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All posts for the month December, 2014

Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses, by Kimberly and James Dean

Published December 22, 2014 by Dagmar

Pete the Cat is one very cool dude.  He is a blue cat, and in this book, he is a blue cat with some “cool, blue, magic sunglasses”.  Wait and see what magic they can do.

Pete the CatPete is blue, and not just in color.  He’s a blue cat who is feeling blue.  Pete has “the blue cat blues”.  Walking down the street, he runs into Grumpy Toad, a toad that was never happy.  Bummer…not the kind of guy you want to run into when you’re feeling blue, yourself.  Today, though, Grumpy Toad has a smile on his face.  Why?  Grumpy Toad has a pair of “cool, blue, magic sunglasses,” that help him “see things in a whole new way.”  He gives the glasses to Pete.  When Pete puts on the glasses, all of a sudden he sees that, “The birds are singing. The sky is bright.  The sun is shining. I’m feeling ALRIGHT!”  Pete takes his trusty skateboard and continues on his way in a sunnier mood.

Pete runs into Squirrel, Turtle and Alligator.  All of them are having terrible days until Pete shares his cool, blue, magic sunglasses with them.  Once they put on the magic sunglasses, they see what Pete saw and are feeling ALRIGHT!”  Pete keeps cruising on his skateboard when ACK! …he falls off his skateboard and the cool sunglasses crack.  Luckily, a wise old owl is nearby and tells Pete that he actually doesn’t need those sunglasses.  He just needs to remember to “look for the good in every day.”

What a cool way to talk about times when you’re feeling grumpy, angry, frustrated or just plain blue.  I loved it; my kids loved it, and we’re feeling ALRIGHT!  So, be cool, and read this great book, too.

Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper

Published December 21, 2014 by Dagmar

Of all the books my students read in our 4th and 5th grade book club this fall, Out of My Mind was their favorite.  Sharon Draper, who has a disabled daughter herself, tells a story of a disabled girl who is constantly underestimated and misunderstood but who is extraordinarily smart and determined.

outofmymindMelody is 10 years old and has cerebral palsy.  Her disability affects her in many ways. Melody is unable to walk and cannot balance when she sits up.  She sits, strapped into a wheel chair. She can’t feed herself, cloth herself or go the bathroom by herself.  Sometimes, she can’t control her body movements.  Far more frustrating for Melody, though, is the fact that she can’t talk.  But, don’t feel sorry for Melody.  Melody is brilliant.  In fact, she has a photographic memory.  If people knew how smart she was, they might not underestimate her so much.

Imagine knowing what’s happening around you and wanting to speak, but being unable to speak.  No one around her, not even her parents, fully understand how much Melody knows or what she thinks about.  It might make you go out of your mind, like a fish in a tiny fish bowl who just can’t stand those glass walls anymore.

At school, Melody is placed in a room for children with disabilities.  Unfortunately, there, having disabilities means that people also think you’re stupid and try to teach you the alphabet in third grade.

Luckily, Melody has champions who fight for her.  Her parents are constantly trying to explain that Melody is an intelligent child who needs people to teach her.  Ms. V., Melody’s neighbor who has taken care of her since she was a baby, while Melody’s parents work, needs no convincing about Melody’s intelligence.  She works with Melody, developing word cards so that Melody can communicate.  Catherine, Melody’s aide at school, works with Melody to find a machine that can help her speak.

When Melody gets her machine, she finds her voice.  It is an amazing gift.  Everyone learns just how incredibly bright Melody is.  Melody has opportunities that she couldn’t have dreamed of the year before, including joining mainstream classrooms.

This book does such a wonderful job of explaining Melody’s condition and limitations in away that doesn’t let you feel sorry for Melody.  Draper’s writing gives Melody an authentic voice that really speaks to students.  Melody’s disappointments and frustrations are easy to imagine.  Her victories make you feel great.

With great characters and plot twists right until the end, this book will really draw you in.  Don’t miss it!  For more information, please check out this interview with Sharon Draper about this book on her web-site. http://sharondraper.com/bookdetail.asp?id=35

The Land of Stories, by Chris Colfer

Published December 14, 2014 by Dagmar

My niece is a big reader.  One of my favorite things to do is to talk about books with her.  The Land of Stories might be the most enthusiastic recommendation she’s ever made to me.  She went on Land of Storiesabout how much she loved the book, and she was so excited that there were sequels to the story.  A few weeks later I was in a hotel in San Francisco, when I overheard a girl, about the same age as Emma, telling her grandmother about a great book she was reading.  She was so enthusiastic that I couldn’t help interrupting and asking her what book she was talking about.  You’ve got it. It was The Land of Stories.

