I’ve fallen behind on the book posts, so I thought I’d do a round up of some of our collective summer reads. Summer isn’t quite over, but it’s winding down, library summer reading sheets have been turned in, vacations are coming to a close, and in some crazy corners of the world, kids have even started back to school already.
Revolution by Deborah Wiles
We loved Wiles’s Countdown so much that we immediately picked up Revolution when it came out earlier in the summer. It’s the second book in her 60’s trilogy. The first took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This one took place during Freedom Summer in Mississippi. A minor character connected the two books, but mostly they stand on their own. Both books contain documentary images and quotes from the time period, as well as mini-essays about people and events, all of which contextualize the story and ground it in history. It’s a great format and I especially loved the song lyrics that ran throughout the documentary images in Revolution. Since we were reading it aloud, I sometimes pulled up audio of the songs to pepper the background as I read these in between documentary sections. The story is told mostly from the perspective of Sunny, a 12 year old white girl in Greenwood, Mississippi, who is struggling with her new step-mother and step-siblings, and her missing mother. She latches on to an unexpected mother figure in one of the Freedom Summer volunteers who arrive to try and help blacks register to vote. Some chapters are told in the voice of Ray, a black boy she happens to meet early in the story. Others are in third person but focus on Sunny’s father or step-brother. Mostly I loved the book. All the characters are well drawn and the ways in which each one approaches integration is nuanced and helps give a snapshot of different attitudes. However, while the boys liked the book, they did not enjoy it nearly as much as Countdown, mostly because that cast of characters was overwhelmingly large. When coupled with all that detailed history, it was a difficult listen for them. As well, all of us felt that Sunny’s latching on to the Freedom Summer volunteers felt slightly forced. They weren’t bothered by the changing voices, but I found it somewhat jarring, though I did appreciate how it gave the reader a different look at Mississippi than only Sunny’s voice could give. Despite those reservations, I really recommend the book and I’m already looking forward to see what happens in the final novel.
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
This audiobook was greatly enjoyed. It continued our 60’s book obsession, though honestly, it wasn’t much about the time period. The autobiographically inspired story is about Jack, a kid with a perpetual nosebleed, who gets in trouble at the start of summer and ends up grounded for the whole time, meaning no baseball games, no outings, and generally no fun. Fortunately, his elderly neighbor, one of the town’s original residents, recruits him to type the obituaries she writes for the paper, allowing him a way to escape the house and the unending hole he’s been tasked to dig. She’s gleeful every time someone dies so she can investigate the death and write the obituary. As the story unfolds, it becomes a mystery. What exactly was happening to the town’s original residents that’s leading them to die off so quickly? Was it Jack’s neighbor, her unlucky suitor, the Hell’s Angels, or someone else killing them off? This book of misadventures had us in stitches. The author does the narration, which we didn’t adore at the start, but as the story went on, we slowly got into his reading style.
Savage Shapes by Kjartan Poskitt
This entry into the Murderous Maths series turned out to be a really great read, though it took us awhile to get through it. I often see Murderous Maths books recommended for younger kids and the first couple of books, about arithmetic and measuring, are pretty accessible to elementary school. However, I would be hesitant to read most of them before about fifth grade level math. The concepts in this book are actually pretty difficult. It covers the properties and types of triangles in ways that is far and above what most kids would cover in elementary school. It also introduces geometric proofs and a number of concepts with circles, as well as three dimensional solids. There were a number of points where the book asked the reader to take out paper and pencil (and, often, a compass) and try something to show that it worked. We did most of these and it really livened up the book. This was definitely my favorite of the Murderous Maths books we’ve tackled, but it also gave me pause about trying to go too fast with them, since the math they cover does get pretty complex.
The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies
BalletBoy latched on to this light, easy series about two squabbling siblings and their various adventures. The first volume is about lemonade stands and business, which was a topic right up BalletBoy’s alley. He wishes he could launch a more successful lemonade stand and has tried a few times to get things off the ground. The next was about a classroom crime and punishment. He just finished up the third book, which takes the characters away to their grandparents’ house for vacation, where they solve a mystery involving a missing bell. Neither Mushroom nor BalletBoy tend to read past the first book in a series, especially not without a break in between, so it’s definitely a mark of enjoyment that he read three in a row.
11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass
I love Wendy Mass and was happy when Mushroom agreed to give this Groundhog Day like story a try. It’s the first in Mass’s Birthdays series and I definitely like it best. In it, two longtime friends who have always celebrated their birthday together end up repeating their eleventh birthday over and over during the year they’ve had a falling out. Like most of Mass’s work, it’s a sweet story about growing up. I had forgotten how much boy girl “stuff” permeates the book, but Mushroom wasn’t bothered by it. The book was the exact right mix of everyday kid and slightly magical twist for his taste.
Mushroom’s Other Read
N.E.R.D.S. by Michael Buckley
Mushroom dove into this funny book for his pleasure read earlier this summer and he really enjoyed it. I had been after him to read it for awhile because I was sure he’d enjoy it, but the thickness of the book kept intimidating him. While the pages were formatted such that the length was a little misleading, it was still a sign of how much he’s grown as a reader just in the last six months or so that he decided it was time to pick it up and give it a try. If you don’t know the series, it’s about a group of kids recruited to spy for a secret agency, turning their nerdy attributes into superpowers with the help of high tech spy gear. They fight the sort of evil masterminds you would expect in this sort of series. It’s a fun, light read and hopefully Mushroom will pick up the next installments as well.
Jedi Academy: Return of the Padawan by Jeffery Brown
Don’t get me wrong. Both Mushroom and BalletBoy enjoy reading and enjoy good books. However, they don’t tend to choose reading as their first choice of activities. They do it when they’re caught alone in the mornings without their twin or when it’s bedtime and they have their hour of mandated reading. However, there are a few exceptions to this, including the Wimpy Kid books and the Origami Yoda series. And now… this Wimpy Kid-esque series that takes place in the Star Wars universe. This is the second volume and continues the adventures of Roan, who gets to begin his pilot training in this book. The boys fought over the single copy we had and BalletBoy, the faster reader, won out. Mushroom is happily working his way through it now.
The Daydreamer by Ian McEwan
A search for short stories appropriate for fifth graders led me to this collection by McEwan, who is much better known for his adult work, in particular Atonement, which was made into a movie. I had read some of his books so it was with a little suspicion of whether it would be just right that I picked up this collection. However, it’s delightful and totally right for upper elementary or middle school kids. Sometimes when adult writers write for children, the stories miss the mark by being too simplistic or too complex, but McEwan doesn’t dumb down the language yet also makes the stories accessible. The main character, Peter, is a daydreamer who is always imagining stranger and stranger situations, often with a slightly dark or sinister twist, such as the vindictive dolls belonging to his sister who attack him during one such imagining. The characters are the same throughout, but the stories each stand alone. I was originally looking for stories for a list of short stories for our upcoming school year. My goal is to read one per month. One of these, possibly “The Cat,” will be making it on the list. The book would also make a good read aloud for kids. I put it in the same vein as Salman Rushdie’s Haroun novels: a book that isn’t clearly for adults or children, but rather for anyone who might enjoy the stories.