Middle School

All posts in the Middle School category

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 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.

I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

Published April 21, 2014 by Dagmar

malalaDespite being only 16 years old, Malala Yousafzai has won many prizes around the world for her activism in the fight for girls’ education and women’s rights before the Taliban’s attempt to silence her in October 2012.  Malala survived their attack and went on to win even more accolades, including Pakistan’s Youth Peace Prize, the Sakharov Prize, awarded for leadership in human rights and freedom of thought and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2013.  Together with Christina Lamb, she wrote this memoir about her life, the history of the Swat Valley and her time living under the Taliban.

I have a student that patiently waited for me to buy this book and catalog it so that she could check it out.  She came to my library to return the book last week but said that she actually didn’t want to return it.  She wanted to just keep it, because she was moving to another town over spring break and wanted to keep reading the book.  She is a very sweet girl who has read every book with Muslim characters in my library.  I was really touched by the way she connected with the book.  It inspired me to delete it from our collection (I will replace it) and just give it to her.  She hugged the book and me. It was totally worth it.

Here is what she and I both saw in this book.

This book is as much a story of Malala’s fight for girl’s education as it is as a history of the Swat Valley, an introduction to her Pashtun culture, the story of how the Taliban entered and affected the Swat Valley and all of its inhabitants, and the conflict the Swat Valley’s residents felt about the Pakistan Army’s fight against the Taliban.  It’s a fascinating insider’s perspective into current events and an area of the world few in the United States have seen.

Malala is a straight A student, the daughter of her school’s founder.  She loves studying and treasures her school books.  From the outset of the book, you see that Malala will follow in her father’s footsteps as an activist.  Her father is an outspoken advocate for education, specifically girls’ education and bringing peace to the Swat Valley.  It is no surprise that we learn that Malala began anonymously writing a blog for the BBC about life under the Taliban when she was just 11.  She then begins speaking in public about her belief that girls should be educated and her insistence that the Pakistani government use some of the billions of dollars received in aid from the United States to rebuild schools destroyed by the Taliban.  All her public appearances as well as her father’s bring her to the attention of the Taliban.  Both Malala and her father receive death threats from the Taliban.  This only steels Malala to bravely continue her advocacy.

I was fascinated by this book as was my student.  The pictures in the book help the reader connect with Malala on a more personal level.  I would recommend this to middle and high school readers.

 

The Giver, by Lois Lowry

Published April 12, 2014 by Dagmar

giverThe Giver, is a book that has stayed with me since I first read it years ago.  It made an equally big impact on my son when I read it to him.  The Giver won the 1994 Newbery Medal.

I read aloud to my sixth graders each week and decided to read them The Giver. I wondered what our students would make of the society Lois Lowry created.  In the Giver, Jonas is a boy living in a society that protects its people from all pain, horror, sadness and loneliness, but also doesn’t allow them to feel happiness, love or excitement.  Everyone exists in a comfortable, unchanging environment. There is one person, however, who is able to feel everything.  His name is the Giver, and he serves the community by holding all of its memories for them, both painful and joyful.  He alone knows the history of the community before it changed to protect its citizens.  When issues arise in the community, the Giver is called upon for advice on how to address the issue, using his knowledge of the past.

Jonas, as a 12 year old, is ready to receive his life’s assignment in the community.  Some children are assigned to care for the elderly, some become lawyers or teachers. Jonas receives the most prestigious job of all, Receiver.  Every day, Jonas goes to meet with The Giver, to receive the memories of the community.  He learns about war, sickness and disappointment but also about colors, the warmth of sunshine, the cold of snow and the excitement of riding a sled.  He is told that he cannot speak of his experiences with everyone.  He soon feels isolated from his former life and his community.

Jonas’ father is a Nurturer.  His job is to care for infants and toddlers before they are assigned to their family units.  Jonas’ father is troubled by a baby, Newchild 36, who doesn’t seem to be able to fit in.  The baby cries at night and is not adjusting to his environment as the other children are.  As a result, 36 is not able to be assigned to a family unit.  Jonas’ father convinces his bosses to let him bring the child home at night, thinking that it might help him.  Although they are only supposed to know the child’s birth number, Jonas’ family learn that the child’s name is Gabriel.  Despite all Jonas’ family’s efforts, Gabriel doesn’t improve.  Jonas’ father informs Jonas that Gabriel will be “released”.  When he discovers what will happen to Gabriel, Jonas makes a fateful decision that will change not only his own destiny, but the destiny of his community.