I ordered the book for my kindle the next night and began reading the book.  I see what they saw in the book.  The Land of Stories falls in the fairy tale fantasy genre for middle readers.  There have been a lot of these books published lately.  Luckily, they are not cookie cutter.  Each is clever and has its own merits.  My particular favorites are this book, A Tale Dark and Grimm, A Hero’s Guide to Saving the Kingdom and Rump.  I’m terribly behind on reading the Sisters Grimm (incredibly behind, really, given that the series now has 9 books) but plan to read that book as well.  After reading it, I put it on my 4th and 5th Grade Fiction Book Club list.  My students raved about this book as well.

The Land of Stories is terrific.  Two great characters go on a quest – but not just any quest. This quest combines humor, mystery, adventure and lots of familiar fairy tale characters who are probably quite a bit different than you might remember.

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell pulls you right in.  It  begins as Queen Snow White enters a dark dungeon to speak with her step-mother, the Evil Queen.  Snow White begs the former queen to tell her why she never loved Snow White.  The Evil Queen tells Snow White that “a villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told.”

The book then turns to two characters, Alex and Conner Bailey, 12 year old twins who live with their mother.  They live in a small house, having had to sell their old house after their father passes away in a car accident.  Life is difficult for the twins.  Their mother, trying to pay the bills, has to work double shifts as a nurse.  They rarely see their mother, and Conner is struggling in school.  Their grandmother is a light in their life.  When she arrives for the twins’ birthday, she leaves them with her most prized possession, an old story book called, The Land of Stories.

The old story book turns out to be more than just a book of stories.  It vibrates and hums.  It keeps Alex, normally a top student, up at night.  While not many people would think to try to drop a book into the pages of a humming storybook, Alex is just the kind of kid that does.  She drops in several books and a pencil and then, a little predictably, is sucked into the book herself.  Her twin, Conner, horrified as he watches her disappear, jumps right in after his sister.  What do you do when you fall into a book?  You meet a magical creature – not a faun, as might happen if you’ve fallen through the back of a wardrobe – but a big frog who offers you tea with flies (if you like).  The only way to leave the enchanted land?  Fulfill the requirements of the Wishing Spell.

I don’t want to give away too much, because this book is truly worth your time.  You’ll learn the truth about Goldilocks (a villain on the run), Little Red Riding Hood, Jack in the Beanstalk and that Evil Queen and whether she actually is a victim. You’ll also learn whether Alex and Conner ever find their way home.

Honestly, it would not surprise me if this book won an award.  Please don’t miss this wonderful book.  I’m launching a fantasy book club, and my students have already asked me to put book two of this series on the list.  Hmmm.  They might have to just borrow that book from my library shelves – so many more great fantasy books and series to explore!

The Case of the Vanishing Honeybees: A Scientific Mystery, by Sandra Markle

Published December 12, 2014 by Dagmar

VanishingHoneyBeesThis book is part of a great Scientific Mystery series.  I shared this book with my third grade class.  I love sharing non-fiction books with them.

This book focuses on CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder, or the disappearance of worker honeybees from their hives.  Bee hives are left with their queen and her brood (developing bees).

I particularly like this book, because the author, Sandra Markle, does such a great job in building the mystery for students.  The book begins with the question: “Where are all the honeybees?”  Markle’s next topic in the book is the importance of honey bees to all of us as pollinators.  She explains exactly how bees gather nectar and pollen.  The book continues with more on the mystery.  Scientists team up with the bee keepers to discover why the worker bees are not returning to their colony.  They believe the worker bees are dying.

Markle talks about the role of worker bees and tells of all the different bees in the hive, including the queen and the drones.  Then, she goes on to explain the different hypotheses scientists developed to explain what might be killing the honeybees: honeybee’s habitats are changing as areas become more developed; honeybees might be overworked as they are moved from region to region in the country, coinciding with growing seasons; beekeepers, in an effort to keep honeybees working, feed honeybees sugar syrup, which could weaken them.  The answer might be cell phones or even mites, a fungus, or pesticides.

While this book doesn’t present the answer to the mystery, the ending is satisfying for students.  It suggests that the answer may be a combination of the factors mentioned and that scientists are continuing their study of honeybees and their colonies to try to find the answer to this question.

I thought this book did a great job of teaching students how science connects to real world issues.  The photographs are terrific and the explanations of the problem and its possible causes are clearly and attractively presented.  I highly recommend this book to 3rd-5th grade students and their teachers.

Thanks to Junior Library Guild for this great selection.

4th and 5th grade fiction book club

Published December 12, 2014 by Dagmar

We just wrapped our 4th and 5th grade fiction book club last week.  Last school year, I hosted a California Young Readers’ Medal book club.  I loved seeing our best readers bond as a group.  When I say these students are our best clients, I’m serious.  These kids really read.

outofmymindI chose five books for my students.  I started with these books: Al Capone Does My Shirts,  by Gennifer Choldenko; The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell, by Chris Colfer; The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman; Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper; and What We Found Al Capone Doesin the Sofa and How it Saved the World, by Henry Clark.  I chose The Land of Stories, because my niece, a fifth grader, told me the Land of Stories was one of the best books she’d read.  I loved it, myself.

