Thursday, March 30, 2017

Brainstorm 106: Books to Chew On (Mentally, Not Literally Please)

Sometimes my favorite reads are the ones that give me something to think about. Those that entertain, but also give me something to mentally chew on for a while. That may mean I have the desire to process out loud, meaning lots of these are good book club books, or books to share with someone else you can talk them over with. Now, presenting a topic to think about varies a lot from a book aimed at littles to those aimed at young adults and adults. Little ones tend to ruminate on how to conduct themselves better, and the best lessons for them are often communicated while laughing.* The laughs tend to drop off as the reader gets older, and the topics to chew on get stickier. They require more advanced thinking and maturity, and seldom have quick, clear cut answers. Here are some books to get young and older thinking while they enjoy a good read.**

*There are of course books for littles on tough topics, but those are usually not the kinds of books kids would pick up for fun too. I'm limiting this list to books that entertain as well as give kids something to think about.
**I had such a hard time keeping this list non-astronomical in length. I know, it's still a bit long. I tried to keep it to books that have more recently come out or ones that get passed over a lot. Older books to chew on you probably already know about because chances are several someones had the need to talk about them.

Picture Book Resources 

The Boy Who Cried Bigfoot! by Scott Magoon
A little boy keeps telling people he's seen bigfoot, even using props to try and prove he's seen the mythical beast. Of course, he's merely been telling tales the entire time. An amused real bigfoot has been narrating the story while observing these activities. Then the real bigfoot decides to teach the little boy a lesson by showing up for real. A humorous and fantastical twist on the boy who cried wolf story.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Compare/Contrast: Readers can compare/contrast this with the more traditional tale and other rewrites like Gigantosaurus by Jonny Duddle. 
  • Trustworthy: Of course, this is also a good book to use when talking about the importance of being a trustworthy person. 
  • Point of View/Voice: You could also use this when talking about point of view or voice in writing, as the bigfoot narrating the story provides a unique perspective.
  • Humor Fans/Fantastic Creature Fans: Hand this one to kids who like humorous stories and/or tales of fantastic creatures.

Bloom by Doreen Cronin, ill. by David Small
Bloom is a fairy who defies expectations of fairies. She uses mud in her magic. She has beetles in her hair, and she leaves a trail of messy footprints wherever she goes. But her magic has beautiful results - flowers and glass buildings and other wonders. However, eventually the kingdom tires of her messy trail and banishes her. Bloom couldn’t care less, she heads off on her own. But years pass and the beautiful glass kingdom starts falling to pieces. The King and the Queen try to go find Bloom, but the messy fairy using mud can't possibly be the right one. They eventually send the most ordinary girl in the kingdom, the maid who cares for the Queen's spoon. She arrives to try and persuade Bloom to return to the kingdom, but instead, gets something much better.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Don’t Judge By Appearance/Status: The kingdom falls to ruins, and continues to do so because so many misjudge Bloom. They also misjudge the maid because of her humble position. 
  • Self-Worth: A lot of us don’t achieve great things because we don’t even try. We limit what we can do based on others' expectations of ourselves. The maid learns a great lesson about her own self-worth with the help of Bloom. And Bloom herself is a great example of having a healthy sense of self-worth regardless of other’s misguided opinions of her.
  • Quick Fix vs Lasting Solutions: The solution to the Kingdom's problems was not what I thought it would be, but evidently Bloom is of the philosophy that it is better to give the kingdom the skills to fish than to give them a fish. Ask kids how this can apply in their world to give them something to chew on.
  • Fairy Fans/Fairy tale Fans: Hand this to kids who like stories about faraway kingdoms and fairies. Or even those who like to get a little muddy sometimes.

Tidy by Emily Gravett
Badger likes to keep the forest tidy. Which is great...until Badger gets a little bit carried away.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Perfectionists: Badger is the poster animal neat freak, perfectionist! (One could argue she also suffers from a touch of OCD, but her resolution is perhaps too easy for someone who really struggles with this condition.) This is a little bit of a tall tale with a good message for perfectionists about learning when to let go. Ask kids what real life situations they could apply Badger’s lesson to. They may not get the urge to vacuum the forest, but how about other areas of life like homework, appearance, etc.?
  • Humorous Mash-up Creative Writing Project: I didn’t plan this. (I wish I had.) But placing this directly following Bloom gave me a great creative writing idea. Read Bloom and Tidy, then have students imagine what it would be like if Badger met Bloom.
  • Animal Fans/Humor Fans: Kids who like animal stories or humorous stories should like this. The illustrations perfectly complement the story to make it that much more humorous.

This Is My Rock by David Lucas
A mountain goat gets on top of a big rock and scares all others off. He amuses himself for a while, but eventually he realizes it might be better with some company.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Sharing: This provides a good lesson on sharing with a fitting desert color scheme and quirkily charming illustrations.
  • Animal Fans/Humor Fans: The mountain goat may make readers laugh with some of the things he dreams up to do on top of his rock.

Steve, Raised by Wolves by Jared Chapman
Steve has been raised by wolves. It's his first day of school, but Steve is having trouble adjusting. Can Steve figure out how to be himself in a way that doesn't disrupt the rest of the students?

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Identity & Cultural Sensitivity: I like that this has a good message about finding out how to fit in with a new culture without totally abandoning who you are. The third culture kids at our school will identify. But everyone, regardless of where they live or where they come from will experience this at one time or another. It's a great opportunity to talk about how to be culturally sensitive, and when to do things differently.
  • Humor Fans: This made me laugh out loud at several points. Steve's antics are something else.

Lower Grade Fiction

The Pest in the Nest (Rabbit & Bear, #2) by Julian Gough, ill. by Jim Field
Rabbit wakes up because of Bear's snoring and returns home to his own burrow. But his burrow needs a little cleaning after the long winter, Tortoise nearly scares Rabbit out of his skin, and then someone starts making a horrendous noise. Is the world out to get Rabbit...or is it him?

