Read On!

Mrs. Farquharson’s musings about books for children and young adults

Summer Reading

May29

Generally speaking, books don’t cause much harm. Except when you read them, that is. Then they cause all kinds of problems.        Pseudonymous Bosch

During the summer months, children and adults have more time to read for pleasure. Having unlimited choices can sometimes be daunting though. I’ve gone back through my archives to find some of the best books that I’ve reviewed over the years. These recommendations are all novels that were published a while ago, and since they aren’t new, readers might not find them on their own. I’ve looked to include series and authors who have written multiple books. I know that when I find a book that I enjoy, I’m thrilled when the author has other books because I usually will enjoy them also. It would be easy to just recommend J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter Series or Rick Riordan and his Olympians Series, and these are super, but do check out some of these other “Hidden Gems”.

The Secret Series by Pseudonymous Bosch: Readers know that a pseudonym is a fictitious name (or when an author doesn’t want to reveal his/her own name). From the beginning, the reader wonders what kind of author has written the first book in the series, The Name of This Book Is Secret. The answer comes in the first pages, even before the first chapter, when the author writes, “Generally speaking, books don’t cause much harm. Except when you read them, that is. Then they cause all kinds of problems.” Pseudonymous Bosch talks directly to the readers, similar to the way that Lemony Snicket does in The Series of Unfortunate Events. He gives warnings, tells the reader that he isn’t going to tell everything (hmm..), and displays a great deal of humor by teasing the readers with just enough information to keep them wondering where he is heading with the story.

One of my favorite series is The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann. When I first read about the series in my professional journals, it seemed that the reviews contained a bit of hyperbole. The Unwanteds was described as “The Hunger Games meet Harry Potter”. When I began to read the first book, I was hooked. I continue to recommend these books to children in the intermediate grades and middle school. Fast forward through the seven books in the series, and Lisa McMann has written a companion series, The Unwanteds Quests.

Before she became an author of young adult books, Sharon Draper taught in middle schools and high schools. Her plots and characters demonstrate that she understands and remembers a child’s and young adult’s experiences. Ms. Draper has a talent that takes her readers into her character’s thoughts and experiences. Sharon Draper’s newest book is Blended, and I highly recommend it for readers in grades 5 and higher. Eleven-year-old Isabella is bi-racial and a gifted pianist who is struggling with her parents’ divorce. Some of the events are very pertinent to events occurring in our nation today.

Richard Peck’s novels for children and young adults have received many awards and commendations: the Newbery Medal, Edgar Allan Poe Award, Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Edgar Award, and as National Book Award finalists. All of this recognition means nothing to a fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth-grade reader. They aren’t impressed. They want to read books that speak to them where they are. Richard Peck does just that. The main character in The Best Man is Archer, and his family members help him navigate the daily decisions that he makes that define him as a person. There is a great deal of humor in the author’s sensitive descriptions of bullying, homosexuality, divorce, and the hierarchy in middle school. Even though the author is addressing these weighty topics, he does so in a highly entertaining way, recognizing them as aspects of everyday life.

Bliss, by Kathryn Littlewood (HarperCollins), introduces a delightful family who own a bakery that is beloved in their town. The protagonist, Rose, suspects that her parents employ magic when baking some of their special foods. When her parents go out of town, Rose and her siblings are supposed to protect the family’s Cookery Booke, which is kept under lock and key. They are surprised when a flashy aunt, whom they never knew before, rides into town on her motorcycle. Rose is drawn in by her new-found aunt, and she begins playing with powerful magic. This is the first book in the Bliss Bakery Trilogy. The other books are A Dash of Magic and Bite-Sized Magic.

Jennifer Holm’s book, The Fourteenth Goldfish, is a humorous book that tackles the subject of immortality. Humor and immortality? Yes, the main character, Ellie, is a sixth-grader who is struggling to navigate middle school. She misses her best friend, and she learns that her mother had been replacing her goldfish every time it died without her knowledge. When a new, weird boy approaches her, he reminds Ellie a lot of her grandfather who is a scientist obsessed with immortality.

In The Land of Stories: The Wishing Well by Chris Colfer, twins enter a magical world of fairy tale characters through a special book. The characters are real, and their lives have continued past the stories told to children. This is the first of The Land of Stories Series, and it is filled with adventure and humor. Colfer has written another series that starts with A Tale of Magic.

