Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Brainstorm 55: Top 10s of 2015 (Part 3 of 3)

I'm posting my last of the top 10s read in 2015 a little earlier than Friday in case anyone wants to check out some of these before Christmas break. Today features my top 10s for picture books and graphic novels. For fun, I've thrown in my top 10s of books I'm looking forward to reading in 2016 too. Click on the titles of books I've read to see my full review. Click on the titles of books I've yet to read to see more info about them on GoodReads.com.

Fiction Picture Books 
(To help myself, I had to narrow this list down to the top 10 of those published in 2015.)


  1. A Fine Dessert: four centuries, four families, one delicious treat by Emily Jenkins, ill. by Sophie Blackall
  2. If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don’t by Elise Parsley
  3. The Most Wonderful Thing in the World by Vivian French, ill. by Angela Barrett
  4. Have You Seen My Monster? by Steve Light
  5. Mama Seeton’s Whistle by Jerry Spinelli, ill. by LeUyen Pham
  6. My Pen by Christopher Myers
  7. Woflie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman, ill. by Zachariah O’Hora
  8. The Day the Crayons Came Home (Crayons #2) by Drew Daywalt, ill. by Oliver Jeffers
  9. I Will Take a Nap (Elephant & Piggie #23) by Mo Willems
  10. Home by Carson Ellis


Graphic Novels/Comics 
(To help myself on this list, I only allowed one book per series.)


  1. Phoebe and Her Unicorn (Phoebe and her unicorn #1) by Dana Simpson
  2. The Underground Abductor (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #5) by Nathan Hale
  3. Case of the Toxic Mutants (Dragonbreath #9) by Ursula Vernon
  4. Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm
  5. Dragons Beware (Chronicles of Claudette #2) by Jorge Aguirre, ill. by Rafael Rosado, colors by John Novak
  6. Target Practice (Cleopatra in Space #1) by Mike Maihack
  7. Binky the Space Cat (Binky the Space Cat #1) by Ashley Spires
  8. Escape from the Lizzarks (Nnewts #1) by Doug TenNapel
  9. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Power (Vol 1) by Ryan North, ill. by Erica Henderson
  10. Bird & Squirrel on the Run by James Burks


Books I Can’t Wait to Get Reading in 2016  - Fiction

Picture books
1. Max at Night (Max #2) by Ed Vere
2. Flora and the Peacocks (Flora #3) by Molly Idle

Lower grade
3. The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party (Princess in Black #2) by Shannon Hale

Middle grade
4. Of Mice and Magic (Hamster Princess #2) by Ursula Vernon
5. Mr Lemoncello’s Library Olympics (Mr Lemoncello’s Library #2) by Chris Grabenstein
6. The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd

YA
7. Winter (Lunar Chronicles #4) by Marissa Meyers
8. Calamity (Reckoners #3) by Brandon Sanderson

Adult
9. Bands of Mourning (Mistborn #6) by Brandon Sanderson
10. Dressed for Death (Drew Farthering #4) by Julianna Deering


Books on the Top of My To-Read Pile for 2016  - Nonfiction

  1. The Fellowship: the literary lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski
  2. Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe
  3. Alamo All-Stars (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #6) by Nathan Hale
  4. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: a devout Muslim encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi
  5. Poisoner’s Handbook: murder and the birth of forensic medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
  6. Dead Wake: the last crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
  7. Extreme Medicine: how exploration transformed medicine in the Twentieth Century by Kevin Fong
  8. Genius of Opposites: how introverts and extroverts achieve extraordinary results together by Jennifer B. Kahnweiler
  9. Undaunted: doing what God calls you to do (Student ed.) by Christine Caine
  10. On Immunity: an inoculation by Eulia Biss
  11. Inside Biosphere 2: Earth science under glass by Mary Kay Carson, photos by Tom Uhlman

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Brainstorm 54: Top 10s of 2015 (part 2 of 3)

I'm continuing my top 10s lists of books I read in 2015. Unless a list has a special note beside it, the books may have been published any time. Today's installment of these top 10s feature the nonfiction books I loved this year. Click on the titles to see my review of the book. Next week I'll post my top 10s for graphic novels and picture books.

Lower & Middle Grade Biographies/Autobiographies




  1. The Underground Abductor (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #5) by Nathan Hale 
  2. Everybody Paints: the lives and art of the Wyeth family by Susan Goldman Rubin
  3. The Right Word: Roget and his thesaurus by Jen Bryant, ill. by Melissa Sweet
  4. Zheng He: the great Chinese explorer by Li Jiang, translated by Yijin Wert
  5. Mr Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis, ill. by Gilbert Ford
  6. Finding Winnie: the true story of the world’s most famous bear by Lindsay Mattick, ill. by Sophie Blackall
  7. Winnie: the true story of the bear who inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker, ill. by Jonathan D. Vos
  8. To Dance: a ballerina’s graphic novel by Siena Cherson Siegel, ill. by Mark Siegel
  9. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
  10. Father’s Chinese Opera by Rich Lo


Lower & Middle Grade Nonfiction



  1. Unusual Creatures: a mostly accurate account of some of Earth’s strangest animals by Michael Hearst, ill. by Arjen Noordeman, Christie Wright and Jelmer Noordeman
  2. Millions, Billions, & Trillions by David A. Adler, ill. by Edward Miller
  3. First Book of Japanese: an ABC rhyming book by Michelle Haney Brown, ill. by Aya Padron
  4. The Next Wave: the quest to harness the power of the oceans by Elizabeth Rusch
  5. Flowers are Calling by Rita Gray, ill. by Kenard Pak
  6. The Biggest Story: how the snake crusher brings us back to the garden by Kevin DeYoung, ill. by Don Clark
  7. Name That Style: all about isms in art by Bob Raczka
  8. An Egg Is Quiet by Diana Hutts Aston, ill. by Sylvia Long
  9. The World in Your Lunch Box by Claire Eamer, ill. by Sa Boothroyd
  10. Octopus Scientist (Scientists in the Field) by Sy Montgomery, ill. by Keith Ellenbogen


