Tuesday, May 17, 2016


Science Fiction, Adventure, Schools
2008, 485 pages

ALA Notable and starred reviews

"Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?"

"When this peculiar ad appears in the newspaper, dozens of children enroll to take a series of mysterious, mind-bending texts. (And you, dear reader, can test your wits right alongside them.) But in the end just four very special children will succeed. Their challenge: to go on a secret mission that only the most intelligent and resourceful children could complete. To accomplish it they will have to go undercover at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, where the only rule is that there are no rules.

As our heroes face physical and mental trials beyond their wildest imaginations, they have no choice but to turn to each other for support. But with their newfound friendship at stake, will they be able to pass the most important test of all? Welcome to the Mysterious Benedict Society." From the Publisher

This is an absolutely engaging adventure that involves problem-solving, loyalty, and bravery. I was so sorry when it ended, but good news...there are sequels!

Friday, May 13, 2016

THE FOURTH STALL by Chris Rylander

Realistic Fiction, School, Friends, Bullying, Mystery, Humor

"The humor of Diary of a Wimpy Kid meets a Godfather-like tale of crime and betrayal in this first book in Chris Rylander's The Fourth Stall Saga.

Do you need something? Mac can get it for you. He and his best friend and business manager, Vince. Their methods might sometimes run afoul of the law, or at least the school code of conduct, but if you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can pay him, Mac is on your side.

 His office is located in the East Wing boy's bathroom, fourth stall from the high window. And business is booming. Or at least it was, until this particular Monday. Because this Monday is when Mac and Vince find out that the trouble with solving everyone else's problems is there's no one left to solve yours.

The school setting; fast-paced, cinematic, and funny story; and engaging voice make The Fourth Stall a perfect classroom read." From the Publisher

This is a real favorite with my sixth graders. It's a page turner! Mac's business operation is outrageous and breaks a lot of rules....and the law at times, but the story works just because it is so outrageous - believable, but not really. What saves Mac in the reader's eyes is that he really is a nice kid and wants to look out for others...while making money.

This could be a good match for both reluctant and avid readers.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

MILKWEED by Jerry Spinelli

Children and War; Historical Fiction; Holocaust

"Follows a young Jewish orphan in the Warsaw ghetto during World War Two as he slowly understands the horrible reality that surrounds him and attempts to steal in order to help others survive."

This is a lyrical novel juxtaposed against the brutality of the Holocaust seen through the eyes of a boy too young to understand, thus emphasizing the tragedy of events. I was mesmerized by Spinelli's writing and found the story compelling, although was a little unsatisfied with the ending. Still, it would be a book to be paired with Orlev's Run Boy, Run as suggested by the review below.

Booklist starred (October 15, 2003 (Vol. 100, No. 4))
Holocaust survivor stories for teens run the risk of being either too brutal or too sentimental. These two novels avoid sensationalizing the violence because, in each case, the protagonist is a child too young to understand what's going on, which distances the horror. In both books the child is saved, but there's no radiant uplift about rescuers. Yes, some heroes do hide the children and help them, but as John Auerbach shows in his adult autobiographical story collection, The Owl and Other Stories [BKL S 15 03], which centers on escaping the Warsaw ghetto, luck and wild coincidence were a large part of what enabled a few to live. Part survival adventure, part Holocaust history, these novels tell their story through the eyes of a Polish orphan on the run from the Nazis. Orlev is a Holocaust survivor, and his award-winning novels about being a child in the Warsaw ghetto, including The Man from the Other Side (1991), are widely read. This new story is not based on his own experience, but it does come from real life--the experience of an illiterate ghetto survivor who escaped into the Polish countryside, stealing, foraging, begging, working. The boy is nurtured by some and hated by many. He hides his circumcision and invents a Catholic identity; he forgets his real name, his family, and the street where he lived. In one unforgettable incident, he loses his right arm because a Polish doctor refuses to operate on a Jew. He survives, immigrating to Israel, where Orlev hears him tell his story. The narrative is simple and spare, factual about everything from hunting with a slingshot to making a fire with a piece of glass, and it's always true to the viewpoint of a boy who thinks he is "about nine." In contrast, Spinelli's narrative is manic, fast, and scattered, authentically capturing the perspective of a young child who doesn't know if he's a Jew or a Gypsy; he has never known family or community. He lives by stealing; his name may be Stopthief. Unlike Orlev's protagonist, this boy lives in the ghetto, where the daily atrocities he witnesses-- hanging bodies, massacres, shootings, roundups, transports--are the only reality he knows. His matter-of-fact account distances the brutality without sensationalizing or lessening the truth. He first finds shelter with a gang of street kids, where one fierce older boy protects him, invents an identity for him, and teaches him survival skills. Later he lives with a Jewish family. The history is true, so although Spinelli's narrator is young, the brutal realism in the story makes this a book for older children. Both novels end with what seems to be a contrived escape, though in Orlev's story, the ending is true. Add these stirring titles to the Holocaust curriculum; the youth of the protagonists allows them to ask questions and get answers that will help readers learn the history.

