Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Book Review- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
a.      Bibliography
Zusak, Markus. 2006. The Book Thief. New York, New York: Listening Library. Audio CD. ISBN 0739337270
b.      Plot Summary
Set during World War II in Germany, Death himself narrates the story of Liesel Meminger. Liesel is a foster girl living outside of Munich who makes a living by stealing books. In a tough setting of rough kids and cruel mothers, Liesel is taught to read her stolen books by her accordion-playing foster father. Along with the collection of stolen books, Liesel collects a variety of friends: her foster parents, the mayor’s wife, a strange boy named Rudy, and Jewish refugee. In this captivating novel, we see Liesel begin to overcome the horrific events of her past.
c.       Critical Analysis
This is a moving story for sophisticated teen and adult readers with engaging characters and a heartbreaking plot. There are large blocks of action-packed adventure to keep the plot moving. Interestingly, Death is a fascinating narrator for Liesel’s story. Although it is set in the past, Death’s commentary is very postmodern.
As an audiobook, the story truly takes life. Zusak writes in such a beautiful, poetic syntax, which read aloud, the listener feels a part of the book.

d.      Review Excerpts
·        Starred review from School Library Journal “An extraordinary narrative.”
e.      Connections
·        A great addition to a World War II unit in a high school or college class

·        Have students discuss the importance of Death as the narrator. Have the students collaborate and rewrite a section with Liesel giving a first-person point of view.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Beowulf by Gareth Hinds

Book Review- Beowulf  by Gareth Hinds
a.      Bibliography
Hinds, Gareth. 2007. Beowulf. New York, New York: Candlewick Press. ISBN 0763630233
b.      Plot Summary
“I am BEOWULF. Many deeds of note have I done in my life.” In three parts, this graphic novel is a retelling of the long-told epic poem of the hero Beowulf. To save the people of his kingdom, Beowulf battles the evil monster Grendel. Upon Grendel’s defeat, our hero then battles Grendel’s mother. The people of the kingdom are so thankful that they shower Beowulf with gifts. Among the gifts is the grim advice from King Hrothgar of Denmark, “Come in what shape it may, death will subdue even thee, thou hero of war.” This sound advice is given upon the impending battle of a terrible dragon that is tormenting his people.
c.       Critical Analysis
In poetic form and vibrant illustrations, Gareth Hinds bring the story of Beowulf alive. Hinds credits two adaptations (A.J. Church's 1904 translation and that of Francis Gummere) for his interpretation of the epic story. Each book begins with a narrative of beautiful cadence in verse, then the story progresses into a lengthy, wordless battle. Hinds uses a color palette from ash grey to burgundy red and every ruddy color in between. His arresting images lend themselves well to the beautifully written verses. It is a great graphic novel for a mature reader.
d.      Review Excerpts
·         American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults

·         From The New York Times Book Review “A first-rate horror yarn... Visceral.”

·         An American Library Association Great Graphic Novel for Teens

e.       Connections
·         In the high school classroom, this would be a great way to introduce discussion on epic fantasies.  

·         Compare/contrast various versions of Beowulf
o   Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo ISBN 0763632066

o   Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney ISBN 0393320979


Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Book Review- The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
a.     Bibliography
Gaiman, Neil. 2008. The Graveyard Book. New York, New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 9780060530945
b.     Plot Summary
The Graveyard Book opens with a grisly triple murder. It was supposed to be a murder of four, but the fourth family member, a young toddler, wanders away towards a cemetery before Jack the murderer has a chance to finish the job. In the cemetery, the toddler encounters the Owens’- an older couple with no children that happen to be ghosts. With the tot’s family no longer alive, the Owens’ take it upon themselves to adopt the boy. All the denizens of the graveyard help raise Bod, short for Nobody because “he looks like nobody but himself.” There are plenty of adventures to be had in the graveyard, but Bod cannot ever leave because Jack the murderer is still on the hunt for him.
c.     Critical Analysis
Gaiman does a fine job blending frightening and friendly in one fantasy novel. Although the story begins with quite a terrifying entrance, the text quickly moves into a more child-friendly plot. Bod has a pretty normal upbringing- he learns to read and write, makes friends, and gets into trouble. Through rich language and attention to detail, Gaiman brings the supernatural characters to life. Each character has a distinct voice throughout the novel. The only downside of the text might be that Bod may be too mature and precocious for the average reader to relate to.
d.     Review Excerpts
·        Newbery Medal Winner
·        Starred review from Kirkus “Wistful, witty, wise-and creepy. This needs to be read by anyone who is or has ever been a child.”
e.     Connections
·        As a visualizing exercise, the teacher can have the students illustrate various scenes throughout the book. The student can add details to their illustration after rereading the scenes aloud to a partner.

