Thursday, February 28, 2013


A simple plan: break into Abraham Lincoln’s tomb, steal his corpse, hide the body, demand $200,000 and the release of convicted counterfeiter Benjamin Boyd as a ransom. Steve Sheinkin’s Lincoln’s Grave Robbers proves that fact is sometimes stranger than fiction. This true crime thriller details how the Secret Service was able to capture and convict master counterfeiter Boyd in 1875. With Boyd in jail, the supply of high-quality counterfeit money dried up, causing a real headache for criminals on the streets of Chicago. Several “coney men” were desperate to get Boyd out of jail and back to work. They concocted a wild plan to secure the release of the engraver from prison by snatching President Lincoln’s body. Fortunately, the Secret Service had an uncover snitch who helped them foil the plan.  

Sheinkin’s fascinating page-turner is perfect for middle school readers and pairs well with James Swanson’s Chasing Lincoln’s Killer. These two well-written books are excellent examples of how exciting narrative non-fiction can be. I hope Scholastic and other publishers will continue to publish these types of works as teachers try to encourage more non-fiction reading in the classroom. My only problem with Lincoln’s Grave Robbers is the cover, which is too dark and not eye-catching. Readers can easily overlook this great book on library or bookstore selves, which would be a real shame.  
4.5 out of 5 stars
Grades 5 and up 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


The Mighty Mars Rovers describes the six year mission of Spirit and Opportunity. Steven Squyres's tough rovers were meant to last just three months, but they were able to battle though treacherous terrain, mechanical errors and long sandstorms to send back valuable data proving the existence of water on Mars. As Rusch states, the rovers "did the work of geologists, meteorologists, chemists, photographers, mountain climbers, and crater trekkers." What The Mighty Mars Rovers does well is show that scientific discovery takes a lot of patient trial and error. When trying to see if Opportunity could venture down a giant crater, NASA scientists had to work months to create simulations on Earth of Opportunity's situation before they could comfortably send the rover down a steep hill. While this book provides interesting information about the planet Mars, it focuses mostly on engineering process of building and maintaining the rovers. My only reservation about The Mighty Mars Rovers is that the layout of the book can be distracting at times. A few of the sidebars make it difficult to follow the main narrative; also, the photographic background of the Martian surface makes the text difficult to read on several pages.  

The Mighty Mars Rovers is an excellent resource for teaching space exploration and discovery.

Grades 5 and up 
3.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 25, 2013


Siebert Medal winner Tanya Lee Stone's new book tells the story of the Triple Nickles, America's first all black paratrooper company. Stone describes how the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion came into being during World War II. Despite strong institutional racism, the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies recommended the formation of an all-black airborne unit in December of 1942. First Sergeant Walter Morris had been training black soldiers to be paratroopers for a while, but the Triple Nickles was not officially activated until December 1943 at Fort Benning, Georgia. Through they were a well-trained company, they were not allowed to serve overseas during the war. Instead, they were sent to Pendleton, Oregon where they fought against a secret attack by Japanese. Stone's book highlights the honor and bravery of the Triple Nickles. These men wanted to fight to protect America but instead had to silently suffer horrible treatment from their own government. They hoped that their efforts would bring about a more egalitarian Armed Forces. Stone also explains a fascinating, little-known attempt by the Japanese to instill terror in American society. 

Courage Has No Color is a well-written book that adds another chapter to the history of World War II. Stone's narrative deftly balances the history of the Triple Nickles with first-person accounts from the soldiers. The books’s beautiful layout, coupled with great photography, adds to the story. This novel is an excellent companion to Shelley Pearsall's Jump into the Sky. Though I believe Stone did a superb job telling this story, I do wonder about reader interest. I am afraid that the story might not be interesting enough to entice middle grade readers. Those who do pick up Courage Has No Color will be rewarded.

3.5 Stars out of 5
Grades 5 and up

Book Review: MUSH

Joe Funk's Mush is short overview of the Iditarod race, focusing primarily on the dogs. The photography in the book is beautiful, and the layout is not overwhelming or distracting to the reader. The information is straightforward and easy to digest, making it a perfect high interest, low reading level book. Funk does not present his information in the typical chronological manner, which makes the book feel a little choppy. I would have like more information about the history of the race and the dangers, but that would have made the book longer. Mush would work very well in the classroom for modeling non-fiction reading. It would also be a good starting point for students to research about this historic race.

4 out of 5 stars
Grades 4 and up


Judith and Dennis Fradin's short, illustrated book tells the story of a group of Ohio residents who thwart the capture of a runaway slave. Kentucky slaves John Price, his cousin Dinah and their friend Frank followed the underground railroad into Ohio in January of 1856. They intended to go to Canada where their freedom would be guaranteed, but they decided to stay in the welcoming town of Oberlin. In October of that year, several slave hunters arrived in Oberlin to find the men. With the help of one of the few local families in support of the Fugitive Slave Law, they are able to grab John Price and take him to Wellington, Ohio. Believing in a "higher law," hundreds of Oberlinians go to Wellington a free John before the slave hunters are able to force him aboard a train back to Kentucky. This event became known as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. 