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Beat the Grumpies: This has such a good lesson on how to beat the grumpies when you can't change the annoying circumstances around you…you can still change your attitude. Rabbit and Bear find a way to turn a potentially annoying circumstance (woodpecker incessantly pecking) into a fun time for the whole forest. 
  • Speaking the Truth in Love: Bear is such a great example of a friend for kids. She doesn't avoid telling Rabbit a hard truth (basically that his attitude is the problem, not the rest of the world), but she points out his error tactfully and in love. If a good friend can't tell us the hard truths, then who will? 
  • Animal Fans/Charming Illustration Fans: This series features a rascally rabbit and lovable bear who live in the forest with other creatures. I really like the illustrations in this series. They make the books better.

Middle Grade Fiction

Missy Piggle-Wiggle and the Whatever Cure (Missy Piggle-Wiggle, #1) by Ann M. Martin with Annie Parnell, ill. by Ben Hatke, based on characters created by Betty McDonald
Missy Piggle-Wiggle gets a letter from her great-aunt Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle asking her to come and fill in at the upside-down house while Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle goes out hunting for her pirate husband. Missy is quite familiar with the house, the animals, and the Piggle-Wiggle magic having spent her summers there developing her own magic. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle asked Missy to start with the Freeforall family. In her indomitable way, Missy, manages to win the children's trust and then work on helping them change their bad habits. Of course, the Freeforalls are not the only family in the neighborhood that could use some help, and Missy finds her days quite fulfilling and full.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Conduct of Life/Beating Bad Habits: Missy definitely went to the same school of child psychology/magic as her aunt Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. She's perceptive and wise, a little bit odd in style, but fun and loving in her corrections. Sometimes she uses magical cures for things like constant tardiness, greed, and lack of consideration for others, but she also employs good ol' cures that even readers without magic could put into place (once even for some parents who think no rules and no schedule are ok, and that work comes before kids). Kids will laugh, but also do some self-checks along the way.
  • Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle Fans: For those who are unfamiliar with the original series this finds its inspiration from, they’re about an eccentric elderly lady who helps the neighborhood kids become better people through magic and not-so-magic cures. I LOVED the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books as a child. I continue to adore sharing them with kids as an adult, so I picked this up with equal parts excitement and trepidation. The trepidation proved to be unfounded and all the excitement worth it. Martin & Parnell nailed the feel of the old books while updating them a teensy-tiny bit for a modern audience (if you pick up the old series you do have to do some interpretation/vocab coaching for elementary kids when the characters talk about going to the cinema or listening to records or other such things...this one feels kind of timeless, computers and TVs are only rarely mentioned, and no cell phones). Stepping back into the upside-down house felt like only a few months had passed. Kids are still playing dress-up, digging for treasure, and Lightfoot the cat, Wag the dog, Penelope the parrot, and Lester the pig are still there and feature prominently. In short, it took me back to everything I loved about the original series, the fun cures for attitudes/bad habits, the unforgettable upside-down house and it's treasures, the memorable characters... so good. Kudos to Martin & Parnell for getting this right and making it feel like Betty MacDonald wrote it herself. Also loved Ben Hatke's illustrations. His style is a perfect match for the Piggle-Wiggle world.
  • Fantasy Fans/Eccentric Characters Fans: As mentioned, the Piggle-Wiggle world is a little bit unconventional. The house was built upside down. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's pirate husband hid treasure all over it and the grounds. The Piggle-Wiggles are a little abnormal, but in a lovable way. And their magical cures for bad habits are always entertaining for readers (and frequently humorous for everyone but the person undergoing the treatment).

Slacker by Gordon Korman
When Cam Boxer is so into his video gaming he doesn't really hear what his mom says about the ziti in the oven, it has disastrous consequences. First off, the front door will never be the same when Cam doesn't hear the firemen responding to the billows of smoke issuing from the kitchen. Secondly, because he was gaming at the time of the incident, Cam's gaming lifestyle is now threatened by his parents unless he can come up with some extracurricular involvement at school. Cam and his best gamer buds Pavel and Chuck come up with what they think is a brilliant plan. Pavel hacks the middle school website, adds a club called the Positive Action Group with Cam as its president, and Cam shows this to his parents. Cam's out of trouble, let the gaming resume. But then others start to see the group on the website and think it's real, including the school counselor, Mr. Fanshaw, and several community action minded students (or kids who need a community service to get them off academic probation or out of juvie). And worst of all, they are all looking to Cam to actually do stuff. Soon the P.A.G is a beast out of Cam's control taking over the middle school and the town with its amazingness. And all Cam wants is some free time to get back to his gaming life. But if Cam gets what he wishes for, will he really be happy?

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Priority Check: The P.A.G. starts helping out the community and kids begin to realize the joy of helping others. So many lives are positively changed (including a beaver one P.A.G. member is a teensy bit obsessed about helping, thus the cover). And these middle school kids start realizing what's really important in life, even Cam isn't immune to that (though it takes him a really long time). 
  • Sibling Bonding: I also like the unexpected sibling bonding that happened towards the end. Positive sibling relationships in books aren’t super frequent. 
  • Contemporary Fiction Fans: This provides a somewhat humorous contemporary story that should appeal to middle grade students. As an added bonus, they might pick up some good lessons on priorities and values, something I never expected from this, so I closed the cover quite happy with it. 
  • Gamers: Gamers don't worry, Cam does continue his gaming life, but with a healthier perspective of it. 

