Season of Gifts by Richard Peck

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**See Parent Note at the end of this post.**

I was so excited to pick up yet another sequel to A Long Way from Chicago, starring my favorite rambunctious grandmother of literature, Grandma Dowdel.  And, for the most part, this book met my expectations.  I think that a good number of my students that read A Long Way from Chicago last year might enjoy this book.  However, since they are still elementary-aged kids, I know some of their parents probably wouldn’t want this recommendation yet.

The main character is Bob, a preacher’s son who moves to town with his family to start a new church.  It is the era of bobby socks and Elvis Presley, but their neighbor, Mrs. Dowdel, has not really embraced the changing times.  She is still as feisty and independent in her nineties as she was when her grandkids, Joey and Mary Alice visited her all those years ago.

Each chapter focuses on a different Grandma Dowdel escapade-this time with Bob and his younger sister in tow.  His older sister is 14 and has no time for small town antics.  Some of the cast of characters introduced in Chicago are still present, and others are mentioned as the parent or grandparents of the current high school students in town.  It was interesting to see Mrs. Dowdel through the eyes of her new neighbors, and I enjoyed her antics as much as ever.  I felt like I was in on the joke when comments were made about her grandkids or Effie Wilcox, so I think that reading the other books first would be a great plan and make this a worthwhile companion piece for lower middle school grades.

**Parent Note**

At the start of the book, the main character is bullied by the bigger boys in town.  This results in him being stripped and tied up in Mrs. Dowdel’s outhouse.  Additionally, towards the end of the story, Bob’s younger sister declares that she no longer believes in Santa Claus.  By the end of the novel, there is a shotgun wedding at the church for a teenage girl and her army-private beau.  There is reference made to her dress fitting very snug across her middle.

For these reasons, I don’t see that this is a book I could read with my upper elementary students.  However, parents could make this call for their own children if they feel comfortable with the subject matter.

Goddess Girls: Athena the Brain by Joan Holub & Suzanne Williams

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Athena the Brain is the first book in the Goddess Girls series.  At the time of this writing, there are 13 books in the series.

The idea of these books is to present Greek mythology with a twist…the Greek gods and goddesses are tweens at Mount Olympus Academy (MOA)-a middle school for the privileged immortals (and a few non-human beings, monsters and other mortal characters from mythology.)  Clearly, this is set up as a serial, patterned book series-not unlike the good old days of Sweet Valley High and any myriad vampire series available nowadays.

The big difference that I can see is there are references to actual mythology that make the story more engaging.  Instead of vampire lore that can vary depending on where the story originates, these stories are based on extremely well-known myths.  There isn’t much variation in The Odyssey, for example, so anyone that has heard the story may snicker in that moment where Athena’s toy wooden horse falls out of her bag in Hero-ology class. (In fact, I think that some of my students would find the references pretty entertaining!)  The reader that knows mythology will get the jokes.  BUT, I don’t feel that anything is lost by not knowing the myths.

This particular story is cute and the characters are drawn in such a way that elementary age readers will identify with them.  They can easily see the personality types represented and the school-age dynamics are relatable.  MOA has all your typical students-the popular beauty, the jock, the outcast, the gossip, the brain, etc…they just happen to be Greek gods and goddesses.  Their encounters and conflicts with one another make reference to mythology and to the conflicts kids today are familiar with in a school setting.

This first book was a very easy read.  I plan to grab a few more over the next couple of months and see if their appeal holds when different characters are central to the plot.  It would be a breeze for a solid elementary-age reader, but would also appeal to middle school aged girls that may find reading to be a chore or a challenge.


On the Wings of Heroes by Richard Peck

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It’s very possible that I have a Richard Peck obsession happening right now.  I just added A Long Way from Chicago to the curriculum for my fourth grade class, and I picked up copies of one of the sequels at a book sale recently (review to come once I’ve finished it!)  So, I grabbed up a class set of On the Wings of Heroes at the same sale in the hopes that it would be worth it.  Totally worth it!

The story is set in a small town (very Peck) at the start of WWII (also very Peck), but unlike his comical Grandma Dowdel antics of the previously mentioned books, this one strives to be a bit more realistic.  Of course, there are naturally humorous observations in it and Peck’s choice of words when describing people and places continues to make me smile, even when I’m on the verge of tears due to the sentimentality of the plot.

Davy is a young boy growing up in a small town in middle America.  He clearly paints pictures of how relationships in the town were before the war and how things change as our nation waded deeper into battle overseas. Davy idolizes his big brother, Bill, who is entering the fray as part of the Army Air Force.  This entry into the war breaks the heart of their father, Earl, who was injured in WWI.  However, Earl and his wife, Joyce, are proud of their son, even though they fear for his safety.

