SPI : Shadow Paranormal Investigators – The Case of the Dark Shadow

Written by T.J. Bonham 

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SPI The Case of the Dark Shadow is an intriguing story for 4th through 6th graders interested in mystery. The book offers the 4th grade reader some challenging language and an unusual plot, but older readers should have no problem with the language and comprehension of this paranormal mystery.

The story grabs the reader from the first chapter by describing emotions common to students who have experienced loss, change, and the fear of starting at a new school. This will offer teachers many opportunities to discuss coping mechanisms for students.

The rest of the story is full of mystery and fun as the character and her friends battle a sinister dark shadow that threatens to harm a ghost hunter and her family. Interwoven in the mystery of the dark shadow is the emotional side of living with a parent deployed during war, another real life situation that kids this age are living with.

A book for middle grade readers that includes real life situations that engage the reader will only serve to encourage students to keep reading, but a book that also includes “outside the box” topics, like ghosts and the paranormal, can broaden their scope of interest and be just what the teacher ordered for the reluctant reader. Teachers can use this as a classroom book read aloud or together because of the topic, the mystery, and the overall interest to boys or girls.

SPI would be a great addition to the 4th to 6th grade classroom library. The book can be used as an adjunct to reading advancement, comprehension, and writing lessons for students in these grades, making it useful for teachers working with state reading guidelines. And books that have excellent plots and story lines are always appreciated by teachers who prepare students for state testing involving reading passages for comprehension and understanding.

  • SPITitle: SPI:Shadow Paranormal Investigators (The Case of the Dark Shadow)
  • Author: T.J. Bonham
  • Publisher: Schiffer Publishing,Ltd.
  • ISBN: 978-0-7643-4132-8
  • Pages: 111
  • Reviewer: Terri Forehand
  • Lexile: 810

Sneaky Art: Crafty Surprises to Hide in Plain Sight

Written and Illustrated by Marthe Jocelyn

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The charming art projects in this book are like Random Acts of Kindness meet Street Art.  The sneaky part is to surprise people, either family or friends even strangers, with a bit of art to make them smile.  The projects are made from materials that most everyone has or can easily find.  They are meant to be seen in public places.  They are meant to be fun.  The book maintains this message of spreading laughter and friendship, but it does explicitly state at the beginning that “sneaky art is NOT: mean, defacing, ugly, hurtful, messy or permanent.”  The book describes “sneaky lettering”, which involves using letters from a variety of sources and “getting sneaky”, which means finding a sneaky spot, knowing when to place your art in its spot and figuring out how to get it there without getting caught.  Like street art, it is not meant to be permanent, so the author urges the reader to take a picture to remember their artwork.  The final advice?  “Don’t make anyone mad—make them laugh!”  All the projects are easy to make and have a hip and funky look to them that will appeal to everyone.  The difficulty levels vary, however, so some projects could be made by a much younger child, which means the projects could be shared with younger students or siblings.

The instructions are told with a laughing, conspiring tone that makes it fun to read.  This would be the perfect book for those units on how-to books or even a Character Counts unit that talks about Random Acts of Kindness, using the projects as a literacy activity.  The book has a spiral binding, allowing the book to stay open as one does the projects.  There is a Sneaky Art Activity Kit on the publisher’s website: (http://www.candlewick.com/book_files/0763656488.kit.1.pdf).  The reading level is 4.8, but the instructions are easy for all readers.

  • Sneaky ArtTITLE: Sneaky Art: Crafty Surprises to Hide in Plain Sight
  • AUTHOR and ILLUSTRATOR: Marthe Jocelyn
  • PUBLISHER: Candlewick, 2013
  • REVIEWER: Risa Brown
  • EDITION: Hardcover, 54 p.
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-5648-5
  • GENRE: How-to, crafts projects
  • LEXILE: 720. Reading level 4.8

Pip and the Twilight Seekers – Book Two of the Spindlewood Tales

Written and Illustrated by Chris Mould

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If your students like dark and scary, there is plenty in this one to creep them out. In the walled city of Hangman’s Hollow, Jarvis, the evil city warden, looks for children. He is tall and skinny with a hook instead of a left hand. He hates children and is determined to get rid of them all. Not only have children been outlawed in the city, Jarvis, instead of locking them up, sells them to the woods folk in the magical forest at the edge of town. Witches and strange animals drool at the sight of tender human children. Jarvis has recently had a bad experience. Three children escaped from him (Pip and the Woodwitch Curse, book one of the Spindlewood trilogy) and he is driven by rage to find them again. Pip, Toad and Frankie are now hiding in an inn called Deadman’s Hand. They are cozy and warm by the fire and have plenty to eat, but they know that they are hunted. In addition, a mysterious wooden doll has the ability to tell children’s locations if a person knows how to ask properly. Jarvis knows how. When the doll falls into his hands, he finds the children with ease. Again he confronts Pip, Toad and Frankie. Jarvis almost captures the three, but then the townspeople attack him. They are fed up with his devious ways. Pip knows where the captured children are in the wild wood and talks the other two into rescuing them. The result is a hair-raising chase out of the woods. Even though the children return to Hangman’s Hollow, they know that Jarvis is still out there.