A series that uses the same fairy tale concept is The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley. The first book is The Fairy Tale Detectives. This series is a must read for any child who enjoys fairy tales, adventure, humor, and magic. There is a richness to the series because readers are introduced to fairy tale characters of whom they may never have heard. Even a reader with a solid literature background will be intrigued to learn more information about Mordred, Morgan le Fay, and Excalibur from Arthurian legend, Puck from Shakespeare, and Baba Yaga, from Russian folklore. Buckley does not limit himself from using only characters from the Brothers Grimm, but he entwines their lives with stories from Hans Christian Andersen, Andrew Lang, Washington Irving, Charles Perrault, L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll, Carlo Collodi, and American tall tales.

Chris Grabenstein entertains readers with his series that begins with Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. He tells the story of a group of children who stay overnight in the new town library designed by Luigi Lemoncello, a master puzzle maker. They form teams to solve his master puzzle.

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan is a difficult book to describe because it shifts back and forth from fantasy to reality. In a mysterious and forbidden forest, a man meets three strange sisters who deliver a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica. That harmonica is intertwined within three other stories. Readers will be drawn to the challenges that Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California face during different time periods. This is a long book with 592 pages, and readers will be so engrossed in the plot that they will be disappointed to have it end.

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine is historical fiction that chronicles the racism and discrimination that existed in our society, especially in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1958. Marlee, an extremely shy girl watches as her city, and even her family, are divided in their opinions over school integration. Marlee becomes friends with Liz, a new student who is everything that she isn’t. Marlee is so quiet that she borders on being mute, and Liz is outgoing and brave. Through Liz’s friendship, Marlee gains self-confidence. When Liz suddenly stops coming to school, her friend discovers that it is because Liz was actually a light-skinned African American who had been passing for white. Even though there was a federal school integration order, the local
authorities were still maintaining all-white schools.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan has an unforgettable protagonist who narrates the novel. Sloan’s protagonist, Willow has a unique and profound voice that resonates throughout the story. Depending on your point of view, you will want to be her friend, or teacher, or parent. Her world falls apart when she is in middle school. It’s no spoiler to tell you that in the opening chapter, the reader learns that Willow’s parents die. While this shatters Willow’s world, a diverse group of individuals reaches out to save her. It is Willow who saves them and brings out each one’s “giftedness” (my term). Do share this book with a fifth, sixth, or seventh grader, but be sure to read it yourself too.

In year’s past, our fourth, fifth, and sixth graders enjoyed Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea. The chapters of the novel are told through the voices of various students, and readers gain insight into an event through different perspectives. A review in Booklist described Mr. Terupt, the protagonist of the novel as one of those teachers “who encourage their students to think for themselves, question the conventions they understand about school, and become better people.” This is the first in a series.

Obi-Wan Kenobi used the phrase, “May the force be with you”, when he wished Luke Skywalker luck when they were saying good-bye to each other. Tom Angleberger’s Origami Yoda Series starts with The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. This is written in a notebook or journal form with short chapters that are narrated by different characters. It seems that Dwight, probably the nerdiest student in McQuarrie Middle School, has begun carrying around his origami creation of Yoda. When he puts Origami Yoda on his finger and answers his classmates’ questions, Yoda is much wiser than Dwight could ever be. Tommy and his friends struggle to decipher whether Origami Yoda truly does have power. He must because that’s the only way to explain how someone as clueless as Dwight could offer such sensible advice.

“And now, the stories are yours…”      – Mrs. Farquharson

From the Archives

May21

I was exploring my blog and reading posts that I wrote when I first started writing it. I was interested to see which of my recommendations had withstood the test of time. My third entry in April 2009 was about a novel, Masterpiece by Elise Broach. Yes! I still love this book, and I still recommend it for our intermediate readers. This led me off on a tangent to immerse myself in Broach’s work. Check out her website to see the variety of books that she has written – more intermediate level novels as well as some for middle school readers, an early reader series based on Masterpiece, picture books, and board books. As you are looking for summer reading for all ages, do check out Elise Broach.

Here’s my “vintage” review with a wee bit of editing:

Elise Broach has written her own masterpiece and given it that title. Masterpiece is one of the best books for our middle elementary school children (students in grades three, four, and five) that I’ve read this year. I couldn’t put the book down, as I cheered on the main character, Marvin, a young beetle who lives with his family in a New York City apartment. His beetle family resides under the kitchen sink, and they keenly observe the daily events in the lives of the human family who live in the apartment. The beetles are especially sympathetic to James, whose feelings and interests his mother and stepfather often overlook. When James’s birthday is definitely not a happy event, Marvin decides that he must give James a special gift, and he sketches a drawing using an ink set that James’s artist father gave him as a gift. When his family members believe that James created the tiny detailed painting, he is overwhelmed by the attention and doesn’t deny it. James learns about Marvin’s skill, and although they can’t speak to each other, they learn to communicate in other ways. As I read this book, I became interested in learning more about the German artist, Albrecht Durer, since he is featured in an important exhibit that the characters visit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

All of the details that I’ve described only set up the main plotline which involves a famous painting, an art heist, but most of all true friendship.

