Tag Archives: grades 5-8

[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. 

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[T] Tiger by Jeff Stone

23 Apr

Tiger by Jeff Stone is the first book in the Five Ancestors series about five young warrior monks whose temple, the only home and family they have ever known, is destroyed. They are the only survivors, starting them on a quest to learn about their pasts and save their country.

Even though Jeff Stone is not Chinese, he has a respect for the Chinese culture that comes through in these novels.  He uses both Mandarin and Cantonese words throughout the books, including in the names of the characters, who are all named after animals that reflect their personalities.  I don’t speak Cantonese, but by the time the words are romanized, they tend to come out similar to Mandarin, and it was fun trying to figure out what all the words meant (and brush up on my knowledge of Chinese animal names!).

This is a dark, suspenseful action-packed series that will leave you wanting to read the next book as soon as possible, so I would recommend getting your hands on a complete set before reading Tiger. Fortunately, I was able to get the first six ebooks all at once, and I borrowed the seventh and last book from my library way before I finished the sixth, so I was able to read straight through them.

If you can’t tell by the description above, this book is great for boys, and fast-paced enough for reluctant readers. I recommended it to my fifth graders last year, but I don’t think anyone ended up reading it. 😦 I’ll have to try harder to promote it this summer. Girls are usually more willing to read about boy main characters, and I think those who enjoy action or adventure stories will also like this series. There are also a few strong female characters in the series, so girls should have no problem relating.  With all that action, it does get a little gory though, so be prepared for some blood.

Here’s Random House’s website for the series, complete with Flash trailer and cheesy music.

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

[S] The Strictest School in the World by Howard Whitehouse

21 Apr

I randomly picked up the first book, The Strictest School in the World, at the library because the subtitle looked interesting:

Being the Tale of a Clever Girl, a Rubber Boy and a Collection of Flying Machines, Mostly Broken (The Mad Misadventures of Emmaline and Rubberbones)

I liked the part about the clever girl because I always enjoy reading about clever girls (having aspired to be one in the past, I now just find them amusing). Most of my favorite books involve clever girls, and my favorite novel that I wrote for Nanowrimo stars a clever girl.

Emmaline’s dream is to build flying machines, and Rubberbones, a boy who can’t get hurt, is destined to help her fly them. However, her mother (in India with her father, a British colonial officer) wants her to become a lady, so she sends Emmaline off to a boarding school for girls that is known as the strictest school in the world. The rest of the Mad Misadventures series follows their adventures and misadventures with a cast of wacky and colorful characters, most of whom you would not want in your living room, even if they do mean well.

It had been a while since I read about England and its surroundings, and I have to say I enjoyed reading about the horrible boarding school and the cool Aunt Lucy (widowed, round in shape, fierce with an umbrella, enjoys cooking with slugs) who encourages her niece in her endeavors. I also loved Lal Singh, Aunt Lucy’s mysterious Indian butler, who seemed to have been a solider in a past life. He always seemed to appear in the right place at the right time, and his Indian curry sounded delicious, especially compared to Aunt Lucy’s slug cakes.

The headmistress of St. Grimelda’s School for Young Ladies reminded me of Miss Trunchbull (from Matilda, by Road Dahl), and disgusted me almost as much. The villain of the second book was also gross, as the faceless fiend really had no face. In comparison, the Collector (of mad scientists) in the third book was not nearly as intimidating or fleshed out as a character, as he sent his underlings to do most of his dirty work and just sat in his lair for pretty much the whole book.

The books all start off a little slow, but once the action starts, it continues until the very last page, with only a few breathers in the end. Every time one problem is resolved, another seems to take its place. The climax generally takes place very near the end of the book, and what comes after that is is rush of resolving loose ends that left me wanting more. Which was why I read the next book. And the book after that.

It is very effective, making me want to read more even after there were no more pages. However, at times, I got tired of the American mad scientist Professor Bellbuckle blowing something up–again–and Princess Purnah (the rightful heir to the throne of a small, very violent, country) messing up yet another plan with her random outbursts and thirst for blood and sweets. It’s loads of fun, but can get a little tiring if you read it all at once.

Overall, it’s a fun mad-cap adventure that never quite seems to stop, whether you want it to or not. I think kids of all ages would love their adventures, but for American kids unaccustomed to the speech and vocabulary of Britain, it may be a little difficult to understand. The more they are exposed to it, though, the easier it will be for them to absorb, so this may be a good place for them to start, as long as they are willing to skim over the parts they don’t understand (which is a good tip for any child reading anything that contains content that is above their level).

There is a little real history, mixed with real and fictional characters from a number of famous and not so famous books, including Queen Victoria, Sherlock Holmes, Sigmund Freud, and Nikola Tesla. The same goes for the map of the world Whitehouse created, which includes both real and made-up places. Kids may have a hard time telling fact from fiction (which is the point), but it would be a great place to start or end interdisciplinary work on the Victorian era.

Contains mild violence, kidnapping, guns, knives, pterodactyls, and a scary headmistress. Includes dialect that may be hard to understand for lower level readers, especially in places that are not England.

