21 July 2014

A Summer of Reading, So Far

I don't read as much during the school year as I would like. I especially don't stay caught up with the new novels that come out for elementary age children. This summer I am trying to play catch up and read some things that I have had on my list and become familiar with some books so I can make better recommendations next year for my students. So here is some of what I have been reading.

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage is the first book in what is now a series. The story is set in the fictional North Carolina town of Tupelo Landing, which is somewhere "down east." Mo LeBeau, whose mysterious beginnings set the stage for a puzzle that will span future books, considers herself a detective and jumps into the fray when there is a murder in her small town. Her antics sort of help solve the crime, with some bumblings and interference along the way. Her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, is her partner and the backdrop of small town, everyone-knows-everyone-else's business, life brings in a host of interesting characters. There are nosy old women, overly helpful local politicians, eccentric business owners, the town bully, and rivals turned friends. Mo is funny and earnest, mostly funny because she is so earnest, but her insecurities will resonate with many kids who are asking questions about life and self and the mysteries around them.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio made me cry.  A lot.  I cried in the first chapter and in the middle and I sobbed at the end.  It is the story of Auggie Pullman, a seriously disfigured 5th grader who is going to school for the first time.  His story is told from multiple perspectives -- his, his older sister's, his classmates', his sister's friends'. Through the eyes of all of these characters we get a picture of Auggie finding his path through the world and finding friends to make the journey with him.  He is bullied and hurt but it is a story of triumph and healing.  This is a story of perseverance and acceptance that everyone should read. But have a box of tissues on hand.

A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff is about a fantastical world in which most people are Talented. The Talent may be a bizarre one, like having perfect spitting aim -- or an artsy one, like being able to weave elaborate braids -- or a sentient one, like being able to place orphans with their perfect families on first meetings. In this world, in Poughkeepsie, NY, live some interesting characters whose lives become tangled together as one searches for her forever family, another searches for her Talent, another searches for adventure, another searches for a long-lost treasure, and yet another searches for an escape from the past. This story is also told from multiple perspectives and it weaves in and out of each character's experiences, all the time tying everything together and showing how people's destinies are often connected to those around them. Sometimes we all need to be reminded that what we do affects others. This story will help kids make that connection.

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt is set in 1960's Queens. It is about 6th grader Julian and his struggle to come to terms with some bad things he has done and what kind of person it makes him. Julian is suspended before the novel opens for an act of bullying, we assume, though what actually happened is not explained for most of the book. His English teacher gives him an assignment as additional "punishment" -- keep a journal for the remainder of the school year and get out of writing the "Julius Caesar" essay the rest of the class will have to do.  The novel is Julian's journal.  In it he works his way through typical 6th grade problems -- self-esteem troubles, friend troubles, girl troubles, friend troubles caused by girl troubles, self-esteem troubles caused by friend and girl troubles -- and eventually does some deep self-examining, which we all, including Julian, knew was his teacher's intention in the first place. I liked that the characters in this book were real, with real defects. Julian knows what his teacher is trying to do and openly resists it.  Julian also knows that his best friend is a bully, but can't quite admit it to himself. Instead, he defends Lonnie, even at the end. But he also stands up to him and makes him do the right thing. That kind of courage is hard to find when you are 12. This is a different perspective on bullying and one I think many boys will connect with.

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo is about a lonely girl and an unlikely super hero.  It reminded me a lot of The Tale of Desperaux, also by DiCamillo. Flora, the daughter of a divorced accountant and a romance novelist, is a cynic who doesn't believe in hope. Her approach to the world has been formed from reading The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto -- "Do not hope; instead observe." Ulysses is a squirrel who got sucked into a vacuum cleaner and emerged with super powers -- strength, flying, writing, understanding humans. Flora, with the help of some weird neighbors and unexpected friends, saves Ulysses from his arch-nemesis. In the process, she loses some of her cynicism and even finds hope.  The tone is very similar to Desperaux -- characters is both books are on a journey of self-discovery and the main animal character views the world with a sense of wonder. What I think will really appeal to children about this book, especially boys, is the use of comic-style illustrations to tell part of the story.  Flora also constantly refers back to her comics as she struggles to work out the various obstacles she and Ulysses encounter.  The book is a nice mix of the two styles of storytelling.

I have also done some professional reading and read some adult novels, this summer. We finished reading Harry Potter with Isaac -- he is now reading Timmy Failure:Now Look What You've Done. I read Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman, and enjoyed it. I also have a stack of books with me to read on vacation, so my reading is far from done. Now to decide what to read next . . .

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