Not only did most of my students finish all five of the books I chose, they added books to my list and managed to finish most of those books, too – all while checking out library books to read each week.  Wow.

HLand of Storiesere’s what my students added to our reading list: A Stone in My Hand, by Cathryn Clinton; Elijah of Buxton, by Christopher Paul Curtis; Island of Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell; Almost Home, by Joan Bauer.  Great choices.  I loved every one of these books myself.

At our party, I polled all my students on their favorite books.  Out of My Mind won by a mile.  My niece Face Timed me last week to tell me that she’d just read another great book…Out of My Mind. 🙂  I wish she could join my book club!

Look for reviews of these books soon.

Take Away the A, by Michael Escoffier

Published December 12, 2014 by Dagmar

Here’s my next entry in the “Clever Alphabet book” category.  I’m kidding, I don’t have a Clever Alphabet category on my blog, but I think I might need one now.  My first entry in this budding category, The Z was Zappedtake away the a by Chris Van Allsburg, is a fun, if dangerous, alphabet book.

Take Away the A takes each letter and removes it from a word to make a new word.  “Without the C, the Chair has Hair.” “Without the L, the Plants wear Pants.” Clever, right?  My second graders thought so and had a great time reading this book with me.  The illustrations, by Kris Di Giacomo, are lots of fun, too. I highly recommend this book to early readers who will love figuring out what happens as each letter disappears.

Stay tuned for my next clever Alphabet book, Oliver Jeffers’ Once Upon an Alphabet.

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman

Published December 9, 2014 by Dagmar

goldencompassI’ve had The Golden Compass on my school library shelf for three years.  I’ve wanted to read it and never had the opportunity.  With so many students all eager for fiction recommendations, my reading list can be long and scattered – science fiction, mysteries, fantasy, realistic fiction.  I’m often reading several books at one time.  One or my fourth grade students simply tore through this series this fall.  I’m grateful to her for putting this book and series back on my radar.  The beginning of this book really grabbed my attention.  I didn’t stop reading until I’d finished the book.

The Golden Compass is the first book in the “His Dark Materials” series (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and the Amber Spyglass).  Lyra is the main character.  Her world resembles the current world with recognizable countries and geography.   Every human being has a daemon, an animal that acts as an expression of each person’s soul, and is their closest friend.  Daemons change form as a child grows and eventually settle into one animal form when the child becomes an adult.  Lyra is being raised by the Scholars at Jordan College.  Lord Ariel, her uncle, visits Lyra occasionally, but she is largely left to her own devices.  She spends most of her time with her best friend, Roger, a kitchen boy. Together, they get into a lot of mischief, battling with other children, climbing onto the roof of the College and discovering all that tunnels and rooms that lie beneath the College.

The story begins as Lyra, a girl, and her daemon, Pantalaimon hide in a wardrobe in the Retiring Room at Jordan College.  Hidden, she sees the Master of the College walk into the room and put poison in the wine glass of the visiting Lord Asriel, who is soon to arrive. Lord Asriel enters the Retiring Room only to catch Lyra, hiding in the wardrobe.  Lyra tells him of the poisoned wine. Grateful to know about the plot to kill him, Lord Asriel allows her to crawl back in the wardrobe so that she can see the slideshow he is presenting to Scholars at Jordan College.  The slideshow shows the Aurora in the North and an image of a city in the sky.  Lord Asriel speaks to the group of Scholars about a mysterious substance called “dust”.  Lyra is fascinated by the images Lord Asriel has shown the group.  She is curious about everything she has heard and wants to visit the North to learn more about “dust” and the City in the sky.

From that day forward, Lyra’s life changes completely.  She and Roger begin to hear rumors that children are being stolen from Oxford and surrounding areas.  Then, Roger is abducted.  Lyra also learns that Lord Asriel is being held prisoner in the North. Then, the Master of the College tells Lyra that she must leave Jordan College and go live with Mrs. Coulter, a beautiful and charming, but mysterious, woman.  Before she leaves the College, the Master gives her a strange device called an alethiometer, that looks like a compass.  She is told to keep it safe from others.

Lyra soon finds out that she has a special gift that allows her to “read” the alethiometer.  She learns more about her family and the evil that exists in her world.  She is forced to run away from Mrs. Coulter’s house and is found and protected by Gyptians, a nomadic people who move from place to place on their boats.  Together with the Gyptians and an armored bear called Iorek Byrnison, Lyra heads north to free her friend Roger, the other lost children and Lord Asriel.

This is a fast-paced book’s unfolding mystery will hold you in suspense until the final pages.  There are truly evil characters and smart, loyal characters that you’ll come to love.  Lyra is brave and determined to fight the evil she sees.

I highly recommend this book to fourth grade-middle school readers who love mystery and fantasy.