Adult Nonfiction



  1. Molecules: the elements and the architecture of everything by Theodore Gray, photos by Nick Mann
  2. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain
  3. Spark: the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain by John J. Ratey with Eric Haggerman
  4. Elements: a visual exploration of every known atom in the universe by Theodore Gray, photos by Nick Mann
  5. Surprised by Hope: rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the Church by N.T. Wright
  6. Frozen in Time: an epic story of survival and a modern quest for lost heroes of WWII by Mitchell Zuckoff
  7. Saving Italy: the race to rescue a nation’s treasures from the Nazis by Robert M. Edsel
  8. The Lord and His Prayer by N.T. Wright
  9. Nature Anatomy by Julia Rothman
  10. Farm Anatomy: curious parts and pieces of country life by Julia Rothman


Adult Biographies 
(I'm a few short on this list for 10, so I included one I'm currently reading and two I plan to read very soon. *currently reading, **on my very soon to read pile)



  1. Fierce Convictions: the extraordinary life of Hannah More – poet, reformer, abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior
  2. The Devil in the White City: murder, magic, and madness at the fair that changed America by Erik Larson
  3. The Case for Grace by Lee Strobel
  4. A Higher Call: an incredible true story of combat and chivalry in the war-torn skies of WWII by Adam Makos with Larry Alexander
  5. Unbroken: a World War II story of survival, resilience and redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
  6. Where the Wind Leads: a refugee family’s miraculous story of loss, rescue and redemption by Vinh Chung with Tim Downs
  7. Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elisabeth Bisland’s history-making race around the world by Matthew Goodman
  8. *Seven Women: and the secret of their greatness by Eric Metaxas
  9. **The Fellowship: the literary lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski
  10. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: a devout Muslim encounters Christianity by Nabeel Quereshi


Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Brainstorm 53: Top 10s of 2015 (part 1 of 3)

As Christmas break and New Year creep ever closer, I think it’s about time for my top tens of 2015. Picking just ten books might possibly drive me insane; I cannot narrow the 600+ books I've read this year down like that. So to help myself, I’m doing the top ten in various categories. The books included have been published over a broad range of years (unless otherwise noted). I’ve divided the books into Adult Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, Middle Grade Fiction, Lower Grade Fiction, Picture books, Juvenile Nonfiction, Juvenile Biographies, Adult Nonfiction, and Graphic Novels. To prevent information overload, I’m going to post the lists in three posts over the next week. Click on the title of the book to see my review and why it's on this list.

Top 10 Books of 2015 (by category) Part 1 of 3


Adult Fiction


  1. Shadows of Self (Mistborn #5) by Brandon Sanderson
  2. Rules of Murder (Drew Farthering #1) by Julianna Deering
  3. A Measure of Mercy (Home to Blessing #1) by Lauraine Snelling
  4. Rip Van Winkle & other stories by Washington Irving
  5. The Martian by Andy Weir  (*Make sure you read the content notes, not recommended for everyone.) 
  6. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce #1) by Alan Bradley
  7. Birds of a Feather (Maisie Dobbs #2) by Jacqueline Winspear
  8. The Invisible Library (Invisible Library #1) by Genevieve Cogman
  9. The Choosing (The Seer #1) by Rachelle Dekker
  10. Skin Deep (Legion #2) by Brandon Sanderson


Young Adult Fiction

  1. Black Dove White Raven by Elizabeth Wein
  2. Rook by Sharon Cameron
  3. Jubilee Manor (Landry Park #2) by Bethany Hagen
  4. Stitching Snow by R.C. Lewis
  5. Eye of Zoltar (Last Dragonslayer #3) by Jasper Fforde
  6. Empire of Shadows (Bhinian Empire #2) by Miriam Forster
  7. The Distance Between Us by Kasie West
  8. Red Queen (Red Queen #1) by Victoria Aveyard
  9. Dark Mirror (Dark Mirror #1) by M.J. Putney
  10. *Firefight (Reckoners #2) by Brandon Sanderson (Technically I finished this Dec 31, 2014, but it’s so close and so good I had to count it.)


Middle Grade Fiction (I had so many options I limited this list to books published in 2015.)


  1. Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan
  2. Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm
  3. Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
  4. Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
  5. Harriet the Invincible (Hamster Princess #1) by Ursula Vernon
  6. Sword of Summer (Magnus Chase #1) by Rick Riordan
  7. The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart
  8. Nightbird by Alice Hoffman
  9. Good Ogre (Bad Unicorn #3) by Platte F. Clark
  10. The Mad Apprentice (Forbidden Library #2) by Django Wexler


Lower Grade Fiction

  1. Tales for Very Picky Eaters by Josh Schneider
  2. Bad Kitty Gets a Bath by Nick Bruel
  3. Princess in Black (Princess in Black #1) by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale, ill. by LeUyen Pham
  4. Bad Kitty for President by Nick Bruel
  5. Mercy Watson to the Rescue (Mercy Watson #1) by Kate DiCamillo, ill. by Chris Van Dusen
  6. Mercy Watson Fights Crime (Mercy Watson #3) by Kate DiCamillo, ill. by Chris Van Dusen
  7. For the Love of Autumn by Patricia Polacco
  8. Odd Duck by Cecil Castelluci, ill. by Sara Vernon
  9. The Invisible Cat (Squishy McFluff #1) by Pip Jones, ill. by Ella Okstad
  10. Dory Fantasmagory (Dory #1) by Abby Hanlon 



Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Brainstorm 52: Similar picture books for compare/contrast & other activities

In honor of Picture Book Month, here are three sets of picture books that lend themselves nicely to compare/contrast activities (and other activities too). And no, these aren't just for the younger grades.

