening reading time. That’s always a win. It’s the story of a boy who creates a machine to do his homework. Of course, when he shares the secret, that inevitably leads to trouble as the kids using it suddenly receive perfect scores all the time. The book cuts quickly between lots of different perspectives from different sorts of kids. Gutman is a funny writer and I suspect BalletBoy or Mushroom may pick up some other books by him in the near future.

Mushroom’s Light Reading Pile
Frank Einstein and the Anti-Mater Motor by Jon Scieszka
Planet Tad by Tim Carvell
Timmy Failure
 by Stephen Pastis

Mushroom tore through a bunch of light reading books this month, all of them in the same pictures and text mold a la the Wimpy Kid books. I didn’t read any of them so I can’t really evaluate them, but I can tell you he that none of them seem to have been standouts. He finished them all in rapid succession and is on to the sequel to Planet Tad, so I know he didn’t dislike them and in fact he chuckled while reading most of them, but I think they were little more than brain candy. He never wanted to excitedly discuss any of the stories with me the way he does with a more complex book. These are all below his reading level, but he skipped the whole Magic Treehouse chapter book series level so I can see that reading this stuff is probably helping his fluency, which can only be a positive for a slow reader like him. So even if he found them sort of meh, I suspect it was still good for his reading.

Graphic Novel
The Silver Six by AJ Lieberman and Darren Rawlings

The boys got a pile of graphic novels for their birthday and this was one of them. It’s your standard orphan kids save the world in a slightly dystopian future sort of story. I wasn’t a huge fan of the art myself. The machines and future city have a cool look, but there was something unappealing to me about the character art. Sometimes I think the kids just like when a graphic novel is all color, honestly. The story felt a little uneven. Between a corporate plot and a futurist Dickensian orphanage, there’s a lot going on in the story. Still, Mushroom gave it a big thumbs up and BalletBoy started reading it as well. Getting enough graphic novels to satisfy the hungry middle grades reader is always a challenge.

School Reading
Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang

This memoir about the Cultural Revolution in China was a pass back and forth read, with me reading parts aloud and then assigning other chapters. It tells the story of the author’s childhood during the first years of the Cultural Revolution, during which time her father was arrested, her grandmother became increasingly ill, she lost her place in school and experienced terrible bullying for her class status, and her best friend’s grandmother committed suicide. It’s a story told through the eyes of a child who can’t see why any of the terrible things around her are happening. I might have waited on it, but I knew that with putting history studies aside, we wouldn’t be back to this period for awhile and it’s a commonly read fifth grade book, so we dove in. Mushroom found it to be a compelling story, but BalletBoy, who is in a sensitive phase at the moment, found it extremely difficult. I think this type of oppression experienced in communist nations, which was so randomized, felt much more difficult to understand than oppression and conflict over differences of ideology. I think it’s an important book, but I think sixth or seventh grade might have been a better time to read it.

More School Reading
The Middle East: The History, the Cultures, the Conflicts, the Faiths by the editors of TIME Magazine

I had to really scour to find something to wrap up our history studies with a look at the Middle East, a part of the world, I’m sad to say we didn’t spend much time on after the Ottoman Empire. I wanted a resource that would be right for upper elementary and middle school and wasn’t too biased. In the end, I was pretty happy with this one. It’s a glossy book not necessarily intended for kids, but rather as an introduction for anyone. Most pages have color photos that take up the whole page with a short text. The book starts with a series of quick looks at the issues. Just a paragraph and an image worth discussing. Then there are some summaries of history and conflicts in the form of a chronology. Finally, there’s a section with brief questions. Can Israel be accepted? Can Iraq be stabilized? The book is, like any book about this region, already out of date at just a few years old. However, I liked both the opening images and the final questions sections a lot as discussion starters, so I definitely recommend it to others looking for a good overview resource. In the end, we weren’t able to finish reading the parts I wanted to read. BalletBoy, having heard just a little bit about the current conflicts in Gaza and then in Syria and Iraq, found it too distressing. The fact that these conflicts were ongoing and very present on the news made them much harder to learn about, even in an historical context without too many details.