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. And that caste, it’s 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 ripped 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-in/Target Readers:

  • Sleeping Beauty Adaptation: I really like how Haskell re-imagined the tale of Sleeping Beauty so that it hardly feels like it is Sleeping Beauty, and yet certain key parts are there (minus the mushy stuff so this can appeal to boys too) and she added a great deal of depth to the message of the story. 
  • Forgiveness/Bitterness: There’s a message on the importance of forgiveness and the dangers of holding onto bitterness woven into the plot of this story. There's also a surprise that will give readers something to chew over. How do they feel about that surprise?
  • Fantasy Fans/Mystery Fans: Haskell has artfully woven a tale that is part mystery, part supernatural/inspirational, and part self-discovery that kept me turning pages. And it gave me several things to chew on once I was done.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
A story about a town trapped in a dark tradition, a yearly sacrifice of the newest born babe, a boy named Antain who cannot abide with these traditions, a mother whose sanity flies away, a witch, a tiny dragon, a monster, and Luna, the sacrificial baby girl who gets accidentally filled with magic. We watch as Luna grows up, and her adopted family has to figure out how to handle her magic. We watch as Antain grows into a man troubled by his town's traditions until the day it is his own child about to be sacrificed, and something must be done. Most of all, it is a story warning of the dangers of bitterness and trumpeting the power of hope and love.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Hope & Love vs Bitterness: As previously mentioned, this story does a beautiful job of illustrating the power of hope and love in a land that has been darkened by bitterness. There’s lots to chew on long after you close the cover.
  • Mental Patients: The book also brings up the way people with mental trauma are treated and viewed. Is Luna’s mother really crazy? Is she treated fairly?
  • Tradition/Superstition and the Truth: Antain’s town is steeped in a pretty dark tradition, a tradition that seems to be defended by long told tales no one knows the truth about any more. How to tackle these issues aren’t easy and will give readers plenty to think about.
  • Patience/Perseverance: There is a slow build to this as various disparate characters are introduced with seemingly no connection. It does take patience and perseverance to get to the point where you'll start to get answers and be able to see how the different parts being introduced fit together. The wait is worth it, though. The ending is powerful. The way Barnhill sets things up to fit together perfectly is masterful. 
  • Fantasy Fans/Dystopia Fans: Highly recommended to fans of fantasy what with all the magic, the dragon, the mysterious monster, and other fantastical elements. It will probably also appeal to dystopia fans with the dark situation in Antain’s village.

Ghost (Track, #1) by Jason Reynolds
Castle (Ghost) Crenshaw is the next best basketball player (even though he's never gotten on the courts), is from the wrong side of town, is somewhat obsessed with world records, has some trouble knowing what to do with the screams inside, and tries to hide the fact that his dad's in prison for trying to shoot him and his mom. On the night his dad shot at them, Ghost discovered he can run really fast when he needs to. But he never really thought about running as a real sport, until the day he accidentally lands himself on a club track team and his mom actually agrees with the coach to let him join. He has to make sure there are no incidents at school and that his homework gets done, and coach holds him to both. Ghost thought he'd just be learning to run, but maybe joining track will help him learn how to stop running from issues he's ignored for years.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Anger Issues/Attention Seeking: I've met a few Ghosts in my time teaching. They're not the easiest kids to get through to, often have a stigma of being trouble, but they need a breakthrough and healthy attention more than anyone usually. Ghost must learn how to express himself in healthy ways. This isn’t something limited to inner city kids. Readers should have questions to chew on themselves. Are they responding to others and their own feelings in healthy ways?
  • Stigma of a Neighborhood or Family Situation: Ghost also has his dad’s mistakes and presence in prison hanging over him, as well as the reputation of the area he lives. Readers should come away asking themselves how they judge others unfairly by their circumstances. 
  • Sports Fans: Yes, this is a story of how a coach and a sport can help a kid overcome some really hard circumstances. But, I like how the book pokes fun of typical sports stories and that they usually end with either the star winning or dying. This one avoids both of those by leaving you hanging a little. (However, this is just the first of a series about kids on the same track team, so I expect to find out the results in a future book.) 
  • Contemporary Fiction: Reynolds has written Ghost to be a very believable voice to represent kids who've had a rough childhood. It’s a tough story to read, but not overwhelmingly so. Hand this to kids who want to better understand others or those who like stories of overcomers.

Children of Exile (Children of Exile, #1) by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Rosi, her little brother Bobo and the other children of Fredtown have lived an idyllic childhood with their Fred-parents. Life is well-ordered and peaceful. And then the Freds start telling them they are going to be returned to their real parents. None of the children know anything about the land they came from or why they were taken a few days after birth to Fredtown. But one thing's for sure, they are in for a huge shock after their plane ride home. What is wrong with all their real parents? Why are so many missing limbs, and do people actually strike others and call each other names here? And why do they seem to hate the older kids raised by Freds? Rosi and her friend Edwy are determined to try and figure out what went on and why they were taken, especially when they overhear someone plotting sinister activities and Rosi's father points out a secret hiding place under the floor.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Stuff to Chew On: This is Haddix at her best kind of writing: combining deep topics with suspenseful situations in a way you can't put down. It reminds me of her Shadow Children series which I loved (and another great read to chew on). She addresses some potentially hard and heavy topics like violence, prejudice, the meaning of family/home, etc. but does so in such a way it flows naturally with the story and doesn't feel overly heavy. Would be a great one for a book club because there's so many things to discuss in plot, characters and topics covered. 
  • Suspense Fans/Mystery Fans: The plot in this is pretty tricky. It kept me guessing. Even when I thought I had it figure out, I was only partly right. It will keep readers on their toes and reading quickly to the end.  It’s definitely a book that you need to talk about with someone else who’s read it when you get to the end.

Salt: a Story of Friendship in a Time of War by Helen Frost
Anikwa is a boy growing up in the Miami tribe near Fort Wayne. James is the son of the trader near the fort. The boys' families have helped each other through tough times in the past, and they often trade goods to help each other. The two boys often meet in the woods and hunt together, teach each other vocabulary, and make music on whistles. When the conflict between the Americans and British starts to move towards their homes, the boys' friendship is put to the test. And they must rebuild trust after seeing the destruction and hatred of Native American warriors and American soldiers.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Hatred/Prejudice/War/Trust: Frost does an impeccable job of giving readers a picture of what it would have been like for the people caught in the middle of the War of 1812, especially those who had been peaceful friends and neighbors suddenly told they are enemies. Who are people in similar circumstances today? How do you build trust with others? So many good things to chew on.
  • Novel in Verse: This is written in free verse poetry, making it a super quick read.
  • Point of View: This is told through alternating POV between the two boys.
  • Historical Fiction Fans/Friendship Fans: Hand this to kids who like reading about great friendships or historical times.