Picture Book Resources

Set #1

My Grandfather’s Coat by Jim Aylesworth, ill. by Barbara McClintock
Based on the traditional Yiddish song, the tale of a thrifty immigrant who makes a coat, then when it is worn continually remakes it into other smaller pieces of clothing until it is completely used up.

Joseph's coat gets worn so he turns it into a jacket, and when that gets worn it becomes a vest, and so on and so on until it is gone.

Activity Tie-ins:
  • Compare/contrast: There are many points to compare and contrast, from the way the story is told and illustrated to the setting to the way the books make you feel as you read them.
  • Patterns (& Prediction): Both of these books follow a specific pattern in what happens to the coat over time and word choice. Ask students to identify patterns in the story, or predict what will happen next as you read.
  • Jewish Culture: Both books are based on a traditional Yiddish song, so both are good options when doing a study of Israel, Judaism, or looking at different cultures.
  • Immigrants: The Aylesworth book portrays grandfather as an immigrant coming to America. The back of that book has some great personal stories from both the author and the illustrator on immigrants in their own families.
  • Music : Both of these books are inspired by a song, and the Taback version has a copy of the music so you can sing the song too.

 Set #2


The Crayon Box That Talked by Shane DeRolf, ill. by Michael Letzig
A little girl comes across a box of quibbling crayons who dislike each other in the toy store. She decides to buy them, take them home and teach them how well they go together by drawing a picture with them.

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, ill. by Oliver Jeffers
Duncan's crayons have decided to go on strike. They've left him letters explaining their complaints. Duncan really wants to color, so he finds a way to make everyone happy.

The Day the Crayons Came Home by Drew Daywalt, ill. by Oliver Jeffers
 More of Duncan's crayons are sending him communications. Several send out pleas for recovery from various parts of the house in which they have been lost. Pea Green crayon is giving notice that he's changing his name and leaving for a grand adventure since no one likes peas. Hot Red crayon is giving updates on his journey home after being abandoned at the pool of the hotel on vacation. And Jumbo crayon is sending an SOS for rescue from the horrors Duncan's baby brother is putting him through.

Activity Tie-ins:
  • Compare/contrast: All three stories feature disgruntled communicative crayons, but the object of their frustrations is different. Students can compare and contrast the stories, the messages of each book, the illustration styles, the text (one is in rhyme and the others are not), etc.
  • Opinion vs. Fact: Have students look back at their compare/contrast points and determine which ones are fact-based and which ones are opinion-based.
  • Plagarism: When Daywalt’s first book came out, there were several people saying it was plagiarizing DeRolf’s book. Obviously, no lawsuit was filed, so it was decided it didn’t. These two do provide a good opportunity to discuss what plagiarism is, how to make sure you aren’t plagiarizing in your works, and when similarities are acceptable.
  • Conflict Resolution: All three books focus on various conflicts that need resolution and provide an opportunity to talk about how to resolve differences and problems in healthy ways.
  • Responsibility: The most recent Daywalt book has a subtle message about needing to be responsible with your things. It’s a good opportunity to talk to kids about why this is important.
  • Geography: In the second Daywalt book Hot Red crayon has horrible geography skills. Have students see if they can use the clues in the illustrations to identify where he really is, versus where his postcards say he is.


Set #3


(Any traditional nursery rhyme book will work for this, but here’s one we have in our library.)
My Very First Mother Goose edited by Iona Opie, ill. by Rosemary Wells
A collection of traditional nursery rhymes.

Mary Had a Little Jam: and other silly rhymes by Bruce Lansky, ill. by Stephen Carpenter
Bruce Lansky puts a new twist on many classic nursery rhymes and poems. They're very clever, and most all of them make the rhymes funnier, nicer (for example, the blind mice are kind mice and give the farmer's wife a slice of cheese instead of losing tails to a knife), and overall are more relevant to modern kids.

Activity Tie-ins:
  • Compare/contrast: The challenge in comparing and contrasting traditional nursery rhymes with Lansky’s versions will be finding similarities, but they can be found.
  • History of Nursery Rhymes: Many of Lansky’s rhymes make more sense to modern readers, but at one point in time, most of the original nursery rhymes had deeper meaning for the original hearers. Have students research the origins of some nursery rhymes. (This is probably a better activity for older elementary or secondary students as the roots of many nursery rhymes are rather gruesome.)
  • Creative Writing: Have students follow Bruce Lansky’s example and put their own twist on old rhymes.
  • Humorous Read Aloud: Mary Had a Little Jam is a great, fun read aloud that can be read in short segments when you need a filler.


Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Brainstorm 51: Picture Books & Gratitude

November is Picture Book Month! (Remember, you're never too old for picture books.) It is also a month when we think about things we are grateful for. So here are three picture books that look at some everyday things we often take for granted. They invite us to pause and be thankful for the often overlooked.


On My Beach There Are Many Pebbles by Leo Lionni
There are many pebbles on the beach. All shapes and sizes. Some look like people, some look like animals, some look like numbers, and some look like letters.
I’m familiar with Leo Lionni, but I had never even heard of this book that is somewhat different from his normal animal tales. The black and white sketches of pebbles are intricate and stunning. This is a level of artistry that didn’t often get to come through in Lionni’s animal stories. It’s a simple book inviting you to look carefully at everyday objects.

Activity Tie-ins:

  • Illustrator Compare/Contrast: Have students compare and contrast this book with one of Lionni’s more famous books, like Swimmy. Which one do they like better and why?
  • Everyday Thankful Moments: Have students brainstorm some other things they may see every day and not take the time to be grateful for their beauty or how they help them.
  • Geology: For classes studying rocks, this can help boring rocks more interesting and challenge them to look at things in a different way. 


A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead,  ill. by Erin E. Stead
Amos McGee works at the zoo and takes good care of his animal friends meeting their unique needs each day. So when Amos is sick, his animal friends come to his house and take care of him.