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

*Note: I actually wrote this review almost immediately after reading the book last year and was saving it for this blog, so please excuse the length…

[Q] The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whelan Turner

19 Apr

I can’t believe I didn’t discover Megan Whelan Turner until last year! I mean, she was even in Disney Adventure! And I had a subscription to that for years, although I was already in high school by the time her story came out in it and had stopped subscribing.

The Queen of Attolia is the second book in her The Queen’s Thief series (which, according to Wiki, is a fan-coined name). I try to introduce the first book of a series as much as possible, but I’m making an exception since I need a book for “Q” (I suppose I could have used the name of the series like I did for The Immortals Quartet by Tamora Pierce, but I’m trying to keep it to book titles as much as possible this month). I loved this series so much that I bought all four books after reading the ebooks from the library.

The world Turner writes has elements of Greek myths, but it is really about political maneuverings with a little intervention by the gods. It does remind me a bit of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books, which have some of the same feel to them. Turner and Pierce both do a great job with characterization, and Gen reminds me of George Cooper from the Tortall books. The politics is as engaging as Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games, and there’s a bit of Percy Jackson thrown in with the mythologies. And there are more unexpected twists than any of those series, I think. (Just writing this makes me want to go back and re-read them!)

Some profanity in The Queen of Attolia makes me not want to use it with my fifth graders, who can still be somewhat immature when it comes to things like that. I would definitely use the first book, The Thief, though. It’s a great book, written in first person, even though the rest of the series is written in third person. It has the added bonus of being a Newbery Honor book in 1997, which is always nice to tell the parents.

This series has strong male and female characters with enough action for the boys and a little romance for the girls. Great for fans of any of the series I mentioned above, although the series does get a little darker after the first book.

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

[O] Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

17 Apr

There is a strange phenomenon in our house where the first book of a series always goes missing. This is because someone will decide they want to re-read the series and pull out the first book, and then never get around to it, separating the first book from its companions forever.

Over Sea, Under Stone is one of those books. It is the first book of The Dark is Rising sequence, but honestly, I don’t remember much other than that the books were set in Cornwall.  I tried to re-read the whole sequence last year and found this:

The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper

We were missing the first two books.

Strangely, this seems to happen more to my sister’s books than to mine, as I’m much more possessive and obsessive about my books…

This is a great series to read if you haven’t yet, and I would recommend it for boys and girls ages 10 and up, especially those who like fantasy or King Arthur.

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

[M] The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

14 Apr

Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?

This is the beginning of the ad that the four main characters of this book (series) answer when they start on their adventure.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart is filled with puzzles and mysteries that the reader can try to solve along with the characters. I’ve been trying to teach my students to read critically by asking questions and making predictions, and this would be a great series to get kids to do that naturally.

I was on the fence about reading this book, but when I saw the actual book and the cover at the library, I knew that I would enjoy it. I did, and so did everyone else I recommended it to (including picky fifth grade boys).

The first book is a little slow, and there is some pretty important information to understanding what is going on that is not revealed until the very end of the book. You don’t realize what you’re missing until you read the second book, though, and I think the first book would be better if re-read after finding that new piece of information (I didn’t have time to re-read it, though–I was too busy reading H.I.V.E.).

Kids seem to like it a lot, especially the more precocious ones (this was another word I’d learned from Dealing with Dragons, come to think of it). Great for advanced fourth or fifth graders, boys and girls alike (the main characters are two boys and two girls). Also good for kids who like puzzles or games.

The book also has a great website with all the usual book website stuff, plus games and a link to their free app on iTunes. We have been talking about engaging patrons through social media a lot in my library school classes, and while this isn’t a library, I think it’s a great example of a book that is taking advantage of its content and the technology available to reach out to its target audience.

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

[I] The Immortals Quartet by Tamora Pierce

10 Apr

I wasn’t going to use the series name for any of my entries, but I realized on Day 2 that I didn’t have any Tamora Pierce books on my list, and I had already missed “A” for Alanna: The First Adventure, so I had to be creative with how to include her in my list. It worked out that as we were growing up, my sister was the one who collected all the Tamora Pierce books (I had pretty much everything else, including the Patricia C. Wrede books and the Harry Potter series), so they are in her room, not my bookshelf.

Anyway, Tamora Pierce’s Immortals Quartet contains these books:

  • Wild Magic
  • Wolf-Speaker
  • Emperor Mage
  • The Realms of the Gods

And they are actually my favorite quartet of all the Tortall books because Numair is my favorite. (I think I need to add the quartet to my re-read list ;)) I have been waiting for the Numair books to come out for about ten years now! I do like Kel a lot in the Protector of the Small books, but they are harder for me to re-read because there are some pretty intense scenes in Lady Knight (which I think was written during 9/11).

I think Pierce’s writing gets noticeably better after the Song of the Lioness (the first quartet in the series), but overall, I really enjoy her writing style and love her characters. One thing to note is that the world of Tortall is very rich with different countries, and there are many mentions of people of color in the series, although I can’t remember a main character who was not of some version of European descent.

