Tag Archives: newbery

[U] The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

24 Apr

(This was first written for my Materials for Tweens class.)

A pregnant calico cat goes to live with the bloodhound, Ranger, who helps her raise her kittens. Ranger’s abusive owner, Gar Face, keeps Ranger chained and half-starved, so he cannot leave his post and the cat and her twin kittens must stay hidden in The Underneath, the space beneath Gar Face’s porch where the cats live. However, their family starts to fall apart as the boy kitten, Puck, breaks the most important rule and leaves The Underneath.

Their story is intertwined with the story of Grandmother Moccasin, a mystical shape-shifter trapped in a jar and buried under a tree, waiting for the day when she, too, can escape her “underneath.”

In this lyrical book, Appelt tells a story of loneliness and finding family, of betrayal, hope, and love. The third person narrator creates a distance from the sometimes disturbing events of the book while maintaining a magical realism. Readers must piece the story together as successive chapters float across time and space until all the storylines come together at the climax. A satisfying read enhanced by Small’s illustrations that help readers picture the Texas bayou where the events of the book take place.

The Underneath is written by Kathi Appelt with illustrations by David Small. It was recognized as a Newbery Honor book in 2009 and was a National Book Award Finalist in 2008.

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter U.

[L] Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

14 Apr

(This was first written for my Materials for Tweens class.)

By Newbery Award-winning author Rebecca Stead, Liar & Spy is an unconventional mystery that follows Georges on his adventures with his neighbor, Safer, as their spy club tries to uncover the mystery of Mr. X, who lives in their apartment building. After Georges’s father loses his job and they have to sell their house, Georges moves into the apartment building Safer lives in with his family. At school, Georges is a loner who is bullied by the other kids. At home, his mother, a nurse, is working long shifts at the hospital, and his dad, an architect, is busy trying to get new clients, so Georges is left to explore his new home on his own.

Georges’s life starts improving as he spends more time with Safer, learning to observe the world around him. He begins to see the things around him differently, which leads to seeing himself differently, as well. Even once the mystery of Mr. X is solved, there is still more for the boys—and the reader—to discover, and at the end of the book, readers will want to read it again from the beginning to find the clues Stead deftly weaves into the whole novel.

Things get a little uncomfortable near the end of the book as the reader joins in Georges’s confusion about the revelations that come seemingly one after another. Like in Stead’s other books, astute readers will be able to guess at the surprise ending, but even so, it is satisfying to follow along as Georges finally sorts out fact from fiction.

Teachers reading the book in class may want students to keep a graphic organizer or a chart of facts about Georges’s life to compare what is known to the reader at the beginning of the book to what is known by the end. Students should also be encouraged to explain the changes with clues and evidence from the text, in line with Common Core standards for reading comprehension.

More firmly rooted in reality than Stead’s Newbery Award-winner, When You Reach Me, Liar & Spy is an engrossing mystery that deals with real-life issues. Tweens will relate to the struggles Georges faces and can find courage in his triumphs in helping Safer overcome his fears and in facing his own reality.

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter L.

[I] Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

10 Apr

(This was first written for my Materials for Tweens class.)

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai is a diary written in verse follows ten-year-old Hà and her family as they move from war-torn Vietnam to the States during the Vietnam War. Hà struggles with having her life turned inside out before it settles down again as she adjusts to her new life in America.

Filled with imagery and onomatopoeia, this book shows the “other” side of the Vietnam War, written from the point of view of the Vietnamese refugees. In the author’s note, Lai explains that she wrote the book with second and future generations in mind to help them understand their roots. While the characters in the book are fictional, the events are based on Lai’s own experience moving to the States.

This book can be used to complement lessons on the Vietnam War. Students can do research about different aspects of Vietnam culture to present to the class.

It received recognition as a Newbery Honor Book and an ALA Notable Children’s Book in 2012.

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter I.

[G] Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz

8 Apr

(Part of this was first written for my Materials for Tweens class.)