Middle Grade/Young Adult Crossover Fiction (appeals to both)

The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle
Through free verse poems from various points of view, Engle tells the tale of Cuba’s struggle for freedom from 1850-1899 by following the life of Rosa la Bayamesa and those around her. At the start, Rosa is a girl learning to be a healer. She is a slave who learns how to treat the illnesses and injuries of her fellow slaves. But she goes on to become a woman of legend, a healer who primarily aids those fighting for freedom. But above all a healer of any injured, regardless of their alignment.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Stuff to Chew On: There’s a lot packed into this short book to think about: war, injustice, prejudice, women in science, self-sacrifice, unconditional love, etc. What shines most brilliantly is the story of Rosa. She’s based on a historical woman who gave up a lot of comfort to help those in need. She was a woman pioneer in the medical field I had never heard of before, and she left a great legacy in how she cared for so many and without prejudice. Who will be today's Rosas?
  • Cuban History: I’ve learned so much about Cuban history from reading Engle’s books. And she tells it so eloquently. 
  • Point of View: Engle tells this story through multiple voices, and they are from both sides of the conflict. 
  • Novel in Verse: You would think that a story that covers so many years in so few words would be lacking depth, but it is rich and full. And, it is a quick read. 
  • Spanish Literature/Spanish or English Learners: The edition of this book our libraries have is bilingual, with an English version of the text and a Spanish version. Great for people learning either language.
  • History Fans/Fans of Strong Women/Stories with Heart: Hand this to readers who love history, strong women characters, and stories that make you want to cry happy tears.

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman
Travel to the little New England town of Sidwell and meet Twig, our narrator for this adventure. Through her we'll meet a whole cast of characters in Sidwell and uncover its secrets, because Sidwell may be small, but it's just brimming with secrets. There's lonely hearts that need friendship, a centuries-old curse that needs breaking, misunderstandings that need clearing up, owls that need saving from a plan to develop the ancient woods, a rash of thefts that needs stopping, a graffiti artist whose motives need examining, and a family that needs reuniting.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Stuff to Chew On: Let’s see, there’s prejudice based on appearance, superstition that needs a dose of truth, lonely people, environmental issues, and more. This would be a good one for a book club because there’s so many things to talk about.
  • Cozy Read Fans/Small Town Fans: I get readers occasionally who just want a cozy read. This is that with the small town setting, and the themes of redemption for multiple people. It's a heartwarming book of lots of wrongs being righted. It felt cozy and warm, and like you could just curl up in it. 
  • Compare/Contrast: If you want a multimedia compare/contrast, match this up with a movie. The climax reminded me a bit of an older movie called The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (a clean movie, which also gives you things to chew on), making me wonder if the movie served as some kind of inspiration for Hoffman. If you can find the movie, watch it after reading this and see if you can find the similarities. Though there’s plenty of differences too. 
  • Fans of Lesser Known Books: Some readers want to avoid the books that have tons of fans and find the lonely, forgotten books. This is one of those. It hasn’t gotten a lot of press or talk, but it is still a lovely read. 
  • Middle Grade Kids Crossing over to YA (aka Younger Romance Fans)/Mystery Fans: This is marketed middle grade, but feels almost YA because of the romantic elements (not that they are mature, just mushier than normal for middle grade). The narrator is middle grade age and she’s not involved in the romance, but she’s got plenty to do trying to help others and solve mysteries.

Young Adult Fiction

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
I know, I’ve mentioned this a few times recently, but I’m going to again because it’s that good.

It's early 1945 in East Prussia. The Nazis occupy most of the land, but they are slowly crumbling and the Russians are pushing in from the East. And there's a host of people who have been displaced from their homes by the war moving towards the shore of the Baltic Sea in hopes they can escape before the Russians arrive. One of the biggest ships waiting at Gotenhafen for refugees and evacuating German forces is the former cruise ship, Wilhelm Gustloff. Readers experience this harrowing time through the voices of four young adults: Florian, the German, who may or may not be on a special mission from one of Hitler's top men. Joanna, a Lithuanian nurse who seeks to help those around her and assuage the guilt of something she did in her efforts to survive. Emilia, a Polish teenager who has lost everything to the war. And Alfred, a German soldier assigned to prepare the Wilhelm Gustloff for it's rescue journey. Florian, Emilia, Joanna, a giant woman named Eva, a blind young woman named Ingrid, an old cobbler the group calls the Shoe Poet, and a young boy who wandered out of the woods form a rag-tag group as chance encounters bring them together on the road to Gotenhafen. Through them, readers experience all the joys and horrors of the life of refugees trying to make it to safety. Meanwhile, Alfred is using his amazing brain to figure out ways to evade work and write imaginary letters to his sweetheart. All of them meet at Gotenhafen, where most of them board the Wilhelm Gustloff and watch their salvation turn into what seems to be doom.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Stuff to Chew On: This is based on a real ship wreck with a higher number of fatalities than the Titanic, but that still was managed to be covered up for decades! So you've got international incident cover up, refugees, secrets, war, and more. It incorporates so many important lessons and helps modern readers taste the trials refugees and war torn peoples suffer. Hopefully, readers will come away with a great appreciation for all the many blessings they have, and a greater heart for those in the world suffering from displacement and war.
  • Point of View/Voice: The writing in this is powerful and so well done. It is really hard to switch voices so frequently and create a fluid story, but Sepetys does manage to pull it off. And she manages to give each one a unique voice too.
  • WWII History: Thanks to the multiple voices, you get several varying perspectives on the events of WWII. 
  • Thriller/Historical Fans/Anyone: I’ve thrust this into the hands of numerous readers in the past months, and then watched them do the same to friends after they finished. Every single one has come back raving about what a wonderful read this was. Sometimes the stories that stick with us the longest aren’t the easiest reads, but the most powerful.

