Dead End in Norvelt

Written by Jack Gantos

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There’s a reason the Gantos boy won the Newbery Medal. He also won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Ficiton. The first book in the Norvelt series based on the author’s childhood is engaging and laugh out loud funny, though darkly funny in places. Miss Volker, Jack’s neighbor, is the elderly medical examiner and obituary writer for the town of Norvelt, established and named for EleaNOR RooseVELT. Miss Volker’s arthritis has gotten so bad, she must soak her hands in melted paraffin before they are of any use at all, so she enlists Jack’s help at every opportunity. Meanwhile Jack is in an extended grounding for accidentally shooting off his father’s Japanese rifle and for mowing down his mother’s corn at his father’s urging. His excitement grows as the old ladies of Norvelt start dropping like flies. After several deaths, the town newspaper publisher and the police begin to get suspicious. Is Miss Volker the culprit or is it the lone surviving original male Norvelter, adult tricycle rider Mr. Spizz? All the while, Jack is fighting constant nose bleeds, and Miss Volker is determined to help him with that.

And Jack’s father is building a runway for an airplane of questionable safety while Jack digs a bomb shelter by hand.

Fourth graders and up will enjoy the dry humor. The story will hold their attention to strengthen literacy and comprehension. Teachers, librarians, and parents will enjoy the fact that with each obituary comes a history lesson. A quick check of facts may be in order, though.

 

  • Dead End in NorveltTitle: Dead End in Norvelt
  • Author: Jack Gantor
  • Publisher: Square Fish/Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2011
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Paperback, 384 pages
  • Genre: Middle grade historical fiction, humor
  • ISBN: 978-1-250-01023-0

 

Wonder

Written by R.J. Palacio

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Auggie is not normal. At least his appearance isn’t. But his emotions and his intelligence are. Due to a genetic anomaly, August Pullman is born with no jaw, no ears as we know them, and misplaced facial features. His appearance, coupled with multiple surgeries, means that he’s home schooled until he’s ready for fifth grade. He’s gotten very good at noticing the reaction to his unusual appearance and moving on, but it’s not always easy. When his parents get him into a private middle school, he’s faced with a whole new set of challenges. The author has mastered the art of showing the many sides of an issue. Although Auggie is the main focus, we get to hear how his sister and some of the other kids view the situation. There are no huge surprises in the plot, but what is surprising is the depth of the characters and the abilities they discover. Even the principal discovers his own compassion, with tears on his face at one point.

Fourth graders and up will love the humor and identify with the bullying that happens. Before Auggie even gets to the school, his parents have him laughing about the principal, Mr. Tuchman’s name by saying their professor, Miss Butt. Perfect fourth grade humor. Kids will learn a little about genetics and facial deformity while enhancing their literacy skills. Among other awards, this debut novel was named an Amazon Best Books of the Month for Kids, 2012.

  • WonderTitle: Wonder
  • Author: R.J. Palacio
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2012
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 316 pages
  • Genre: Contemporary fiction, friendship, physical challenges
  • ISBN: 978-0-375-86902-0
  • Lexile: 790L

Saucy and Bubba

Written by Darcy Pattison

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Billed as a modern Hansel and Gretel tale, this new novel explores some of the scarier aspects presented in fairy tales. Saucy, age eleven, and brother Bubba, seven, have lost their mother and are being cared for by Krissy, their daddy’s new wife. Daddy is out on the road, driving a big rig and trying to keep the bills paid. Krissy has a drinking problem, which Daddy refuses to see. When Krissy is drunk, Saucy hides. Krissy gets so drunk one night, she threatens to hit Saucy, which is the last straw. Saucy and Bubba board a cross-country bus in order to seek help from their Aunt Vivian. Of course, Bubba insists they leave a trail of white stones for Daddy to follow to them. After a terrifying trip, they arrive at Aunt Vivian’s house, but there’s no Aunt Vivian. Eventually, things get better, but not perfect, as in the real world.

