Thursday, September 29, 2016

Brainstorm Vol 87: Language Arts Lively Lit

Last week there were no classes on Friday at our school but teachers were busy with a staff family fun day. That sadly meant I had no time to do a Brainstorm. This one is a little bit longer to make up for missing last week.

There’s a lot of great books out there to help take the boring out of language arts classes. Instead of the normal activity tie-ins/target readers section today I’m going to categorize these by which area of language arts they’d be most helpful for. (Look for books on story writing, building vocabulary, and elements of story analysis in a future Brainstorm.)

Picture Book Resources

The Importance of Punctuation

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference! by Lynne Truss, ill. by Bonnie Timmons
A picture book that points out the importance of commas. Each page spread features the same sentence with or without a comma and illustrations of how the meaning changes with the presence or absence of the punctuation. (And yes, those of you who think this title sounds familiar, it is based on a popular adult book on grammar by the same author.)

A simple little picture book with comic illustrations that help make a big grammar point. In the back of the book are technical explanations for why the meanings change. A good resource for language arts teachers of any level.

The Girl's Like Spaghetti: Why, You Can’t Manage without Apostrophes! by Lynne Truss, ill. by Bonnie Timmons
Why are apostrophes important? This book illustrates their importance. After a brief introduction to the uses of apostrophes, readers get a handful of different page spreads featuring the same sentences with and without apostrophes and illustrations of the meanings of each.

The results of misused apostrophes are sometimes comical, as are the vast differences in meaning that one little apostrophe can make. This book does a great job of pointing out those differences with humorous visuals. In the back of the book are more in-depth explanations of why each apostrophe's appearance changes the meaning. A good book for language arts classes of any age.

Parts of Speech and Rules

Super Grammar by Tony Preciado, ill. by Rhode Montijo
It’s a graphic novel with superheroes AND it’s a grammar handbook. Graphic novel format and superheroes on hand make everything easier to swallow, even learning the rules of English grammar.

Too Many Dogs by Lori Haskins, ill. by Joe Mathieu
There are lots of different dogs at this house.

This is a very simple book with a lot of different descriptors for various dogs. There's the normal big and small, as well as more creative descriptors like sloppy and waggy. Could be used when discussing adjectives or big, bigger, and biggest (small, smaller and smallest also appear). Also a good pick for a beginning reader who loves dogs.

Kites Sail High: a book about verbs by Ruth Heller
Ruth Heller is the Grammar Queen of kids’ lit. She wrote many fabulous books about different parts of speech, several of them in the list below this book. They are all brightly illustrated, and all are written in rhyming text. They definitely help boring ol’ grammar get a spark of life and liveliness.

Many Lucious Lollipops: a book about adjectives by Ruth Heller

A Cache of Jewels: and other collective nouns by Ruth Heller

Fantastic! Wow! And Unreal! : a book about interjections and conjunctions by Ruth Heller

Merry-go-round : a book about nouns by Ruth Heller

Mine, All Mine : a book about pronouns by Ruth Heller

Up, Up and Away :  a book about adverbs by Ruth Heller

There Is a Tribe of Kids by Lane Smith
A boy tries to find his spot in all sorts of groups, from goats to jellyfish to rocks, before he finds one where he belongs.

I loved the illustrations in this. They are so fantastic and fun. You'll see this in a future Brainstorm with Animal Groups by Jill Esbaum, photos by Frans Lanting and some other books that talk about group names for animals. It's appearing here now because it includes fun adjectives and provides some great examples of when to use those tricky words are and is. (And if you want to go ahead and use this and Animal Groups in a fun fiction/nonfiction pair ahead of the appropriate Brainstorm I guess that's ok too.)


Sleep Like a Tiger by Mary Logue, ill. by Pamela Zagarenski
A little girl is not sleepy, but her parents persuade her to get ready for bed any way. In the process, she asks them if all animals sleep and soon she finds herself imitating many of the animals she discussed with her parents as she curls up for sleep.

The illustration style for this book is definitely eye-catching. It is very abstract and unique, not a style I usually like, but it really worked for this story. I love how tactful the little girl's parents are in getting her ready for bed. They should get some kind of parenting psychology award. Language arts teachers could use this when discussing similes and metaphors, which abound as the girl compares her actions to that of other sleepy animals.

Crazy Like a Fox: a Simile Story by Loreen Leedy
A fun introduction to similes and idioms. The introductory and conclusion pages have helpful text to explain these literary devices to kids. The last page also has prompts for kids to write their own similes. The pictures and similes used are humorous.

Quick as a Cricket by Audrey Wood, ill. by Don Wood
This is an oldie but a goodie. It's a short and simple book celebrating a child’s abilities. And it has great, easy to identify adverbs and similes.

Turning Spelling into a Critical Thinking Word Puzzle

Take Away the A by Michaël Escoffier, ill. by Kris Di Giacomo
A look at the difference one little letter of the alphabet makes to words. Each letter gets a chance to shine, and what unfolds are some very interesting scenarios. For example, "Without the A, the beast is the best," or "Without the N the moon says moo!"

I really wonder how long it took Escoffier to write this book and decide which words to use. I do like this alphabet book in that it features letters in the middle of words, not at the beginning, and involves a word puzzle type of thinking. You can easily use this to stimulate further mental exercise by having kids think of other scenarios for various letters. The challenge is coming up with one word that will change into another word by taking away just one letter. The illustrations fit the touch of dark humor in this (the P page shows a mouse tail extending from a cat's mouth when the plate is late and the waiters are mice...the M page shows a pig and chicken being offered a ride by a grinning wolf...things like that). Most pages aren't dark at all, though.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Brainstorm Vol 86: More Thrilling Middle Grade Reads

I shared a post a few months ago about thrilling reads for middle grades. Several seemed to find that post helpful in finding reading material that gets middle graders reading. So if you’re looking for more exciting, intense, or gripping reads that middle graders (and teens or adults...there's no shame in reading middle grade when you're older) will find hard to put down, here’s a few more.

