Book-A-Day: It's really happening
My summer book-a-day has been really great, and I'm already thinking about continuing it past the summer. So far I've read 20 books in 23 days, which absolutely smashes any of my previous summer reading. A good chunk of them were picture books, and a few were middle grade graphic novels. It's not a race or a contest, but I'm having such a good time. Here's a round up of my middle grade reading so far.
awkward and brave, by Svetlana Chmakova (4th-6th grade interest, GRL U)
First of all, these came up on Scholastic as a level U, but they're graphic novels, and I've found that the support of the illustrations and the lack of concentrated text make middle grade graphic novels really successful and motivating for readers at a somewhat lower level. Last fall, I got us a copy of Ghosts, by Raina Telgemeier, and they loooooooved it, particularly my 5th grade girls, and continued asking for "books with bubbles." So I jumped at the chance to get brave with my Scholastic points, and it was also so popular that I basically never saw it again. I finally got the chance to read it this summer, and I'm a big fan. Both books in the series take place in Berrybrook Middle School, a busy, diverse place with a vivid cast of characters. The hero of brave is Jensen Graham, an expert in zombie survival strategies, the dangers of sunspots, and avoiding bullies, who's trying to find a place in his middle school world. awkward's hero is Penelope Torres, called Peppi, an artist who's also searching for her place in the social landscape. Both books take a journey through lessons about friendship that are positive, affirming, and often laugh-out-loud funny. These are such sweet, quirky, realistic books, and I love the little universe Svetlana creates with these friends.
Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom, by Booki Vivat (4th-6th grade interest, GRL S)
This is another surviving-middle-school tale, this one featuring Abbie Wu, who worries about pretty much everything, and doesn't feel like she fits in at home or at school. The prospect of choosing an elective is totally daunting, because Abbie can't seem to find her "thing." Terrible cafeteria circumstances lead to her inadvertently starting a lunchtime revolution, which both puts her on the map, and helps her learn about being herself. Her free spirit Aunt Lisa also comes in to help her learn about being herself, and I really appreciate that, because my nephew is only 1, but before too long he'll realize that I'm his kooky, free spirit aunt, and I'm pretty psyched about that. Frazzled is a light, fun read with load of illustrations that will especially speak to our more anxious middle-graders.
Alvin Ho, by Lenore Look (2nd-4th grade interest, GRL Q)
Alvin is very much cut from the same cloth as Abbie Wu, only his worries are a little more extreme than Abbie's sense of impending doom, and result in him being unable to speak at school. The book addresses his situation with a graceful touch, and shows Alvin as a well-rounded little guy, chatty and curious at home around his family and friends, voice frozen in the school environment. There's a fun group of supporting characters in Alvin's family (parents, granddad, big brother and little sister) and friends (including a rad little girl nicknamed Flea, who wears a pirate patch over one eye, and Jules, who lets everyone catch chicken pox, and who Alvin doesn't know if they're a boy or a girl, and doesn't seem at all concerned). This is such a good, classically middle grade, realistic fiction read. I picked it up from our bookroom at school to use for guided reading, and it totally fits the bill.
Museum Mysteries: The Case of the Portrait Vandal, by Steve Brezenoff (3rd-5th grade interest, GRL Q)
Listen, I really like this series, and so does my class. I had fairly low expectations when I picked one off of Amazon last summer, and mostly picked it up because it was a middle grade book with a girl in a hijab on the cover. Midyear, The Case of the Missing Museum Archives was voted on for a class read-aloud novel, and we liked it so much that we immediately voted to follow it up with The Case of the Haunted History Museum. Their mystery format was so engaging for my group, and just the right level of complexity for them to really get into, and also understand and make great predictions. I was able to sneak so much good comprehension work into our discussions about them! Each book takes place in one of the Capitol City museums (*cough* Smithsonians *cough*) and features a very non-threatening but still super-interesting crime to solve. The Case of the Portrait Vandal is the first of the three to address the kids' backgrounds at all, with a bigoted father and son who insult the hijab-wearing Amal and Native American Raining. Also, the father is a museum security guard who very much profiles the kids. I felt like it needed to be handled in a more empowering and forceful way. When the security guard hauls them into the head of security's office and says all kinds of insulting things, she (the head of security) stands up for them by vouching for their characters, but doesn't call out or address his racism, and all she says to the kids is, "you don't deserve that kind of treatment." But she let them get treated that way! And it pressures Raining to reply, "It's all right," but it's not all right! The book ends with an apology for being "rude," and promises to be more "open-minded," but that's as much as it's addressed. There's also a moment among the four friends where Clementine (the only white member of the group) brings up Amal and Raining as suspects, thinking that they should be prepared for the security guy to accuse them. Wilson (who is black), immediately sees what she's trying to say, and calls her on it, and she quickly sees the problem and apologizes. Again, though, the kids of color are responsible for mending the fences and being okay. The other books have presented diversity without going into issues of race and ethnicity, which I think is an okay choice, and if you're going to bring racism up, you're going to have to be more responsible than this. If I were reading this one with kids, I'd use it as a discussion point, and I wouldn't really want my kids of color reading it without talking about how problematic the treatment is, to see that they don't need to make other people more comfortable in the face of racism. It's also equally important, if not more so, for white kids to see it as problematic, and think about what it actually means to be anti-racist. I also clearly need to preview the other books in the series before putting them in my kids' hands. I hope we're able to enjoy more books in this series, because we really like hanging out with these friends.
