Tag Archives: grades 4-6

[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.

[M] Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee

15 Apr

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

Eleven-and-a-half-year-old high schooler Millicent Min might be a genius, but she’s no good at making friends. When her mother signs her up for volleyball and she’s forced to tutor Stanford Wong, the basketball jock and her archenemy, she resigns herself to a terrible summer. But summer is ready to prove her wrong…

Even though Millicent may seem like an exaggerated character on the surface, she comes across as a pretty real depiction of a girl who is only good at school who is facing real problems that she needs to deal with head on. The book teaches lessons about friendship and the important things in life that all children have to learn at some point in their lives.

Millicent Min by Lisa Yee won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award in 2004 (among others).

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

[K] Kids Web Japan

12 Apr

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

Kids Web Japan is a bilingual website for kids maintained by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. The main content available in English and Japanese, with some pages translated into French, German, Spanish, Korean, Arabic, and Chinese. The English and Japanese sites look like they are regularly updated with news, while the other languages seem to contain informational pages (including some news pages) translated from the main site available in the other languages. There are more pages and games available in English than in Japanese, as the English site contains language lessons and other content that would not be as applicable to children who already know the language. This review will focus on the English version of the site.

Tweens interested in Japanese culture can find information about the daily lives of Japanese children and learn about different customs and traditions in Japan that they may have only seen in anime or manga. There is also a column called “What’s Cool” that has articles about current trends in Japan.

In addition, there is a series of language lessons covering basic conversational Japanese and grammar, with games and articles about the Japanese language to reinforce these lessons. There are also other games and trivia quizzes to test their knowledge of Japanese culture, online storybook pages with Japanese folktales, and recipes of traditional Japanese foods to make at home.

Children of Japanese descent born outside of Japan can also use this site to learn about their heritage and practice reading Japanese at the same time. Tweens of all ethnic backgrounds will enjoy reading about the deeper aspects of Japanese culture that they may or may not have been exposed to through Japanese media.

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

[C] Confetti Girl by Diana López

3 Apr

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

Apolonia Flores, or Lina for short, loves socks, is tall, and is good at science and sports. However, she does not share her English-teacher father’s love of books, which he has been withdrawing further and further into since the death of Lina’s mother a year ago. Lina just wants her life to be back to normal again, but with her best friend Vanessa’s boyfriend and her own crush, Luis, not to mention failing grades in English, it will be a while before she can settle into her new normal.

Lopez writes about a girl dealing with the loss of her mom in a very real way, describing how she works through the grieving process in order to come to a new acceptance for her life. The struggles she has along the way are also very realistic, and the dichos (Spanish words of wisdom) at the beginning of each chapter add an extra layer of meaning and feeling to the book.

More information about the book can be found on the author’s website, and an educator’s guide with discussion questions and activities can be found here.

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

[B] Bluffton by Matt Phelan

2 Apr

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

Bluffton is a graphic novel inspired by the life of Buster Keaton. It tells of a boy named Henry living in near the city of Bluffton, where Buster and his family spent their summers with the vaudeville friends, and how those summers with Buster changed his life.

The soft watercolors create the perfect mood for this idyllic but moving story about becoming who you were meant to be, not who you are expected to be. Phelan uses almost a black and white palette for the vaudeville scenes to depict a world that is not quite real to Henry and reflect how clips from that era are preserved today.

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

[V] The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket

25 Apr

I’ve read a few books in The Series of Unfortunate Events, and while I don’t dislike them, I’m not a huge fan of them. This particular book I actually checked out once to read for last year’s challenge, but I ended up using The View from Saturday instead (RIP E.L. Konigsburg :(). I ended up with the ebook this year in a bundle of three Unfortunate Events books because that was the only thing immediately available from the library.

The Vile Village is the seventh book in the series and follows the three Baudelaire orphans to a village full of crows in an attempt to find a place for them to live. The evil Count Olaf is still after them, and they need to save their friends, the two surviving Quagmire triplets.

All of the kids I know who have read this series really enjoy it, and if I had first read these books as a child, I think I would have liked them a lot more. Daniel Handler (the man behind Lemony Snicket) does a good job of introducing hard words and writing about what they mean, teaching vocabulary in context while being entertaining at the same time.

However, for an adult who already knows what the words mean, all the explanations make you feel like you’re reading twice as many words for the same amount of content, and it slows down the pacing of the story. Also, I’ve only read a few of the books, but they all seem to be pretty similar, and because they are “unfortunate events,” they pretty much all have bad endings, which doesn’t make it a very satisfying read (and according to a student who has read all the books, the series itself also has a bad ending).

It’s all right if you like that kind of thing, but I got kind of tired of the “author” telling me to stay as far away from the book as possible every time I picked up one of the books in the series. I can ignore it if the book captivates my attention enough, but in this case, I think I might just listen to him.

Great for kids who like to learn big words, but maybe not for cynical adults like me. 😉

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

[P] Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

18 Apr

(I was going to read this book for my pre-1900 book in my History of Youth Literature class, but I decided to read Black Beauty instead because I already knew the basic story of Pinocchio. I went back and read it for my “P” book, though.)

I think pretty much everyone knows the story of Pinocchio–at least the Disney version of it. It was never one of my favorite Disney movies, and after reading the original version (published by Italian author Carlo Collodi in 1883), I can kind of see why. I think the problem with the Disney version was that it stuck too close to the original story, and in the book and in the movie, Pinocchio is an exasperating character.