This book is perfect for tweens and middle school readers.  My students loved the book and many went on to read the entire Giver series.  The entire series, in order: The Giver, Gathering Blue, The Messenger, and Son, published in 2012.

In case you’re interested in sharing this book with students, here is a link to Lois Lowry’s interview, on Scholastic.com, answering questions submitted by students about The Giver.

http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/lois-lowry-interview-transcript

Here’s another link I found that with interesting discussion questions:

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CDUQFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.christina.k12.de.us%2FLiteracyLinks%2F2008%2520Units%2FUnit%25208_Appendix%2520E_Journal%2520Topics_The%2520Giver.doc&ei=RxiqUoKYDs32oASJ34CgAg&usg=AFQjCNFxHhCFTB3wSAsxRnOg_FeCcGDhbQ&bvm=bv.57967247,d.cGU

 

I am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore

Published March 9, 2014 by Dagmar

number 4I am Number Four is a fast-paced, suspenseful science fiction novel for middle schoolers.

“They caught Number One in Malaysia.  Number Two in England. And Number Three in Kenya.  They killed them all.  I am Number Four.  I am next.”

This is the story of Number 4, a teenager who arrived on Earth from another planet called Lorien when he was a child.  He, and the other nine Lorien Legacies, are the last hope for the planet, destroyed by the Mogadorians.  Their plan is to strengthen themselves and return to fight for Lorien.

The children are bound by a charm — provided that they never meet, the ten children can only be killed by the Mogadorians in order.  Number 4 lives with Henri, his caretaker from Lorien.  Each time the Mogadorians kill one of the Legacies, Number 4 finds out because he feels a searing pain in his ankle that turns into a scar.  Number 4 has three scars now.

Number 4 looks just like any other teenager and would love to be just like any of the kids he knows.  Unfortunately, he and Henri have to change identities all the time, moving across the United States to keep safe, never being able to make long-lasting friendships or stay settled in one place.  Will Number 4 survive?

Don’t miss this exciting first book in the Lorien Legacies series.

Touching Spirit Bear

Published October 28, 2013 by Dagmar

TouchingSpiritBearMy son read Touching Spirit Bear for his sixth grade English class.  He loved the book as did many of his classmates.  I took this feedback and put the book on my library shelves in the middle school section.  It was checked out almost immediately by a sixth grader.  He hasn’t given it back to me yet. 🙂  He has renewed it for three weeks and has read the book three times.  I was so impressed with the feedback, I read the book, too.

Touching Spirit Bear is at times brutal, beginning with a frank recounting of Cole Matthew’s violent assault of a fellow classmate, Peter Driscal.  Cole’s attack results in very serious injuries for Peter.  The injuries are so severe that Cole could be tried as an adult and sent to prison.  Cole is given an option by an Indian parole officer named Garvey to take part in Circle Justice, a Native American criminal justice technique where a circle of concerned citizens and those involved in the crime, victims and perpetrators, participate in a circle to decide how best the perpetrator can pay for his or her crime and begin a healing process.  Cole’s circle includes his victim Peter, Peter’s family, Peter’s attorney, Cole and his abusive father and his alcoholic mother, his parole officer Garvey, a Tlingit tribe elder named Edwin, and members of the community join together to find a way for Cole to pay for his crime without going to prison.  They decide to banish Cole to a remote Alaskan island where he will live by himself for a year under the watch of an Tlingit Indian elder.  spirit bear

Garvey tells Cole about the Spirit Bear, a rare American Black Bear that is white and is generally found near British Columbia.  Although it is rare to find a spirit bear as far North as Cole’s island, Cole sees a spirit bear within his first few days on the island.  His encounter with the bear will change the direction of Cole’s life, both physically and mentally.