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe, #1) by Neal Shusterman
In the future technology has advanced to the point where the cloud has become the practically omniscient Thunderhead which has taken over for governments, eliminated hunger and most crime, and humans no longer die of natural causes, illnesses, accidents or violent acts because they can easily be revived and age can be reset. To help control the population in such a world, it was determined that a group of humans would be appointed to choose random gleanings and help curb population growth. The Scythes are governed by themselves and the commandments laid down when the scythedom was first formed. Neither Citra nor Rowan ever thought of becoming a scythe, but when Scythe Faraday showed up and asked them to become his apprentices, neither felt they could turn him down - even though the thought of holding such a position turned their stomachs. Their apprenticeship starts off fairly normal, but as they learn more about gleaning and of the scythedom, they both discover that there's something sinister brewing in the world of scythes. A faction is growing that wants to dispose of the old scythe thinking and impose new ideas. And Citra and Rowan are going to be at the very center of the political war with their lives on the line.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Stuff to Chew On: Neal Shusterman is a genius in constructing plots that slowly pull you in, building worlds that fascinate and horrify, and make you really think about some deep issues (his Unwind series is also great for giving you things to think about). Scythe is not only a riveting story that has depths that slowly reveal themselves, but it explores important themes. This would be a great one for book clubs as there's tons to discuss. It should get readers thinking about the value of life, matters of life and death, technological advances, whether or not it is good for humans to have too much ease in their life, and whether or not the right thing is worth taking a stand for. 
  • Fiction/Nonfiction Pair: Read this along with The Gift of Pain (previously title The Gift Nobody Wants) by Paul W. Brand. The society in Scythe has pretty much eliminated pain and suffering but they still have issues and aren't always happy. Brand, a real doctor who worked with leprosy and diabetic patients, talks about how the absence of pain can kill and maim, and how pain/ actually helps us survive. Imagine what kind of advice Brand would give to Citra and Rowan.
  • Dystopia Fans: This book isn’t for everyone. It does have a fair share of death and violence in it due to the nature of the story. It isn’t an easy or light read. So why would I recommend this? Because it brings up some things that teens especially really need to think through: life, death, and what's their purpose on this planet. Too many of them have the 'I'm invincible' mentality or think they can put off thinking about these things till they're older. This will help them process those topics without realizing they are. So hand this to YA and adult readers who like dystopian fiction, can handle the content and like watching characters work hard to fix the wrongs in their world, outwit political factions, and they'll end up thinking about those challenging issues and situations.

The Reader by Traci Chee
Sefia used to have a happy home with a mother and father who loved her. But mother died, and then father was killed, and Sefia had to put into action the training they'd given her for a long time. She went through the secret passage, retrieved the item, went to Aunt Nin, and then they went on the run. She's been on the run ever since. She knows nothing about the item she carries, but when people take Aunt Nin captive looking for it, Sefia decides she needs to find out more about it and this person whose been hunting her family to get it. There's a symbol on the item, a symbol she's never seen anywhere else until the day she sees it on a crate. A crate that holds a boy. She frees the boy and together they set out to find out the meaning of the symbol, those hunting them down, and what the item is.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Stuff to Chew On: I can't say too much without spoiling things, but I can say that the plot involves the power of literacy, the value of stories, self-worth, human rights issues such as slavery/human trafficking, and plenty more to chew on.
  • Intricate Writing: If you like elaborate writing, then pick this up. This started off a little slow, but once Sefia starts to read the pirate adventures and chapters on those in training at the Library, it gets really interesting. Because then you begin to get a picture of just how intricate the plot of this is.
  • Fantasy Fans/Thriller Fans/Dystopia Fans: Chee has written a fascinating world that is broken but magical, has the adventure of pirates and the mystery of a hidden past. You really start to want to figure out how things got this way, and why Sefia’s item is so important. That said, there’s some very brutal people in this world. The poor boy Sefia finds has seen them at their worst (he's suffered physical violence and emotional abuse), and yet there’s also those working to restore and bring hope. This isn't always an easy read, so know the reader you hand it to. But again, the topics addressed make it worth a read. YA and adult readers who love dystopia and/or elaborate world building should devour it and have plenty to think about along the way.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Brainstorm 105: Dyslexia & Stuttering in Kids Lit

Today’s Brainstorm will be a combination of two topics since I missed last week and the week before for holidays and busyness. The first three books feature main characters who struggle with dyslexia. The second three books feature main characters who struggle with stuttering. These are recommended reads for building empathy or helping kids who struggle with similar things find a character like themselves. There's some fantastic, moving stories here. Enjoy.

Dyslexia Reads – Middle Grade Fiction Resources

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Ally doesn't mean to get in trouble at school. It isn't her fault the letters won't hold still long enough to read. She has pretty much given up on herself. But a new teacher doesn't see her as a problem who won't finish assignments, Mr. Daniels manages to catch on to Ally's deep, dark secret. She can't read. And all those "pranks" were actually her acts of frustration or genuine tries. With the help of Mr. Daniels and some new friends, Ally starts to think that maybe she isn't dumb and perhaps there is some hope for her.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Dyslexia: This is a given. Kids with dyslexia will hopefully find hope from Ally’s story, and those who don’t, should gain some understanding of what it is like to have this condition. Make sure you read the author's note in the back about how this story was inspired by her own experiences in school.
  • Teachers: I know, this is labeled a middle grade book, but this is a great teacher read. Mr. Daniels is a spectacular example of a teacher who is able to meet all the kids where they are and inspire them on to great things. (He borders on seeming a little too good to be true, but is still a great role model.) Get that extra encouragement to be the teacher your students need by meeting Mr. Daniels.
  • Bullying/Poverty/Kids of Soldiers: The other students in Ally’s class - and her own family members - have a host of their own issues that are also addressed in marvelous ways. 
  • Contemporary Fiction Fans: This is a great read for those who like stories that feel real.

