Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Ellen Obed's lovely new book is a series of vignettes in ode to her family's winter traditions in rural Maine.  The first ice appears in pail left in a barn.  It then spreads to the fields and streams, enticing the children to put on their skates.  The real pleasure comes with the garden ice.  In the coldest of winter, the narrator's family allows their summer garden to freeze over and become Bryan Gardens, an outdoor skating rink for the family and their friends.  Each night their father sprays down the ice so that young figure skaters and hockey players can skate on the rink every day after school.  Before Bryan Gardens thaws, the skaters put on an ice show that is enjoyed by the community.  Even as spring approaches and the ice disappears, the children continue to dream of ice as they wait for the next freeze. 

Twelve Kinds of Ice is beautifully written and reads very quickly; I finished it in less than twenty minutes. Though I can understand why this quiet novel has earned rave reviews, it does not do much for me.  I come from the South where we don't ice skate outdoors.  I can appreciate though how this book celebrates family traditions.  While I do not think many students in my community would read this book on their own or even with my recommendation, I could see reading it aloud in a 4th through 6th grade classroom.  It could be used as a prompt for having students to write about their own traditions.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Book Club Discusses Liar & Spy

Yesterday the Middle School Book Club met to discuss Rebecca Stead's newest novel Liar & Spy.  Though some of our members were disappointed with the ending, all eleven participants agreed that the novel is outstanding. We had a very thoughtful discussion about friendship, bullying, secrets, and lying.

In Liar & Spy, Georges moves into a new apartment building in Brooklyn when his father loses his job.  Georges is not too happy about having to adjust to living in a new neighborhood and to his mother working double shifts as a nurse.  To make matter worse, he has to deal with some pretty annoying bullies at school.  Life get more interesting when Georges meets Safer, a coffee-drinking, home schooled boy who lives in his new building.  Safer enlists Georges to help him spy on Mr. X, a mysterious man who wears all black and enters their building at strange hours carrying big bags.  Safer thinks Mr. X is up to something nefarious and is willing to break into his apartment to uncover information about this man.  Georges thinks Safer might be a little crazy.  How far is Georges willing to go to support Safer's farfetched ideas?  Liar & Spy shows that sometimes people tell lies not because they are bad people but because the truth is too difficult to face.

I highly recommend Liar & Spy for a 4th through 6th grade book club.  I came up with the discussion questions for this club meeting with the help of the great website Sweet on Books.

• Was there a character that who really liked or would want to be friends with?
• Why does Safer spend so much time in his apartment?
• Is Safer a good friend to Georges?
• Why was Georges so angry with Safer about Mr. X?
• Why did Georges come to Safer's rescue? What would you have done in that situation?
• Were you surprised to learn where Georges' mom had been or did you have any clues?
• Is the type of bullying experienced by Georges similar to what goes on in our school? In what ways?
• If you could choose your own name, what would you pick? How would it reflect your personality?
• Did you find any of the informational facts (taste, parrots, Seurat, Benjamin Franklin spelling) interesting?  Did they add to the story?

Our tentative plan for next book club is to discuss A Tale Dark and Grimm in December.


In the early 1970s, Ben’s parents are at the cutting edge of behavioral animal research.  When Ben’s father, Dr. Richard Tomlin, gets an appointment at a university that supports his proposed project for teaching American Sign Language to a chimpanzee, he moves his wife Sarah and 14 year-old son across Canada from Toronto to Victoria.  Ben is not too excited about this, nor is he thrilled when his mother brings home an 8-day-old chimpanzee that Ben sees as ugly.  They name the chimp Zan (after Tarzan).  While Richard will be using graduate students to teach Zan ASL, Sarah will be raising Zan as a human child as she writes a dissertation on cross-fostering.  Ben is expected to help with Zan’s care and to see the chimpanzee as his brother.  His reluctance soon wears off in the face of Zan’s undeniable charm.