Reminiscent of the Canterbury Tales, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village  is a collection of connected monologues and dialogues written from the point of view of tweens in the Middle Ages from different walks of life. The lively dialogue between the characters and the reader or audience gives students a glimpse into the lives of kids their age in the Middle Ages. Some of the characters know each other and talk about each other in their sections. Others seem wise beyond their years as they learn the ways of the world at a young age in order to survive.

The book contains information boxes about topics related to the vignettes, like the Crusades and falconry. There are also notes on words or phrases used in the text and a bibliography at the end.

I have been using this in my middle school book club as the basis for an interdisciplinary project that has students read the book, perform a monologue from the book, write a research paper on a topic from the Middle Ages covered in the book, and do a slide presentation summarizing the research.

My students don’t really get a chance to do that many presentations at school, and most of their schools don’t do school plays anymore, so I think it’s a really good chance for them to interpret the text and practice different kinds of public speaking. It’s also a good chance to introduce basic research methods because the book itself has many resources that students can use to start their research.

This book won the Newbery Medal Award in 2008 and was an ALA Notable Children’s Book in the same year.

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter G.

[A] Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman

1 Apr

(Part of this was first written for my Materials for Tweens class.)

Although Meggy Swann’s alchemist father sends for her to live with him in London, she soon realizes that her father doesn’t want her after all. Meggy is left to find her own place in London and make her own fortune with the help of her new friends who look past her walking sticks to discover who Meggy really is.

Cushman tackles disabilities in the Elizabethan era with a sensitivity that leaves the reader hopeful despite the harsh circumstances of Meggy’s life. The book includes a bibliography and author’s notes on printing, disabilities, and language in the Middle Ages (refers to the eBook).

I also read The Ballad of Lucy Whipple for my class and taught Cushman’s Newbery winner, A Midwife’s Apprentice, a couple times with my book club students, and she hasn’t let me down yet :).

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter A.

[K] Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

12 Apr

(This was first written for my History of Youth Literature class, but I posted them at almost the same time. ^^;)

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata (2004) is a book that first caught my eye because of the Japanese in the title. It’s an onomatopoetic word that means glittering, or sparkling, and can be used to refer to all sorts of different things (stars, eyes, a clean kitchen counter…). In the book, it’s how the narrator’s older sister, Lynn, sees the world. Katie, the main character and narrator, worships her sister and her ability to transform ordinary objects into kira-kira­ by the way she thinks about them.

The book is about how the main character and her family deals with her sister’s lymphoma and subsequent death. It goes through Katie’s feelings of denial, helplessness, despair, anger, and guilt, but most of all, it shows the love she felt for her sister and her family. It is definitely not the kind of book I would pick up on my own, and probably not one I would read again, but it was a good story that packed an emotional punch at the end.

I put off reading this book for a long time because I had heard how sad it was (they were right). I probably would not have even read the book if I hadn’t been looking for a “K” book for my blog, and the book happened to be available at my local library. I knew that it was a Newbery winner (that was where it caught my eye in the first place), and it also won that APALA Youth Literature Award for 2005-2006.

Aside from being a powerful story, the book also deals with racism in the Deep South in the 1950s. In the book, when Katie and her family move to Georgia, there are only 31 other Japanese people in their town. People are not really sure how to treat them, and white people lump them with the “colored” people. Kids at school don’t hang out with them because they’re Japanese, and their uncle can’t become a land surveyor because of his race.

Growing up in L.A., I never really felt like I was different because of my race, but while I was in college, I actually visited Georgia on tour with our school gospel choir (I was one of 3 Asians, and there were maybe 5 or 6 non-blacks total in the choir…), and it was the first time in my life that I felt really different. I loved being in gospel choir and had a great time, but it was also very strange. Thinking back on that experience now, it makes me think that Georgia, and maybe even the U.S. is not so different now from what it was 50 or so years before.

But, as Codell (2009) writes, “the world has changed, however slowly and incompletely” (para. 4). The fact that there are books like Kira-Kira now is evidence of this. This book is great for anyone who wants to know more about the Asian American experience during a time in the U.S. when overt discrimination and racism were still part of the norm. But more than that, this is a touching story about a family dealing with a terminal illness and all the emotions and issues that go along with it.