Middle Grade Fiction Resources

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar
There are two big things in the small town of Heath Cliff, PA: distinguished Woodridge Academy and a secret lab that is engineering Biolene, the latest and greatest in renewable energy. Biolene has been manufactured with the help of slime mold. Supposedly, the microbes cannot survive in oxygen, but when microbes replicate as fast as those in Biolene, mutations are likely to occur. Of course, Woodridge Academy students have no knowledge of Biolene or even that there is a lab in their small town. They are more concerned with things like passing the next math test and avoiding bullying. The latter reason is why Marshall decides to take a short cut through the woods to get home one day. Tamaya isn't allowed to walk home by herself, so she has to follow Marshall. Chad is a new student at Woodridge. This is his last chance before juvie, but Chad doesn't seem to care. He does seem to care about making Marshall's life miserable. The three children's lives collide in the middle of the woods, and in an effort to stop Chad's bullying, Tamaya takes a handful of the strange, fuzzy mud and smooshes it in Chad's face. Later, Tamaya notices a strange rash on her hand. By the next day, Tamaya's hand is covered in gross blisters and the rash is spreading. Chad is missing. And Heath Cliff is on the verge of a biodisaster.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Biothriller Fans: I know this won't be a five star read for everyone, but the bio-thriller elements hit all the right buttons for me. There also really aren't many bio-thriller books out there for kids. It has all the elements of a bio-thriller for adults, the potential for a worldwide pandemic, an unknown microbe, and science experiments gone awry. There's even transcripts from Congressional hearings mixed in which give you just enough info from the future to make you worried about characters in the present. It reminded me of Andromeda Strain, but obviously done in a more kid-friendly way. 
  • Protists in the Spotlight/Exponential Growth: The choice of featuring a slime mold was smart on Sachar's part. One, those microbes aren't featured as much as viruses and bacteria, two, it is less likely to make hypochondriacs out of readers, and three, it still has the science backing to make it plausible. The speed with which the slime mold replicates is displayed visually at the beginning of each chapter. It starts with one dot on a pietri dish, then it’s two and by the time the last chapter rolls around there’s dots all over the page.
  • Mad Scientist Fans: The mad scientists in this is quite the character. He only appears briefly, but boy does he make an impression.
  • Bullying: This is a smart scientific thriller for kids that features characters who face real life issues too. Bullying is the main instigator that drives the kids to run into the forest where the mud is. And the kids have some hard decisions of how to respond to the bully. Eventually, the issue is handled in a healthy way I really liked as one character decides to respond in kindness despite the way she’s been treated. 
  • Light Horror Fans: This isn’t a “spooky” book per se as there aren’t any supernatural elements. However, the woods they go through are kinda creepy and there’s some very real threats of death and harm. In the top right corner of each chapter is an illustration of how the slime mold is replicating exponentially as time goes on. Kids who say they want a scary read but don’t like ghosts and such should give this a try.

The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick
An amazing aurora borealis event suddenly becomes a world-wide catastrophe. On New Year's Eve a huge solar flare/electromagnetic event killed all electricity, messed up compasses, and made magnets fall off of fridges. Charlie's small town in the mountains of New Hampshire is quickly consumed with residents trying to figure out how to survive without power. There's the challenges of keeping warm and fed in the middle of winter, as well as dealing with the fear and crazy ideas that come out when the town is cut off from the rest of the world and the biggest authority in town is Mr. Kingman, full-time janitor and part-time volunteer policeman. For the most part, it looks like Charlie, his mom, and his sister Becca will make it through the winter fine. But then, Charlie and Becca realize their mom needs medicine. Hate-spouting, compound-dwelling Mr. Bragg and his sons are likely the ones who burned down the local store a few nights ago, and with it the pharmacy. When a man skis through town, Charlie gets the idea to ski down to the city 50 miles away to get his mom more medicine. It is a harrowing and dangerous trip thanks to winter weather, wild animals, and the fear the power outage has generated. But Charlie can't deal with the thought of losing another parent. He'll get his mom her medicine or die trying.
Warning: Don't give this to kids who are likely to get freaked out and severely scared by the possibility of solar flares shutting down electricity for a few days and the implications of that. Also, there are some deaths mentioned including a plane crash and very serious discriminatory threats going on in Charlie’s home town. Know the kid you hand this to and whether they can handle these things.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Dystopia/Survival Story Fans: This is a relatively quick read. It's part dystopia, part survival story. Mr. Bragg's character upped the psychological thriller/dystopia feel in the town. Of course, survival in present day America without electricity is already pretty adventurous. 
  • Understanding those with Mental Illnesses: On Charlie’s journey, he eventually is directed to an asylum for those with mental disabilities because they still have medicine. I really liked how Philbrick depicted those at the asylum and how that experienced helped change Charlie's perception of people with mental conditions. 
  • Solar Flares/Prevalence of Electricity: The premise of the story is based on a real scientific phenomena that is possible today. Here's a National Geographic article on the topic.  Now that said, I think Philbrick made the event in the story a little too strong. The science teacher in me was a little dubious. He has the electromagnetic event making all batteries stop working and pretty much ALL of any kind of electricity unviable. Have students try to figure out the implications of this and why I might be dubious. (Personally, I think if that were the case, it should also disrupt the electric flow in humans, and at the very least should cause trouble thinking and moving since nerves and muscles rely on electric flow of charges. At the worst it should kill everything with a heart since those run on electrical impulses.) For the most part, it is a quick, exciting read and few readers are going to have the same kinds of issues I did with plot points. 

