Thursday, September 14, 2017

Switched by Gordon Korman

Chase has a head injury and has lost his memory. He doesn't know anything about himself, but when he returns to school he discovers that some kids are downright scared of him. It turns out he was a football player as well as a jerk and a bully. But now he feels more comfortable in the video club and volunteering at a nursing home. But can a person make a totally clean start? Restart is classic Gordon Korman--he takes a fun premise, and gives readers a lot to laugh about and think about. This book will fly off the shelves of a middle school library.

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Refugee is a timely and moving book that will be perfect for middle school book clubs, language arts and social studies classes, and kids looking for an action-packed read. It traces the stories of three children living in different time periods who become refugees for a variety of reasons. Josef is a Jewish boy from Germany whose family is on a ship seeking refuge in Cuba; Mahmoud is a modern-day Syrian boy from Aleppo whose family must leave on foot when their home is bombed; and Isabel is a Cuban girl whose father is wanted by Fidel Castro's government in the early 1990s. The story alternates between each child and their increasingly harrowing journeys toward a better life, all of which involve travel over water at some point. Allan Gratz's books are already popular in my library, and this one is flying off the shelves. Recommended for grades 6-adult and definitely for teachers interested in human rights education.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017 Library Orientation

As I begin my 20th year in a school library, I find myself more excited about my job than ever and the possibilities for students to take charge of their own learning. I am responsible for library orientation for 36 middle school ELA classes and I was determined to do a activity. With much thanks to Julie Hembree's Breakout to Checkout, I created a breakout activity using one breakout box that could be used over and over with very little set up time between classes. This activity worked well with all levels of classes, from gifted to ESOL to special education.

The Set Up

1. The Box: One breakout box with 6 locks on it. I used a word lock, a directional lock, two 3-digit locks, a 4-digit lock, and a key lock. I put bookmarks in the box along with a "We Broke Out" sign.

2. The Tables: Our classes are large so I needed 6 teams in order to get the kids into groups of 5 or fewer students. Each of the 6 tables in the library had a large mailing envelope and a pencil on it. On the outside of the envelope were basic instructions and a list of stations to visit in order. Inside the envelope was a clue sheet that they would see only after traveling to 6 stations and picking up information. There was invisible ink written on all but one of the clue sheets.

Each team has one of these envelopes on their table

3. The Stations: Students traveled to 6 stations in the library to pick up information and to do a task. My stations were

  • Circulation Desk
  • LibraryTrac (a laptop where students use LibraryTrac to sign in)
  • Computers
  • Creative Space
  • Nonfiction
  • Fiction
Students picking up information at one of the 6 stations

At each station I had an envelope with identical slips of paper in it. The slips of paper gave all the library information I would normally give in orientation. The tasks were simple and some of the information gathered contributed to their ability to open their locks. Teams took one piece of paper at each station and ended up with six papers in the end.

The Game

As classes came in I had the ELA teachers distribute the students evenly between six tables to form six teams. (Teams of 2 or 3 are ideal but it worked with teams of 5 also.) I told the students that the library is a place for inquiry and problem solving and that they had a challenge to complete. My story was that someone had locked all the bookmarks in the box and we had 20 minutes to break in or no bookmarks today. I explained that it was not a race between teams, but we only won if all the groups got their locks off. I told them what kinds of locks were on the box and that each team would open one lock. I then pointed out that their team envelope had a list of stations on it in order. Each team was told to travel together to each station and take out a piece of paper from the envelope there. They were instructed to read it aloud then do the task on the paper before moving to the next station. After they collected all 6 papers, they could return to their table with their papers and open the envelope. Each envelope had a clue to opening one lock. At that point they had to solve a puzzle or realize that they needed a "tool" which was a UV flashlight to read the invisible ink.

Colored envelopes went one to a team, smaller envelopes were placed at the various stations around the library


I ended up doing this activity with 24 classes of seventh and eighth graders. In every class students were engaged and no class (even the ESOL students) got fewer than 4 locks off. Some groups worked harder than others, but no groups in any class gave up and quit trying. Many classes succeeded in breaking out. After seeing the game in action, I decided to do something different with my sixth graders only because they are new to the school and I wanted a little less chaos on their first visit. I plan to do a breakout with them on their second library visit.

My documents are here. You can see the labels for the outside of the envelopes, the handouts for the stations, and my notes sheet of how each lock was solved. Feel free to borrow and modify to suit your library and let me know how it goes.

