By Elizabeth Wroten
On 31, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I may be the biggest chicken there is. I can’t watch horror films, dark rooms creep me out, and I can have a pretty active imagination when things go bump in the night. Still, I love to read spooky tales and ghost stories. While in college I stumbled across a couple ghost story authors that I absolutely love. They are primarily Victorian era authors, but there are a few more modern ones. The first few ghost story anthologies I read really got me into them, and from then on I started buying any anthologies I would come across. Sometimes this meant volumes of short stories by one author, but often it was collections from all kinds of authors.
If you’re interested I suggest looking for Wilkie Collins, Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood (his Wendigo story still freaks me out ten years after reading it), Elizabeth Gaskill, and M.R. James. Penguin published a collection of ghost stories called American Supernatural Tales that included Poe and Stephen King as well as Washington Irving and was quite good.
To celebrate the Halloween season I’m reading through a couple of these anthologies that have been sitting on my bookshelf for far too long. So far they’re great. Scary Stories with illustrations by Barry Moser has a few tales that I’ve never read. My favorite thus far has been the first story in the book that has a little girl getting retribution for the death of her kittens. It’s more creepy than scary with an incredibly clever twist at the end.
I also have (yet another) collection of M.R. James tales. M.R. James was the author I came upon quite by accident when I was studying abroad in Cairo. I had way too much free time and was miserable to boot so I began wandering the American University’s bookstore. They had a really fabulous literature section and I began buying any and every book that piqued my interest. One of the first I got was this collection of ghost stories. If reading every saved me, it was then. And if there was one book that made me realize I could lose myself in books, it was this one. I still have the book and I return to it every once in awhile. I’m hoping that this new Oxford edition will have a few tales I haven’t read and will bring me back to some of my old favorites (“Casting the Runes “and “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook”).
The other collection I have picked out is San Francisco Noir 2. The Akashic Noir series complies collections of ghost and supernatural stories from one city (there are a few geographical areas slipped in). Not all the stories are from the US either. There is Tehran Noir, Haiti Noir, and Bangkok, to name a few. I have also read New Orleans Noir which I bought in an old funeral home converted to a Borders bookstore in the Garden District. Awesome! I’m curious if the San Francisco one will have a similar feel to the New Orleans one. I highly recommend the series, especially if you live in or have visited any of the cities featured. Check out the GoodReads listing of the series here.
Ghost stories, especially anthologies, are great reading for high school (and even brave middle schoolers). If you go with the classics they’ll be creepy, but not inappropriate (unless, of course, you consider murder inappropriate). You can pick the book up for a few minutes and read a story, then put it down again without needing to keep the whole book in your head. The anthologies often contain some excellent authors, authors who may appear on the the AP exam, so you can frequently get a literary factor in there too. Plus the stories are always so engaging.
Any one else love to read these kinds of books? Any favorite ghost stories or authors out there?
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 29, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: In 1960s Toronto, two girls retreat to their attics to escape the loneliness and isolation of their lives. Polly lives in a house bursting at the seams with people, while Rose is often left alone by her busy parents. Polly is a down-to-earth dreamer with a wild imagination and an obsession with ghosts; Rose is a quiet, ethereal waif with a sharp tongue. Despite their differences, both girls spend their days feeling invisible and seek solace in books and the cozy confines of their respective attics. But soon they discover they aren’t alone–they’re actually neighbors, sharing a wall. They develop an unlikely friendship, and Polly is ecstatic to learn that Rose can actually see and talk to ghosts. Maybe she will finally see one too! But is there more to Rose than it seems? Why does no one ever talk to her? And why does she look so… ghostly? When the girls find a tombstone with Rose’s name on it in the cemetery and encounter an angry spirit in her house who seems intent on hurting Polly, they have to unravel the mystery of Rose and her strange family… before it’s too late.
I read this one just in time for Halloween. It was, ultimately, a rather sad ghost story. There is a lot going on here, although I never felt the plot lines got tangled or hard to follow. But several of the plots were quite sad for various reasons.
The narrative switches back and forth between Polly and Rose with each girl getting a section in each chapter. Rose always follows Polly and sometimes recounts what Polly has told or picks up where Polly left off. The two girls and their families could not be more different and I enjoyed seeing their perspectives on these things when it was their turn to narrate. So while this is a ghost story with all the requisite twists and turns, it also became a wonderful story about friendship and family.
The synopsis above doesn’t mention that there is a historical thread to the story that connects up with the family theme and story. Rose, because she can see ghosts, sees a ghost that she quickly discovers is an aunt no one ever talks about. The aunt could also see ghosts, but because of the time she was born into the family wanted to institutionalize her. There is some mystery surrounding her death and why she is still lurking the house and Rose, with the encouragement of Polly, ultimately decides to investigate and possibly help her aunt, which requires delving into the family history and raiding the closets.