·        Author study of other Neil Gaimain’s fantasy books:
o   Coraline ISBN 9780061660160

o   Odd and the Frost Giants ISBN 0061671738

o   M Is for Magic ISBN 9780061186424


Friday, November 16, 2012

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Book Review- Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis
A.    Bibliography
Curtis, Christopher Paul. 2007. Elijah of Buxton. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN 978-0439-02344-3
B.     Plot Summary
Elijah Freeman is the first child of slave descent born free in Buxton, Canada, a settlement of runaway slaves. Deemed a “fra-gile” child by his mother, Elijah sets out to prove himself on a mission to retrieve stolen money. The thief had taken the money from Elijah’s friend who had been saving to free his family from slavery in the south. Throughout his dangerous mission into America, Elijah experiences firsthand the atrocities of slavery and the horrors of his parents’ former life. From “fra-gile” boy to resourceful young man, Elijah transforms as he tries to get back home.
C.    Critical Analysis
Christopher Paul Curtis is a Newbery Medal Winner for a previous historical novel. In Elijah of Buxton, Curtis uses the same vivacious, full-of-life writing to tell the tale of Elijah Freeman. Curtis weaves facts about the Buxton settlement-see author’s note for more information-with fictional characters to create an entertaining, educational story.
The story is told through Elijah’s perspective, allowing young readers to connect. Mixed into the deep content of slavery, there are humorous moments that lift the reader’s spirit. For readers who enjoy an action-packed adventure and vibrant characters, Elijah of Buxton is a great read.
D.    Review Excerpts and Awards

·         Publisher’s Weekly review: “Curtis brings the story full-circle, demonstrating how Elijah the "fra-gile" child has become sturdy, capable of stealing across the border in pursuit of the crooked preacher, and strong enough to withstand a confrontation with the horrors of slavery. The powerful ending is violent and unsettling, yet also manages to be uplifting.”

·         Starred review from Booklist: “Many readers drawn to the book by humor will find themselves at times on the edges of their seats in suspense and, at other moments, moved to tears.”

E.     Connections and Classroom Activities
·         Using teacher approved websites (such as, students can take a webquest to learn more about the Underground Railroad. Then, the students can compose a fictional composition about their own experience travelling through the Underground Railroad in search of freedom.
·         Also by Christopher Paul Curtis:

o   The Watsons Go to Birmingham- 1963. ISBN 044022800

o   Bud, Not Buddy. ISBN 0440413281

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman

Book Review- The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman
A.    Bibliography
Cushman, Karen.1995. The Midwife’s Apprenctice. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin and Company. ISBN 0395692296
B.     Plot Summary
In medieval England, a girl with no home and no family struggles to get by day-to-day. The girl, known only as Brat, meets Jane the Midwife, and her life begins to change. Brat- who renames herself Alyce- learns the way of midwifery through ill-tempered Jane. Alyce gains knowledge, confidence, and, more importantly, begins to find a place for herself in the world.
C.    Critical Analysis
The Midwife’s Apprentice shows the evolution of a girl, who rises from the dung heap (literally), to a confident young woman. It is a tale of finding oneself and overcoming adversity. Cushman uses the backdrop of medieval England to tell Alyce’s story. There is a sense of accuracy in the writing, from the language to the portrayal of a medieval village, which lends itself to the author’s research. The author’s note at the end of the book offers insight into midwifery past and present.
This is a short novel, only 144 pages, and Cushman does a great job of fitting in content. Her character development of Alyce is thorough and noteworthy. There are some scenes that may go over a young reader’s head- for instance, Jane Sharp’s affair with the baker. Nonetheless, Alyce is such a great protagonist that this is a story worth reading.
D.    Review Excerpts and Awards
·         Newbery Medal Winner 1996
·         From Publisher’s Weekly, “…supremely colorful and pungent.”

E.     Connections and Classroom Activities
·         Led a discussion group with the following questions:
o   1. Alyce's name changed several times throughout the book. How did her life reflect her name? Does a name really matter?
o   2. People call Alyce stupid and witless. Do you agree? How did she show intelligence?

o   3. Many people shaped Alyce's life: Will, Jane Sharp, Edward, and Magister Reese. What did each person offer to Alyce?

o   4. We never find out if Alyce will succeed in becoming a midwife. Do you think she will?



Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Book Review- Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

a.      Bibliography
Larson, Kirby.2008. Hattie Big Sky. New York, New York: Yearling Books. ISBN 0385735952

b.      Plot Summary
The story of sixteen year old Hattie takes place during World War I in America. Ever since Hattie lost her parents when she was five years old, she has been shipped from one relative to another. Tired of being “Hattie Here-and-There,” she bravely moves from Iowa to Montana to live on her own on an inherited homestead. In order to keep the home, Hattie is forced to fence and cultivate the land in less than a year. Between correspondence from a “beau” in the army and her new neighbors, Hattie begins to heal from the wounds of suffering and unwantedness that have plagued her since her parent’s passing.

c.       Critical Analysis
Using research from archives and family records, Kirby Larson uses brilliant figurative language to portray Hattie’s experience transitioning from girl to young woman on a Montana homestead. Larson shares with the reader the bigotry felt towards those of German descent, challenges of homestead life, and the ups-and-downs of being a teenager. The day-to-day life of Hattie is simple, yet complex, and thoroughly engaging.  

One thing to note, the recommended age is 9 and up; however, for a true appreciation of this novel and the protagonist, I would recommend 12 and up. The history of the war will not seem so overwhelming and Hattie will appear more personable to an older reader.

d.      Review Excerpts
·        Starred review on School Library Journal “Larson creates a masterful picture of the homesteading experience and the people who persevered.”

·        Starred review on Booklist “…richly textured novel full of memorable characters.”

e.      Connections
·        Historical novels are a great way to encourage the research process. Students could continue learning about the homesteading experience or the history of World War I.

·        Author study of Kirby Larson’s historical novels:

o   The Dear America: The Fences Between Us. ISBN 0545224187

o   Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival ISBN 080279747


Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Great and Only Barnum by Candace Fleming

Book Review- The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum by Candace Fleming
A.     Bibliography
Fleming, Candace. 2009. The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum. Ill by Ray Fenwick. New York, New York: Schwartz and Wade Books. ISBN 9780375841972
B.     Plot Summary
“Come One! Come All! To the Most Tremendous, Stupendous, Colossal of All Shows!” The American circus was transformed by the larger-than-life character of P.T. Barnum. The Great and Only Barnum is an inside look at the personal and business life of a man who would forever alter the world of American entertainment. This biography is filled with tidbits of valuable information, such as: “When entertaining the public, it is best to have an elephant,” and “Controversy is good for business.” Fleming captures Barnum’s ability for showmanship and self-promotion, along with his less than noble character traits. A fun, informative read for 6th grade and up.
C.     Critical Analysis
Candace Fleming is an award winning author of several biographies. Her novel, The Great and Only Barnum, is an interesting and informative read about the life and exploits of P.T. Barnum. She uses mainly primary sources, directly from Barnum’s own account, and the illustrations are old circus photos, ticket stubs, and engravings from the time. The text is organized chronologically according to Barnum’s life. Each chapter is titled and complete with subheadings, illustrations, and captions. Interestingly, there are numerous sidebars of relative information, including facts about: schoolhouses, slavery, his family, etc. The text is accompanied by an index and source notes.
D.    Review Excerpts
·        Starred review from Booklist: “The material is inherently juicy…”
·        Starred review from Kirkus: “As revealing as it is entertaining.”
E.     Connections and Classroom Activities
·        Author study of Candace Fleming’s work
             ·     Students can write their own biography about a person they would like to get to know more about
·        Students can create a timeline of Barnum’s life
·        Orchestrate a class “circus” showcasing student’s various talents



Tuesday, October 30, 2012

They Call Themselves the K.K.K. by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Review- They Call Themselves the K.K.K: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
A.    Bibliography
Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. 2010. They Call Themselves the K.K.K: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group . Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 9780618440337
B.     Plot Summary
“Klansmen were sworn to kill informers, even fellow members, who divulged information about the order, its rituals, or its members.” The Ku Klux Klan is a highly secretive terrorist group who conducted brutal raids upon black Americans. Their club began in the aftermath of the Civil War and grew into a decidedly organized, destructive organization that is still found today. Bartoletti opens readers’ minds to the story of the K.K.K. and the turmoil they caused.
C.    Critical Analysis
Using excerpts from slave narratives, archival illustrations, and documented accounts from the time, Susan Campbell Bartoletti gives a flowing, factual look at the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Bartoletti is a noted author of informational text with a record of accurate, truthful writing. They Were Known as the K.K.K. is a clearly written text that targets teen readers. There is a wealth of illustrations to make it engaging and enough visual and verbal access features to make it great for research work.
D.    Review Excerpts
·         Starred review from Booklist: “…thoroughly researched volume.”
·         Kirkus Best Books for Teens 2010
·         Junior Library Guild selection
·         From School Library Journal: “…well-structured inside look at the K.K.K…”