The purpose of the book is to teach little boys to be good and obey their parents, so naturally, Pinocchio represents all the little boys who act before they think and get into all kinds of scrapes because they go against what their parents tell . Little boys are supposed to read Pinocchio and think, “Oh, what a nice life he would have had if he had only listened to (his parents/the fairy/the cricket)!”

The main difference between the book and the movie is probably the Blue Fairy, who in the book starts as a little girl with blue hair and acts as his little sister, and later turns into a woman who acts more like a mother to him. But the role she serves is pretty much the same. She save him, chastises him, warns him not to do it again, and then sends him off on his way (so he can do something else equally or more foolish).

Also, from what I remember of the movie, Pinocchio’s most memorable feature is his nose that grows when he lies. This is not nearly as important in the book, and it even gets broken off so that it gets closer to a normal length, which is something that I don’t remember in the movie.

My memory of the movie is pretty hazy, though, since I’ve probably only watched the whole thing through once or twice a long time ago… I recently watched a Japanese stage adaptation that seemed to stick closer to the book than the movie (I remember being surprised when Pinocchio’s nose got kicked off by Geppetto’s cat, thinking it was a device they used so the actor playing Pinocchio wouldn’t have to go through the whole play with an extension on his nose, but it turns out it was actually something from the book.) I enjoyed this adaptation more than the Disney version, but probably because they deviated more from the original story. Pinocchio was put in the frame of a modern school setting, and going through the adventures of Pinocchio made the main character into a stronger person who eventually made friends with the kids who were bullying him at the beginning.

In a way, I think placing it in a modern setting gives it the context needed to see how the story can apply to real life without forcing the lesson onto students. I’ve been thinking a lot about pairing classics with modern stories and nonfiction lately because of my Youth Literature class, and this story within a story frame version of Pinocchio reminds me of what we’ve been talking about.

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

[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.

[J] Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson

11 Apr

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

Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson is set in 1910 and is about an orphaned English girl named Maia who gets sent off to live in the Amazon with her relatives and has lots of adventures. There’s even a small love triangle with a stage actor she meets on the boat over and a mysterious Indian boy she meets in the jungle. It’s a satisfying read that goes on longer than expected (in a good way) and ties up all the loose ends by the last page.

I loved this book. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started reading it (all I knew was that it started with the letter “J” and that it was by a popular author I hadn’t really read much of before). It was written more recently than I expected, too, in 2001. I first heard of Ibbotson when I read The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, but after reading this book, the omnibus of three of her books just jumped to the top of my “to read” pile (right after all the books I need to read for this challenge, and the others I need to read for class…)

Even though I read tons of orphan books growing up and usually prefer to have loving parents (even if they’re absent) these days, Maia was just the kind of character that I liked to read about. She was smart, brave, resourceful, and just plain fun to read about. She was basically what I had hoped Calpurnia Tate would be, but Callie Vee did not keep my attention the way Maia did.

The natives in this book are seen through the rose-colored glasses of Maia, which seem to be typical for the time period, but since it is actually a contemporary book, their portrayal is probably not as offensive as it could have been. Unrealistic maybe, but not offensive. I also spent way too much time while I was reading the book getting distracted by her name, since Maya is a common Japanese name, but I haven’t really heard of an English girl with that name before. (Apparently she was named after Hermes’s mother in Greek mythology, which is appropriate, since her parents were very well-traveled.)

Anyway, everyone should read this book, but it’s great for girls who like historical fiction or adventure books. 🙂

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


[I] The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

10 Apr

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

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick is about a boy named Hugo who is trying to fix a mechanical automaton that he believes will write him a message from his father. It’s written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, who is known for drawing the covers of books like Frindle by Andrew Clements, which I wrote about earlier in this year’s A to Z challenge (they’re right next to each other on the list, too!).

I hadn’t heard especially good things either the book or the movie when the movie first came out, so I didn’t really think about reading it, even after seeing one of my students reading it. Flipping through, it just looked like a kind of easy book with a lot of pictures, but when i decided to read it for the Top 100, I saw that it had more depth than I expected from my first impression of it.

I loved the way Selznick used the illustrations as part of the plot, and it totally makes sense for it to be a movie. In fact, right after I read the book, I watched the movie on Amazon Prime because I wanted to see what they did with it. And then, after I watched the movie, I changed my final project to Hugo because I felt like the whole time I was watching the movie, I was already comparing it to the book (I even took notes after the first few things I noticed because it seemed likely that I would want to use it for class even though I had originally signed up for a different book).

I can understand why the people I talked to were less-than-enthusiastic about both the book and the movie, though. Older children or more advanced readers might think that the book is too easy, especially if they are used to skipping pictures when they read. I think it is a great book to explore with students, though, to build critical thinking skills by making them think more deeply about the way the author wrote the book and the effect the combination of illustrations and words in this format has on the reader.

The movie tries to be more of a family movie, but it seems to struggle with balancing artistry with keeping the attention of the kids, and it falls on the artistic side, which is great for adults who watch the movie, but may seem boring to the kids.

(I’ll be doing the book with my students soon and working on this my final project, so there may be a part 2 to this post if I come up with anything good…)

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