Activity Tie-Ins:

  • Unexpected Thank Yous: After reading this story, have students brain storm people they appreciate who they might take for granted. Challenge students to say thank you to them, or even have them make thank you cards for those little everyday things that often go unnoticed.
  • Kindess: This is a good book to read when talking about kindness. Amos McGee is shown kindness because he takes time for each of the animals and they know he cares about them. What are some ways students can show kindness? Were the things Amos did with each animal really part of his job? Why do students think he did them if he didn’t have to? Did he do anything really difficult or exceptional when showing kindness? How about the animals, did they buy expensive presents for Amos? Brainstorm some ways to show kindness that cost nothing, but mean everything.
  • Caldecott Medal: This book won the Caldecott Medal just a few years ago, so if you’re looking for Caldecott winners, this is a good one.


The Most Wonderful Thing in the World by Vivian French, ill. by Angela Barrett
Long ago a King and Queen realized that their beloved daughter would need a husband to rule the land with her in the future. So, following the advice of a wise old man, they sought out the prince who could show them the most wonderful thing in the world to prove he should be the future king. To get the princess out of the way during this arduous process, the King and Queen agree to finally let her explore the kingdom. So while they hunt for a worthy son-in-law, Princess Lucia is shown around her grand city by a kind young man named Salvatore. In the end, the least likely young man in the kingdom proves the only one able to show the King and Queen something they deem the most wonderful thing in the world.

Activity Tie-ins:

  • Gratitude for What You Take for Granted: The most wonderful thing in this book does not end up being a thing, but a person. Before reading, ask students what they think the most wonderful thing in the world is. After reading, see if students would like to change their answer to that question. What things or people do they really appreciate and take for granted? Brainstorm ways to show appreciation for those special people in their lives they may often forget to tell just how much they mean to them.
  • Genres: If you’re talking about genres with students, this book is a great example of a book that fits in multiple genres. It seems to be historical fiction (the setting is never clearly identified, but based on dress and geography, it looks to be early 1900s Venice). It also has clear fantasy elements (one of the wonderful gifts is a mermaid). And, horrifying as it may be to some students, it is also a love story. Many times it blows kids’ minds that books can fit in multiple categories, and this is a quick read that can help them wrap their minds around that concept.
  • Art: The illustrations in this book are beautiful and incredibly detailed. It will take more than one reading to take it all in. Art classes can look at ways the art enhances the story and helps create the setting. Without the art, would you know where the story is supposed to take place?
  • Setting & Research: I’ve already mentioned that the setting is not clearly stated, but there are enough clues that students should be able to figure out the probable time period and setting if they pay close attention and do some research. If you’re talking about setting, it’s a good example of how important clothing and geography can be. If you're working on research, it's a good time to talk about how to research images or how to find something when you aren't really sure what you're looking for.
  • Prediction: There are some hints throughout this story about the conclusion. See if students can predict which man will be able to show them the most wonderful thing in the world and what it is. What are the clues that led them to that conclusion?
  • “Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder” Debate: This book is perfect for a discussion of how different people can see the exact same thing in different ways and value it differently. All the people who come to the King and Queen think their gift is the most wonderful thing in the world. Is there something you treasure that a friend doesn’t like? What are the pros and cons of this? Why is it important to remember about differences of view and opinion? When is it important? Are there things you think everyone should value equally? What are they?


Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Brainstorm 50: Mystery series for K-12

Several new-ish popular mystery series for K-12.

Lower grade series


Sherlock Sam series by A.J. Low
Sherlock Sam is a little kid in Singapore, who with his robot Watson solves crimes. Our students can readily identify with the Singaporian sleuth, and many have been to Singapore so they can picture the locations mentioned in the books. The author's name is actually a mashup of the names of a husband/wife team who live in Singapore. Currently there are 8 books in the series.

Activity tie-ins:
  • Geography/Map activity: Students can trace Sherlock Sam's adventures on a map of Singapore.
  • Asian literature: If you're looking for a book by Asian authors, that has Asian main characters or Asian settings, this fits all three of those.
  • Singapore study: Reading these you can pick up on a bit of Singaporian culture. Have students compare and contrast their normal life with Sherlock Sam's normal life. What's the same? What's different?
Middle Grade series


Platypus Police Squad series by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
The Platypus Police Squad keeps the streets safe in Kalamazoo. I've never read another mystery series for kids that sounds so much like Dragnet or Law and Order. They take crime fighting seriously, but the crimes they fight are things like illegal sales of synthetic fish, sabotage of amusement parks, and other fictional crime situations in a town populated entirely by animals. Krosoczka is also a gifted artist, so the books are peppered with great illustrations of the animals throughout. There are currently 3 books in this series, with a 4th scheduled to come out next year.

Activity tie-ins:
  • Observation skills: Using the clues and the pictures, can students solve the mystery before the two detectives?
  • Interpersonal skills: The platypuses in the police squad often have to deal with differences of opinion and conflicts. It's a good opportunity to talk about how to handle differences and conflicts in healthy ways.
  • Animals + Mystery=Win: Numerous kids pick this up for the animals on the cover, but end up enjoying the mystery elements. It's a great pick for fans of both.
  • "Safe" Mystery: These books do a great job of making completely ridiculous and impossible things seem like serious crimes, like synthetic fish dealing instead of drug dealing, making this a good pick for parents looking for a safe read for kids.

Shakespeare Mysteries series by Deron R. Hicks
Miles Letterford started a highly successful publishing company, still in the hands of the Letterford family to this day. Colophon Letterford's father is the CEO of that company as the eldest in line, but his position has become a bit shaky after some weird accidents have hit the company recently. The family (heavily persuaded by cousin Treemont) has given her father until Christmas Eve to make three successful deals or he will have to step down as CEO. But Colophon's ancestor Miles Letterford didn't just leave the family a company, he also left them a mystery that supposedly leads to family treasure. And the key is supposedly the portrait of Miles that hangs in the family house. Colophon always just thought Miles an egotistical crazy man for insisting the family keep his portrait up, but on Thanksgiving she learns from her adult cousin Julian that it may hold the key to a treasure. Colophon starts putting her head together with cousin Julian on solving the treasure mystery and she puts her brother Case in charge of trying to help her Dad save the company (since Colophon suspect Treemont of sabotaging the latest deals). What follows is a high octane adventure with nary a dull moment, plenty of twists and turns, and this continues in book 2. One of the best new mystery adventure series out there in my opinion because...it is written realistically enough it could feasibly happen! Picture a National Treasure movie that is believable and plausible, and have the treasure revolve around Shakespeare's writings. That's this series.