I really enjoyed the balance of this book.  There was a very clear storyline of how life was for the small towns of rural America during WWII.  There is an endless stream of rationing and scrap drives of everything from metal to rubber to paper.  I think that my students will really be able to relate to everyday sacrifices that people made during that time, since many of them are still too young to fully comprehend what serving in the armed forces would be like.  My brain started buzzing with ideas of how to apply the descriptions of daily life to projects and discussions with my students…that is always a good sign for me when I’m reading a YA novel!  The story is emotional, but not overly sappy and funny, but not overly silly.  As I finished the last page, I already knew that I would be adding this to my fifth grade curriculum for the upcoming year.

Igraine the Brave by Cornelia Funke

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Igraine is a 12-year-old girl that wants to be a knight. Unfortunately for her, she’s a girl and the only non-magician in her family.  Fortunately for her, her magician parents seem to be very tolerant of her dreams.  Her older brother, Albert, is less tolerant-but in a older/younger sibling annoyance sort of way.

Igraine’s parents are the most famous magicians in the kingdom and the owners of several magical singing books.  Over the centuries, many have tried to steal the books from Igraine’s ancestors and this is the key plot point of Igraine’s story, as well.  Of course, Igraine must come to the rescue when her parents accidentally turn themselves into pigs and her aspirations of becoming a knight become partially realized.

The story is fanciful-even silly at times-but I think it is a very enjoyable read for mid- to upper-elementary students.  The cast of characters are fun and light-hearted and much less menacing from some of Cornelia Funke’s other bad guy characters.  The ending is a bit abrupt, but easily workable in a classroom.  I intend to read this novel with my third grade gifted education students next year, as I think the story is accessible to them and there are a million projects and tasks that we could explore and create related to this story and connecting it to fairy tales and the medieval world of knights and kingdoms.

The Truth About Sparrows by Marian Hale

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**See Parent Note at the end of this entry**

I picked this book up while hunting for some historical fiction to read with my upper elementary gifted education classes.  We had just finished reading A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck (an absolute favorite of mine, by the way!) and I wanted a more dramatic story set in the same time period.  This one certainly fit that bill!

The story is centered on Sadie and her family as they move from their home Missouri to look for work in Texas in 1933.  Her father is disabled, but a very proud man that refuses to take charity, so they sell everything they own and move from the dustbowl environment of the parched Missouri plains to the Gulf coast of Texas in pursuit of a new life.  Sadie is deeply saddened by this move and the fact that she and her best friend (who is also moving) will be separated.

Overall, I liked this book for upper elementary grades.  I think that it was realistic enough to hold the attention of both boys and girls, but it would be a tough read after the humor of A Long Way from Chicago.  Sadie’s family suffers a devastating string of tragedies, but they are resilient and very sympathetic characters.  I did have a few moments of just wishing Sadie would get over her stubborn “I’m going to hate everything about this” attitude, but honestly, I could see where she was coming from.  I think that her attitude would actually be a really great talking point for parents and teachers.  There are lots of wonderful questions to be asked about overcoming circumstances and learning life lessons through adversity.

**Parent Note** There is a scene in this book where Sadie has to help deliver her baby sister.  It is not terribly graphic, but a sparse description of the birth is in chapter 24.  More sensitive or younger readers may be uncomfortable with it.  I think it was handled well, but I know even my daughter would have A LOT of questions after reading it!

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

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The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell is the first in a planned series by GLEE actor, Chris Colfer.  This book is the first novel he wrote/published.  The idea behind the novel is cute and it has great potential for growth and expansion.  I do hope that as his experience with writing increases, Colfer’s style develops in complexity.  As I was reading, I felt that he had all these ideas to get on paper, so the development of plot points suffered a bit.  In all honesty, this first book could have been divided into multiple volumes to give him time to develop each plot point and work on his descriptive writing skills.

All that being said, this is a relatively engaging read that I think many skilled elementary school age readers will enjoy.  The main characters are brother and sister twins that inadvertently find themselves trapped in the Land of Stories where all of our fairy tales originated.  They encounter all of the heroes and villains of our story history and find out new details and back stories to tie seemingly unrelated characters together.

The novel ends with a wide opening for a follow up-or two-or three.  I think that as his writing skills grow (and his attachment to a thesaurus develops) the stories that Colfe spins could become truly delightful.  This novel would be a great starting point for those kids that enjoy reading, but are intimidated by larger works.  The book itself is longer than those of Narnia and the like, but I think the writing style would be easier to access for kids that aren’t quite ready to read Narnia-level work on their own yet.  The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell would be a fun and easy read-aloud with kids-both at home or for an elementary school classroom.

Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson

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OK, I admit it.  This one took a loooooooong time to get into.  In fact, I started the novel, then put it down and left it for a few months.  Forge is the sequel to the novel, Chains, with a major shift in perspective.  Isabel is our main companion throughout the first novel, but is replaced by her fellow escaped slave, Curzon, as lead narrator for the second novel.  Perhaps it was because I really wanted to know what happened to Isabel and I really didn’t care about Curzon at the end of the first book that caused me to take a long time to invest in the story…whatever the cause, I’m glad I came back to the book and finished it.

Curzon’s path diverges from Isabel before the start of the novel.  He finds himself taken in by-and eventually accepted by-a rather rag-tag group of soldiers that are suffering through the winter at Valley Forge.  His early trials in the book may put off younger female readers, but it is well worth pushing through to get to the meat of the story.  Isabel does re-enter the novel later, but by then I was fully invested in Curzon’s story.

The majority of story takes place in Valley Forge during a devastating winter for the rebel soldiers.  Every day is a struggle to survive the weather and meager rations.  For Curzon, he also has the added danger of not having any papers to prove he is actually free.  The descriptions of camp life were realistic enough to give the reader a clear picture of the misery without wallowing in sordid details of the pestilence and death that surrounded their every waking moment.

In my opinion, the author’s ability to give the reader a clear picture of how tragic the situation was for these men (just as she did with Isabel’s story in Chains) without overly graphic detail of every negative thing sets it apart from many of the current dystopian offerings.  Don’t get me wrong, some of the details are graphic and will make the reader uncomfortable, BUT I didn’t find the details to be unnecessary.  The information that is provided inspires some real thought about what life must have been like for those men fighting for the independence of our nation-and for those whose independence was not guaranteed by a military victory.

As in the first book, there are some scenes of violence that are realistic considering the time period.  Additionally, in this book there are a few references made to possible sexual abuse that Isabel may have suffered at the hands of those that bought and sold her between the end of Chains and the point where she reappears in Forge.  Those references may be missed by younger readers, but will most likely raise some questions in older or more skilled readers.  The third book in this series, Ashes, is set to debut in March of 2014.  I, for one, cannot wait to read it.

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

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I have read many books by Laurie Halse Anderson.  I was introduced to her novels when I read Speak over a decade ago.  (I still maintain that it is her best contemporary YA novel.  The others just never seem to match up.)  She truly has an interesting gift for historical fiction, though.  Her novel, Fever 1793, was a good read and thoroughly enjoyed by the students I’ve recommended it to over the years.

I picked up Chains for the simple reason that I needed something to suggest to my gifted students that had something to do with their social studies curriculum.  I wanted something that would challenge them, but still be accessible to them in terms of plot and character identification.  What I got out of this novel was exactly what I was looking for.  Since my first read, I purchased 23 copies for my class and the majority of my students have finished reading it, as well.  I am working on compiling the novel study questions I wrote as we went along and hope to add to it when my next class reads it next year.

In a tiny nutshell, the story is about a girl named Isabel who is born and raised a slave in Revolutionary War-era New York.  Her life is a series of tragic events-along the way she is sold to a horrible Loyalist couple, her sister is sent/sold away, she is demeaned verbally and is beaten and branded as punishment.  Throughout the course of the story, there are flickers of hope for her future based on her ability to read (unheard of!) and her spectacular memory for detail.  I admit that these two helpful characteristics may or may not be realistic in terms of history, however, Isabel’s placement in a Loyalist home with these particular skills creates an interesting subplot of spying and political intrigue.  Isabel willingly puts herself in harm’s way in order to spy for the rebels and finds herself in a quandary when she can’t decide if either side-Loyalist or rebel-will treat her better when the war is over.  Her clear-eyed view of reality is in stark contrast to her friend Curzon, who believes everything his rebel owner tells him.  The story ends with an opening into the sequel, Forge, which follows Isabel and Curzon as they seek Isabel’s sister, Ruth.

I enjoyed this book as an adult reader.  What has been MOST interesting for me, though, is the variety of conversations I have had with my fifth graders about the story and the realities of life for slaves in that time period.  It seems that a large portion of the historical/historical fiction from this era shifts more towards the Civil War time period.  The Revolutionary War time frame gave them a whole new perspective on the roles of rebels, citizens, military, slaves and immigrants in our fledgling nation.  My students have really appreciated the “kid” perspective of the story and have had some fascinating questions about what Isabel’s life would have really been like.

I would recommend this book to upper elementary and middle school students-especially in conjunction with historical studies of this time period.  I would suggest reading the story along with-or before-your child so that you can answer questions about all of the material presented in the novel.

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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