Although written at a third to fourth grade reading level, the subject matter may be for the more mature members of this age group. Saucy’s ability to recognize Krissy’s very adult problems puts her squarely at her stated age of eleven. Also, she has an uncanny ability to keep Bubba safe against all odds on a long bus trip, at home with Krissy, and with a stranger/predator. But Saucy’s struggles are a good model for children who need to trust an adult in order to solve a problem, whether it’s abuse or bullying or another issue. In the scary, modern world, abuse and bullying know no age limits.

  • SaucyTitle: Saucy and Bubba
  • Author: Darcy Pattison
  • Publisher: Mims House, 2013
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 156 pages
  • Genre: Contemporary fairy tale, running away, alcoholism
  • ISBN: 978-1-62944-008-8
  • Lexile: 590L

Steering Toward Normal

Written by Rebecca Petruck

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Competition is a part of life now for kids. And this is just as true in a rural setting as it is in the city. Where urban children learn to dance or do gymnastics or play soccer early, country kids might raise steers or sheep. This is the backdrop for this new novel for fourth graders and above. Another theme to which urban kids can also relate is that of family. Thirteen-year-old Diggy lives with his father, Pop, after his mother abandoned him as a baby. His mother never married Pop, but no one doubts Pop is his biological father. Diggy’s classmate, Wayne, loses his mother to cancer, and it’s revealed that Wayne’s dad may not be his biological father. Is Wayne Diggy’s half brother? Wayne ends up living with Pop and Diggy while Wayne’s dad works on his alcoholism. The two boys fight like brothers and raise steers together for the 4-H fair. Diggy is expected to win Grand Champion at the state fair. Wayne insists Diggy needs to find his own mother, though he really doesn’t want to.

Rural kids will identify with all the details about the steers, and urban kids will learn about animals and see how farm animals can be loved just like their own pets. There is plenty of information about 4-H and cattle at the end of the book. The pace is lively and light. Pop and Diggy love to play pranks, and April Fools’ Day is a major holiday at their house.

 

  • Steering toward normalTitle: Steering Toward Normal
  • Author: Rebecca Petruck
  • Publisher: Amulet/Abrams, 2014
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
  • Genre: Contemporary fiction, rural life, family
  • ISBN: 978-1-4197-0732-2
  • Publication date: May 13, 2014

The Soccer Fence: A Story of Friendship, Hope and Apartheid in South Africa

Written by Phil Bildner
Illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson

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Every child wants to play. But the fences in our world, past and present cause pain to the youngest of our citizens, as is clearly illustrated in words and realistic illustrations, in this new book about the apartheid of South Africa’s past.

This story clearly explains to our children of today what the separation of the races meant in South Africa. It wasn’t a fence taken down easily or quickly. Readers will see the main character grow older and bigger while still being denied the opportunity to play soccer with the other boys of the town. While this is categorized as a fictional account of the struggle to open up the country, it will be a valuable addition to every school library and classroom. It can meet the needs of the core curriculum as it strives to educate our youth of the mistakes of our global past while strengthening all basic literacy skills.

The many-layered story includes early riots, Mandela’s release from prison and his winning of the presidential election as well as the unifying soccer match that brought South Africa’s struggle to the world stage.

It brings to mind Jacqueline Woodson’s beautiful book, The Other Side, which tells of such separation between playing children in the past of our own country. These books could easily be introduced together to discuss parallels in the societal developments of world history.

Second grade, third grade and fourth grade readers will cheer for all sides whether reading the book individually or having it read to them by a teacher, parent or librarian.  However, this book should not be limited to use in the primary grades, as it has such a strong voice and important story to tell.

  • Soccer FenceTitle: The Soccer Fence: A Story of Friendship, Hope and Apartheid in South Africa
  • Author: Phil Bildner
  • Illustrator: Jesse Joshua Watson
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s, 2014
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 40 pages
  • ISBN:  978-0-399-24790-3
  • Genre: Historical Fiction, South Africa
  • Grade level 1-4

Half a Chance

Written by Cynthia Lord

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Even the most good-hearted person can do the wrong thing for the right reasons. (Not to mention doing a few wrong things for the wrong reasons.) So it is with Lucy, the heroine in Lord’s third novel. Lucy can’t resist trying to win a contest to help a friend, even though she knows it’s a bad idea.