With powerful illustrations, the Fradlins show one of the little known, yet important events that would lead to the Civil War.  Price of Freedom is an excellent classroom novel for studying the Underground Railroad. It can be read aloud in about 10 minutes and would easily fuel discussion and further research.

4 out of 5 stars
Grades 4 and up

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Book Review: HOLD FAST

Dash Pearl loves words and puzzles, and he has passed this passion on to his daughter Early and son Jubilation.  He often comes home with riddles, rhymes and interesting stories to entertain Early and Jubie.  Though Dash can barely support his wife and children with his meager salary as a page in the Chicago Public Library System, he has big dreams that his family can one day move out of their one room apartment and into their own home.  When a mysterious man offers Dash a second job selling used books out of the Pearl family’s apartment, Dash quickly accepts.  Early is suspicious of her father’s new high paying work, but she cannot image that her father would be doing anything wrong.  However, when Dash disappears, his wife Summer fears that something terrible has happened to him and it must be connected to his second job.  The police believe Dash is involved in criminal activity and has abandoned his family. 

The Pearls face more misfortune when masked men break into their apartment, take all of their valuables, and smash everything that is left.  Without money or an income, Summer has no choice but to take her family to Helping Hand Shelter.  The Pearls quickly learn how difficult life in a homeless shelter can be.  The lack of privacy, long lines, and constant illnesses in the shelter wear on the family.  Early knows that her father would never purposely leave them or break the law.  If she can just figure out the clues Dash left behind, she can find her father and clear his name.   Then the family can get back to working on fulfilling their dreams.

Blue Balliett’s new novel does an excellent job of illustrating the hardships of the working poor and the homeless. Hold Fast shows how crippling these hardships can be for children.  Early is the target of ridicule at school because her peers know where she is living, Jubie becomes sick from the illnesses spread at the shelter, and it seems impossible for Summer to find a job without decent day care options for her son.  Despite all the wonderful services Helping Hand offers, the Pearls would be stuck in this shelter without the support of Dash.  The reader wants the Pearls to succeed, and Balliet’s novel would surely lead to more empathy for the homeless. 

Though the Pearl family’s story is very compelling, the mystery in Hold Fast is not.  Early’s investigation is a dry read, and Balliet takes the last thirty pages of the novel to explain what happened to Dash.  I’ve had trouble selling students on Balliet’s novels, and I fear I will experience the same problems with Hold Fast.  As a former teacher, Balliet wants to incorporate poetry and math into her stories, which is laudable, but the result is often laborious for readers.

3.5 out of 5 Stars
Grades 5 and up

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Carley Conner’s new stepfather was supposed to bring security and safety to her and her mother, but she knew he was bad news from the start. One night he beats Carley and her mother so badly that they are hospitalized. Carley recovers in a few days, but her mother has much more serious injuries that will require her to remain in the hospital for months. Carley is placed in a foster home with the Murphys, a kind family who will change Carley’s life forever. Carley likes her new life with the Murphys so much that she pretends she is part of their family. Unfortunately, her new friend discovers that Carley has been lying about her past and is none too happy. To make matters worse, her mother starts to recover and wants Carley back. 

Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s debut novel is a promising start. She crafts compelling characters who are likable despite numerous flaws. She also gives a realistic view of the issues foster children face. Hunt does good job of developing the relationship between Mrs. Murphy and Carley, but the other relationships in the novel fall flat. Carley and Toni’s friendship seems forced, and Rainer is fairly boring bully. The most interesting relationship in the book should be between Carley and her mother, but Hunt gives few details about their past. One for the Murphys also suffers from its numerous plot holes. It’s not believable that Carley enters a new middle school halfway through the year in a small town and no one knows she is a foster child. Also, Mr. Murphy is constantly watching Red Sox baseball games while his son is trying out for basketball. Hunt should know that sports work within a calendar and these two sports don’t happen at the same time. 

Though One for the Murphys is a likeable story, it does not stand up well among other strong novels about foster children like Jill Wolfson’s What I Call Life or Patricia Reilly Giff’s Pictures of Hollis Woods

For grades 5 and up
3 out of 5 stars

Middle School Book Club Discusses SLOB

The middle school book club met today during lunch to discuss Ellen Potter's novel Slob.  In Slob,  seventh grader Owen is an overweight genius who is has one problem after another to overcome.  When he is not trying to thwart the most evil gym teacher in the world from humiliating him or trying to catch whoever is stealing his Oreo every day out of his lunch, Owen is working on his invention: Nemesis. Nemesis is a like a television that can show events that happened in the past.  As the story unfolds, the reader learns why this invention is so important to Owen and what it is that he desperately needs to see.  Potter's short novel mixes some heavy issues with humor and fascinating characters.  Though many of our club members were unhappy with the novel's ending, everyone enjoyed this month's selection.  We had lots to discuss over our pizza lunch.