Masterpiece reminds me of George Selden’s beloved classic, The Cricket in Times Square. The books exhibit the same suspension of reality, as the reader believes in the fantasy worlds that bring insects to life. On the flap of The Cricket in Times Square, one reviewer describes Selden’s book in a way that is fitting to write of Broach’s Masterpiece. “Every once in a while a story is told, ostensibly for children, which captures so perfectly the imaginative realm in which even children are permitted to dwell only for a time, that the adult world must stop and listen too.” These words perfectly describe the experience that I enjoyed reading both of these books.

Some of our fourth and fifth graders have also enjoyed Elise Broach’s novel, Shakespeare’s Secret. While the plot of this book is current and realistic, the author interested a few of us enough to look for more information about William Shakespeare. Elise Broach’s writing tends to do that to you.

 

MACBA

April4

The winner and honor books for the 2019 Massachusetts Children’s Book Award were announced this month. While our readers at DCD didn’t choose the state winner, they voted for three of the books that are the 2019 honor books.

Jennifer Nielsen’s book, A Night Divided, was this year’s winner. Her thank you letter discusses her novel and her inspiration for it.

“The book’s origin came from Ilona, a friend of our family’s. She was born into East Germany and at age five, her family made the decision to escape. Ilona’s parents planned to escape through the countryside. However, they didn’t want to take a five-year-old running through the countryside, so a different plan had to be put in place for Ilona.

Her grandparents in the west would come over by train, and then return by train with Ilona – not on the seat beside them because she had no papers. Instead, Ilona was drugged, put to sleep, and hidden in the baggage car of the train beneath a pile of hay. The knew the car would be searched at the border, and if Ilona even rolled over in her sleep, she would be sent back to East Germany alone and her grandparents would be arrested, or worse.

In the end, all of Ilona’s family successfully escaped, but when I heard her story, I knew I wanted to tell the story of the people of East Germany. It means so much to me that you then read this book, and loved it.”

To read the rest of Nielsen’s acceptance letter go to the MACBA site here.

The honor books are Ghost by Jason Reynolds, A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord, Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin, and Framed by James Ponti.

MCBA

February27

This week, we celebrated reading with our annual Massachusetts Children’s Book Award voting party. Prior to choosing their top books, the participating students advocated for their personal preferences. Many of the children commented that they were introduced to new authors and series that have now become favorites.

The winner of the vote is Rain Reign by Ann Martin. Rose is thrilled that her name is a homonym (rows). She names her dog Rain because that also has homonyms (reign and rein). Rose’s autism is evident through the rules that she makes for herself. It is difficult for her father and her teachers to understand her. When Rain disappears in a flood, Rose must break her own rules and overcome her fears to search for him.

There were three books that came in very close in the voting.

Ghost by Jason Reynolds is about a track team from an elite middle school where the main character is not only running on the field but also running from his problems.

Framed by James Ponti is an entertaining mystery about middle schooler who has a knack for solving mysteries, even one that puzzles the FBI at the National Gallery.

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes tells the story of three friends from very different cultures whose families are all affected by the event of 9/11 that happened before Déja, Ben, and Sabeen were born.

Newbery 2019

February7

The Newbery Award is presented “…to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” (American Library Association)

The 2019 Newbery Award was presented to Meg Median for her novel Merci Suárez Changes Gears (Candlewick Press). Merci Suárez and her brother navigate their way through an elite private school as scholarship students. Even though she sees the palatial homes, boats, and cars that her classmates enjoy, Merci is comfortable and confident with her own life and close family. Entering sixth grade brings totally new social issues for her as she navigates middle school jealousies. Suddenly, her idyllic family life is turned upside down when her beloved grandfather begins to have memory issues. The author exhibits humor and understanding to Merci’s adolescent issues.

There were two Newbery Honor Books this year:
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani (Dial)
The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, illustrated by Ian Schoenherr (Greenwillow)

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Mustaches for Maddie

April20

A few months ago, I was sent a novel from Chris Schoebinger at Shadow Mountain Publishing. After I read it, I’ve shared it with some readers who have enjoyed it as much as I did. I now have a waiting list to read it. Mustaches for Maddie (2017) was written by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown. The authors tell the story of their daughter, Maddie, and her struggles with a serious medical condition. (No spoilers here!) Maddie loves mustaches, and she has many different ones that she puts on to brighten up her day or lighten up a situation.