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter K.

[E] The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

5 Apr

(#66 on School Library Journal‘s Top 100 Chapter Book Poll Results from 2012)

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (2009) is set in 1899 and is about a girl who would rather observe the world around her than act like the lady that she is expected to become. It was a Newbery Honor Book for 2010.

The first time I read this book, I thought that it had a catchy name that sounded familiar, but I suppose that was because the author was trying to evoke the historical fiction of the time. Ever since then, I’ve had a hard time figuring out if I’d read the book before or not. I checked it out this semester because it was on the Top 100 list of books we could choose from for our final project. After re-reading the first few chapters, I realized that I had in fact read it before, but that I’d read it on my iPhone when I was checking out tons of books from OverDrive. Although I’m pretty sure enjoyed it, I guess it wasn’t particularly memorable for me. ^^;

Nonetheless, it is an Honor Book for a reason, and it would be a fun read for girls who want to read about smart girls who go against the norm and/or for those who enjoy historical fiction.

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter E.

[W] The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

26 Apr

This is another Newbery winner, and one of my favorite books of all time. Most of the kids I recommend this book to love it, and I’ve had a few call it one of their favorite books. I even had one girl tell me that she was mad at me for making her stop reading at such a crucial moment in the story (they were reading a few chapters a week).

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin is a mystery that has lots of surprising revelations, and I love how all the pieces fit together in the end. I also liked how Raskin gave us a glimpse of what happened to all the characters after the main story ends (kind of like the oft-maligned ending to the Harry Potter series, which I didn’t dislike as much as some readers, I think). I enjoy reading about my favorite characters even after they move on with their lives, which is even better if it includes a new story about them (both Tamora Pierce and Patricia C. Wrede do this wonderfully).

This book will leave readers guessing until the end, and they will probably want to re-read the book from the beginning immediately after finishing it the first time to see how the clues all lead to the answer. I’ve read it many, many times (although I’ve lost my beloved copy in the garage somewhere and have had to borrow it from the library recently to teach it), and I’ve taught it twice now with great results. The kids have fun keeping track of the clues as they find them and trying to figure out pieces of the puzzle themselves (I make them put them up on the classroom walls), but I don’t think I’ve had anyone who was able to predict the ending yet.

There is a fairly large case, but the main character is probably Turtle, a 13-year-old girl, since all the other characters are four to forty plus years older. The book is actually pretty diverse, with an African American female judge and a Chinese family as part of the sixteen heirs who take part in the Westing game. While the depiction of them is a little stereotypical, the son of the Chinese family is not the typical “smart Asian,” which was refreshing. I didn’t find anything particularly offensive about them, and the fact that they were even there was nice. I think I was more focused on Turtle, who made me want to be a lawyer when I grew up (until I realized I would have to go to law school for that…).

I would recommend this book for boys and girls, around fourth grade and up. Even if they don’t generally like mysteries, they will probably like this one. And I have a bonus recommendation for any adults out there who loved the game or the movie “Clue” and haven’t read this book–you should definitely read it! ;)

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter W. 

[V] The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg

25 Apr

This is my second book on this blog by E. L. Konigsburg, and the second Newbery Medal winner I’m reviewing by her. (Here’s the link for my review of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.)

This was the only book I could think of for the letter V, although when I went to the library to check it out, I also found The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket. But I had been wanting to read this book since teaching Mixed-Up Files to my fourth graders and learning about the double Newbery that Konigsburg earned with this book.

I loved how she interweaved all the stories together into a larger story without making it feel disconnected. All the stories, and all the lives they touched, feel like they were connected even before the story she set out to tell begins.

The story is about four bright and mature sixth graders who are the underdogs at the Academic Bowl (like Academic Decathlon, but for middle school). But their experiences (and the way they reflect on their experiences) make them wise beyond their years. They are called The Souls, which I thought was a little cheesy, and maybe the only wrong note in this whole book, but I thought of them as The Old Souls. They were able to find an acceptance of themselves that helped give them self-confidence and the ability to rise above typical sixth grade drama, like bullying and playing tricks on the teacher.