Activity Tie-ins:
  • Current events: After this book was published, someone in Europe really did find a Shakespeare folio. Have students research the real story and compare it to this one.
  • Shakespeare: If you're looking for a way to make studying Shakespeare just a bit more exciting, this might be just the ticket.
  • History: Colophon and Julian's research skills come in super handy to solve the family mystery. Have students brainstorm real life situations where knowing history can be helpful, and/or have students look further into one of the areas of history mentioned in this book that piqued their interest.
  • Exciting Read: The covers of these kind of undersell the story, so I usually have to convince kids that these will be exciting. But once they read the first one, they are usually scrambling for the second. If you're looking for a high interest read to hook readers, this is a good one.

Young Adult/Adult series


Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley
Flavia de Luce is a precocious 11-year-old in a small village in post-WWII Britain. She has a penchant for poisons and chemistry in general, and in order to satisfy her poison fascination in a less criminal fashion, she decides to help solve crimes that happen around her village. Of course, the police don't always appreciate her help (as is true for most private detectives). This series has won several awards, and has been quite popular since added to our library. The books are written for an adult audience but are clean enough for teens. There are currently 8 books in this series.

Activity tie-ins: 
  • Post-WWII Britain: Just after the war is a time period largely ignored in fiction. It is an interesting look at Britain as it recovered from the trauma of WWII.
  • Chemistry: Flavia always shares interesting little tidbits of chemistry in her books, and it is a powerful reminder that chemists have knowledge they can either use for great good or deadly purposes.
  • Psychology/Sociology: If you want a fun assignment for your psychology or sociology class, have them analyze Flavia and her family dynamics. Her father is disconnected, her mother disappeared in an adventure years ago, and her older sisters live to torment her, and the family butler is suffering from PTSD. They are quite interesting to say the least. 

Landry Park series by Bethany Hagen
What if Brontë's Shirley was set in a futuristic dystopian US? You might get something a little like this delicious work. Though it is a dystopia (primarily why this is constantly checked out), a mystery features prominently in both books (the series is complete at 2 books). In the first book, the mystery of who is responsible for the physical assault of a gentry young lady features prominently, and in the second book, a serial killer is threatening any hopes of a future peace resolution.

After the Last War against the Eastern forces, society in the US was arranged around wealth and influence levels. The highest families were called the gentry and ruled the land, then came the working middle class, and then the poor servants. But there's a level below the servants reserved for those who did not help during the Last War, the Rootless. They have no rights, and are relegated to the worst jobs in society, taking care of the nuclear waste from the revolutionary power units developed by Jacob Landry during the Last War. Those power units saved the world from an environmental cataclysm, and Landry has become a name that dominates the heights of gentry circles. Madeline Landry is next in line to inherit Landry Park and the power that entails. Her father and mother are grooming her for the task of taking over Landry Park and producing heirs. That all sounds wonderful, but Madeline would rather be going to university than hunting a husband through the season's balls. But she has little choice in the matter. So it is off to the balls and dinners she goes. This season proves more interesting than most though. It starts with the mysterious assault of Cara Westhoff. A Rootless is blamed and the gentry led by Alexander Landry go on the hunt, but Madeline can tell that Cara is hiding something and firmly believes that the Rootless are being persecuted for a crime they did not commit. As she explores this incident and the injustice being meted out to the Rootless, she starts to see the engrained injustices in society towards the Rootless and starts to question everything Landry Park stands for. The same night of Cara's incident, David Dana, the most eligible bachelor in the US arrives in town. Madeline is sure that David will be just like all the other arrogant and mindless gentry men, but he proves to be a puzzle. A puzzle that gets under Madeline's skin. He seems to share her revolutionary and unpopular assessment of the Rootless' plight, and it sometimes appears as if David might care for her, but then he goes and accompanies Cara on her debut night (a common prelude to engagement). One day, Madeline is out for a walk when she sees David in an unusual outfit and starts following him. Cara happens to see and joins Madeline in the tail. And David leads them both straight to the Rootless leaders for a meeting about a revolution. Madeline and Cara are quickly caught spying, and the horrors of the Rootless' situation are brought more painfully clear. Madeline wants to do something, she knows she should, but how much is she willing to sacrifice for these people? Is she wiling to give up her position and her home? The same question is one that David must wrestle with as he heads off to join the military. And...no, I think you'll just have to read it to find out more.

Activity tie-ins:
  • Current Events: Ask students who they think the current "Rootless" are in the world.
  • Voice for the Voiceless: Madeline Landry wants to help the Rootless, but she has to weigh the costs. If you were in her shoes, what would you do? How much would you be willing to suffer or give up for a stranger? (This can easily be tied in with biblical themes too.)
  • Energy Sources: Madeline's world was turned upside down by an energy crisis. Research some of the alternative energy sources currently being explored. What would be their pros and cons?
  • Dystopia/Mystery/Regency Combo: All I have to usually do to sell this book to the teen girls at our school is tell them it is a dystopia in which a girl helps fight for the rights of a group of people and she goes to balls. It's hard not to get hooked in a book that features both a tense dystopia situation and a puzzling mystery and has Regency England elements. Of course, some of the guys will roll their eyes at the romance elements, but it is still a solid story. And it stands out with unique elements in a sea of dystopias available.