Maddie faces navigating the social mores of sixth grade that so many children of her age encounter. She wants to be friends with Cassie, the social leader in her class, as do so many of the other girls. Cassie bullies the girls, tries to manipulate the boys, and determine who is “in” or out. Maddie feels bad for those who aren’t included, but she isn’t confident enough to challenge Cassie. When she begins to have medical problems, Maddie realizes how important friendships are. No matter how serious a situation, friends will support her and wear mustaches!

Mustaches for Maddie is a charming novel that entertains readers as it challenges them to be aware of their actions. Maddie faces serious medical challenges with bravery and humor. The authors’ daughter, the “real” Maddie, wrote a poignant letter that is included at the end of the book. I picture her wearing a mustache as she wrote it. Here is an excerpt from that letter:

I try really hard to be friends with everyone. We don’t always realize what trial other people are going through. Sometimes it takes courage to be kind to some people. But we need to always stick up for what’s right. You can do it. Anytime, anywhere, you can have compassion. Everybody needs a friend and that friend can be you So show them that you truly care.

Be kind. Smile more. Laugh more. Dream more.

 

Massachusetts Children’s Book Award 2018

April13

The winner and honor books for the 2018 Massachusetts Children’s Book Award were announced this month. Our readers at DCD chose the same book as the state winner, and they also voted for two of the state honor books.

This year’s most highly rated book is The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial). The setting is Great Britain during WWII. The protagonist is Ava, a young girl who was born with a club foot. Her mother shows Ava no affection. Ava envies her brother who is able to run free and escape the loveless home. When children are being evacuated from London and welcomed into homes in the safer countryside, she sneaks off to join her brother whom her mother put on the transport. When the siblings are sheltered by a recluse who is forced to house them, Ava finally experiences something that she always longed for, kindness. Yet, she does not know how to accept it. The fourth, fifth, and sixth graders who read this novel all enjoyed this book. They have now moved on to the sequel, The War I Finally Won which was recently published.

The two honor books that DCD’s readers chose are Space Case by Stuart Gibbs (Simon & Schuster) and Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (Nancy Paulsen Books). There were a number of quality selections that were nominated for the award this year. Our readers were introduced to some authors and genres that were new to them. We look forward to Salem State University’s publication of the list of nominees for 2019. Those will be announced soon.

 

Thank You Julius Lester and Ursula Le Guin

January26

The children’s literature community lost two giants in the field this week, Julius Lester and Ursula Le Guin. Both writers made significant contributions, not only with the books that they wrote, but also with the intellect that they brought to the discourse of literature for children and young adults.

Before becoming a writer, Julius Bernard Lester (1939-2018) hosted a radio and television show, recorded albums of original and traditional songs, and taught English and history at the university level. He was a distinguished photographer and professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst from 1971 until he retired in 2003. While his courses were highly sought after, he was not afraid of conflict. The Afro-American Studies faculty voted to have him removed from their department because of his characterization of James Baldwin’s writings as being anti-Semitic. He finished his tenure in another department, and he continued to be honored as a distinguished teacher. (Photo from Jewish Week)

Lester was also highly honored in the children’s literature field by numerous award committees: the Newberry, the Coretta Scott King, and the Boston Globe/Hornbook. It’s difficult to choose my favorite book that he wrote for children. I continue to introduce many of them every year in my classes. Lester collaborated with illustrator, Jerry Pinkney, when he modernized the Uncle Remus Tales of Brer Rabbit in multiple volumes. They also produced significant picture books together: Sam and the Tigers: The New Telling of Little Black Sambo, John Henry, and Black Cowboy, Wild Horses: A True Story.

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (1929-2018) wrote more for intermediate readers, young adults, and adults. She grew up surrounded by her parents’ friends who were intellectuals in many fields. Her fantasy and science fiction novels, short stories, and poetry were groundbreaking because she pushed the boundaries in her alternate and alternative worlds. She wrote thoughtfully about gender, religion, race, and environmentalism. (Photo from Time)

Le Guin, also, was honored throughout her life by numerous organizations: the Library of Congress, the American Library Association, the National Book Foundation, and the Science Fiction Research Association to name a few. The Library of Congress recognized her contributions in 2000 and awarded Ursula Le Guin the Living Legend Award in the Writers and Artists category. In 2016, the New York Times described Le Guin as “America’s greatest living science fiction writer”.