This book still has a couple jokes that will go over the heads of the intended readers like Mixed-Up Files, but I think she made the vocabulary a little easier this time around by explaining most of the more difficult words she uses in context.

There’s a great line on the second page:

To her four sixth graders puberty was something they could spell and define but had yet to experience.

Which is basically the tone of the book (though not the subject matter). It talks about everything so matter-of-factly, but it doesn’t lose a sense of warmth.

The book does contain some pre-adolescent themes that parents and teachers may want to watch out for with younger (less mature) readers, but this is a great book for bright and precocious readers of any age.

I’ll leave you with a funny conversation on diversity that comes up after the first vignette:

“In the interest of diversity,” she said, “I chose a brunette, a redhead, a blond, and a kid with hair as black as print on paper.”

Dr. Rohmer was not amused. He gave Mrs. Olinski a capsule lecture on what multiculturalism really means.

“Oh,” she said, “then we’re still safe, Dr. Rohmer. You can tell the taxpayers that the Epiphany Middle School team has one Jew, one half-Jew, a WASP, and an Indian.”

The teacher is told off again for calling the Indian boy an Indian by Dr. Rohmer, who informs her that they are called Native Americans now, not realizing that the boy is an actual Indian whose parents are from India. I love the tongue-in-cheek answers Mrs. Olinski gives Dr. Rohmer, who had just been to diversity training (but ended up being an example of why diversity training doesn’t work).

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter V. 

[U] Unfinished Angel by Sharon Creech

24 Apr

I had never browsed through a books section on a quest to find books that started with certain letters before, and it was certainly an interesting experience. However, I was dissatisfied with the backup books I had in mind for some of the last letters of the alphabet, so one sunny Saturday afternoon, I spent half an hour going through the middle grade and YA section looking for books that started with U, V, and Z. I actually had a book in mind for V already, but I had never read it, so I needed to borrow it anyway (although I had an idea of what to write if I didn’t have time to borrow or read the book).

I found two books for the letter U, Ugly by Donna Jo Napoli, and Unfinished Angel by Sharon Creech. I almost wrote about Ugly because I loved reading about the ugly duckling’s journey through Australia meeting and learning about lots of interesting animals–including humans–and about himself. But in the end, the charming angel with the Italian-ish accent won my heart with this line near the beginning of the book:

An angel does not need a bed, but sometimes I think the bed needs an angel.

And also because of the mention of “those marshmallow candies that look like animals” reminded me of Easter. lol…

(So it has only a little to do with the fact that I already mentioned Spinners, another of Donna Jo Napoli’s books, in my post for the letter B before I went on this strange hunt for books by letter.)

The book takes place in a Switzerland filled with Italians with smatterings of other peoples, and the angel learns English from them somehow. It’s a strange mix of squashed together words and made up words, with wonderfully delicious onomatopoeia like flishing and flooshing.

I am always wary of giving my students books written outside of a typical narrative style like Unfinished Angel is. At the same time, I want to expose them to different ways of storytelling and stretch their imaginations. Besides, it’s just a nice story with a hopeful ending. It also teaches about kids and poverty and family in a very real and sensitive way (this is where the hope comes in, too).

The non-traditional narrative may be hard for younger readers to fully comprehend, but I have seen reviews compare it to a child learning how to talk, so they may understand it better than we adults. It would be great read aloud (in an Italian-ish accent, if you dare!) to middle graders.

I know I knew who Sharon Chreech was growing up , but I guess the only thing she really had out when I was in elementary school that I’d heard of was her Newbery Award-winning book, Walk Two Moons. I don’t really remember what that was about anymore, but I remember my sister loved Bloomability when she was little. I’ve been having fun discovering her books as an adult, and read Granny Torelli Makes Soup and The Castle Corona last year, and now Unfinished Angel. All were quick reads that told very real stories in different but refreshing ways.

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter U. 


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