The Wild Book by Margarita Engle
Fefa struggles to read. The doctor says she has word blindness and she'll never be able to read, but Fefa's mother does not give up. Mamá gives Fefa a blank book to help her collect words. Fefa isn't sure about the book. She finds reading so hard she isn't sure she likes words. But when her brother is injured and becomes her tutor, some of the slippery words start to become a little more manageable, and eventually Fefa is able to save the entire family with her reading.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Dyslexia: Though they call it word blindness, Fefa obviously is struggling with dyslexia. It’s an amazing story of someone who overcame dyslexia before the modern interventions.
  • Historical Fiction Fans/Cuban History: The Wild Book is historically just a little after the Cuban civil war and focuses on one girl with dyslexia and her family during a time when bandits were prevalent and kidnappings were common. I recommend reading the author's note at the end telling how this story is based on her grandmother's life as a little girl with dyslexia in Cuba and some of her real adventures, including the potential kidnapper. 
  • Reluctant Readers: This is a very approachable length at just over 120 pages and written in free verse poetry, so middle graders who struggle with words like Fefa or are reluctant readers may find this a bit easier to tackle.
  • Novels in Verse/Quick Read: It’s hard to tell a story with developed characters and setting in just a few words, but Engle does so over and over again. If you’ve never experienced Margarita Engle’s free verse writing, you really need to. It’s also a good pick if you are looking for a quick read. Novels in verse just fly by.

May B. by Caroline Starr Rose
May's family rents her out to the next homestead over till Christmas to help the fancy new Mrs from the East out. Of course, this arrangement also helps out May's own family financially as well. May is reluctant to go. She'd rather continue to go to school, even if reading is a horrible struggle and Teacher says it's more of a lost cause. But true to her family, May does go and helps the Oblingers around their homestead. But Mrs Oblinger is so homesick she eventually runs away, and then Mr Oblinger goes after her...and neither one returns for a day, then two days, then much, much longer. May's days are suddenly too quiet, and her mind keeps replaying her failures at school whenever she isn't busy keeping herself warm and fed. And keeping herself warm and fed gets harder and harder as the days stretch into months. May is 15 miles from her family and no one else is anywhere close. Can she make it through till Pa comes back or is she just a hopeless cause all around?

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Novels in Verse/Quick Read: Told through free verse poetry, this is a very quick read, but that in no way diminishes the power of the tale. 
  • Dyslexia: Imagining what it would be like for a dyslexic young lady during pioneer days and the questions of self-worth such a child would face are quite thought provoking. 
  • Historical Fiction Fans: There are shades of Little House and other Western stories that historical fiction fans who love pioneer stories should enjoy.
  • Survival Fans: The survival aspect of the tale is exciting, and the ending encouraging. 
  • Reluctant Readers: This is a good pick for struggling readers in that it is short, thrilling, and will hopefully encourage them.

Speech Impediment Reads – Picture Book Autobiography Resource

The Boy and the Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz, ill. by CáTia Chien
Alan is a stutterer. The only times he can speak clearly are when he is singing or when he is talking to animals. Alan loves animals, he talks to his pets every day. One day, he promises the jaguar at the zoo that he'll work to find his voice so he can help get the jaguar a better situation. Eventually, Alan does find his voice. He is still a stutterer, but he learns things to help him speak more clearly. That doesn't change his love for animals, and he goes on to become a naturalist and help create the first jaguar sanctuary in Belize.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Overcoming through Adversity Autobiography: This autobiography does a great job of showing a boy who grows to overcome his disability by embracing it, realizing it helps make him who he needs to be, and not letting it get in the way of helping the animals he loves. The back jacket flap gives further information on the author. And you can learn more about him and his nonprofit organization online at
  • Stuttering: A great inspirational book for kids who struggle with stuttering.
  • Animal Lovers: Alan’s love for animals will appeal to other animal lovers. He's become a world-leading conservationist too. Someone those animal lovers can look up to.

Speech Impediment Reads – Middle Grade Fiction Resources

Paperboy by Vince Vawter
An eleven year old boy, growing up in Memphis in the late 1950s takes over his friend's paper route for one month of the summer and finds his life unexpectedly changed. Flinging papers comes easy for him, he's the best pitcher in the area for his age. It's the collecting part of the job that he finds daunting. Because words tend to get caught in his mouth and refuse to come out. He stutters something awful. Most people mistakenly think he's slow. But one man on the route isn't fazed by the speech impediment and opens his eyes to a hunger for learning. A beautiful woman on the route seems to be having problems he wishes he could help her with, and then there's the junk man, Ara T, who was supposed to sharpen his knife but never gave it back. Mam says Ara T is bad news and to keep clear, but he's determined to get his knife back and the situation comes close to causing harm to both himself and his beloved housekeeper.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers:

  • Stuttering: This story is told from the view point of the boy, and we don't learn his name until the very end. Vawter says in the afterward that the story is somewhat autobiographical, that he is himself a stutterer and grew up in Memphis. If you want to get inside the head of someone who struggles to get their words out, this book does a great job of conveying the frustration and fear and anxieties such a person goes through. 
  • Historical Fiction Fans: Yes, it is set in the South during the time of Civil Rights issues, but the boy and his personal growth take center stage in this.
  • Mystery Fans: No, this isn’t technically a mystery but it has a lot of mystery elements that should appeal to mystery fans.