Le Guin was influenced by many fantasy writers, among them were J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, and Kenneth Grahame. In turn, her writing has influenced important contemporary writers like Neil Gaiman and Salman Rushdie.

Ursula Le Guin’s most important novels were her Earthsea Cycle: The Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, The Other Wind, and Tales from Earthsea. The Wizard of Earthsea won many awards and was greatly discussed when it was published. Le Guin didn’t write this for a strictly juvenile audience, she wrote it for readers. Her books are similar to Tolkien’s because adults gain as much from them as young adults do.

Ursula Le Guin and Julius Lester have left legacies that will live on for future readers to enjoy.

 

Massachusetts Children’s Book Award

September15

Once again, we will be promoting the nominees for the Massachusetts Children’s Book Awards (MCBA) during the 2017-2018 school year at DCD. Even though I’ve written about this program before, I would like to explain it to parents who have never had a fourth, fifth, or sixth grader who is participating. This voluntary reading incentive program has become a popular event for many students. Started by Dr. Helen Constant in 1975, it is administered through Salem State University. Twenty-five books are nominated for the award, and our voting for the DCD favorites will take place in late winter.

There are many obvious benefits to reading along with us for the next few months. Students are often introduced to authors who are unknown to them before this, and they return looking for other books by them. Some of the authors, like Liesel Shurtliff and Tom Angleberger, are already favorites of many intermediate readers. An important benefit that may not be obvious is that our readers become critics. They learn how to evaluate literature through plot, characters, and interest, and they have fun doing so. Throughout the next few months, I’ll highlight some of the nominated titles. Links to the reading lists and our required journal pages can be found on our DCD Library page. From time to time, I’ll be reviewing some of the titles under consideration for the award. So…let me write about one today.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (2015) falls into the genre of realistic fiction. Readers can easily relate to the contemporary characters. Ally struggles in school, and her older brother is sorry that he can’t help her because academics aren’t his strength either. She doesn’t want to bother her mother because her father is on active duty overseas, and her mother has enough worries. A new teacher understands that Ally isn’t really a troublemaker, but she is a creative girl who learns differently. My favorite quote in the book is, “Everybody is genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Richard Peck – The Best Man

November18

Ironically, it was my students who taught me to be a writer, though I was hired to teach them.

Richard Peck

Richard Peck’s novels for children and young adults have received many awards and commendations: the Newbery Medal, Edgar Allan Poe Award, Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Edgar Award, and as National Book Award finalists. All of this recognition means nothing to a fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth grade reader. They aren’t impressed. They want to read books that speak to them where they are. Richard Peck does just that.

After serving in the military, Peck became a teacher, first in a high school. In many interviews, he speaks of then being involuntarily transferred to teach English in a middle school. While his educational career wasn’t long, it was there that he observed so much about adolescents. His keen insight comes alive on the page as a reader becomes immersed in his stories.

long My favorite character that Peck has created is Grandma Dowdel, first introduced in A Long Way from Chicago. His descriptions of her have brought her to life for me. Maybe she reminds me of one or both my own grandmothers, and that is a gift from this author. Thank you Richard!

bestRichard Peck’s latest book, The Best Man (Dial), is contemporary fiction. His protagonist, Archer Magill’s voice is that of an average (if there is such a person) sixth grade boy. He often doesn’t recognize the enormity of the personal events around him. His best friend, Lynette discusses that with him when he witnesses a bullying situation at school. Archer and two other boys have found a smaller classmate tied up in the bathroom with the word “gay “ written on his forehead in fluorescent marker. The student teacher, whom all of the students admire, handles the situation with the bullies and their class by explaining that being gay is not just a word, it’s an identity. Mr. McLeod says that it is his identity. Archer never even considered that, and Lynette talks with him about it.

You really take your sweet time, don’t you, Archer?
Time to what?
Mr. McLeod must really have put it out there if you picked up on it. He must have spelled it out.
It got spelled out all right, on Russell’s forehead.

Archer’s family members help him navigate the daily decisions that he makes that define him as a person. There is a great deal of humor in the author’s sensitive descriptions of bullying, homosexuality, divorce, and the hierarchy in middle school. Even though the author is addressing these weighty topics, he does so in a highly entertaining way, recognizing them as aspects of everyday life. In my opinion, this is another award winner for Richard Peck.

In the following clip, Richard Peck discusses the importance of reading aloud to your children. The Best Man might be just the book to read aloud with your pre-adolescent or adolescent. It would open up some important areas of discussion for you all.

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