All of Tamora Pierce’s books have strong female main characters who are as good at or better than the boys. At the same time, I think she writes a lot of very realistic struggles that girls go through growing up. I would start girls reading the first series around 4th grade, so they have plenty of time to get through all the books and can mature with the books. I think the later books are closer to YA than middle grade, but I haven’t read the last one or two of the published Tortall books, or after the end of the second series of the Circle of Magic books.

(By the way, a friend of mine in college’s middle name was actually Alanna, after the Lioness in the Tortall books, and she went so far as to bring Tamora Pierce to her residential college while we were there. My sister and I both got a copy of Squire signed that year, but for different events on different coasts!)

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

Edit 4/26/12: My sister just reminded me that it was Lady Knight, not Squire, that was written during 9/11. 

[H] H.I.V.E. by Mark Walden

9 Apr

H.I.V.E. = The Higher Institute of Villainous Education.

I loved this book from the title, and the story (and its sequels), weren’t too shabby, either. They reminded me of Harry Potter mashed together with Mission:Impossible or another flashy action movie with cool gadgets. The acronyms in the book all spelled out something meaningful, which was also fun.

It was while I was reading this book that I realized that books were being written for shorter attention spans these days. This book reads like a spy movie or T.V. show (which isn’t surprising, since the author has an M.A. in Twentieth Century Literature, Film and Television and used to be a video game producer/designer according to Wiki).

That said, other than the shortage of commas, this is (another) favorite new discovery. I’m waiting anxiously for the full series to come out in the States so I can buy a box set!

Really action-packed, full of diverse characters (one of whom even speaks American English!) and strong male and female characters. Great for reluctant readers and book lovers of all ages and backgrounds. (The main character is a 13-year-old boy, and School Library Journal lists it as being for grades 5-8.)

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

[F] First Light by Rebecca Stead

6 Apr

First Light by Rebecca Stead is one of my favorite recent finds. It reminds me of The Giver (by Lois Lowry) intertwined with a modern-day story that ends with more hope. (I liked it better than The Giver, if you couldn’t tell from that short summary.)

I’m not usually a fan of dystopian literature, although I read it because my students do (or have to). I like to read fluffy, fun books with lots of action and humor, and dystopian fiction usually doesn’t fit that description, even if it’s for kids.

But what I liked about this book was that it had a satisfying ending (a mystery with a proper solution that had good hints but didn’t give too much away), mainly thanks to the intricate interweaving of the two main story lines. I also liked the details about the glaciers and the dogs a lot. The beginning was a little confusing, but there’s enough realistic fiction in it for readers to relate to and anchor themselves with.

I don’t usually quote from other people in my reviews, but as I was refreshing my memory for this one (I don’t have a copy of the book yet, although one is in my Amazon cart to buy later), I found this great quote about how Stead started this book from her website for the book:

Rebecca plunged into First Light, stopping now and then to research. She decided that her story took place in Greenland, where dog sledding is part of everyday life, and suddenly she had a cast of dogs. She discovered that a glacier can conceal a freshwater lake, and that firefly light is triggered by oxygen. A glaciologist told her how to scare a polar bear with a flare gun, and why he loves his bread maker.

First Light also hints at other things she’s learned, such as the fact that children don’t need to be shielded from truth. They are often much braver than the rest of us.

This book is a great introduction to dystopian literature for upper elementary to middle school students, but it’s engaging enough for adults to enjoy as well. I liked this book better than When You Reach Me, the book Stead won the Newbery Award for. When You Reach Me was more confusing even though it only had one story line (which is about time travel and has references to A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle).

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

[E] The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm by Nancy Farmer

5 Apr

This science fiction book set in a futuristic Africa is a Newbery Honor book from 1995, but the future doesn’t feel too dated. It features a brother and sister (with their younger brother) as the main characters, so it easily appeals to boys and girls. I am always on the lookout for books that can appeal to both genders because I rarely have book club classes that are just boys or just girls, so I want to make sure that everyone can enjoy the book. I also try to switch off between male and female protagonists if I can.

I remember my sister and I both reading this book and enjoying it a lot through at least middle school. My copy of this book is pretty battered from the re-readings (and I think just the time it spent in my bag). I did re-read it recently because I was thinking about using it for a class (although we ran out of book club time because we needed to do test prep…). Even so, it took me a while before I could remember if the main characters were black or white.

This struck me because I was just reading this article about how characters are “white until proven black,” and I saw that I shared the same stereotypes in my reading. Most of the books that I read while growing up had white protagonists, so my natural association with books turned into one that is primarily white. I’m trying to counter that by reading (and re-reading) as many diverse books as possible, but there is still that part of me that defaults to white.

(Going further off topic, just the other day, my Korean American students–boys and girls–failed to notice that the main character of a short scene was female because they didn’t know her name, even though she was referred to with female pronouns throughout the passage.)

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm has mystery, action, likable characters, and bogeymen. Great for middle grades and up. It also deals with issues about race, gender, prejudice, and acceptance.

And just in case you were wondering, the main kids in the story are black, although a few key white characters (including the Ear from the title) help describe race relations in the society in the book.

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