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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

I Am Harriet Tubman

Written by Grace Norwich
Illustrated by Ute Simon

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This new addition to the “I Am” biography series allows middle grade readers to discover who Harriet Tubman was on their own. It is filled with realistic pencil drawings, maps, graphs and data boxes telling students about Harriet’s tips for survival, her fights for women’s rights and other helpful information about the times.

The format of this biography works well for educators involved with the common core. Students can find the meaning for words in the glossary, use the index when writing their own reports and check the websites included for further information. It is a quality non-fiction book written in an accessible narrative fashion that students will enjoy reading. They will find themselves deeply imbedded in the story and looking over their shoulders to see if they are being followed.

Teachers or librarians can use this book for read aloud time to introduce students in grade three or grade four to the genre of biography. Literacy skills strengthened include: reading for information, reading an index, using a glossary, reading maps and using picture clues to enhance comprehension.

  • Harriett TubmanTitle: I Am Harriet Tubman
  • Author: Grace Norwich
  • Illustrator: Ute Simon
  • Publisher: Scholastic, 2013
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Paperback, 127 pages
  • ISBN:  978-0-545-48436-7
  • Genre: Nonfiction, Biography

Explore Gravity! With 25 Great Projects

Written by Cindy Blobaum

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Packed with kid-friendly information and complemented with hands-on, minds-on projects, Explore Gravity! With 25 Great Projects is sure to cause young readers on the fourth grade level to stop, think, and experiment with a concept that is so universal it is often ignored.

Play is one of the most powerful teachers, and Explore Gravity! encourages scientific play. The suggested activities are simple (dropping items from different heights) yet fun (creating a marshmallow launcher). The book will inspire children to fiddle with physics, all in the name of fun.

In addition to the emphasis on data collection, inquiry and scientific process skills, teachers will appreciate the wide array of concepts addressed including life science (the impacts of gravity on sprouting plants and the anatomy of the inner ear), space science (black holes and orbits), health (exercises and survival in an avalanche), and of course physical science (simple machines and centripetal force). Those who are working to add informational text to their reading lists may want to consider this book. Parents will like that the activities require only household items, and can be accomplished with minimal adult support. Kids will like the jokes, fun facts (like how many Gs a person experiences in a roller coaster, Formula One Race Car or space ship), and the knowledge which they can apply in everyday life.

Explore Gravity! is listed as appropriate for grades 1-4. While many of the activities in the book are most appropriate for students on the lower end of that range, the reading level is more appropriate for readers on the upper end and beyond that range. Explore Gravity!  includes black and white illustrations which either clarify the instructions (for example a labeled diagram of the inner ear) or add humor. Many spreads include a “Words To Know” sidebar with bolded words and definitions. The back matter contains a glossary and index.

  •  Explore GravityTITLE: Explore Gravity! With 25 Great Projects
  • AUTHOR: Cindy Blobaum
  • ILLUSTRATOR: Bryan Stone
  • PUBLISHER: Nomad Press
  • REVIEWER: Heather L. Montgomery
  • EDITION: Paperback: 96 p.
  • ISBN: 978-1619302075
  • GENRE: Nonfiction, Science

Sugar and Ice

Written by Kate Messner

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In this heartwarming tale, twelve-year-old Claire Boucher has a pretty good life in Vermont. Her parents gather maple sap from over 500 trees each year. She does well in school, she has a solid best friend in Natalie, and she loves skating. When a high-profile Russian skating coach spots her at the Maple Show, he offers her a scholarship for training in Lake Placid, an hour-and-a-half drive from Mojimuk Falls. How can she say no to such a magnificent opportunity? At the same time, how can she expect her parents to drive her to Lake Placid several times a week? She accepts the scholarship and is thrown into to a whirlwind of excitement, self-doubt, exhilaration, no time for Natalie, new friends, cutthroat competition, and intangible rewards. After a lot of heartache and missteps, her skating improves but she still misses the other things in her life. And the training atmosphere is not quite what she expected, either.

Fourth graders and older, especially girls, will love the idea that anyone can be discovered. Readers will learn a lot about competitive sports, and specifically skating terms. Claire’s math project about Fibonacci numbers is a strong theme that should interest even haters of math. Both of these themes provide ample room for reading activities. Ultimately, Claire learns a lot about herself and about what’s important in her life. She learns to stand up for herself and that it’s okay to say no.

Learn about the author and her other books at her website: www.katemessner.com.