Even as scary as I found this book to be, it would be a good story for those older reluctant readers who need a compelling read. The chapters are short, the print is big and the illustrations make this look like a graphic novel. Story details are not clear, although there is some explanation in the excerpted part at the end. Because the setting is so vivid, literacy activities, such as making a diorama or a visual representation of the “world”, would extend the story in an interesting way.

  • Pip and the Twilight SeekersTITLE: Pip and the Twilight Seekers
  • AUTHOR AND ILLUSTRATOR: Chris Mould
  • PUBLISHER: Albert Whitman, 2011
  • REVIEWER: Risa Brown
  • EDITION: Hardcover, 170 p.
  • ISBN: 978-0-8075-6553-7
  • GENRE: Fantasy
  • LEXILE: 790

Pip and the Wood Witch Curse: A Spindlewood Tale (Book One)

Written and Illustrated by Chris Mould

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Book One of the “Spindlewood Tales,” is the exciting and gripping adventure of an abused orphan, Pip. About to be sold, literally, to a ship’s captain, Pip seizes the opportunity to escape, only to land in a worse situation. Pip is delivered into the legendary village of Hangman’s Hollow, where the townspeople and the creatures of the forest fight over possession of the children. Children are forced to hide lest they be imprisoned by the forest dwellers. When Pip trudges through a heavy snow, his tracks set in motion a whole series of events: chases through the city streets and through the woods, flying accusations, and battles. He wanders past the local tavern, where the tavern keeper snatches him, keeps him safe, and introduces him to his own son. Pip and the son, Toad, set out to rescue a girl rumored to be hiding.

For timid fourth-graders this may be best as a read-aloud since the subject matter is a bit scary. But it should be fine for most independent fourth-grade readers. While Pip and Toad venture forth with little trepidation, they do encounter girl who is paralyzed by terror. However, readers can learn lessons. Things can always be worse, and they can always work at improving their own situations. Also, it seems that even the most innocuous objects can be malevolent. The trees harbor witches. A wooden doll is in fact a malicious soldier from the civil war. Even the birds–though not all of them–report back to the evil creatures.

The author-illustrator presents some beautiful and vivid drawings of the settings and many of the characters. They add a lot to the feel of being there.

  • Title: Pip and the Wood Witch: A Spindlewood Tale Book One
  • Author: Chris Mould
  • Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Hardcover: 155 pages
  • ISBN: 0807565482
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Lexile: 720L

Robbers! True Stories of the World’s Most Notorious Thieves

Written by Andreas Schroeder

Illustrated by Remy Simard

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Readers on the 4th grade reading level and up who like adventure and action will enjoy the drama and intrigue in Robbers! True Stories of the World’s Most Notorious Thieves! Presented  in chapters this 166-page text provides stories of famous historical robberies. Each chapter presents one robber, an in-depth look at one of their heists, and briefer descriptions of their other crimes. From a team of thieves who stole the Mona Lisa to an individual who hijacked a plane and parachuted as an escape, Robbers! illustrates the creative approaches criminals have taken.

But Robbers! doesn’t only highlight illegal successes. Through stories of criminal mistakes, such as a pair of thieves who didn’t know how to fly their get-away plane to a team who forgot to run the dishwasher (and thus left numerous fingerprints for police to use), this book shows how crooks get caught. Robbers! details criminal techniques such as how to case a bank, how to run pearls over your teeth to determine if they are genuine or fake, and how to act your way through a situation to bluff authority figures. This is information some adults may not want in the hands of young readers so this book might not end up on third grade reading lists; on the other hand, the stories do teach the values of attention to detail, careful work and determination and the book might intrigue risk-seeking students who need practice with their reading skills. A book that highlights criminal action could glorify the thieves or show them as villains. Robbers!, however, presents these histories with a non-judgemental tone. The book concludes with a robber-turned-good – the story of Willie Sutton, a bank-robbing addict who eventually turned his energies to helping banks improve their security.

Each story is accompanied by brief cartoon-style illustrations placed in-line with the text. This presentation style requires the cartoon caption to be read as a part of the main text and may confuse some readers, but the illustrations themselves help lighten the book. Every spread includes at least one illustration and some pages include a call out note with additional information. Backmatter includes a chapter-by-chapter bibliography, an index and further reading. Unfortunately all of the books listed in the further reading are at least twenty years old, so may be out-dated and hard for young readers to access.