Sherlock Holmes graphic novels adapted from the original by Arthur Conan Doyle by Ian Edgington, ill. by I.N.J. Culbard
Holmes is always popular, but even more so after the recent BBC series. So when you combine already popular Sherlock Holmes stories with the irresistible graphic novel format, you have books that are constantly checked out. There are 4 of these adaptations available.

Activity Tie-ins:
  • Reluctant readers: Students who never check out anything to read will check out graphic novels (and don't tell them, but the reading level of most graphic novels is just as high as most print books). It is a great way to get reluctant readers actually reading!
  • ESL: Graphic novels are also great for second language learners because the pictures help with decoding if vocabulary words are confusing. They are also generally smaller in page numbers and not as daunting for those reading a new language.
  • Compare/contrast: Edgington did a pretty good job staying faithful to the original Doyle story, but there are inevitably some differences that allow compare/contrast activities and opportunities to ask readers why they think Edgington chose to make the changes he did.
  • Quick Mystery Read: If you're looking for a quick read, graphic novels tend to read quite fast. I see many students pick up graphic novels and read them in one sitting in the library at lunch or after school. Of course, many take them home to read and reread too.

Drew Farthering mysteries by Juliana Deering
Drew Farthering is a young British man in 1930s England with a talent for solving crimes, which he discovers by accident when some people close to him are killed on his estate. Deering manages to pull off a mystery that feels much like the classic series of this time period (Marple, Poirot, Campion, Lord Peter Wimsey, etc.) but also deftly and lightly mixes in elements of Christian faith. And she writes some very good mysteries. She's fooled me in every single one. There are currently 3 books in this series with a 4th to be released next year.

Activity Tie-ins:
  • British Mysteries: Farthering and his friends frequently mention the newly released mysteries from Christie and Sayers and others they are reading. This series is bursting with suggestions of several classic series to read. It'll make fans of those new to British mysteries.
  • Observation Skills: See if you can pick up on all the clues and solve the mystery before Drew. I'll warn you, Deering writes some very subtle and convincing red herrings into her books.
  • 1930s England: If you're studying 1930s England, this book does a good job of helping you understand the culture of that time, including a good dose of Gilbert & Sullivan in book 3.
  • Respectful Romantic Relationship: Drew and his fiancé do a fantastic job of having a relationship that is clean and respectful. It is one of the things I loved about this series. They're a great example.
  • Christie-ish Book for Those Who've Read all of Christie: The problem with being a fan of the old classic British mystery series is that the authors are dead and gone, and the series are finished (well, except for fan fic and authors who get hired by the estates to continue the series...). This book does an excellent job of replicating the feel of those classic mysteries for those craving more.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Brainstorm 49: Stand alone mysteries for K-12

I don't know if you've noticed, but stand alone mystery books are a rare breed. Usually, when an author takes all the effort to create a diverting detective character, they like for the detective to get the chance to crack several mysteries. The next Brainstorm will look at some of those fun mystery series, but for today, here's some stand alone mystery books for K-12.

Picture Book Resources


Hermelin: the Detective Mouse by Mini Grey
Hermelin is a mouse. He's a mouse with a talent for typing and noticing details, which makes him a perfect candidate to solve several missing item mysteries that have happened in his apartment complex. The people he's helped are very appreciative, but are they really ready to meet their tiny hero?
For now this is a stand alone, but I would not be at all surprised if this ends up being a series. Hermelin is cute, and the ending sets him up with a partner for future adventures. Warning: This book is not the best choice for a read aloud. It is set up as a feast for the eyes, and has many disparate text boxes. It's lots of fun to look at and read by yourself.

Activity Tie-ins:
  • Center: If you're a teacher who likes centers and has students old enough to read to themselves, this book would make a great center with some directional questions.
  • Observation skills: Those who are paying close attention may be able to figure out the mysteries just as fast as Hermelin. Challenge readers to really look at the pictures closely and see if they can figure out what happened to the missing items.
  • Prediction: Savvy readers will probably be able to predict how the people will react when they finally meet Hermelin, but will they predict the solution to that problem?

The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base
I've mentioned this picture book before, so I'll just remind you of it. It's my favorite mystery picture book. Also a good choice for poetry units, as the entire book is written in rhyming quatrains.

Chapter Books


Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
Emily's family is moving again. Her family's quest to live in all 50 States is starting to get a little old. It's the reason Emily usually tries not to make friends in new places. But her new neighbor James is another puzzle enthusiast and the same age, and before Emily realizes it, she's made a friend. She's not too used to this friend thing, and she might struggle with knowing how to be a good friend. Especially when she has to choose between taking time for her friendship or pursuing the next step in what she's sure is Mr. Griswold's next game. Emily's one constant in her past few moves has been her participation in Book Scavenger, a game created by Mr. Griswold where people hide books, solve puzzles to find books, of course read books, and move up the Book Scavenger sleuthing scale. When Emily and James stumble on a strange copy of Edgar Allan Poe's Gold Bug, she's sure it is part of Mr. Griswold's new game he was about to announce when he was mugged the day her family moved to San Francisco. Is she just imagining the puzzles? Will her obsession with the game cost her her friendship with James and him a swatch of hair in his cipher contest at school? Who else is after The Gold Bug and how far are they willing to go to get it?
Fans of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library and Westing Game are sure to love this. Not only because Emily mentions both books, but because of the ciphers and puzzles and the great big scavenger hunt/mystery involved in the story.