This book really moved me.  Cole is a hard character to like.  His anger and arrogance are extreme.   I was touched by the dedication and honesty of the two men, Garvey and Edgar, who commit themselves to helping Cole understand the severity of his crime and that the way to rehabilitate himself is through helping his victim recover.  I was also moved by Cole’s connection to the spirit bear, the natural world and the Native American traditions Garvey and Edgar taught him.

I think this is great book for middle school readers.

The author’s note talks about the effectiveness of Circle Justice, now being used in some cities instead of jail time.

Legend, by Marie Lu

Published August 27, 2013 by Dagmar

legendLegend is my favorite dystopian novel.  My students agree.

Legend moves quickly between chapters written by June and Day.  June is a brilliant 15 year old girl who got a perfect score on the Republic’s trial and is being trained to be one of the Republic’s top soldiers.  Day is 15 year old boy who failed the trial, escaped a labor camp, has become a criminal and the Republic’s number one enemy.

Day and June live in Los Angeles where the rich live alongside the poor in different sectors.  The rich live in beautiful modern buildings and have plenty of food.  The poor live in broken down buildings and and fear the plagues that spread regularly throughout their neighborhoods.  Day and June have never met, but June knows that the most important mission in the military is catching Day.

Their lives intersect when Day’s little brother contracts the plague.  Day, desperate to find vaccines to save his family, breaks into a hospital.  As he tries to escape, June’s brother, a Republic soldier is killed.  Day is accused of killing him, and June is consumed with the need to find and arrest Day.  In her quest to caputure Day, June uncovers things that shake her belief in the Republic and make her wonder if Day is really the enemy at all.

This book combines fast-pacing, mystery, action, suspense and a little romance into a great novel.  Highly recommended for tweens and middle school.

I’m looking forward to reading Marie Lu’s sequel to Legend, Prodigy.

Review: Jefferson’s Sons, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Published August 6, 2013 by Dagmar

Here’s a book from my summer reading list that surprised me.  I was worried that this book would be heavy handed.  Instead, I found a rich story; and, although it is a fictionalized account, this story based largely on historical fact.

jefferson's sonsIt took me a little while to get into the book.  As I kept reading, the writing seemed to become smoother, and I became totally absorbed in the story. I couldn’t put it down. I will definitely recommend this book to tweens and middle school.

Jefferson’s Sons starts with the story of Beverly, Thomas Jefferson’s oldest son with Sally Hemings, his slave. Beverly pines for his father’s love and is constantly reminded that he may never speak about his father to people outside his family. I was starting to wear on this theme but became really interested in the book as it changed voices to his next son, James Madison, or Maddy for short.  Maddy’s voice is angry.  He feels the indignity of being a slave more deeply and is bitter that of all Sally Hemings children, he is the only one that can not pass as white because of his dark skin.  With each changing voice, the author provides another perspective to being Thomas Jefferson’s child. This technique added a lot of interest for me. As the story progresses, readers learn of the huge debts that plagued Thomas Jefferson’s household and how those debts would ultimately affect the lives of everyone at Monticello.

The author’s note at the end is excellent. She tells which parts of her book are based on historical fact and where she filled in parts of the story as she felt they might have occurred. This author’s note is great for students who wonder, “How much of this story is true?”

I was so interested in this story that it sparked my interest in Thomas Jefferson. I spent time on the Monticello.org web-site, reading about Sally Hemings and her children as well as looking at the Monticello grounds and pictures of Thomas Jefferson. There, on Monticello.org, you’ll find that there was a DNA study done that confirmed that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings children.

I’m excited to recommend this book to my students and teachers in the fall.

Amelia’s Notebook series, by Marissa Moss

Published July 29, 2013 by Dagmar

Amelia's NotebookIf you’re looking for a fun read for tweens and middle school girls, here’s a great choice.  Marissa Moss’ Amelia Notebooks are written like diaries that look like composition books full of Amelia’s writing and her many drawings.   Amelia is 10 and has an older sister named Cleo.  They act a lot like you’d imagine an annoying younger sister and a more annoying older sister might act.