The Scavengers by Michael Perry
Ford Falcon (previously known as Maggie) is part of a family of four who chose to go OuterBubble on Decleration Day when the United States had everyone decide if they were going to live in one of the new, safe Bubble Cities or be on their own outside. At first life in the wilderness was hard, but then the family found a junk pile to live beside and a neighbor, Toad, with survival skills took them under his wing and is teaching Ford everything he knows. Her family seems to finally be getting well established, learning how to avoid the GreyDevils and solar bears, and survive on their own scavenging. But what Ford does not know is that her family chose OuterBubble for a very specific reason.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Dystopia/Survival Story Fans: I picked this up expecting your average middle grade dystopia/survival story and was astounded by the depth both of the story and the writing. Perry develops a plot that could rival any young adult dystopia out there (actually, it's more solid and compelling than several). He builds a very interesting future world with multiple layers. The plotline appears to be simply surviving for the first part of the book, but then a secret comes out that the family has been hiding and suddenly you learn more about where the GreyDevils (almost zombie-like people) came from and there are some very powerful people they have to match wits with. 
  • American Lit Fans/Word Puzzle Fans: There's also some complex writing going on. Not only does Toad like to play games with his speech, swapping the letters from the beginning of words in phrases and such, but Ford's mom is a former English teacher and the poems of Emily Dickinson play an important part in the story, including parallels to their lives, poetry analysis, and thematic resonance. Overall, I was very pleasantly surprised with how compelling and complex the story was and how engagingly it was written. Some readers may struggle reading Toad's speech, but Ford usually translates it so you don't have to figure it out yourself to read this.
  • Book Clubs: This would make a great book club book also because there are lots of discussion points that pop up. 

Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson
Tom Hammond is trying to escape the possibility of his mom getting re-married and uses the excuse of picking up trash he scattered the day before to sneak out at night. He discovers the styrofoam from the new refrigerator can float, and he inadvertently falls asleep on his little stream cruise. The next thing he knows he's being pommeled and pulled under water, and once the current finally releases him he is on a beach in an underground lake next to a dead man. Up above, some men saw Tom go by and get sucked under and he is presumed dead. However, his mother refuses to believe that and will accept anyone's help to go looking for Tom in the caves under Leepike Ridge. Little does she know that the "rescuers" are much more concerned about Tom finding the legendary treasure down there before they can.
Warning: The fatality count/number of serious injuries makes this probably best for upper middle grades.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Adventure/Survival Fans: This starts out as your average survival story, but then it gets much more suspenseful and tense and secrets start to come out and you realize just how much some others want the supposed treasure in the caves. Tom runs into some very interesting discoveries underground giving this a little Indiana Jones meets Swiss Family Robinson feel.
  • Treasure Hunt Fans: This starts off with a boy getting lost, but quickly all the various plot points converge in a hunt for treasure. Does the treasure exist, or is it a wild goose chase more than one man has died trying to find?
  • Murder Mystery Fans: Yes, this is a middle grade book. And yes, it is unusual for a middle grade read in that there are several violent deaths and injuries that either happen on page or are related from the past. It starts off a survival story, but slowly changes into a murder mystery. And actual murder mysteries are few and far between for middle grades. Some readers are ready for those even in middle grade. So for those few, this book exists.
  • Reluctant Readers: This is very exciting and hard to put down. For those who can handle the content, it is a great pick for reluctant readers or kids who think reading is boring. 

Wake up Missing by Kate Messner
Cat is having trouble recovering from the concussion she suffered when she fell out of the platform while watching birds. She's struggling socially, and she feels like she's constantly suffering from headaches and nausea. So she and her parents jump at the chance for her to go to the cutting edge, I-CAN clinic for concussion recovery in the Everglades. Cat is one of only six patients at the clinic. But it soon becomes clear that something odd is going on. And Cat is increasingly convinced that she and the other patients are in serious danger. But will anyone believe her, and even if they do, what hope of rescue is there from the middle of a swamp?

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Sci-fi Thriller Fans: This is a decent sci-fi/thriller for the middle grade crowd. The suspense never got to be too bad at any one point, which could be good for kids who don’t want things too intense. However that could also backfire and lose some of the appeal for other readers. I personally wasn't tearing through the book because I was pretty sure how things were going to work out. I can see less experienced readers tearing through it faster.
  • Science Fans: The futuristic science basis for the plot has a solid base in current research, and Messner even includes in the back what research gave her the ideas for this book. Those who liked their sci-fi based on solid research will appreciate this.
  • Everglades Locale: Most of this book takes place in the Everglades, which isn’t a super common location for middle grade reads. Those interested in what it’s like in the Florida Everglades may enjoy this book simply for the setting.

Nonfiction Resources

Plant Hunters by Anita Silvey
When I was teaching Biology, there was always a huge groan when I announced we were starting our unit on plants. The first question was always, "Why are we studying boring old plants?" I wish I had had this book back then, because it makes the "boring" plants suddenly very interesting and highlights their importance to humans. Ms Silvey tells how men (and a few women) were willing to face horrible weather, dangerous terrain, savage wild animals, and unfriendly natives to find "boring" old plants. Plants that were needed to boost economics, create life-saving medicine, or just look pretty in a back yard. The book focuses primarily on some of the most famous historic plant hunters and their most daring or important hunts, but at the end it does point out that plant hunting continues today though some of the conditions have drastically changed.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Reluctant Nonfiction Readers: If you have a child who is reluctant to read nonfiction, this would be an excellent high-interest pick for them. It's hard to get bored when reading about guys who are getting stalked by jaguars and almost falling off of cliffs during earthquakes. 
  • Plant Studies: This is also a spectacular choice for 3-12 grade science classes studying plants. It helps highlight the importance of plants and makes them much more relevant to students.