Friday, April 28, 2017

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

There are many YA novels about unlikely couples that make you fall in love with them and then break your heart (and by you, I mean you the reader). This is one of them, but you will love Violet and Finch so much that you will happily go along for the ride. They meet on top of the school bell tower, both contemplating suicide. Finch, the misfit kid, actually talks Violet off the ledge (literally), but later lets Violet take the credit for saving his life. Violet, a previously popular girl, has been traumatized by a car accident that took her sister's life and spared her own. Finch is sarcastic, intelligent, and perceptive, but suffers from bipolar disorder. His family either doesn't see the problem or refuses to acknowledge it, and in spite of many cries for help, he never gets the support he needs. Finch immediately is drawn to Violet, but has to convince her that he is worth her time (as he is the target of harassment at school he isn't immediately seen as boyfriend material). As they wander around Indiana for a school project, it's clear that they are going to fall in love and that it's not going to be easy. It seemed formulaic at first, but with characters so well fleshed out, who cares? If you like The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor and Park (both compelling teen relationship books), you will definitely want to read All the Bright Places. Recommended for high school students-up.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Radius of Us by Marie Marquardt

The Radius of Us is first and foremost a love story. Phoenix and Gretchen come from different worlds but they fall in love but they may never be able to be together due to forces outside of their control. Phoenix is an asylum seeker from El Salvador. His life is in danger due to gang violence in his home town and he has made an arduous journey north with his younger brother. At the U.S. border the brothers asked for asylum, and Phoenix is put into the Stewart Detention Center (a for-profit detention center in south Georgia) and his brother is put in a different facility in Texas. Phoenix meets a couple of women who get him released into their custody in an Atlanta neighborhood. That is where he meets Gretchen, a young woman who is having panic attacks due to a traumatic event in her life. As you read you discover what happened to Gretchen and what happened to Phoenix to bring them to that Atlanta neighborhood. It's a lovely story with a timely backdrop that makes it all the more heart wrenching. It is easy to blame immigrants on problems in America, but much harder to paint such broad strokes when you know their stories and the dangers they have faced in their quest for a better life. I have visited the Stewart Detention Center and written letters to detainees there, and it is a troubling place that people should be more aware of. I have also hosted Marie Marquardt at my school, and she writes from a place of deep knowledge and empathy for undocumented immigrants based on her research as an Emory University professor and her work with the nonprofit El Refugio.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

The Outsiders is a story that is almost universally loved by generations of young teenagers. I hadn't read it since my own childhood--probably when I was in middle school in the 1980s. so I decided to read it again for a middle school book club. It is the story of three brothers who live in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1960s. Their parents have died and the oldest brother, who is only about 20 years old, is the guardian of his younger brothers. The main character is Pony Boy, only 14 and a quiet, sensitive boy who misses his parents and adores his brother, Soda Pop. In this town there are rich kids called "socs" who drive fancy cars and there are "greasers" who wear leather jackets and smoke cigarettes and get in fights with the socs. Because this story is told from the point of view of a member of the greasers, readers empathize with the greasers, who by and large aren't bad kids, just kids who happen to have less money and less access to power in their community. They get their power from their gang and from fighting with the socs, who like to come to their side of town and torment greasers. Pony Boy is almost strangled in a fight, and his friend Johnny stabs a soc in the process of saving Pony Boy's life. They know that their story won't be believed so they go into hiding in a deserted rural church. S.E. Hinton gives us fully fleshed out characters in Pony Boy, Johnny, and the other greasers. They all have their life stories, their disadvantages, and the traits that make them unique and worthwhile. They become real people to the readers, and for 50 years kids have empathized with their situation and how they are treated by the socs. When tragedy strikes the greasers (in several forms), kids feel their pain and recognize the injustice they face. They say that reading fiction can enhance emotional intelligence, and I believe this book has stood the test of time because of its ability to draw kids into an emotional connection with complicated characters.

The Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Milo lives in an isolated inn at the top of a cliff. It's known to be a hideout for smugglers, but is usually deserted at Christmas time. Milo is looking forward to a relaxing week, but one by one, mysterious guests arrive at the inn, all with connections to the house that are revealed as the book goes on. Milo and the cook's daughter, Meddy, take on characters from a role playing game and start to hunt for objects that go missing, and find out some revealing secrets about the inn and themselves. This is a book for bright kids with good vocabularies--I found it a little hard to keep track of the characters and their motivations--but I have students who had no trouble with it. I also wasn't crazy about a twist in the story, but it made for a good discussion point. Recommended for good readers who are willing to stick with a tricky plot.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by

Violet Diamond is biracial but she lives in a white world. Her father, who was black, passed away when she was young and she lives with her mother and sister, who are white, in a mostly white community near Seattle. Violet is getting older and realizing that she knows nothing about her father's side of the family. When she finds out that she has a grandmother she has never met, she comes up with a plan to meet her in spite of the fact that her grandmother has never been willing to meet with her. There is no action or adventure here, but it's a well-paced realistic story about a girl searching for her identity and finding out more about herself.

Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

Jonathan Grisby is being sent to prison--a creepy old juvenile detention center on an island. It's a terrible place, but Jonathan thinks he deserves the punishment he is getting. After just one miserable night, disaster strikes, leaving 16 young criminals without any adults in charge. It's a Lord of the Flies scenario for younger readers, and when one boy gets power hungry it could endanger everyone's lives. A good book for kids who like action, adventure, and books about troubled kids. Recommended for grades 4-7.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

This year's Newbery Medal winner is a fantasy about a witch, an abandoned child, and a village under the power of an evil influence. Each year a baby is left in the forest. The people of the Protectorate think that they must sacrifice a child to a witch. The witch, Xan, wonders why the people heartlessly abandon their children. You, the reader, aren't quite sure why the people are forced to sacrifice a baby each year. In this particular year, Xan falls in love with the abandoned baby girl and accidentally/on purpose feeds her moonlight, which fills the baby with magic. This is the story of how that girl, Luna, grows up in the forest with Xan and a couple of other magical creatures as her family. There is much going on in the Protectorate and in the forest, and it all comes together in the end of this charming yet complex story. Fantasy readers from 4th-7th grades will enjoy this book.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan

Habo does not have the brown skin and hair of his family members. In his Tanzanian village he is an outcast, with even his own brothers treating him badly. When his family must leave their village and go to live with relatives in a larger city, he discovers a name for his condition. He is an albino and in Tanzania that puts his life in danger. Golden Boy is the story of how he bravely sets off to find a place where he will not be in danger from the cruel practice of killing and dismembering that is a reality in Tanzania even today for albino people. This book is both a good story and an interesting glimpse into life in Tanzania.

Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith

Imagine winning 140 million dollars in the lottery! That's what happens to Teddy, who happens to be Alice's best friend and secret crush. Teddy has just turned 18 and Alice buys him the lottery ticket for a birthday gift. Alice doesn't want any part of the money--she just wants Teddy to fall in love with her. But when Teddy starts spending money like crazy and skipping school, it seems less and less likely that he will remain the same old Teddy that she has always known. Alice is the type to volunteer at a homeless shelter and apply to Stanford University, and this book follows the end of their senior year of high school and the choices that they make as they move toward adulthood. Jennifer E. Smith is a great choice for readers who like romance and intriguing stories. Recommended for grades 6-up.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Girl on a Plane by Miriam Moss

This fictional story about a teenage girl on a hijacked plane is based on the author's own experience of being on a hijacked airplane in 1970. Anna is on her way to boarding school in England when Palestinians take over the plane and demand that a prisoner be released. The plane ends up on a remote airstrip in Jordan, where it is wired with explosives. The hijackers say they will blow up the plane in 3 days if their demands are not met. It's an inherently interesting story, but the reality of the hijacking is surprisingly monotonous. The captives are hot and sweaty and hungry and waiting in terror to discover what might happen to them. Anna and the other young people on the plane manage quite well in spite of not having adults traveling with them, and their story spoke to me as an adult reader with an interest in history. By sticking so close to what really happened, the book seemed to me to be almost a memoir, although the author states it is solidly fictional.  I'm afraid that younger readers might wish for more action in the story or more relationship-building between characters, but readers who like fiction books based on reality will appreciate Anna's story of surviving a hijacking.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Daniel is a poet who believes in fate, but is feeling trapped by his parents' expectations for his life. Natasha is rational, a science geek, who also loves music. She is not the kind of girl who would fall in love and let it change her life. But Daniel and Natasha are fated to meet and spend an incredible day together. Unfortunately, it is the day Natasha's family, who are undocumented immigrants, are scheduled to be deported to Jamaica. And it is the day that Daniel's Korean parents have scheduled his interview for Yale University. They meet and connect and the entire book takes place in that one day. Fans of romance will love this book--it's compulsively readable and the characters really come alive. And there are first-person snippets from other characters (real and inanimate) that make the book even more charming. Fans of realistic YA fiction (especially The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor and Park) will love this book. Recommended for 8th grade-up.

Monday, January 09, 2017

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

At first this seemed just like a charming tale about a robot who finds herself on an island where she learns how to adapt to her surroundings, how to care for an abandoned gosling, and how to bring the island creatures together in a community. But later in the book the modern world comes into the story, larger issues come into play. This was an enjoyable book that made me think. I was surprised at how much I liked it. This would make a good read aloud for a middle grade classroom, and would also be good for book club discussions.