ECHO by Pam Munoz Ryan

Newbery Honor 2016; PW Best Books of the Year 2015; Notable Children's Books - Middle Readers - 2016

Discrimination; Family; Historical Fiction; Magic; Music; World War II

"No matter how much sadness there is in life, there are equal amounts of maybe things will get better someday soon" Echo

"Winner of a 2016 Newbery Honor, ECHO pushes the boundaries of genre, form, and storytelling innovation.

Lost and alone in a forbidden forest, Otto meets three mysterious sisters and suddenly finds himself entwined in a puzzling quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica.

Decades later, Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California each, in turn, become interwoven when the very same harmonica lands in their lives. All the children face daunting challenges: rescuing a father, protecting a brother, holding a family together. And ultimately, pulled by the invisible thread of destiny, their suspenseful solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo.

Richly imagined and masterfully crafted, this impassioned, uplifting, and virtuosic tour de force will resound in your heart long after the last note has been struck." --From the Publisher

I wasn't sure where this book was going in the opening fairy-tale like story, but was pulled in when it transitioned to the story of Friedrich in Germany during World War II. Ryan's writing is beautiful and masterful. The story becomes more intriguing as it progresses through the three children's lives. I loved this story. It would be a wonderful read aloud with much material for discussion. Great connections to music and World War II. Grades 5-8

Thursday, October 22, 2015


Animal Fantasy, Opossums; Adventure

"Fans of E.B. White and Dick King-Smith will adore this heartwarming and funny animal adventure by the award-winning author of Counting by 7s

Mama has trained up her baby possums in the ways of their breed, and now it's time for all of them—even little Appleblossom—to make their way in the world. Appleblossom knows the rules: she must never be seen during the day, and she must avoid cars, humans, and the dreaded hairies (sometimes known as dogs). Even so, Appleblossom decides to spy on a human family—and accidentally falls down their chimney! The curious Appleblossom, her faithful brothers—who launch a hilarious rescue mission—and even the little girl in the house have no idea how fascinating the big world can be. But they're about to find out!

With dynamic illustrations, a tight-knit family, and a glimpse at the world from a charming little marsupial's point of view, this cozy animal story is a perfect read-aloud and a classic in the making." (From the publisher)

My Comments
Adorable! Sloan shows the world from a possum's point of view with humor and hair-raising adventures. Kids can probably relate to some of the possum personalities and learn a little animal science a long the way. Very well done. This may be more on the elementary level, but I would recommend it to some sixth graders too.


Illustrated by K.G. Campbell

Animal Fantasy; Superheroes; Squirrels; Humor; Divorce
Newbery Winner 2014

"It begins, as the best superhero stories do, with a tragic accident that has unexpected consequences. The squirrel never saw the vacuum cleaner coming, but self-described cynic Flora Belle Buckman, who has read every issue of the comic book Terrible Things Can Happen to You!, is just the right person to step in and save him. What neither can predict is that Ulysses (the squirrel) has been born anew, with powers of strength, flight, and misspelled poetry -- and that Flora will be changed too, as she discovers the possibility of hope and the promise of a capacious heart. From #1 New York Times best-selling author Kate DiCamillo comes a laugh-out-loud story filled with eccentric, endearing characters and featuring an exciting new format -- a novel interspersed with comic-style graphic sequences and full-page illustrations, all rendered in black-and-white by up-and-coming artist K. G. Campbell." (From the publisher)

My Comments

A fun and incredibly creative book. I kept thinking, "How did DiCamillo ever come up with this story?" But it works! The reader sees the world from the perspective of the squirrel and Flora in a way that makes total sense.
That said, it's not for every reader. I would give it to kids who want to laugh and be surprised. There is a dark, almost Roald Dahl shadow to this story, however, in the relationship of Flora with her mother who has distanced herself from Flora. But there is resolution, love, and understanding at the end.

THE CAPTURE by Katherine Lasky

Guardians of Ga'hoole series. Book One.
Animal Fantasy; Owls; Good and Evil; Survival

"Soren, a barn owl that is captured and taken to a special school for orphaned owls, is befriended by elf owl Gylfie and together the two set out to discover what is really going on at St. Aegolius Academy." (Publisher's description)

My Comments
This has been a standing favorite for years with my students. It is easy enough for many readers, but the theme of good versus evil may be interpreted on different levels, thus extending the recommended reading level of this story and providing excellent discussion questions for classroom reading. For example, the consequences of standing up to evil are often fatal, and a malevolent leader may not want the owls - the people - to think for themselves.

This is a pretty solid winner for most middle school students.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Old Favorite. Love, love, love this one!
animal fantasy; courage

"With nowhere else to turn, a field mouse asks the clever escaped lab rats living under the rosebush to help save her son, who lies in the path of the farmer's tractor, too ill to be moved." (Follett Description)

My Comments
'This story pulls you in with the gentle, but oh so brave and loyal little mouse, Mrs. Frisby. Old fashioned courage and family love. It's a tearjerker at the end. Beautiful descriptive writing.