Blizzard of Glass: the Halifax Explosion of 1917 by Sally M. Walker
In December of 1917 two ships collided in Halifax's bay setting off the biggest man-made explosion prior to the atomic bomb. Ms Walker tells the tale by following people who lived in the area on the day of the explosion and then following the survivors through the moments and days afterwards.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Disaster Relief History: Though this is a horrible tragedy, which Walker doesn't belittle, she also balances the horror and sadness with tales of the ways people poured in support and love for the victims and set precedents for future disaster aid measures. Many current immediate responses to disasters are in place because of this disaster.
  • Reluctant Nonfiction Readers: This is another great pick for kids who think nonfiction is boring.
  • Early 20th Century Canada History: Take a look at life in early 1900s Canada through this book and it’s numerous primary resources including photographs. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Brainstorm Vol 85: Super superhero reads for all

Want to inspire readers to look for ways to help others? To campaign for what is right? To be a voice for the voiceless? Superhero books are all about those things and more. Oh, and they’re usually fun too. Here’s some superhero books for all.

Picture Book Resource

Supertruck by Stephen Savage
During normal days, all the trucks and buses and normal vehicles go around doing their normal jobs. But when a horrible snowstorm hits none of the vehicles can move. That's when garbage truck sneaks away and becomes Supertruck! He comes out and saves everyone from the piles of snow. But when the snow is gone, no one can figure out where Supertruck came from or went.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Superhero Fans: This one features a superhero safe for little kids with shades of reality. 
  • Vehicle Fans: The illustration style is quite appealing for little kids, making this a perfect read for those little ones who can get enough of trucks, cars, and other vehicles.
  • Real Life Superheroes/Gratitude for Everyday Jobs: We don’t get snow where I live, so we don’t have snow plows. However, we do have garbage trucks. Could we consider garbage men a kind of superhero for rescuing us from piles of trash? You could brainstorm with kids ways to make everyday superheroes in your neighborhood feel appreciated.
  • Altruism: I think it is fantastic that Supertruck does his good deed and doesn’t feel the need for anyone to know he did it. You can challenge readers to be sneaky superheroes and do nice things for others just for the joy of helping.

Lower Grade Fiction Resource

The Princess in Black and the Bunny Horde by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, ill. by LeUyen Pham
Princess Magnolia and Frimplepants are on their way to a brunch engagement they are both really looking forward to, when the monster alarm goes off and the Princess in Black and Blacky must run to the rescue. But when they arrive, they don't see any monsters. It's just a field of cute, adorable, fluffy bunnies. What harm could a bunch of cute bunnies cause?

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Humorous Read: This is another hilarious adventure with the Princess in Black and Blacky. 
  • Strong Princess Fans: If you haven't met this plucky princess, you need to. She rocks.
  • Judging by Appearance Warning: The Princess in Black and Blacky’s newest nemesis is quite disarming but oh so dangerous (in fact, adults may be wondering if these bunnies previously were side characters in a British comedy movie for adults a couple decades ago...there are some definite similarities, though no bloodshed in this appearance). A good lessons not to judge by appearances, and of course, it's high entertainment. 
  • Altruism: The Princess in Black is another great example of doing nice things for others and not seeking recognition for her accomplishments.

Lower/Middle Grade Graphic Novel Resource

Sidekicks by Dan Santat
Captain Amazing is getting older, so he's decided to hold auditions for a new sidekick. His pets are keen on filling the job, even if they don't all have super powers. Fluffy, the hamster, and Shifty, the chameleon decide to go out and try to build skills on the streets. Thankfully, Captain Amazing's retired sidekick Static Cat (aka runaway pet Manny) shows up and saves them from getting themselves killed. Against his better judgment, Manny trains them in basic crime fighting skills. Captain Amazing's other pet, Roscoe, aka Metal Mutt, is also out on the streets trying to build himself a reputation to get noticed by his owner. The day of the sidekick tryouts arrives and the pets feel like they have no hope of winning the job, until Wonder Man shows up and the pets become more concerned about saving Captain Amazing's life than getting the sidekick spot.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • All Superhero Fans: This superhero graphic novel is purely good clean fun. Entertaining enough for adults who still have a touch of kid inside, and safe enough for even lower elementary to read without adults being worried about the content (though the younger kids may need some help with the reading). The illustrations are a perfect complement to the story. They are fun and brightly-colored, and action-packed. All around, a great pick for a broad age range. And a cleaner alternative for superhero fans who aren't ready for the more prevalent adult-aimed superhero graphic novels.
  • Graphic Novel Fans: This pretty much explains itself. It’s a graphic novel. Graphic novel fans will like it.
  • Peacemaking/Life Lessons: This has a nice message about keeping priorities straight and resolving misunderstandings nicely wrapped up in the story. 
  • Animal Lovers: Animal lovers will be thrilled by the thought of pets training to be sidekicks.

