Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea

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I picked this book up for several reasons: 1) I needed a quick read-something that wasn’t gloomy and depressing, no major dystopian wars, no oppressive government that needed overthrowing-something I could pick up on a summer morning and finish easily by the afternoon. 2) It has a similar set-up to Wonder in that every chapter is written from a different character’s perspective. 3) It is a book about the power of a good teacher.  What teacher doesn’t like to read a story that highlights the idea that their career really does matter?

The premise of the story is simple, but leaves room for great impact.  There are six children telling the story.  They are all students in Mr. Terupt’s fifth grade class and have distinctive personalities and storytelling styles from the beginning.  The story follows the students for the duration of the school year, but there are months that are glossed over a bit and the chapters are short.  This makes for a quick, easy read and even with the lapses in time, the reader does not feel like they have missed out on anything.

The plot is fairly predictable-in fact, there is a mention of an accident on the cover of the book-but the storytelling style is delightful.  Many upper elementary students could probably find one of the storytellers to relate to, and seeing the same event through different eyes may be fascinating to them.  Seeing a student misbehave through the eyes of the culprit in one chapter, then seeing the same event through the eyes of the mean girl or shy new kid the next is a nice twist on the typical classroom-based novel.

Parents should be aware that there is a major plot point around a girl and her mother who are ostracized for the fact that the mother was 16 when her daughter was born.  Eventually, people learn that they really are kind people and that her “mistake” when she was a teenager should not define how they see her (and her daughter) now.  Additionally, the accident is caused by a student and there is a significant amount of time spent on hospital visits and tension over whether or not Mr. Terupt will survive.  However, the revelations by students in the hospital are touching and help break down walls between the social groups in the classroom.

I would recommend this as a good novel for upper elementary/lower middle school.  It is a fast read due to the chapter lengths and switching perspectives.  I intend to pick up the follow-up novel soon and will review as soon as possible.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

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The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is a fictionalized telling of the story of Ivan, the “shopping mall gorilla” of the 1970’s and 80’s.  Applegate, author of the Animorphs series, breaks away from serial YA fiction to bring us a first-gorilla account of Ivan’s time in his shopping mall home and his eventual move to a zoo.

Ivan is a witty and delightful main character.  I admit that I finished this book on a Wednesday morning and began reading it aloud to my fourth graders that same day.  My students enjoyed the gorilla-esque prose as I read, and I was careful to pause and emphasize the shortened, stylized sentences.  For skilled readers, the format of the words on the page will be very appealing.  (Another teacher in my school downloaded her copy and projected it on her smart board so that her students could see how the format enhanced the character’s voice.)

In the book, Ivan’s story starts with him as an adult, living in the mall menagerie.  There are flashback to his childhood in the jungle and his life with various trainers.  The story follows his mundane life in the mall into his introduction into zoo life.  The ending is open-we know he makes it to a zoo and begins to live life with other gorillas, but we don’t know much beyond that.  My students and I did research on the real Ivan to see what happened in his real story and how his zoo life experience was for him after leaving the mall.  It was a wonderful follow up after finishing the book.  (Ivan passed away at the Atlanta Zoo in 2012, after being a beloved part of the Atlanta Zoo family since 1994.)

There are characters in the book that were not part of the real Ivan’s experience.  They help give him a voice and create a context for his story-especially for younger readers.  There are references to poaching of gorillas and the how their hands have been sold as ashtrays on the black market.  There was also an explanation of the elephant training methods used by some less-humane circuses, including an incident with the baby elephant, Ruby.  Additionally, Ivan’s older elephant friend eventually dies due to old injuries sustained in her circus days.  HOWEVER, these are not reasons to avoid this book!  With the right explanation and openness to discussion, they are wonderful learning moments for kids.  One of my students even made reference to Charlotte’s Web and The Jungle Book when we were talking about these moments in class.  Kids that have been exposed to most children’s literature have the context for these moments…as adults, we sometimes forget that.

I highly recommend The One and Only Ivan for mid- to upper-elementary grades.  It is a wonderful independent read and a fantastic book to read along with your child and discuss.  A quick internet search will produce all kinds of information on the real Ivan for follow up discussions with your kids.


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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a delicious read.  The writing is rich and descriptive and the storyline is compelling.  This is definitely a book for skilled readers that enjoy detailed plots and settings.  The main character, Celia, is followed from childhood to her adult life-although the story jumps around in time and chapters are told from different perspectives.  It is not until the very end of the book that the reader understands why some chapters are being directed at us, the reader, while others are more omnipotent in nature.

Celia’s life is not easy.  She is introduced shortly after her mother commits suicide.  Her father sees her as a project, not as someone to love, which creates a very complicated basis for building relationships in the story.  Her father is a famous illusionist with a slightly sinister undercurrent.  He clearly wants to use Celia for her supernatural gifts and abilities to prove something to a mysterious opponent.  Celia is bound at age six into a competition with another “student” that she will not meet until later in life.  Her father’s training methods are cruel, and as we meet her competitor, we see that his training is equally rigorous, yet, unfeeling and sterile.

The title circus, though is wondrous and richly drawn by Morgenstern.  Due to the nature of the plot, the circus expands and develops with fantastic new attractions and incredible sights and experiences.  The circus “extras” become equally fascinating and the story about how they build, grow and develop the circus becomes an enjoyable secondary plot.  The circus is grounded in reality, created by people that have mechanical and technical gifts, but flourishes with the addition of magic by Celia and her competitor.  The circus is clearly the playing field for the competition, even though the reader is not initially sure if it is a competition between good and evil, good vs. good or evil vs. slightly less evil.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.  It was a delightful story to get lost in for several hours.  The Night Circus is clearly written for avid readers with a more sophisticated grasp on literature.  The story would appeal to advanced high school aged readers.  The storyline does involve some cruel father/daughter moments and unpleasant mentor/mentee relationships.  There is romantic tension within the novel and one instance of implied sex between consenting adults.


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Wonder by R.J. Palacio

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Wonder is one of the books you remember.  It is a story to return to time and again.  It is a book that parents and kids can both relate to-and in turn, be able to relate to one another.  I downloaded this book on a Saturday morning and found myself stealing moments all day long to go back to Auggie’s story.  By the end of the day, I was nearing the end of the book and I found myself sad to see it end and invigorated by Auggie’s story.

August is a bright, funny boy with a severe facial deformity.  He has been subjected to countless surgeries, years of pain and ugly stares from strangers on the streets of his home in New York.  Auggie has never attended a real school, but his parents finally realize that they cannot provide the education he needs, and he is enrolled in a local private school at the start of his fifth grade year.

His first taste of “real” school coincides with the start of middle school-a difficult time for any kid.  Palacio does a wonderful job of drawing parallels between Auggie’s experiences with fitting in and the experiences of every kid that is wading through the swamp of middle school.  Each section of the book is written from different points of view-Auggie, his sister, students at his school-and each point of view clearly paints a picture of Auggie’s experience and the narrator’s perspective of Auggie’s life.

I have found that this book appeals to both boys and girls in the upper-elementary and middle school range.  Parents can be comfortable knowing that although this book does delve into the middle school experience of “growing up” that incidents of sex, alcohol and drug use are non-existent.  There is a mention of a party with no grown-ups present, but the character involved chooses to leave.  Negative actions in the book have consequences…there are no free rides.


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