  • RobbersTITLE: Robbers! True Stories of the World’s Most Notorious Thieves
  • AUTHOR: Andreas Schroeder
  • ILLUSTRATOR: Remy Simard
  • PUBLISHER: Annick Press
  • REVIEWER: Heather L. Montgomery
  • EDITION: Paperback: 166 p.
  • ISBN: 978-1554514403
  • GENRE: Nonfiction, History
  • LEXILE: 1230GN

Greenhorn

Written by Anna Olswanger

Illustrated by Miriam Nerlove

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Imagine being an elementary school boy. You are forced to move to a new country. You are thrown into a boarding type school. You know no one. You have no family. You have only one possession.  You are a Holocaust survivor.

Now imagine again being an elementary school boy. You attend a boarding school filled with bullies. You talk about your father all the time. You have a significant speech impediment.

You just met Daniel and Aaron.

Greenhorn is a short read at only forty-eight pages, but huge issues are found within those pages. While it seems that the Holocaust would be a major theme here, it really comes across as just a background issue. The more intricate themes are about bullying, belonging, self-discovery and friendship.

What is brought forth immediately, and throughout the book, is the name calling and bullying that was common for the 1940’s Brooklyn. I was taken back by this while in the read, but after realizing that is what life was like in that time, it came together for me. Linked, as a result of the bullying from other students, Aaron (has a speech impediment) and Daniel (the Holocaust survivor) find a friendship. Its that sense of belonging in a group that helps these characters survive their time within the school.

I can’t divulge what’s in the box. No spoiler alert here. Just read the book.

Not being Jewish, or knowing much about the Jewish culture, I found it hard to understand many of the words used. However, there is a vocabulary list of these words and I would strongly recommend having the students learn those before reading. It will definitely enhance the readers comprehension of the events. The illustrations enhance the reading material and give fourth grade readers a nice break within the pages. The publisher, NewSouth, has made an extensive Discussion Guide for families and Classroom Guide for teachers (http://www.newsouthbooks.com/greenhorn). When you are ready to introduce the Holocaust to your students, Greenhorn will bring the students in gently.

  • GreenhornTitle: Greenhorn
  • Author: Anna Olswanger
  • Illustrator: Miriam Nerlove
  • Publisher: NewSouth Books
  • Reviewer: Ann H. Norris
  • ISBN: 1588382354
  • Edition: Hardback, 48 pages
  • Genre: History, Relationships
  • Lexile: 870

William and the Lost Spirit

Written by Gwen de Bonneval 

Illustrated by Matthieu Bonhomme

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Welcome to medieval France, land of chivalry, monsters, and unexplained events. Translated from the French, this beautifully drawn graphic novel gives fourth graders a glimpse into that world, represented by realistic characters. William has recently lost his father, but the father’s spirit continues to call to William. His sister, Helise, also disappears, so he sets off in search of clues. Brigands run rampant in the area, making it difficult to know who to trust. Monsters William encounters include those with no head and a face below their arms, anthropomorphic dolphins, talking plants, and dog-headed men. He crosses the ocean and the desert and catches a glimpse of his father’s hand. He gets help from a variety of characters, including his aunt, a knight, a troubadour, one of the monsters, and a young girl. The girl is required to call herself the only son of a king, just one of the “truths” of that kingdom. On his return, William faces his mother and possible future stepfather who are suspicious at best. His sister turns into a goat. Mom is sometimes a cat.

As with most graphic novels, the illustrations are very important, and these do not disappoint. Faces and animals are true-to-life and even the monsters are believable. The battle scenes may be overly realistic.

The extensive section about roles in the medieval world, mythological creatures, and gender roles provides added value and should aid students in comprehension. There is also a very good discussion section. The publisher provides materials and information on reading activities through their website: www.lernerbooks.com.

  • William and the Lost SpiritTitle: William and the Lost Spirit
  • Authors: Gwen de Bonneval and Matthieu Bonhomme
  • Publisher: Graphic Universe/Lerner Publishing Group
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Paperback, 152 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-4677-0807-4
  • Genre: Middle grade, Chivalry, Myth.
  • Lexile Score: 610GN

Below

Written by Meg McKinlay

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On the day that Cassie was born, her hometown ceased to be. The mayor flipped a switch and Old Grange filled up with water. Cassie spent her first 11 years in New Grange, hearing stories about a town she never walked through. Then, as she and the town rush toward their birthdays, Cassie starts swimming in the lake that buried the town. Her friend Liam joins her and they start exploring. Both of them want to walk the streets visit the buildings and understand the sense of place that their parents take for granted. Their fascination is understandable. It is the centennial year of Grange and everyone is focused on its history. The mayor is preparing for a town celebration, Cassie’s sister has the job of writing the official town book, and Cassie and Liam look. But all of it is just a reach into watery history, until the lake shows Cassie and Liam more.