The Watsons Go To Birmingham, by Christopher Paul Curtis (4th-6th grade interest, GRL U)
All of the summaries of this book (and it's title, if we're being honest) are about a family from Flint, Michigan, traveling to Birmingham, Alabama, in the summer of 1963, at the time of the church bombing there. And, they do, but...it takes more than eleven chapters to get there! Up until then, it's very much in the nitty-gritty of ten year old Kenny's life, and the struggles of being a super-smart kid, a bit of an outcast, and a middle child. I think it's the kind of realistic fiction that could really appeal to its target age-range without particularly appealing to an adult reader. There's also a fair amount of bullying and parental discipline, that are described in a lot of detail in a way that seems like a bit much in a contemporary climate. After all of the build up, the scenes in Birmingham, the church bombing, and its aftermath, all felt pretty rushed to me. So, this didn't seem like the civil rights novel that I thought it was going to be, but the story of a child growing up in that era. Kenny is endearing, and a sweet, sometimes funny narrator, and his story could reach other kids his age.
The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson (4th-8th grade interest, estimated GRL T)
Apparently no one has gotten around to leveling this book yet. But it's fine, because it's SO GOOD. It's been compared to The Westing Game, which it also references directly in an awesome way. The main character is 12 year old Candice Miller, and her partner in crime is 11 year old Brandon Jones. Together they go on a quest to solve a generations-old mystery. The narrative is so smart and compelling, particularly the way it shifts back and forth between the present day and the 1950s, weaving together the details of two stories and gradually filling out the mystery. It addresses a variety of issues, past and present, as an organic part of the story, and the characters are vivid and complex. Candice is bright and multi-faceted, Brandon is smart and vulnerable and tough, and their developing friendship is so wonderful. This would be a great read-aloud; it's long, and on the mature side, so I'm not sure that I'd do it with my current 4 and 5s, but it'd be just about perfect with general ed 5th or 6th graders. Let me say it one more time, THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD!
Ghost and Patina, by Jason Reynolds (5th-8th grade interest, GRL Y)
I picked these up in a Scholastic two-for deal with points, and I've been wanting to read more Jason Reynolds, but I didn't expect to get so totally drawn into a series about a middle school track team. And yet here I am! These are excellent. Each one in the series (these are one and two of four) focuses on one of the new members of the Defenders, a competitive community track team, and the challenges of their school and family lives. Ghost (a nickname for Castle Cranshaw) learned how to run when he and his mom escaped his abusive dad. Patina discovered running as a way to connect to a dad who died too young and a mom who lost her legs to diabetes. Their experiences are heavy, but the stories don't carry too much weight. They feel real and authentic, and the voices of both Ghost and Patty are so strong and clear and relatable, and there's a lot of light and hope in their stories. And while I've never before been invested in track competitions, the final chapter of each details a race in a way that kept me on the edge of my seat...and left me hanging without a result! You have to wait until the next book! Which is so effective but not fair at all. I love these, and I can't wait to get my hands on the remaining two.
Bonus Titles: As if this post isn't long enough already, there are two books that I want to share that I read in the spring before starting Book-a-Day.
Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh (5th-8th grade interest, GRL U)
This book is such a treat. Edited by the cofounder of We Need Diverse Books, it brings together ten stories about all kinds of kids, from some superstar authors: Jacqueline Woodson, Matt de la Peña, Kwame Alexander, Meg Medina...and the list goes on! I loved reading short stories for this age group. They're all rich and fascinating, packing so much into so few pages. Short stories like this would make really excellent mentor texts; there's so much that could be done with them, and for older readers, they have the feel and maturity of novels without the length. Again, so. good.
The Stars Beneath Our Feet, by David Barclay Moore (5th-8th grade interest, estimated GRL T)
For starters, this book has an exceptionally good cover, the kind that will draw you in even if you haven't already heard a bunch of good things about it. I actually picked up an advance reader's copy from a used book sale in my neighborhood (there were several ARC titles, which begs the question, is there a youth book reviewer in my neighborhood, and can we be friends?!?), and read it a couple of months ago. The story begins of Christmas Eve in the St. Nicholas housing project in Harlem, introducing us to Lolly Rachpaul, age 12, who is grieving the loss of his older brother. The adults in his life include his mom, her girlfriend, his sometimes-present dad, and Mr. Ali at his after-school program. His best friend Vega lives upstairs, and the after-school has a cast of characters, including Rose who has special needs, and develops an important connection with Lolly. Any chance he gets, Lolly works on building his Lego universe, which started in his apartment and then got transferred to a storeroom in the community center. Lolly's journey to healing is compelling and complex. It also contains a number of mature topics, including gangs and guns, so it's really for readers on the older end, but the messages are all positive and affirming, so while there are some tense moments, ultimately this is a hopeful story.
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