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet
Noah's parents show up one day in the middle of March after school in a rental. They speed him off to the airport, informing him that his mom has been granted permission to do her doctoral research comparing speech defects and education in the US with East Germany. (And FYI, readers, it's 1989.) So they are off to Berlin and Noah will finally get to use that German he's been learning. Then his parents start getting weird. They tell him they've lied about his name, it's not Noah Keller on his birth certificate, it's Jonah Brown, so from now on he's Jonah. His parents have new - or old - names too. What?! And another thing about that birth certificate, the birthday is different too. And for that matter, if asked, he grew up in a different town from Oasis, Virginia. Mind spinning to remember all his new info and new rules (such as talk as little as possible about the past and don't talk about anything important in the new house) Noah is on a flight (yes, Noah, because he still thinks of himself that way). Upon arriving in Berlin, Noah's mom is soon off doing her research. His dad says he's going to write an amazing novel about a mink farmer crime sleuth while they're there. Noah wants to go to school, but because of his stutter, they at first deny him. Most kids would love not going to school, but Noah quickly grows bored...and lonely. There's no one for him to be friends with. But one day he meets a girl from the apartment downstairs, Claudia. There's mysteries about Claudia. Like where are her parents? Why does she live with her grandmother? Which gets Noah thinking about other mysteries, like why did mom burn the picture of her 4th birthday before they came, and why did they change their names to come here? East Germany is such a strange place, especially in 1989.

Activity Tie-ins/Target Audience:

  • Stuttering: You slowly get to understand the role Noah's stutter has had in his and his family's life. 
  • Thriller Fans: You slowly get to understand what Noah’s family might be doing in East Germany, and you slowly start to figure out what's happened with Claudia's family. It is a slow build to a suspenseful end. It's not over the top crazy spy stuff, but it's not all roses and sunshine either. It's a fascinating look at what it would be like for a kid unwittingly going undercover and living in an oppressive regime.
  • Historical Fiction Fans: The setting also gets a slow build, but the end of the chapters help a lot. At the end of each chapter Nesbet includes facts and tidbits of history about East Germany and life behind the Iron Curtain. It's usually directly related to something brought up in the chapter. Some even contain direct quotes of historic documents Nesbet translated from the German herself. This reads very authentically because Nesbet herself spent time doing doctoral research in East Germany's Berlin in 1989. She knows exactly how to describe life there. 
  • Great Friendship: The best part about this book beyond the authentic setting is most definitely Claudia and Noah’s friendship. It takes work and patience to build, and it takes some amazing, heartfelt loyalty towards the end to keep it going. It brings frustration, and nail biting, and even some happy tears.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Brainstorm 104: Artist biographies for kids and teens

This week, in honor of Theodore Seuss Geisel’s birthday, here are biographies of other artists for kids and teens. I’m going to skip the Activity Tie-ins/Target Readers because a lot of these are just going to say the same thing. They are all great reads for art lovers, splendid read-alouds/suggested reads for art classes, and perfect gifts for those budding artists you know. Instead I'll put in highlights of what I liked best about each book.

Picture Book Biographies

Through Georgia’s Eyes by Rachel Rodriguez, ill. by Julie Paschkis
A picture book biography of artist Georgia O'Keeffe, most famous for her large paintings of flowers and Southwestern landscapes, that invites readers to see the world through her eyes.


  • The text is simplistic and touches on the mere basics of the artist's life but it does a great job in helping readers get a picture of the beauty of art and how an artist thinks. 
  • There's a page of further info on O'Keeffe's life in the back. 
  • In pointing readers to enjoy the world around them as Georgia O'Keeffe did, the book is its own piece of art. The writing is lyrical and poetic, creating vivid word pictures, and the illustrations are gorgeous and sure to draw in readers. 

Edward Hopper Paints His World by Robert Burleigh, ill. by Wendell Minor
A picture book biography of Edward Hopper, famous for his paintings of everyday locations in America.


  • This book gives a decent overview of the artist’s life, how he was shy and started out in advertising. And how his art style took a while to catch on. 
  • Wendell Minor did an incredible job illustrating this book in a style reminiscent of Hopper's works, but not overly so. And those illustrations are amazing works of art. 
  • The back of the book is rich in further resources from more details on Hopper's life, pictures of his most iconic paintings, a note from the illustrator on trying to mimic Hopper's style, and recommended further reading on the man and his art. 
  • A great read to encourage those shy kids that they can leave a mark on this world without needing to change who they are.

Radiant Child: the Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe
This one has been in the news a fair bit recently with its Caldecott win. In case you missed that news, this is a picture book biography of modern artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The book focuses on Basquiat's childhood, how his love of art developed and grew through his childhood, and major highs and lows in his family and art life, culminating with his eventual success as a young adult.


  • It was fascinating to find out Basquiat came from a diverse family, a Haitian mother and Puerto Rican father growing up in America. 
  • You don’t have to be a Basquiat fan to appreciate this book. I actually like Steptoe's nods to Basquiat better because Steptoe tones down the ferocity/intensity and makes it easier to look at, more kid-friendly while still getting across main themes and the style of Basquiat. 
  • There are several notes in the back with further info on Basquiat and why the author/illustrator chose to do this book and do it the way he did that I recommend reading.

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales, ill. by Tim O’Meara
In just a few words (with shadows in Spanish), Yuyi Morales introduces readers to Frida's view of the world.


  • I really liked how the bilingual element of this book was done. Very creative. The words are simple enough that even readers who don't know Spanish can read this and learn some. 
  • The author's note in the back gives a more detailed overview of Frida's life, but one still approachable and short enough for little ones. 
  • Even though I sometimes found the dolls a little creepy, the illustration style gets points for creativity. It was done by taking photographs of dolls and models made by the author. And it was unique enough to get a Caldecott Honor a few years ago.

Action Jackson by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, ill. by Robert Andrew Parker
A picture book biography of modern painter, Jackson Pollock, that focuses on his painting methods, most specifically how he painted Lavender Mist.


  • It highlights an unusual way one famous artist worked. 
  • I really appreciated that the authors started with a note clarifying which parts came from their imagination and which parts of this were fact. Great modeling of nonfiction writing for kids. 
  • The further info in the back is quite interesting and fills in the basics of Pollock's life left out in the story.