Middle Grade Fiction Resources

Almost Super by Marion Jensen
Every February 29 at 4:23pm the Baileys who have turned 12 since the last leap year or married into the family get a super power. Rafter and Benny Bailey are super excited because this February 29 they will get their powers. However, when 4:23pm hits, Rafter and Benny go from the heights of excitement to the depths of despair. The powers they get are duds. Completely and utterly useless. Which is going to be extra horrible, because Juanita Johnson, member of the Baileys’ archnemesis family the Johnsons would have also gotten her powers on the 29th and they have to go to school with her. Rafter and Benny are determined to figure out what the Johnsons did to them to take away the awesome powers they should have gotten and give them laughable powers instead. However, as Rafter grills Juanita about her family’s evil plans, he starts to uncover a bigger and more sinister plot.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Clean Superhero Fans: This is a superhero story that is high on fun and light on the violence and boo-boos (no one is ever killed or even seriously hurt in the battles). 
  • Prejudice/Unjust Enmity: Underneath the humorous setup and fun superhero façade, this is an interesting tale about the importance of looking at things from both sides and overcoming prejudices and even bad family habits.
  • Humor Fans: Despite potentially heavy topics of overcoming deep prejudices, this is and it’s sequel Searching for Super are quite humorously written. I thoroughly enjoyed both and devoured them quickly. 
  • Fun Read Aloud: If you’re looking for a read aloud that would be good for a range of ages or tastes, try this one and it’s sequel. They’re great, and sure to entertain.

Young Adult Fiction Resource

Fallout (Lois Lane, #1) by Gwenda Bond
Lois Lane is starting yet another new school. This time her military General father is supposedly taking a permanent post in Metropolis and Lois needs to plan on staying for a while. Her plan is to make friends, settle in, and not make waves. No more trouble for Lois. But when the local editor of a newspaper invites her to join the staff of their high school branch, the Scoop, Lois can’t say no. And she never could have predicted that standing up for spelling bee champ Anavi in a story about the champion speller being bullied by gamers and ignored by the principal could mix her up in something way bigger and more dangerous than anyone imagined.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Thriller Fans: Wow, this was one intense read. Which given that this is Lois Lane in high school and you know she makes it ok to adulthood shouldn’t be nearly as intense as it is. But Bond manages to sell the danger. If you’re tempted to bite your nails, wear gloves while reading this. The danger builds slowly but steadily, and takes the form of mind games via online virtual reality games. It feels like that “out there not quite real world where superheroes abide” but has just enough plausibility there are some people who could get genuinely freaked out. 
  • Light Scifi/Superhero Read: This is a light scifi read. There’s just touches of tech not quite really out there (yet). And for those who are curious, Superman only enters the story as an online friend, SmallvilleGuy, who refuses to share his identity for Lois’ safety. I’m not a huge Superman fan, but I still enjoyed reading this. 
  • Real Life Ethics/Issues: This book touches on abuse of technology, ethics in technology, bullying and other hot topics in the real world but wraps it up in such a package you don't realize you're reading about heavy issues. It could spark real thinking about real life issues subconsciously.
  • Strong Female Leads: Lois is a spunky, precocious heroine to follow around. That could be annoying, but she channels her spunk and smarts to fight for those who need a hero. One could argue that the real superhero in this story is the girl who uses words, rather than the guy with a cape.
  • Clean Young Adult Read: If you prefer to chew your nails off without mature content, this is the book for you.

The Reckoners series by Brandon Sanderson
A few years ago Calamity appeared in the sky. With Calamity’s arrival, people on earth started to develop super powers changing into Epics. But the powers corrupt those who wield them. Epics use their powers to enslave and control the rest of the normal people for their own gain and entertainment. Our hero is a young man who has studied Epics all his life. David joins a resistance group called the Reckoners. They are normal people who use their knowledge of Epics and some fancy tech to try and take down the evil overlords. It’s a long, hard battle filled with lots of twists and turns and surprises.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Just about Anyone/Dystopia Fans/Scifi Fans/Reluctant Readers: This series is one of those that has always been an easy sell to just about any teen or adult (except those who don’t like violence). All I have to say is that people with superpowers appear, the superpowers make them evil and a normal teen boy is trying to fight them. It has a solid fan base of both guys and girls, teens and adults, “readers” and “nonreaders.” Some get hooked by the dystopian world Sanderson created, some get hooked by the different look at superpowers and the horrible odds for our heroes, some get hooked by Sanderson’s amazing writing, and some get hooked by David’s horrendously bad similes (Sanderson knows just how to include humor at the right moments). The series is now complete with three books Steelheart, Firefight, Calamity and a few short stories. (Well, for now. I wouldn’t put it past Sanderson to think of some great new book to go with this series in another 5-10 years. He has a tendency to do such things.)
  • Strong Male Lead in Dystopia-land: How many recent dystopian series can you think of that star a male main character? Not boyfriend of the main character or best friend of the main character, but THE main character? There aren't very many out there. David is part of a rare breed.

Young Adult Graphic Novel Resource

Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang & Sonny Liew
In early 1900s San Incendio, CA Hank is the son of two Chinese immigrants. His father runs a grocery, his mother works as a maid and the family just manages to squeak by. But one day Hank's mother runs into the superhero, the Anchor and gets it in her head that her son will become a superhero as well. She does everything she can think of to get him superpowers, but to no avail. However, she then hears of one superhero who just trained really hard so Hank goes into training. Once he's ready he goes out looking for someone to help, only to find that perhaps he needs more training. His mother is disheartened and Hank is pretty relieved, that is until the local Chinese gang lord requires double payment from the family. The ensuing trouble introduces Hank to an unexpected ally and gives him extra motivation to see justice in the world.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Humor Fans: This was much funnier and more entertaining than I expected. I absolutely LOVED the part when Hank's mom tried to turn him into a superhero. It is hilarious! 
  • Asian Lit/Asian Characters: Hooray for an Asian superhero! I’m not even sure I can think of another one. I hope Yang and Liew continue to add more adventures for Green Turtle. 
  • Comic Book History: The added notes on the original Green Turtle and the inclusion of an original comic were very interesting too.
  • Historical Fiction Fans: This is set in gangster era California. It deals with some very real issues of that time period, such as prejudice and injustice, but in an overall fun package.
  • Relatable Superhero: There’s a big turning point in this story when Hank finally realizes the deep need for justice in his city. Before that, it is mostly his mom’s idea (typical Tiger mom, just pushing her son to be super instead of a doctor or engineer). He’s a very relatable not-so-super superhero.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Brainstorm Vol 84: Top Realistic Fiction Stand Alone Reads of 2016 so far