E.     Connections and Classroom Activities
·         After reading aloud, with or without audiobook, this text would lend itself well to a discussion group format. The facilitator could pose questions about the students own background knowledge of racism, feelings and emotions, and connections to other texts. At the end of the discussion, the students could create a mock interview of a former slave and their personal account of the K.K.K.


Friday, October 26, 2012

Whales by Seymour Simon

Book Review- Whales by Seymour Simon
A.    Bibliography
Simon, Seymour.1989. Whales. New York, New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 0060877103
B.    Summary
Did you know that the humpback whale is longer than a bus and heavier than a trailer truck? And, the tongue of a blue whale weighs as much as an elephant! In this informative book, Seymour Simon, a trusted name in science, guides us through the underwater world of whales.
After interesting information about the whale species, Simon goes on to give us insight into the different types of whale. For instance, have you ever seen a whale that looked like a unicorn? This type of whale is called the narwhal, and it is known for its long tusk that sticks out several feet from its head! From the popular orca to the mammoth blue whale, Whales offers insight into Earth’s largest mammals.
C.    Critical Analysis
Whales is a collaboration between two very trusted names in nonfiction: Seymour Simon and the Smithsonian Institute. Simon pairs his flowing facts with lush, full-color photographs. The text moves from general whale information to specific facts about various whales. There is a short glossary and index located on the back of the book for reference. The book is recommended for ages 5-9; however, I would venture to say it is more appropriate for ages 9-12.  Some of the vocabulary is challenging with no subheadings for quick scanning.
D.    Review Excerpts
·         From Publisher’s Weekly: “…lucid, informative look at these intriguing behemoths.”

E.     Connections and Classroom Activities
·         Create a “Did you know..” mural or bulletin board about whales
·         Use this as a kick-start to a unit on sea creatures, mammals, or Seymour Simon’s work


Saturday, October 13, 2012

This Is Just To Say by Joyce Sidman

Book Review- This Is Just To Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness by Joyce Sidman

A.    Bibliography
Sidman, Joyce.2007. This Is Just To Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin and Company. ISBN 0618616802
B.     Plot Summary
Mrs. Merz, a 6th grade teacher, asks her class to write poems of apology to someone they have wronged. The students write about love, dodge ball accidents, spelling bees, pets, and more. They decide to put their poems together in a book. And, to their surprise, the students get the people to whom they apologized to write back!
Some poets are truly sorry, and some are not, “I’m sorry your locker mirror disappeared/ and mysteriously ended up in my desk/ (But not really)”. Either way, the book reveals the various connections and relationships the poets share.
C.    Critical Analysis
In Sidman’s anthology of apologetic poems, the reader is introduced to various ways to say “I’m sorry”. Sidman uses haiku, pantoums, snippets, and rhymes to show a 6th grader’s version of apology. The emotional range is this book is very deep. In one poem titled “Dodge Ball Crazy,” the humor is vivid and apparent, “Sorry, Reubs, for belting you/ as hard as I could in dodge ball/ I’d like to say I wouldn’t/ do it again but I’d be lying”. In other poems, like “Next Time,” sadness and heartache are shown through the words, “Please, please come back./ Don’t leave me spinning alone,/ like a slow, sad tornado./ I’m sorry Daddy./ Next time I’ll be/ perfect.” The poems are accompanied by collage drawings and paintings with a variety of background and media present- dictionary entries, notebook paper, and school supplies. Sidman has a gift of capturing the characters’ voices and portraying them in her poems.
D.    Review Excerpts
·         Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee 2008
·         Starred review in School Library Journal, Sidman’s ear is keen. Capturing many voices.”
E.     Connections and Classroom Activities
·         After reading this with students, the students can create their own apology poems for someone they have wronged.
·         This Is Just To Say could also be used to teach the various forms of poetry.
·         Also, on teaching character traits, you could lead the students on an investigation to find the different traits that each character portrays.