The Boy Who Drew Birds: a Story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies, ill. by Melissa Sweet
An introduction to artist/ornithologist, John James Audubon, that highlights how Audubon solved one of the mysteries of his time...what happened to small birds during the winter months.


  • I always enjoy Sweet's illustrations. And there are further notes in the back on Sweet's illustration process.
  • The part of Audubon's life Davies chose to focus on gives kids a picture of how to go about solving scientific mysteries. It takes patience, creativity, and lots of close observations. 
  • There are further notes in the back with a little more info on Audubon.

What’s Your Favorite Animal? by Eric Carle and Friends
14 favorite children's author/illustrators share about their favorite animal in text or poem and an illustration spread.


  • So many beloved modern children’s illustrators, and each one does it in their own unique way.
  • A variety of animals are featured.
  • Nick Bruel's page...because Bad Kitty interrupts.
  • Erin Stead's page...because she likes penguins too. 
  • The short bios in the back of the book for each illustrator and a childhood picture of them with an animal.

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sís
Peter Sís has created a unique autobiography of his life growing up in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War.


  • As Sís says in the afterward, "I find it difficult to explain my childhood; it's hard to put it into words, and since I have always drawn everything, I have tried to draw my life -- before America..." The blend of drawings and words to tell his story makes it all the more powerful and poignant. 
  • It's an interesting glimpse into life under Communism for kids, or for that matter, people of any age. 
  • These Caldecott Honor-winning illustrations are highly symbolic and could be used in art or history class to be analyzed for their subtle messages. (As he explains, artists under Communism had to be masters of subtle messages.)

In Mary's Garden by Tina & Carson Kügler
A picture book biography of artist Mary Nohl, famous for her unusual creations that came to cover her yard and house.


  • Mary's creations are unusual, but just looking them you know they come from a mind full of incredible imagination. The statues in the yard look like they're ready for some kind of fantasy quest. 
  • Like many artists, Mary wasn't concerned about doing art for money, she did it because she liked to do it. And she persevered even when others misunderstood her. 
  • Kids will likely be inspired by the way she incorporated found objects in her art. 
  • Kids will also likely love Mary's dogs who help in the finding process (and are based on real dogs Mary had). 
  • If you want to keep up on Mary's house and art and their protection, the authors of this book post regular updates on their website. They also have further resources. 
  • I went on Youtube and found several video tours of the house and gardens. Just search Mary Nohl's house.

Juvenile/Young Adult Biographies
(Longer than the average picture book.)

Everybody Paints!: The Lives and Art of the Wyeth Family by Susan Goldman Rubin
The author introduces readers to three generations of the Wyeth family, focusing on N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, and Jamie Wyeth (though other artists in the family also frequently appear, like N.C.’s sister Carolyn). You also get little looks into the life of Howard Pyle (who apprenticed N.C.).


  • I found the information on the entire Wyeth family fascinating. This book just focuses on main points of their lives, but it was sufficient to give a good introduction to each generation. I learned a lot. 
  • The best part about this book is the way it has been put together, it feels like a serious work of art itself. Numerous painting reproductions, photographs of the family, the glossy paper, and full color pages make this a feast for the eyes as well as a highly readable biography. 
  • The book gives great insight into how much work is required of painters. Several Wyeth family members’ daily routines are included, and all were hard working. It’s a good dose of reality for want to be painters who think it’s going to be all fun and ease.

Bill Peet: an Autobiography by Bill Peet
Bill Peet writes and illustrates his life story from boyhood frolics in the woods around suburban Indianapolis to struggles in school and his roundabout route to becoming an artist for Disney and from there eventually illustrating his own books.


  • I enjoyed the background info on so many classic Disney films I grew up watching. Peet had quite a hand in bringing to animated life The Jungle Book, The Sword and the Stone, and 101 Dalmations
  • There's a lot of information on animation development. For example, I had never even considered before how challenging it must have been to develop a full-length movie of the Cinderella story which can be summarized in a few pages or how to create unique mice characters for that story in a company saturated by a certain kind of mouse. 
  • I found the unique challenges Peet faced in becoming a picture book author interesting too. He didn't have an easy start. Many would have given up in his shoes.
  • It's a quick and engaging read. I started this book thinking I'd just read a couple pages, but I ended up devouring it in one sitting. The large print, abundant illustrations, and the engaging life story made it a quick read.

Graphic Novels

Smile by Raina Telgemeier
Graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier relates her middle school and high school years through the ongoing saga of her teeth. Originally scheduled to have braces to realign her overbite, Raina's dental issues get significantly more challenging when she falls and knocks out her two front teeth. In between the ongoing struggle to get her smile back to normal, Raina shares stories from middle school and high school, focusing on how her perception of her outward self warped her view of her inner self and how she eventually grew to overcome that.


  • Having had my own long stint with orthodontics, I definitely found myself identifying with the pain and agony Raina experienced. But she manages to portray it with humor. 
  • I loved how she showed through the years that the choice of friends can have a huge impact on your self-perception and the limits you place on yourself. I especially liked how she shows that those can be overcome. Students adore Raina's misadventures (this and it’s sequel Sisters are always being read and reread) and hopefully those students are picking up some tools to help them overcome their own personal challenges. 
  • I love that even reluctant readers devour Telgemeier's books and come back hungry for more. 

Sweaterweather: & Other Stories by Sara Varon
This is a collection of short stories from graphic novelist Sara Varon. I know, this is supposed to be all biographies, but hang on. The first 8 stories in this collection were previously released in an earlier book called Sweaterweather, but this edition includes a few extra stories and notes from the author/illustrator about each one, why she wrote it, what her inspiration was, etc. And that’s why this book is in here.


  • Hearing Sara's personal anecdotes about why she wrote each short story and what inspired her in her writing and illustrations was fascinating. This is a great one for Varon fans and those interested in becoming illustrators or graphic novelists.