I’m one of those people who skips ahead and reads the last few pages of a book, but I don’t usually do that with these mystery/ghost stories because it can totally ruin it. I accidentally did that with this one and it spoiled the big twist at the end. The book was still well worth the read, though and I still managed to get sucked in to making mistakes and assumptions. Adults reading the story may find they can figure it all out before the big reveal simply because it’s an age-old ghost story trick, but kids who may not be familiar with the genre will be totally amazed.
I would say this is a good middle grade ghost story, but upper elementary would enjoy it as well. It’s a little on the longer side and I’m guessing the reading level is fairly high.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 27, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Finally, Amira is twelve. Old enough to wear a toob, old enough for new responsibilities. And maybe old enough to go to school in Nyala— Amira’s one true dream.
But life in her peaceful Sudanese village is shattered when the Janjaweed arrive. The terrifying attackers ravage the town and unleash unspeakable horrors. After she loses nearly everything, Amira needs to dig deep within herself to find the strength to make the long journey— on foot— to safety at a refugee camp. Her days are tough at the camp, until the gift of a simple red pencil opens her mind— and all kinds of possibilities.
The Red Pencil was by turns beautiful and heartbreaking. I picked it up because it sounded good and because I heard Davis speak about it at the ALSC Institute. This is a novel in verse, a choice she explained saying poems can insulate the reader from the horrors of the story. I felt quite the opposite. Poems, to me, are very impactful and accentuate the story. I think her point was there weren’t long expository sections where you give great detail about the awful things going on. I agree with that.
It is definitely a book for older readers, I would say fifth and sixth grade, even seventh despite the lower reading level. Davis avoids any sexual violence and any discussion of female circumcision, both of which are issues that often come up in books about conflict in Sudan and other African countries. I think these kinds of books are really, really important for introducing kids to the wider, often cruel and unfair, world. Kids need to know what is going on around them and I think we both do them a disservice and seriously underestimate them by shielding them from it. I also think these books can and should be conversation starters about, well, all kinds of issues, but post colonialism, race, women’s issues, etc. Davis handles the subject so delicately and so deftly that despite the horror and sadness of the story and situation I wouldn’t hesitate to share it. Still, recommend it with caution, even I got weepy over parts of the book. It may be overwhelming for some kids.
Spoiler alert. Amira’s family is really wonderful which was refreshing but her father is killed in the attack by the janjaweed. Fortunately, they have a neighbor who is also a wonderful friend. He steps in to help mend the family. They also take Amira’s sister’s friend in when he is orphaned. I think this theme of family being who you make it really resonates with the upper elementary and middle school students who are beginning to become more absorbed by friends and are becoming more aware of the flaws in their families.
The Milk of Birds is a more difficult book, in terms of subject matter and reading level, but would be a good place to go after this as would The Good Braider which is also more difficult for the same reasons. Both are wonderfully written. The Good Braider is also another novel in verse and weaves in immigration and straddling two cultures.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: The best-selling author Ignatius B. Grumply moves into the Victorian mansion at 43 Old Cemetery Road, hoping to find some peace and quiet so that he can crack a wicked case of writer’s block.
But 43 Old Cemetery Road is already occupied–by an eleven-year-old boy named Seymour, his cat, Shadow, and an irritable ghost named Olive.
And they have no intention of sharing!
What an awesome book! The story is primarily told through letters between Ignatius Grumply, Seymour, Olive, Ignatius’ lawyer, real estate agent, book agent and a private investigator. The letters, down to the sign offs and signatures, do an incredible job conveying the personalities of each character. There are quite a few drawings mostly done by Seymour and some very clever and hilarious excerpts from the local newspaper.
The plot is not overly complex nor is the book very long, but I don’t think it suffers for it. There is plenty of character development and things come out well in the end. In terms of ghost stories this is low on the spooky factor and high on the silly scale, but in the best possible way. All of these factors make it about right for third and fourth grade, really even into fifth. I know I sound like a broken record saying this, but it would be great for low readers, especially with the picture support and engaging format. There are quite a few more books in the series 43 Cemetery Road which makes it all the more appealing for this age range.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: On July 17, 1944, a massive explosion rocked the segregated Navy base at Port Chicago, California, killing more than 300 sailors who were at the docks, critically injuring off-duty men in their bunks, and shattering windows up to a mile away. On August 9th, 244 men refused to go back to work until unsafe and unfair conditions at the docks were addressed. When the dust settled, fifty were charged with mutiny, facing decades in jail and even execution. This is a fascinating story of the prejudice that faced black men and women in America’s armed forces during World War II, and a nuanced look at those who gave their lives in service of a country where they lacked the most basic rights.