In Oh Boy, Amelia, Amelia can’t believe how her sister Cleo changes when she’s around a boy she likes. Amelia tells it like it is. “I know why Cleo’s suddenly so polite.  She’s eating lunch at school with Oliver now, and she doesn’t want him to htink she’s a rude slob…If Oliver saw the real Cleo, there’s no way he’s ask her to go out with him.” and “Today when Oliver came over, Cleo actually fluttered her eyelashes at him – I thought that only happened in cartoons!  I thought I’d see big pink hearts pop up over her head.”

As Amelia tries to make sense of the way Cleo is acting, she has her own struggles in “Life Skills” class.  Amelia has to sew, something and that does not come naturally to her.  Amelia talks about “The Truth Behind Boy and Girl Things”  Her truth?  “All girls aren’t the same, and neither are all boys.  And even if most girls like something, I don’t have to like it, too.”

Amelia’s sewing project is a disaster, and she’s really nervous about her teacher’s suggestion that they have a fashion show with everyone modeling their projects.  Her big challenge though, is making a science project that will impress Oliver enough that he’ll invite her to go the state science fair.  Amelia loves science and is dying to go to science fair.

Will Amelia get through the fashion show and get to go to the science fair?  Will Cleo figure out that it’s better to be yourself than to try to change yourself to get someone to like you?

Read this fun book to find out and enjoy the entire series of Amelia’s notebooks!

As a note, our school was lucky enough to receive an author visit from Marissa Moss.  She did a great presentation and writing workshop for our sixth grade.  Yay, Marissa!

More summer reading reviews

Published July 25, 2013 by Dagmar

Moving through my summer reading list, I took on a a historical novel, Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata, a fairytale adventure, Robe of Skulls, by Vivian French, an environmental novel, One White Dolphin, by  Gill Lewis.

kira-kiraKira-Kira is a powerful, Newbery Medal-winning, story of the strong bond between two Japanese-American sisters living in Iowa and Georgia in the 1960s.  Katie’s sister Lynn best friend, her mentor and the person that taught her that kira-kira means glittering.  Kira-Kira takes many forms: stars in the sky, the sea, people’s eyes.  Katie’s family struggles.  Her family moves to Georgia where her parents find work in chicken hatcheries owned by a very rich man who does not treat his workers well. Katie’s parents work around the clock to make a living and are are devastated when Lynn is diagnosed with a terminal illness.

I was really touched by the beauty and the sadness of this book.  I loved the portrayal of Katie’s strong love for her sister, her quirky but sweet Uncle, her hard-working parents, her love for her little brother and how Katie manages her pain of her sister’s illness.  I will definitely recommend this to my tween and middle school students.

Robe of SkullsFor those of you in search of a fun, fairy tale fantasy, you may enjoy The Robe of Skulls.  I think this book would work best for third and fourth grade readers.  Robe of  Skulls is the first of a series of four books in the Tales of the Five Kingdom’s series.

Lady Lamorna has ordered a new fabulously creepy robe of skulls from the Ancient Crones.  Unfortunately, this wicked sorceress’s trunk of gold is empty.  She has no money to pay for her robe.  What will she do? Why, devise a nasty scheme to turn all the royal princes and princesses into frogs and ransom them, of course.  Little does Lady Lamorna know as she sets out on her evil mission with her troll, that she will meet a very evil stepsister who wants to steal the money Lady Lamorna earns and a young girl named Gracie Gillypot who might just foil her plans.

onewhitedolphinOne White Dolphin is an environmental story based in Cornwall, England.  Kara Woods is a girl who lives with her father at her aunt and uncle’s house.  Her mother, a marine biologist and environmentalist, disappeared while on a scientific mission.  Kara is bullied at school by the sons of powerful fishermen whose parents opposed her mother’s efforts to save the local reef from destruction and dolphins from being caught in fishing nets.  When an albino dolphin calf washes ashore, Kara and her new friend Felix team up to help the dolphin survive and to fight to save the reef that fishermen will destroy as they dredge it to find scallops.

I found myself rooting for Kara on her quest to save what her mother had fought so hard for.  There are several exciting and suspenseful scenes that I really enjoyed as well.  I’d recommend this book to tweens and middle school students.