Activity Tie-ins:
  • Critical thinking: Mysteries are a great way to give readers some critical thinking exercise. 
  • Puzzles: There's several ciphers and puzzles mentioned in the book that can give readers further mental exercise. If they really like the concept, Bertman has actually created a real Book Scavenger game where people can hide and find books. Check out bookscavenger.com
  • TCKs: Emily is someone third culture kids can readily identify with. The way she tries to protect herself from further emotional pain from leaving people she cares about, is a common pitfall and can hopefully help TCKs not fall into the same trap.
  • Friendships take work!: This is a great book to demonstrate that friendships take work on both sides, and can segue into conversations about how to make and keep friends, how to work out differences with others in healthy ways, and the importance of forgiveness.
  • Poe's Gold Bug: This tale of Poe is central to the plot line, so if you want to get kids curious about the poem prior to looking at it, this could be a good way to generate interest.
Peeled by Joan Bauer


Hildy Biddle wants the truth, but the truth is hard to find in the little apple valley of Banesville. Strange things are supposedly going on in the old Ludlow house, a house with a history for dark happenings and unsolved mysteries. Suddenly, more and more people are reporting ghost sightings at the old Ludlow place, painted signs warning about danger keep popping up, and a dead man is found on the property. Fear starts to grip Banesville and property values around the Ludlow place start to plummet. Kids are scared to go outside at recess, and the town starts getting strange visitors that want a glimpse of the haunted Ludlow house. The town's newspaper, The Bee, is making sure citizens are up to date on every single detail...but Hildy Biddle is a reporter herself. She has been interviewing many of the people at the heart of this issue for her own articles in the high school's newspaper, The Core, and she starts to feel like The Bee is exaggerating or even fabricating details for some reason. Why does The Bee want the people to live in fear, and why does its editor threaten to sue the high school for the questions Hildy and the rest of The Core staff are raising?
Things get pretty tense and serious, but with the advice of veteran newspaper man Baker Polton and the encouragement of Ms Minska, cafe owner and WWII survivor, Hildy and her friends decide to fight for their town by searching for the truth that will conquer the fear and lies.

Activity Tie-ins:
  • Filtering Media: In today's media saturated world, this book provides a very important lesson of evaluating media sources and not taking them at face value. It's a great opportunity to give students practical ways to evaluate their news sources, and warn them about the dangers of hype. This could easily be tied in with a lesson on how commercials and graphic design are created in ways to affect us in certain ways. A great non-fiction companion for this is Go: a Kidd's guide to graphic design by Chip Kidd.
  • Writing, the Power of Words, & Bias: The plot also demonstrates the incredible power written words can have over people. Writers have a great weight of responsibility on their shoulders. This book demonstrates how the written word can be used both for good or evil, and how bias can drastically change the way "facts" are presented.
  • Anyone can make a difference: Hildy and her friends are teenagers. Most people would dismiss them from being able to help save the town. Just the small act of printing facts has a profound effect on their town. Have students brainstorm small ways they can make a difference in the world.
  • Critical Thinking: Can students figure out what is going on in town before the characters? Who do they trust? Why? Or who do they not trust? Why?
  • A "Spooky" (Not Really) Read: This is another good pick for those students who crave "spooky" stories that turn out to have a non-spooky conclusion.
Other Stand Alone Mysteries...


The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
A modern classic! And a Newbery winner. What do you mean you haven't read this yet?!


One Came Home by Amy Timberlake
It's a combination of mystery and western with flavors of True Grit and Little House on the Prairie and an interesting side plot involving passenger pigeons back before they were endangered. This one won both a Newbery Honor and Edgar Award.


Love among the Walnuts by Jean Ferris
A bunch of lovable misfits trapped in a tricky, not-so-lovable plot make this lesser-known book both mysterious and sweet all at the same time.


A Victorian England darker humor mystery with seven young ladies out to figure out who murdered their headmistress (all the while keeping her death hushed up). This one is not for everyone, but those who like Arsenic and Old Lace should appreciate it (and even find little tips of the hat to that story).

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Brainstorm 48: Books for dark & stormy nights (or afternoons)

It's currently the middle of the rainy season here in Thailand. That means we get daily thunderstorms with torrential rain. The past four evenings the sun has set amidst lightning and thunder. It is currently noon, and the thunder and lightning is at it again (and the rain is trying to flood out any after school events). So inspired by the weather and October's arrival, here are several books great for dark and stormy nights (or mornings, or afternoons) for K-12

Picture Book Resources


I Will Surprise My Friend by Mo Willems
Gerald and Piggie watch Squirrel surprise his friend and decide it would be fun to do the same thing. So they agree to meet at the big rock and surprise each other, but thanks to some great comedic timing Gerald doesn't see Piggie and Piggie doesn't see Gerald. Gerald starts imagining all the horrible things that must be happening for Piggie to be missing. Piggie thinks that Gerald must have got hungry and gone to get lunch. Both decide to get up from their hiding spot to go find/save the other and in the process give each other quite a fright.
From the premise of this book, it should totally not work. You shouldn't be able to plan to scare each other at a designated time and location, but thanks to Willems' impeccable comedic timing, it totally does work and hilarity ensues.

Activity Tie-ins:
  • Predictions: This would be a fun book to have children try to predict how it will turn out.
  • Psychology: Psych classes can pick apart why people get startled, why Elephant and Piggie's plan shouldn't have worked and why it actually did.
  • Writing: Willems' employs a brilliant twist in what seems to be a stupid plot. Discuss why it worked, and have students try to write something similar.
  • Pranks vs Surprises: Sometimes surprises are fun, and some times they seem mean. Have students debate what makes the difference? Where is the line? (You can tie this then into discussions of class community and how to keep trust between each other.)
  • Stats or Charts/Graphs: There tends to be a correlation between whether or not a person likes surprises and whether they are an introvert or extrovert. Poll the class on both questions, and look at the results in statistics. Is there a correlation in the class?

The Skunk by Mac Barnett, ill. by Patrick McDonnell
A man finds himself followed hither and yon by a skunk. After finally shaking this striped-tailed tail, the man's curiosity starts to get the better of him and positions are reversed.
The illustrations in this are fantastic, and make the story as much as the words. And it features a critter that doesn't appear in picture books as a main character all that much. 