Realistic fiction (aka contemporary fiction) isn’t really a genre I gravitate towards naturally. I’m more inclined to pick up fantasy, science fiction, dystopia, mystery, and historical fiction. Often when I do stop to read a realistic tale, though, I love it. I just prefer strange new worlds of the future or imagination or the past more. There’s a solid chunk of students at our school who subsist on a steady reading diet of realistic fiction and nothing but realistic fiction, so I try to keep a pulse on what they like so I can best provide more offerings for them. A lot of those are part of already popular series, which are easy to know to add. Stand alones are harder. Here’s my top picks of stand alone realistic fiction I’ve read this year so far.

Picture Book Resources

The Troublemaker by Lauren Castillo
After kidnapping his sister's bunny while playing pirate, a little boy finds himself again accused of taking the toy later…but this time he didn't do it. Then his own raccoon toy goes missing. Who is the real troublemaker?

A light "mystery" for little kids. Careful observers of the illustrations will be able to figure out the true troublemaker.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Making Predictions: This would be a fantastic book for practicing making predictions. I was totally wrong in my predictions of who the troublemaker would be from the cover and opening pages, and had to revise my predictions. 
  • Personal Character: This is a good book to use when talking about character and how our actions of the past can impact how people trust us in the future. 
  • Art: As always, Lauren Castillo's illustrations are adorable and wonderful. And she chooses to draw at a tiny size. The Nerdy Book Club last year used her as an inspiration for artists to share on Twitter how big their original artwork usually is.  Look up the hashtag #IDrawThisBig to learn about Castillo’s drawing process and other illustrators. 
  • Creative Process: Time for Kids has a quick interview with Castillo about her job and creative process. 
  • Animal Lovers: Kids who love to watch wild animals should like this tale.
  • Literary Allusions/Further Reading: I thought it was adorable that the little boy had named his toy raccoon after another famous literary raccoon, Rascal. Recommend the Newbery Honor winning autobiographical tale of Sterling North and his pet raccoon for kids to read when they get older. Or read it aloud to kids old enough to take in the longer book. 

Ralph Tells a Story by Abby Hanlon
It's time to write stories at school, and Ralph has major writer's block. He can't seem to think of anything to write. With the help of his friend Daisy and encouragement of his teacher and other classmates though, Ralph finally finds his writing voice.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Stories That Ring True/Authentic School Stories: Some “realistic” fiction doesn’t come off feeling all that likely to really happen. Hanlon's experience teaching 1st graders shines through in this book in the eccentricies of kids in a classroom and the simple but crazy topics of their stories. It's authentic but very entertaining. Check out Publisher’s Weekly’s interview with Abby Hanlon on her inspiration for this book and her lower grade chapter book series, Dory Fantasmagory
  • Writing Inspiration: If you have struggling writers, or at least writers who struggle to start, Ralph is useful in encouraging children that pretty much anything is fodder for story material.

This Is Sadie by Sara O’Leary, ill. by Julie Morstad
Sadie is a girl with a grand imagination and a love of stories. Find out all the places her imagination and stories have taken her.

I’ve shared about Sadie before, but I adore this book so much I couldn’t help but share it again.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

Middle Grade Fiction Resources

Booked by Kwame Alexander
Meet Nick Hall. He's in middle school. His best friend is Cody. He has a crush on April (but don't tell). He and Cody play soccer all the time together. They both love playing, and are good enough to make a futsol team playing for a championship and a club team headed to an elite invitational in Dallas (though Cody is on the rival club team). At school, he's just trying to make it through classes. He has an excellent vocabulary thanks to his father's dictionary (which he's required to read every day), but he doesn't want it to show too much in English class. He really likes the school librarian, Mr Mac, a former grammy-winning DJ who tries to get Nick interested in books and seems like a person Nick can talk to. But books seem a bit boring, and he'd rather be playing soccer. Things seem to be going ok for Nick, but then he finds out his parents are separating, his mom gets a job in a different state, the twin bullies are back at school and don't like him talking to April, and as if things couldn't get worse, just before the trip to Dallas disaster strikes. Can life get pulled back together after it seems to fall apart?

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Sports/Soccer Fans: It seems that the realistic sports books out there are oversaturated with baseball and American football books. Our international school is in Thailand. The students here would be more likely to play cricket than baseball, and football is usually used in the British sense here, it means soccer. Badminton and table tennis are leaps and bounds more popular over here than American football. But probably most popular of all is soccer. The kids here are absolutely insane about soccer, so I'm quite excited to have another soccer book for them.
  • Realistic Fiction for Boys: Let’s face it. The middle grade realistic fiction genre is 90% about girls with friend drama or kids losing a loved one (and half of those are girls or more likely to be read by girls). And as much as we theorize that certain books should appeal to any gender, it just doesn't play out very often in real life. So it is fantastic to have some realist fiction that will appeal to the boys. 
  • Relatable Issues: Nick's problems are things that lots of readers will identify with from parent expectations to bullying to balancing school and hobbies. 
  • Librarian Characters that Rock (or Spin): Mr Mac was a brilliant character creation on Alexander's part. I loved the super cool former DJ librarian who seems to break all the molds. 
  • Novel in Verse: As in Crossover the poetry used isn't just free verse, there's all sorts of types included, even blackout poetry and a book spine poem. 
  • Reluctant Readers: Alexander’s books are fantastic picks for reluctant or struggling readers because they are written in verse. The format makes for a super-quick read, and as mentioned, the topic should appeal to a broad range of kids.