When Lucy and her parents move to a lake cottage in New Hampshire, she immediately befriends the summer family next door. The son, Nate, becomes a constant companion. The grandmother, Grandma Lilah, wins Lucy’s heart with her concern over the loons that live on the lake. Grandma Lilah is not well and frequently gets upset, much to Lucy’s confusion. Lucy’s dad is a famous photographer. When Lucy and Nate aren’t checking on the loons for Grandma Lilah, they’re working on a photography contest for which Dad is the judge. They want to win money to pay for a way to get Grandma Lilah close to her beloved loons one more time. Adding to the tension is another summer resident, Megan, who also wants to be friends with Nate. Lucy’s jealousy is well-founded and adds a dimension to Lucy’s personality, as does the fact that she has trouble coming to terms with her father’s frequent absences. She wants more attention from him.

Fourth graders and up will love the bond Lucy forms with the birds and enjoy the creative ways in which she interprets the categories for the contest. Their hearts will go out to the older woman in her struggles. Many reading activities are suggested by Lucy’s participation in tracking the loons, in her photographic pursuits, in her kayaking, and in her desire to help Grandma Lilah.

The author’s website, www.cynthialord.com, has many more reading activities.

  • Half a ChanceTitle: Half a Chance
  • Author: Cynthia Lord
  • Publisher: Scholastic, 2014
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 224 pages
  • Genre: Contemporary fiction, nature, dementia, friendship, family
  • ISBN: 978-0545035330

The Day My Father Became a Bush

Written by Joke van Leeuwen

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In this completely offbeat novel, the reader has a chance to learn about all the concerns of refugees. The author is able to give subject a light touch by showing the world through the eyes of a child. Children don’t look at war the same way an adult would.

Toda lives with her father and grandmother on one side of the border. Her mother lives on the other side of the border. As her father prepares to go to war, Toda learns with him about the various ways a soldier can use the landscape as camouflage – thus the title. Her father plans to become a bush and protect himself from the fighting. The fighting closes in on their home, so, for her protection, Toda is sent to live with her mother. But the journey is anything but easy. The bus she’s on makes unexpected stops. People try to adopt her. People helping her get captured. She loses her mother’s street address. But Toda maintains her good humor and realistic view of the world throughout.

The frequent drawings, allegedly by Toda, are whimsical and sometimes reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut.  “There was a picture in the book of a soldier who had disguised himself as a bush.” Literacy skills are reinforced by the language barrier created by the border and various other reasons Toda must think about what people really mean. Fourth graders and older readers will cheer for Toda and wish her well.

  • Father Became a BushTITLE: The Day My Father Became a Bush
  • AUTHOR: Joke van Leeuwen
  • PUBLISHER: Gecko Press, 2014
  • REVIEWER: Sue Poduska
  • ISBN: 9781877579486
  • FORMAT: Hard cover, 104 pages
  • GENRE: Contemporary Fiction, War, Refugees
  • USA PUBLICATION DATE: April 1, 2014

From Norvelt to Nowhere

Written by Jack Gantos

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Get ready for more antics from that Gantos boy, hero to fourth grade boys and girls everywhere. From his Halloween costume that looks like the local serial killer to digging a fallout shelter right into his family’s septic tank, Jack’s misadventures are memorable and hilarious. Miss Volker, Jack’s best friend, becomes the last old lady in Norvelt, courtesy of a series of poisoned Girl Scout cookies. Then Eleanor Roosevelt dies and Jack’s cross country adventure begins. Jack escorts Miss Volker to Mrs. Roosevelt’s grave. They get word of her sister’s death in Florida. With detectives and killers alike following them, they take a zig-zag course in various vehicles, including a hand-painted VW Beetle, a hearse, an amphibious vehicle, and a police motorcycle with a side car. They take a train to Washington, DC and buy a beetle at a Foggy Bottom used car lot. Jack, at age fourteen, drives them to Tennessee and to Florida, with Miss Volker warming her hands in everything from split pea soup to a bucket of coals in the car. Although Jack tends to get all his literary information from Illustrated Classics, there is enough about Moby Dick and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to make the references interesting and informative, and to encourage further literary activity. The historical references are also sneakily educational and funny.