Activity Tie-ins:
  • Creative Writing: It is not revealed exactly what the skunk is up to, so readers can extend the story and fill in the gaps.
  • Debate or Persuasive Writing: You could have a fun debate or persuasive writing exercise asking students whether the skunk was up to something good or evil, what evidence can they use to back them up? Students could also debate whether the man was foolish or smart to tail the skunk in return. Was he smart or did he put himself in danger? Was this story funny or scary? 
  • Stranger Danger: This could be a good chance to talk to students about what to do when followed or approached by a stranger.
Graphic Novel-ish Resource


Curse of the Were-Wiener by Ursula Vernon
This third book in the Dragonbreath series finds Wendell is bitten by a were-weiner from Transylvania during school lunch. Danny and Wendell must destroy the alpha wurst with the help of a sentient potato salad (that made an appearance in bk 1 of the series) and its rat minions before Wendell and other school mates are completely transformed and in the thrall of the alpha wurst.

Activity Tie-ins:
  • "Scary" (but not really) Stories: There's this group of readers out there who says they want a scary story to read, but not too scary. This is probably the least scary were-creature story you can find. In fact it's really rather funny. There's no blood or gore, and everyone ends up ok.
  • Reluctant Readers or those in need of Hi-Lo books: The Dragonbreath series is great for students who "don't like to read" or are struggling readers. The book is almost a graphic novel, but has some pages of just text. The combination of lots of illustrations and large font also make this a very quick read. And the funny adventures of Danny the dragon and his friend Wendell the iguana appeal to a wide age range.
  • Story Tropes: Vernon picks fun at several typical horror story tropes in this book. Have students see if they can identify them, and discuss why authors do things like this.
  • Humorous Stories: Students (and adults) crave funny stories. This is a great book if you need to laugh in the midst of those thunderstorms.
Fiction Resources


The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell
Sand wakes up to find he's been sleeping in a fireplace. And the fireplace is in the middle of the castle destroyed ages ago in an earthquake that's now surrounded by a hedge of thorns. But as Sand explores his strange new surroundings, he starts to realize that whatever cracked the keep and rent a huge tear in the earth couldn't have been just an earthquake because that's not all that's wrong in the castle. There isn't a single thing that hasn't been broken or destroyed in the entire place from bedding and books torn to pieces to tables and anvils shredded in halves. Also, there isn't a single living thing in the castle. The plants (except for the pesky impenetrable thorn hedge) are all dried up, there isn't a mouse or even a fly making a peep. Sand thinks he's all alone with no way out. Until he can figure out the mysteries of how he got in and how he can get out, Sand decides to fix up some things to make his situation livable. He starts with basics like bedding, a spoon, and something to draw water from the well with. As he moves on strange things start happening in the castle, giving Sand clues as to why he is there and what happened in the past.

Activity Tie-ins:
  • Fairy Tales Compare/Contrast: This book is somewhat a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. There are plenty of unique elements and Haskell has definitely made this story her own, but if you look for the Sleeping Beauty-ish parallels you can find them (minus mushy parts, so this is also a good fairy tale option for boys). A good addition to a fairy tale unit. Have students compare and contrast this story with another version of Sleeping Beauty.
  • Mystery/Almost Spooky Tales: There's a big mystery as to what is going on in this story. How did Sand end up in the castle, and why is everything broken? There are elements that have the potential to be spooky, but really don't end up scary at all. A good pick for a mystery unit. See if students can figure out what is going on before Sand. And you can also discuss how Haskell kept you interested without revealing the mystery too soon.
  • Bitterness & Forgiveness: There's a fantastic message about the dangers of bitterness and importance of forgiveness in this story. Great conversation starter.
  • Angels in Bible vs Angels in pop arts: Some angels factor into this story, and provide a good opportunity to compare how angels appear in popular art, literature, etc. and how they are described in the Bible.

Storm Thief by Chris Wooding
Storm Thief is a steam punk dystopia world kept in dystopia by a Chaos Engine (think improbability machine from Hitchhiker but make it non-humorous) that at random times releases probability storms across the island city. The city was evidently created by an ancient people that had amazing technology, but the knowledge of that technology has been lost and the city is pretty much in the Industrial Revolution/Poland pre official WWII (there are ghetto areas of the city) with some unique technology all their own. The probability storms can do anything from rearrange the city streets to give people 3 eyes or change the color of their hair. Also thrown into the mix of issues for the citizens to deal with are things called Revenants which basically turn people into zombies. The two main characters are thieves by necessity and happen on something that changes their lives and ultimately the lives of everyone else on the island. 
Note: There is a fair amount of violence in this, though nothing exceptionally gory. I personally wouldn't hand it to elementary students, but most teenagers should be fine unless they are very sensitive to violence.

Activity Tie-ins:
  • Ethics: The main characters of this book steal out of "necessity" though even they differ on what that means. A great discussion starter for an ethics class. Is there a time when stealing is ok? If so, what is the line?
  • World Building: This book reminded me of several other book settings or historical settings but managed to come off as fairly unique and it's own story. Ask students to brainstorm some of the possible influences/inspirations Chris Wooding drew on for this setting.
  • Zombie Stories That Aren't Too Scary: For the reader who wants a zombie story, but doesn't want blood and guts and gore everywhere, this is a good (and fairly rare) option.
  • Responsive Writing: The Chaos Engine frequently wreaks havoc in the world and people of this story. Have students imagine how they would feel knowing at any moment any part of their world could change. Would there be certain parts they'd wish they could keep the Chaos Engine away from, or parts they'd welcome it to change?
  • Dystopia World Face-off: This book provides a dystopia setting that is pretty scary to think about living in. Have students compare and contrast this with other dystopia worlds and establish a ranking system of most livable to least livable. In other words, which one would you like to live in the least?

There's lots of other great story night reads out there. You could always grab a Poe, and I love Dickens Our Mutual Friend that has fantastic story crafting and a complex mystery (but it does take quite a few nights to read). And of course, Snoopy frequently crafts stories about dark and stormy nights in Peanuts comics. The next couple of Brainstorms will look at some stand-alone mystery books and mystery series recommendations.