Summerlost by Ally Condie
Cedar, her brother Miles, and her mom are visiting the high dessert town of Summerlost for the summer, which is where her uncle and grandparents live. Visiting Summerlost for the summer isn't a new thing for the family, but some things about the summer are different. There's the fact that Mom has decided to buy the Wainwright place. There's the fact that Cedar has made a new friend, Leo, a kid her age who lives nearby. There's the job Cedar gets with Leo at the Summerlost festival selling programs, and the secret side job of leading Lisette Chamberlain tours with Leo (Lisette was a famous actress who died tragically and got her start as an actress in the Summerlost Shakespeare performances). And behind it all there's the fact that this is the first summer without Dad or little brother Ben, who were killed in an accident last year.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Building Empathy, Probably Not for the Grieving: Let’s address the target audience of these books that deal with grief and close family deaths. Here's a huge hint: These kinds of books primarily serve to expand the empathy of people who haven't experienced this kind of personal loss, NOT to help those who've experienced the real thing. It is good to walk in others' shoes and get even a smidgeon of a taste of the broad spectrum of ways grief can hit someone. But please, please be careful giving these kinds of heavy grief-filled books to people who've experienced the real thing. I’ve experienced this kind of loss and work with a group of teens who've also experienced deaths of close family members, and you know what the top things that can make old wounds fresh again are? Books and movies. And grief is such a tricky thing it is hard to predict what will trigger that. So just beware, this could be a ticking emotional bomb for some. Don't force it on anyone, let them choose if they're ready for it. By all means recommend it to kids trying to understand friends who are grieving. And there's always that group of readers who just love sad stories.
  • Realistic Fiction Fans: I've really liked some of Condie's YA books (and they have a huge fan base among the teens at my school), so I psyched myself up and braved the grief book to see if she could pull off middle grade fiction too. And she did. It was heartfelt, but also had moments of humor. Cedar, Miles, and their Mom feel quite real in the different ways they are each dealing with the deaths. It slowly comes out that the brother who died had special needs - probably somewhere on the autism spectrum - and that plays into Cedar's grief. It was a very new and interesting setting Condie developed with the whole summer Shakespeare festival where two tweens can work and become friends. I've definitely never read anything quite like it before in middle grade fiction. The side plot with the tour of the actress' life and the mystery of her death was also done well, and it offered opportunities for a wiser older person who was part of the festival to speak into Cedar's life. (Though Cedar and Leo have to learn some things the hard way.) Overall, a sweet summer story about making new friends, dealing with shattering loss, and learning from mistakes.
  • Theater Fans: The town’s theater is a huge part of the plot and setting, so theater fans should enjoy this one.

Graphic Novel Resource

Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova
On her first day of school, Peppi gets in an awkward situation and unthinkingly hurts the one guy who was trying to help her. She feels terrible about it afterward, and avoids him thinking he hates her. She does make other friends in Art Club, but when it is obvious she's struggling in science, her teacher arranges for her to have a tutor. And guess who the tutor is? Yep, Jaime, the kid she thinks hates her. Meanwhile, the Art Club has been told they aren't contributing enough to the school, so they agree to start making a comics page for the school newspaper. It turns out making comics for publication is way harder than any of them anticipated. But when their arch-rivals, the Science Club gets in trouble at the Science Fair for a prank gone wrong, the Principal makes it a competition between the two clubs for a table at the school Club Fair. Peppi and Jaime have worked out their misunderstanding and are starting to become friends. But Peppi is part of the Art Club and Jaime is part of the Science Club. Neither of them likes the cutthroat rivalry going on, but what can they do to stay friends and make sure both clubs get a table at the Club Fair?

I kept putting off reading this one because, let's be honest, we adults all had enough awkwardness from our own middle school experiences we don't need to live through someone else's. And though this book does have little awkward moments, they are mostly cute awkward rather than cringe-worthy-blot-that-out-of-my-mind awkward.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • How to Right Wrongs: I absolutely loved the way Peppi had to acknowledge her mistake and work through the awkwardness of apologizing, because though it wasn't fun it is a very real life experience. She demonstrated the benefits of persevering through that awkwardness in that she then got to reap the benefits in a good friendship with Jaime. And not just them, but their whole families benefited from their friendship. 
  • Building Friendships: Making new friends can be exceedingly hard, especially in middle school. Peppi and Jamie are great role models, finding common interests despite those in their clubs telling them the other club is the enemy was fantastic. It is never easy to go against your peers, especially those who are your friends. 
  • Conflict Resolution: I adored the resolution Peppi and Jamie cooked up to bring their clubs together on one project that benefitted the school. 
  • Awesome Teachers in Lit: I really liked Mr R and his lovable scatterbrained artsyness (especially his copy machine issues, hilarious!) and the scary/cool/awesome Miss Tobins. 
  • Art: In case you missed it, this is a graphic novel, and Svetlana Chmakova's illustrations are brilliant. She adds just the right touches of humor to keep things light despite how real they are. (And she has a little raccoon hidden throughout the book. Read her notes in the back to find out more.) 
  • Graphic Novel Fans/Realistic Fiction Fans/Reluctant Readers/Anyone: Since going on the shelves, this book has not stayed on the shelf longer than 24 hours. I even got another copy and that’s still the case. The students can’t get enough of this one. It is super, duper popular. And I feel like it is a double win, not only are they reading, they are getting some great little subtle messages about living real life well along the way. 