  • Sugar and IceTitle: Sugar and Ice
  • Author: Kate Messner
  • Publisher: Walker & Company/Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Paperback, 288 pages
  • Genre: Contemporary middle grade fiction, figure skating, math, friendship
  • ISBN: 978-0-8027-2330-7

Year of the Jungle: Memories from the Home Front

Written by Suzanne Collins
Illustrated by James Proimos

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Suzanne Collins knows of what she writes in this story of a little girl whose beloved Daddy is sent away to war for a whole year. It happened to her in 1968 when he was sent to Vietnam.

James Proimos’ illustrations show the wonder and confusion of a small girl and her understanding of the war. All she knows is that daddy is going to a jungle and it is okay because she knows jungles from cartoons. At night she dreams of flying to the jungle with her cat to see daddy.

But how long is a year, really? For a child, it lasts forever. All the holidays come and go, but still daddy is not back. He sends postcards, sometimes. Then he sends a birthday card to the wrong child. The main character begins to understand how bad things must be at a war for a daddy to make such a huge mistake as getting the kids’ birthdays mixed up.

Suzanne shows clearly how the words a neighbor or news broadcaster say can change the child’s view of circumstances. The child becomes scared only when told to by what others around her say and do even when all of Daddy’s post cards are desperately trying to keep her days normal. When he comes home and she is still afraid, he tells that most soldiers do come home and Mommy is always with her. Her cat is a wonderfully stabilizing presence in the book and gives daddy a safe thing to write to her about.

While this is supposedly a storybook for four year olds and older, it is also a story for grown- ups. It will help them to relate to children in clear and helpful ways. Maybe it is mostly for grown-ups to share with children who have a parent, grandparent or other close friend off at war.

The most beautiful line in the book is on the first page and repeated on the last. It also exemplifies the main character. “Even though he always feels afraid, he is really the bravest of all. And that’s what makes him special.”

An important literacy skill that this book would help teach is the difference between reality and fantasy. How is a real jungle different from a cartoon jungle?

It also illustrates the passage of time by using symbols of holidays. “Shamrocks, but no postcards. Colored eggs, no postcards.” Students could think of other symbols that represent particular times of the year.  Also, the picture clues in this story are very relevant. Proimos uses the cat illustrations to help delineate the sizes of souvenirs that daddy sends. How big is the doll? Well, in the picture she stands eye to eye with the cat.

The book could be used by middle school teachers and librarians as an introduction or example of writing an autobiography based on an early memory.

This is a very moving and important book on many levels all about waiting and wondering and being okay.

  • Year of the JungleTitle: Year of the Jungle: Memories from the Home Front
  • Author:  Suzanne Collins
  • Illustrator: James Proimos
  • Publisher: New York: Scholastic Press, 2013
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 40 pages
  • ISBN:  978-0-545-42516-2
  • Genre: realistic fiction/ autobiographical fiction/war fiction

Touch Blue

Written by Cynthia Lord

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Eleven-year-old Tess Brooks is looking forward to meeting her new foster brother, Aaron. Will she be able to handle all the baggage that he arrives with? Tess is a happy, well-adjusted girl who knows her own mind. She also knows the tiny Maine island on which she lives. The island is so small that the state is threatening to close the one-room school she and the other island children attend. Her mother is the teacher, which means her family would need to relocate if they lose her mother’s income. Partly as a response to the school situation, several families accept foster children to have more students. Tess’s family adds a thirteen-year-old boy whose mother struggles with drugs. The reader is invited aboard a lobster boat and also gets a big dose of life in a small town. Tess is a quirky mix of superstitious eleven-year-old and caring sister. Aaron has a chip on his shoulder, but he’s ultimately pragmatic, loving, and talented. Other wonderful characters include little sister Libby, irritating neighbor and nemesis Eben, and nosy neighbor Mrs. Coombs.

Lord deals with all the issues facing Tess with her usual compassion and tenderness, but these are large issues. Fourth grade readers will find a lot of information about how an uncertain future, a shaky past, and a sometimes-painful present can affect people. We can’t always control the situation, but we’re stronger than we think. Touch Blue has won numerous awards and appears on many reading lists, including Book Page Best Children’s Books of 2010. Learn about this and more titles from Lord’s website: www.cynthialord.com.

  • Touch BlueTitle: Touch Blue
  • Author: Cynthia Lord
  • Publisher: Scholastic, 2010
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Paperback, 186 pages
  • Genre: Middle grade, Coming of age, Maine, Foster children
  • ISBN: 978-0-545-03532-3
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