The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds
Vashti doesn’t think she can draw, but her art teacher encourages her to, “Just make a mark and see where it takes you.” So Vashti makes a dot on the page and her teacher makes her sign it. Returning to school the next day and seeing her dot artwork framed on the wall, Vashti thinks to herself that she could make a better dot…and her artistic expression explodes.
- Kids Who Need an Encouragement Boost: Kids (and adults) often get frozen in analysis paralysis and don’t end up doing anything because they’re afraid they can’t do grand things. This is a fantastic reminder that you don’t need to start off big, grand or showy, just start small. It may be art, it may be serving the community, or it may be figuring out where to go to college. If you’re looking for a book to start conversations and encourage kids who don’t think they can do much, this may be the one you need.
- Art Teachers: Obviously, this book is most easily used in the art classroom since that is the setting and can help kids who think they aren’t talented have a little more freedom to enjoy art.
- Indian Students/Those Who Like Multicultural Characters: I like that the little girl’s name is Vashti, our int’l students from India will love that. It isn’t often you get an Indian main character in English picture books.
Lower Grade Fiction
Lulu and the Duck in the Park by Hilary McKay, ill. by Priscilla Lamont
Lulu loves animals and thinks the guinea pig in Class Three needs a friend. Her teacher turns down all offers for companions for the class pet and even says that if any other animal shows up, Class Three will be swapping with Class Two and will end up with stick bugs instead of the guinea pig. Lulu has agreed to follow the rules, especially since her best friend/cousin Mellie doesn't want to see the stick bugs. But when the class stops in the park the next morning and witnesses some dogs destroying duck nests, Lulu rescues an egg on instinct and doesn't realize till later she may endanger the class guinea pig. She keeps the egg warm and hides it in her sweater. Things seem to be going ok, but then the egg starts to move all by itself.
- Animal Lovers: Soulmates with Lulu the animal lover will eat up this entire series.
- Readers Who Like Real Characters: Sometimes kids in lower grade contemporary fiction can either be annoyingly spunky, too smart for their age, or just hard to picture in real life. Lulu and the rest of the cast come across as very real. I liked that the book doesn't make any of the characters super flat or stereotypical. The teacher is older and somewhat set in her ways, but she shows tenderness and genuine concern at times (and oh boy is she on to their tricks!). The class clown can be a jerk, but is later fun to play with. Mellie is somewhat in the clouds and frequently loses things, but she has moments of brilliance. And Lulu herself sometimes makes wise choices and at other times does silly things.
- Any Lower Grade Reader/Read Aloud Fans: Despite the cover I can see the story appealing to both boys and girls, and it would make a good read aloud for lower grades.
Middle Grade Fiction
Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens by Julie Mata
Kate Walden wants to become a famous movie director someday with fantastic actors and actresses under her artistic genius. Currently she's only in 6th grade and her artistic pool is limited to family, friends, and the evil chickens that have wrecked her social life and quite possible stolen her mother's affection. See Kate used to be cool. She used to be in the upper tiers of middle school, but then her mom decided to quit her job and start organic chicken farming. And when popular girl Lydia came over to be a zombie in one of the last scenes of Kate's movie, she got a front row view of the disgustingness that is chickens. And she has no qualms about telling people how Kate lives among these pooping feather brains. Kate might have recovered from that except that very same week her mom came and shared in class about raising organic chickens AND in the middle of the crowded hallway chicken poop falls right off of Kate's shoe and is seen by all. Now Kate is being called Crapkate, her best friend Alyssa has drifted over to the dark side with Lydia, and Kate is left sitting with Margaret and Doris at the losers' table. Alyssa was the one who invited Lydia over, she didn't stand up for Kate during the Crapkate incident, and in all she's been a rotten friend, so Kate hatches a plan to teach Alyssa a lesson that involves the theft of the Cute Red Wig for the upcoming production of Annie. The plan gets set in motion no problem, but then Kate starts to learn some things about herself, middle school social standings, and true friendship. With the help of Margaret and Doris (who turn out to be not so bad after all), Kate must try to make things right before she ruins multiple lives.
- Contemporary Fiction Fans: Despite the title and the cover, this is the perfect read for all those middle schoolers who devour contemporary fiction. It nails the realities of middle school drama oh so well.
- Those Who Like Good Messages in Their Reads: I really liked the lessons that Kate learned about revenge and doing what's right and family and friendships, the resolution she found with her friend and her mom is great (and not too easy), and the realization that both the people at the top and bottom of the middle school social ladder have something to offer is a great bonus. (Lydia does not come off as 100% evil in this, nor do Margaret and Doris come off as 100% normal, but all very real and with things to offer to the group.) I think this message from Kate's mom towards the end of the book best sums up the treasure waiting for kids who read this book, "You know, Kate, all of us get busy building our careers, building our families, our friendships. It's easy to forget that we're also building who we are. We do it every day. It's not what other people think of us that defines us. It's what we do and how we act."