Young Adult Fiction Resources

Catch a Falling Star by Kim Culbertson
Hollywood has come to the small town of Little, California. Carter Moon couldn't care less. Her best friend Chloe could, but Carter isn't into the whole Hollywood thing. So it is a bit of a surprise when the agent for Adam James approaches her asking her to pose as his girlfriend as part of his return to the positive spotlight after some bad press last year with a messy breakup and rehab. Carter initially turns down the offer, but when her brother's gambling problem roars its ugly head and sends a brick through the family's cafe, Carter decides they could use the money. So she finds herself hanging out with Adam James, posing for pictures, and walking around town with him. At first, Carter's initial impression of a stuck up Adam is confirmed, and she barely manages to make it through the times she has to hang out with him for the contract. But then she starts to see a human side, and against her better judgment finds herself growing sad that his time in Little is drawing to a close. She wasn't supposed to get her heart involved, and he definitely wasn't supposed to rock her comfortable world by challenging her view of her life in Little and the dancing career she'd decided to forego.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Clean Romance Fans: Yes, this is your basic small town girl agrees to hang out with Hollywood boy and ends up really falling for him. Yes, it is pretty much entirely predictable. But it did have some heart and moments of depth, and it was cute and fun and clean. Carter is a very grounded, mature girl, fun to hang out with. Adam has his own surprises. And if you're looking for a light, fluffy, clean contemporary romance this is a good one.
  • Fear of Change: Carter is a brilliant dancer, but for some reason she gave up on a dancing career that was obviously within reach. She also seems a bit too settled in her town. Many teens will identify with her issues and her fear of change, that gets a healthy challenge as the book goes on. And Culbertson keeps a good balance. Sometimes change is good, sometimes it can be bad.
  • Loving Addicts: Carter’s brother is a minor character in this book but has a major impact on the plot. Culbertson does a good job in the way she handles his issues and the way Carter and her parents deal with them.
  • Light Read Seekers: Whether your life is crazy enough that you don’t need fictional stress, time demands that you read something short and easy to follow, or if you just survived a major literary read (let’s face it, some books take a lot out of readers), sometimes we all need a light and fluffy book to keep us reading. Light and fluffy frequently gets a bad name, but it isn’t always bad. This is a fun one with a teensy amount of depth to drive away a complete sugar comma.

The Possibility of Now by Culbertson by Kim Culbertson
Mara is a Junior at an elite private school in San Diego. She was at the top of her class and headed right for being Valedictorian next year. That was until her melt down in calculus. All the stress and perfectionism got to her, and she turned her test into confetti along with several others…and it went on YouTube. Now she's headed to Tahoe to spend some time with the biological father she hardly knows and try to figure out how to put her life back together. She's got her lists, and her plans. She's going to take online classes to keep her scholarship at Ranfield while she figures things out and can get back to being Miss Perfect.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Perfectionists/Teachers or Parents of Perfectionists: Wow, thank you Kim Culbertson for writing this book! It is something that a lot of the students I work with need. I work at a private international school in Asia. Perfectionism runs rampant in the hallways, and there are lots of students I hope can learn from Mara's struggle. As a perfectionist myself, I completely understand Mara's struggle with how to live a balanced life and not give into the stress and pressure to be perfect. I really appreciate how Culbertson subtly works in the various ways perfectionism and pressure can play out in people's lives (Mara isn’t the only perfectionist), and healthy and non-healthy responses to it in a non-preachy way. A very poignant story for driven teens. Adults who work with teens and parents of driven teens, this is also a good read for you.
  • Character Development: This is a heartfelt and entertaining story. There's a tiny bit of romance, but it is really takes a backseat to the character development part of the story. Mara isn’t the only one who has changed by the end of the book. English teachers, if you’re looking for character development examples, there’s several in this book. (But please don’t ruin the fun of the story in your dissection process.)
  • Snowy Setting/Ski Fans: Tahoe in winter is a very different world from the tropical country I live in. Skiing daily is about as familiar as life on Mars, so I also enjoyed learning about daily life in a very different world. Ski fans or readers who want a dose of winter should enjoy this book.
  • Can’t Run Away from Problems: Though the Tahoe setting is fun and unique, the message comes through that people everywhere are the same. And that is part of the strong and well done point of Culbertson's story, location will not really change you or other people. Eventually, Mara does face her problems, which takes a lot of guts. Most importantly though, she survives. It’s an important and hope-filled lesson that facing problems can be done.
  • Clean Weighty Realistic Fiction Fans: This is definitely a different type of realistic story from Culbertson’s Catch a Falling Star. There’s a much weightier topic, but unlike other weighty realistic fiction, this doesn’t deal with death or a brutal assault or substance abuse. In that way, it’s a more universally-appealing weighty realistic read since it doesn't have mature content. And in many circles, perfectionism is a lot more rampant than some of the grittier heavy topics of teen fiction. It’s an important and real issue, and Culbertson tackled it well and wrapped it up in an entertaining story.

P.S. I Love You by Kasie West
Ok, so technically I haven't read this yet because we’re still waiting for it to be delivered. I’m sure it would make this list if it were here, so I'm just going to go ahead and add it. West is hands down the most popular YA realistic author with the students at our school. Many of them love her so much they’ll branch out and explore her two science fiction books, which has convinced more than one YA realistic fan that scifi is an OK genre too. I really appreciate that she writes clean realistic love stories I can hand to anyone with no qualms.