At first the experiments seem to go well with Zan.  He masters about 65 ASL words, but there is some debate as to whether he really comprehends the language or if he is just mimicking what he sees.  Ben’s father tries harsh techniques while teaching Zan, including tethering him to a highchair for hours at a time.  Tensions quickly arise between the father, who sees Zan as a test subject, and the son, who believes that it is his responsibility to protect his little brother.  Ben struggles with the ethical and moral issues surrounding his father’s research and worries about what will happen to Zan if the project fails.

Kenneth Oppel’s novel is incredibly well researched. He draws from real-life experiments on simian intelligence, particularly the experiments with Washoe the chimpanzee. He accurately reflects the conflicting attitudes to animal research in the 1970s.   Half-Brother will definitely start conversations among young adult readers about the ethics of using animals.  Oppel’s novel shows that there is not a simple solution to the problems surrounding animal test subjects.  He leaves the reader to form his or her own opinions.

Half-Brother also explores the themes of family, school life and dating.  Ben’s tenuous relationship with Richard is fascinating and disheartening.  Ben appears to be a constant disappointment to his father. Richard is cold and thoughtless to his family through much of the novel.  I was just as interested in how these family dynamics would resolve as I was with what would happen to Zan.  Ben’s adjustment to a new school and his desire for the daughter of his father’s boss are equally interesting and believable.

Excellent writing, complex characters, and thought-provoking themes will keep readers engaged from start to finish.  Like many of Oppel’s novels, Half-Brother will appeal to a wide audience.  I highly recommend this book to grades seven and up.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Haiku Death Match

Today I had the pleasure of judging a haiku death match.  For homework, students in an 8th grade English class of 18 students had to write five haiku poems.  The next day they took those poems to battle.  The class was evenly divided into white and red teams. Each team had their own MC to pump up the audience and judges before each match.  They also told cute jokes and kept the program lively. In round one, eight students from the red team went head to head with another student from the white team.  After bowing to their opponent, the students presented one of their poems twice, and the 3 judges lifted red or white cards to announce the winner.  Winners from round one, proceeded to round two; the two winners from the second round entered the championship match.  The judges required the two finalists to present two haiku poems before crowning a winner.

This program was so much fun and the students were very engaged.  By the second round, the students were putting more emotion into their performances.  The teams conferred before each round to give helpful tips to their members who were still in the competition.  Even the shy students enjoyed being part of a team and performing their poems.  It was great to see so much enthusiasm and creativity!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

New Review: UNGIFTED

UngiftedDonovan Curtis has always had difficulty with impulse control, and if there is some kind of trouble at Hardcastle Middle School, you can be sure that he is in the middle of it.  His classmates voted him Most Likely to Wind Up in Jail two years in a row.  When he breaks a school statue that causes massive damage to the school gym, he expects that he will be in major trouble with the school superintendent; however, just the opposite happens.  Instead of being suspended or expelled, an administrative mix-up results in Donovan being sent to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction, a school for gifted students.  Donovan Curtis, IQ 112, definitely does not belong at the Academy.           
Donovan tries to fly under the radar at the Academy.  He hopes that if no one notices the error, he will never be punished or have to pay for the damage he caused.  He also does not want to disappoint his proud parents with the truth that he is not gifted.  However, it does not take long for his classmates and teachers at the Academy to know that something is not right with Donovan’s placement.  He works as hard as he can, but he is completely lost in his classes.  As his teachers try to find what, if any, talents Donovan has, his classmates see the benefit of having an ordinary student at their school for extraordinary children.  Donovan introduces his new friends to YouTube and class pranks.  He also comes up with a solution when a few of his peers are faced with going to summer school because they are lacking a credit in a human development course.  It doesn’t take long for the students at the Academy to become very attached to Donovan, and they will do anything, including cheating, to keep him at their school.

Gordan Korman has a gift for writing humorous novels for middle school boys, and Ungifted does not disappoint.  This charming page-turner is perfect for reluctant readers in grades 5-8. Boys who have trouble with always being on their best behavior will relate to Donovan’s inability to resist mischief.  His transformation from a troublemaker to thoughtful brother, son and friend is both believable and inspiring.

4 out of 5 stars
Grades 5 and up