- Young Film Makers: There aren’t a whole lot of books out there for aspiring young film makers. This is a story they should identify with.
- Chicken Lovers: Though Kate has very mixed feelings about the chickens her mom farms, they get plenty of page time to satisfy chicken fans.
- Middle School Book Clubs: I highly recommend this for middle school book clubs. It has some great conversation topics.
Six Kids and a Stuffed Cat by Gary Paulsen
An unlikely group of six kids are stuck in a bathroom during a severe weather warning. One is the new kid, who has a stuffed cat with him for some reason. One is an amazing guitarist...air guitarist and puts on a concert while the others talk. One is the class perfectionist, one is the class clown, one is the brainiac, and another is the class slacker/troublemaker. While waiting out the storm, the kids learn things about each other and themselves and find some unexpected friendships.
- Theater & Drama Fans/Teachers: This book actually includes the story in two versions. The first half of the book is written in normal novel format. The second half of the book is the same story in play form. The names of the kids and topics discussed are such that the play could be performed by 6 girls or 6 boys. If you're looking for an easy play production for a small group or drama for middle graders to read that is a bit more approachable than Shakespeare, this is a good pick.
- Book Clubs/Discussion Starting Read Fans: Though the discussion in this isn't super amazing, it does touch on some topics that could lead to deeper discussions. There's the slacker kid who is smarter than the others ever realized. There's the mystery of the kid who plays air guitar all the time and what's going on in his head. There's the new kid who for some reason slept through the whole day backstage and brought a stuffed cat to school, touching on insecurities and the quirks we all really have. And through it all is the desire for someone who understands and accepts us.
- Reluctant Readers: Due to the structure of the book, this is a very quick read, perfect for reluctant readers.
Young Adult Fiction
Interference by Kay Honeyman
It isn't easy to be the daughter of a Congressman, especially when he's running for office. The Hamilton family has returned to their roots of Red Dirt, Texas after it looks like Congressman Hamilton will lose his seat for North Carolina and Kate is caught up in a fiasco at her school after exposing some unfair traditions in recommendation letter writing and her ex put up photos of her that were really innocent but could be taken wrong...and the media got ahold of them. Kate thought they were going back to her Dad's hometown to lie low, but it is soon clear he's got his eye on the seat that just opened in Congress for repping the Red Dirt area. In the midst of that, Kate has her own agenda. She's determined to get a recommendation letter from her former principal, but she has to beat others to the most service hours to get it. She's also working on her photography portfolio to hopefully get into a coveted program, but her photos just seem to be lacking something. And when she walks into the local high school, Kate can't help but try to solve just a few teensy problems. There's the star quarterback just a little too full of himself. The lonely girl someone spread rumors about...and the mysterious and irritating Hunter who always seems to be judging her. Only, maybe Hunter is right because things start to backfire and she realizes maybe she's making more of a mess than helping.
- Austen Fans/Literary Rewrite Fans: This is a rewrite of Jane Austen's Emma, but it isn't obvious until Kate gets solidly enmeshed in her plans to try and solve Ana's social problems. That's when there's some glaring parallels. Overall, though, Honeyman has made this so much a unique story that it just feels like the Emma elements are an honoring nod to a master storyteller. Not every character in this perfectly matches up with ones in Austen's story (indeed some have no parallels - like Kate's living and present mother), and even the broader plot points are so different you aren't entirely sure how they will end up. It's like a musical remix that just incorporates some themes from a well-recognized song in the refrain but is overall its own different song.
- Social Issue Awareness Fans: Kate comes from a fairly well-off background, but Red Dirt introduces her to both middle class and struggling characters, and helps show that certain things are true for all and cross boundary lines of class.
- Contemporary Fiction Fans: This will satisfy the needs of those readers who subsist on a steady diet of contemporary fiction.
- Spunky Heroine Fans: Kate is quite the spunky, go-getter heroine like Austen’s Emma. It's a fun, high energy contemporary read with a spunky heroine dumped into a small town who learns a lot but does so with grace.
- American Football Fans: The pressures of the town on the football team in this are kind of insane, but felt very believable. I'm not a huge football fan, but neither was Kate so I felt I identified with her. Don't worry, there are plenty of other characters who are die hard fans, so die hard fan readers will also find someone to identify with.
- Clean Romance Fans: There's a little romance that builds slowly over the book and is cute.