This book is equal parts character and plot driven. Cassie is a lovely, albeit lonely kid, with a strong sense of not belonging, though she is perhaps not the outsider she sees herself as. Liam has similar issues. Their developing friendship gives us room to savor their time together even as we want to rush to the end and find out what happens. The beautiful imagery would make a good read aloud for older classes, though most fourth grade readers will simply want to slurp it up.

While this is mostly just a fun book, there is room to discuss broader issues within a class. Cassie’s town was moved so a dam could be built. Are those personal costs figured into the budget? Is it worth moving a town for the benefit of many others even at a high cost to a few? The book won’t provide direct answers to these questions, but may set the reader wondering.

  • BelowTITLE: Below
  • AUTHOR: Meg McKinlay
  • PUBLISHER: Candlewick Press
  • REVIEWER: Amy S. Hansen
  • EDITION: first, hardcover, 218 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-6126-7
  • GENRE: Fiction, mystery
  • LEXILE: 810

Mary Walker Wears the Pants: The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero

Written by Cheryl Harness

Illustrated by Carlo Molinari

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I’m writing this review wearing pants, no shorts. My freedom to wear these “outrageous,” “positively sinful,” “scandalous” clothes is due, in part, to Mary Walker and other brave, stubborn women like her. Mary Walker Wears the Pants is a read-aloud biography that tells the story of a mid-nineteenth century woman who became one of the world’s first women doctors. She persistently helped soldiers and civilians during the Civil War, even when no one acknowledged her or requested her help. Walker was a prisoner of war (for her probable role as a spy for the Union), yet after the Civil War, she labored on as a doctor and was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor. Walker also travelled the U.S. and abroad as a paid speaker about her service, imprisonment, and pants!

Mary Walker Wears the Pants is well-suited for reading aloud in a fourth grade class as a part of a Civil War or Women’s History unit. It is also a perfect biography for a fourth grader to read for a biography book report. Carlo Molinari’s illustrations distinctly demonstrate the contrast of what women traditionally wore to what Mary Walker’s pants suits were like.  Girls today take for granted the freedom they have to express themselves any way they want, and Cheryl Harness provides a fresh perspective about how fortunate we are to have such stubborn women like Mary Walker in our rich history.

  • Mary WalkerTitle: Mary Walker Wears the Pants: The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero
  • Author: Cheryl Harness
  • Illustrator: Carlo Molinari
  • Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
  • Reviewer: Sharon Schulte
  • Paperback, 32 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-8075-4990-2
  • Genre: non-fiction/biography/women physicians/Civil War/history
  • Lexile: – AD910

17 Women Who Shook the World

Written by Preethi Burkholder

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Today it’s hard to imagine a society that was so misogynist as it was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but recalling the odds that many women overcame to gain the rights to get an education, vote, and run for a political office helps us to appreciate these rights that we consider basic. In 17 Women Who Shook the World, Preethi Burkholder gives an overview of the lives of obvious impactful women like Susan B. Anthony, Mother Theresa, and Oprah Winfrey, but readers also learn about the lives of Emmeline Pankhurst, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Meryl Streep whose lives each “shook the world” in their own, unique ways. This book does not delve deeply into the lives of these women, but it does give a great outline of these women’s lives and how their efforts affected the world. At the end of each of the seventeen chapters, Burkholder writes a summarization paragraph titled, “The Strides She Made,” which gives readers a quick sketch of each woman’s life.

This book is obviously too long to read aloud in one sitting, but it would be a fantastic chapter-by-chapter read aloud for an older elementary class such as second, third, or fourth grades during March, which is Women’s History Month. Burkholder is not only passionate about women’s history, but she also passionately works at motivating and helping women and children. The first portion of 17 Women Who Shook the World has two of Burkholder’s brief motivational writings entitled, “Learn the Secrets for Embracing Highly Effective Lives” and “A 24-step Program for Achieving Your Dreams.” These two essays combined with the main text create an incredibly motivational and informative book. It’s a must-have for any older elementary classroom.

  • 17 WomenTitle: 17 Women Who Shook the World
  • Author: Preethi Burkholder
  • Publisher: Schiffer
  • Reviewer: Sharon Schulte
  • Paperback, 192 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-7643-4141-0
  • Genre: non-fiction/biography/women leaders/history
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