The publisher’s website, mackids.com, has a lot of information about the author and his books. The author’s website, http://www.jackgantos.com/, is a good companion guide.

From Norvelt

  • TITLE: From Norvelt to Nowhere
  • AUTHOR: Jack Gantos
  • PUBLISHER: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2013
  • REVIEWER: Sue Poduska
  • ISBN: 978-0-374-37994-0
  • FORMAT: Hard cover, 278 pages
  • GENRE: Historical Fiction, Humor, History

Out of My Mind

Written by Sharon M. Draper

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Melody is incredibly smart, but no one knows it. She’s locked inside her brilliant mind because she has cerebral palsy. She can’t talk or walk. She attends special education classes at school. Her mother and her neighbor always knew there was more going on in there than met the eye. Eventually, she finds a teacher who tries to help her and an aide who knows what she needs. They find an electronic device that allows Melody to show what has been going on in her head for the past eleven years. One of the first statements she programs into her machine is, “We all have disabilities. What’s yours?” She reserves this for particularly confrontational people. She enters an academic competition and shines, in spite of all the missteps and issues surrounding it.

Draper does an incredible job of getting inside Melody’s mind. People, even the people who know her well, often speak over Melody like she isn’t even there. Melody always points this out to the reader. Thus, the author shows how important it is to treat everyone with the same consideration and respect the reader would expect. Life is never easy for Melody, but she able to do what she can do.

This is an excellent resource to teach fourth grade readers about the spectrum of abilities and disabilities without being preachy. Melody loves words, so this is a great resource for increasing comprehension and literacy skills.

The author’s website, http://www.sharondraper.com offers an excellent study guide, complete with reading activities.

  • Out of My MindTITLE: Out of My Mind
  • AUTHOR: Sharon M. Draper
  • PUBLISHER: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010
  • REVIEWER: Sue Poduska
  • ISBN: 978-1-4169-7170-2
  • FORMAT: Hard cover, 295 pages
  • GENRE: Contemporary Fiction, Physical disability

All That’s Missing

Written by Sarah Sullivan

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In this heartwarming look at a pre-teen’s life, Sullivan asks the questions “What is a home?” and “What is a family?” The answers are satisfying and, at times, surprising.

Eleven-year-old Arlo, an orphan, lives with and gets along well with his maternal grandfather, Poppo. Poppo’s memory is failing from an unnamed form of dementia, and Arlo is trying to hold his family together. He’s heard terrible things about foster care and Poppo refuses to tell him anything about his surviving paternal grandmother, Ida. When Poppo suffers a stroke, Arlo panics and sets off to find his grandmother. Amazingly, he’s able to travel 350 miles and locate a woman he has no memory of. Full of twists and surprises, this is a fun read.

The author does an amazing job of getting inside a young boy’s mind and showing why he takes the steps he does. Many of the other characters are well-developed and believable. Poppo and Ida are lovable. Arlo’s friends, Sam and Maywood, are crazy and loyal. Bernice and Tyrone, who help Arlo on his journey, are the right mix of gullible and incredulous. Mr. Garringer, who tries to take Ida’s house, is delightfully evil. Steamboat the dog is more entertaining and a bigger help than he has any right to be.

Fourth graders and older should be able to follow the story independently and should understand the feelings of wanting to belong while still determining their own destinies. In her Author’s Note, Sullivan lists several resources related to her inspiration for the book, for further reading activities. Both the author’s, http://www.sarahsullivanbooks.com, and the publisher’s website, www.candlewick.com, give further information.

  • All That's MissingTITLE: All That’s Missing
  • AUTHOR: Sarah Sullivan
  • PUBLISHER: Candlewick Press, 2013
  • REVIEWER: Sue Poduska
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-6102-1
  • FORMAT: Hard cover, 358 pages
  • GENRE: Contemporary Fiction, Family, Home
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