Slob Discussion Questions:

  1. Describe Mr. Wooly.  Could you image a teacher really being like him? How does he add to the story?
  2. What did you think of the GWAB group?  Why do you think Jeremy wanted to be part of the group?
  3. Did your opinion of Jeremy change over the course of the novel?
  4. Who did you suspect was stealing Owen’s cookies?
  5. Who can explain Owen’s invention Nemesis?
  6. Did you ever suspect that Zelda was not Owen’s real mother?  When did you first realize the truth?
  7. How did you react when you learned what really happened to Owen’s parents?
  8. Who wrote the note SLOB? What did you think it meant and what did it really mean?
  9. Why do you think Owen held on to the note and what did he let it go in the end?
  10. How did your opinion of Mason change over the course of the novel?
  11. Did you find this novel to be too dark or depressing for middle school?
  12. Would you recommend this novel to anyone? If so, who?

Our selection for March will be Legend by Marie Lu. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Book Review: PEANUT

Sadie desperately wants to fit in at her new high school.  She was not popular at her previous school, and she believes she needs an interesting story to get her new peers to notice her immediately.  Peanut allergies get a lot of attention.  Everyone knows the kids who could die if they ingest the wrong thing in the cafeteria, and it’s an easy conversation starter.  What could go wrong if she faked a peanut allergy?  Sadie gets a personalized medical alert bracelet online and a lie is born. After she gives an oral report about her “medical issues” in her homeroom, a couple of classmates invite her to sit with them in the cafeteria.  Then an attractive boy starts fawning over her.  With a boyfriend and new friends, Sadie is happy, but she finds that keeping up the lie is harder than she ever imagined. 

Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe’s graphic novel gives a realistic picture of the fears new students face.  Making friends and fitting in can be daunting. Over my years of the teaching, I have witnessed several new students telling lies about their past to seem more interesting.  When the truth is revealed, the consequences can be quite painful.  Sadie probably could have made friends by being herself, and fabricating her elaborate medical history never allowed her to really relax and enjoy her new friendships.  Peanut is a great cautionary tale for those kids who sometimes feel the need to fictionalize their lives.   Nobody likes to be caught telling a lie.  The novel also gives detailed information about allergies and how to treat them. 

Peanut would be an enjoyable book for middle school readers.  The characters are well developed, the plot is interesting, and the illustrations are nicely done.  However, a few mature words and drawings render the book inappropriate for middle schools.  I wish Halliday and Hoppe had left those out so that their book could be enjoyed by a wider audience.

3.5 out of 5 stars.
Grades 8 and up

Friday, February 1, 2013


At the end of World War II, Jack’s mother dies of an aneurysm just before his highly decorated father returns from fighting in the Navy.  Jack’s father continues to serve in the military, which means Jack must move from his home in Kansas to a boarding school in Maine so that he can be near his father.  Jack feels like a fish out of water at his new school.  The only connection he makes at Morton Hill Academy for Boys is with Early Auden, an orphan at the boarding school who rarely attends classes.  Early might be considered an autistic savant today.  He lives in the school basement, possibly has epilepsy, and is obsessed with the number pi.  Like Jack, Early has experienced devastating loss; his brother is believed to have been killed in action during the war.  Jack and Early form an unlikely friendship when Jack needs help learning to row, a popular sport at their school. 

During fall break, Jack is supposed to leave with his father, but unfortunately his dad cancels at the last minute.  All the other boys at Morton Hill are taking off with their families, except Early.  Early is planning on going on a journey, and Jack, not wanting to be alone and afraid of Early going anywhere on his own, decides to accompany him.  Jack has no idea what Early’s intentions with this trip are, but he is about to go on the adventure of a lifetime that will feature a giant bear, pirates, a lost hero, a hidden cave, a hundred-year-old woman, a murder mystery, a great white whale, and a timber rattlesnake.

Newbery award-winning author Clare Vanderpool’s new novel is a story about friendship, grief, and self-discovery.  Navigating Early is a Huckleberry Finn meets The Odyssey novel for middle grades readers.  Vanderpool creates a wild story with humorous characters.  You have to suspend disbelief when the novel starts to weave numerous storylines together at the end, but the final result is quite beautiful.  I think Navigating Early would work much better as a read-aloud where children could discuss the complex storyline with peers and adults.  I’m not sure that the novel’s intended audience would be able to appreciate the multi-layered story and all the literary devices Vanderpool employs on their own. It is unfortunate that Navigating Early is not as accessible as Vanderpool's brilliant previous novel Moon Over Manifest.

3.5 stars out of 5
Grades 5 and up