This was the first book by Steve Sheinkin I’ve read and I picked this particular one up because he talked about creating it at his keynote at the ALSC Institute. This is how middle grade nonfiction should be. It was such an interesting story made more approachable by Sheinkin’s storytelling. The book read a lot more like a novel than a dry, factual recounting of events. Which isn’t to say he embellished the story, just that he relayed it in a way that felt organic like a story. I think that probably says a lot about the state of most nonfiction.
I don’t usually use quotes, but I think the following line from the book illustrates so well why kids will click with this book and this story and why they connect with the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. “The whole trial gave Albert Williams the unsettling feeling of being a kid and being accused by an adult of something he hadn’t done.” Kids are finely attuned to injustice. They despise it because it is one of those things that makes childhood and adolescence so difficult. They live it every day- “because I said so”, “do it this way”, etc. They are told by their parents and teachers how to think, how to behave, how to feel and how to be even, when it isn’t their truth. To see this happening to others, kids connect with that and feel the injustice personally.
Add to this an interesting and rather scandalous story and Sheinkin’s skilled storytelling and I think this book will have appeal for kids who have learned about the Civil Rights Movement and kids who love nonfiction. I think you could even hand sell it to kids who don’t normally read nonfiction, but are interested in history. The writing is certainly engaging enough.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 20, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: A boy alone in his room.
Sketchbook in hand.
What would it be like to on safari?
A boy named Leonardo begins to imagine and then draw a world afar; first a rhinoceros, and then he meets some monkeys, and he always has a friendly elephant at his side. Soon he finds himself in the jungle and carried away by the sheer power of his imagination, seeing the world through his own eyes and making friends along the way.
I had a really emotional reaction to this book. It is such an incredible story and told entirely without words. It reminds me of some of the best visual storytelling you see in movies (the opening credits of Watchmen and the tear-jerker montage in Up to name two) which is not easy to do well.
While in his room a young boy, possibly Colon, sits on his bed reading a book. The mood strikes him and he picks up his sketch pad. As you leave the world of his bedroom for the African continent the art style changes and the new style, a more lush, layered and colorful style, comes into view through a series of panels that grow in size indicating how they slowly fill the room and the boy’s mind. The effect is done in reverse when the boy returns from his adventure. In the fantasy you see small details included from the room. The backpack of bread slowly empties as the boy shares it with the creatures he meets. He wears the same clothes. It becomes apparent that the elephant is his guide through the savannah. It’s these subtle details that really make the story effective and more complex and therefore interesting.
The story, while about a boy drawing, is really about how art can transport you. And not just drawing but books as well. It’s the book the boy was reading that inspired him to pick up paper and visually represent what he had been reading. I think this book is great for quietly perusing, but is also a great inspriration for kids who love to draw, paint, and create. It would also be a good discussion starter for classes learning about art and inspiration. I know a lot of parents think picture books are for young children, but this book would be wonderful for any age as the story is so timeless and universal.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 16, Oct 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
One lesson I am learning pretty quickly with the makerspace is not to be afraid to throw things away. Because funding is tight for us I kept looking at little pieces of metal and plastic and cardboard and thinking I should hang on to them. They could be used again. So I would brush the glitter off them and tuck them back into our bins for the next meeting.
I started to notice, though, that the kids were casting those pieces aside when looking for inspiration and for what they needed. I would try and offer these pieces when they asked me for help finding scraps. They would give it the hairy eyeball and say they were looking for something else. The kids weren’t being wasteful (most of the time). They just didn’t want a half colored or glue caked scrap of wood or cardboard.
At some point it wasn’t worth the time I was spending sorting the stuff. I started to throw out the worst bits and pieces. No one seems to miss them and the supplies that are a bit used look a lot more appealing and are getting sifted through more. Our supply bins look fresher at the end of the day when things are tidier and not full of the same messy scraps. Now if it’s a mess, I throw it out. Apparently the kids are more concerned with aesthetics than I thought they would be.
I understand if you just don’t have a budget and need to squeeze out every last cent from your materials, but don’t be afraid to let the worst bits go. I save larger scraps, anything that isn’t mangled and as many wood scraps as I can. But anything that is marked up, cut in several places, covered in glue or tape or is generally nasty looking, it goes into the trash.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
-On Monday she’s sent to the principal’s office for cutting off Margaret’s hair.
– Tuesday, Margaret’s mother is mad at her.
– Wednesday, she’s sent to the principal… again.
– Thursday, Margaret stops speaking to her.
– Friday starts with yucky eggs and gets worse.
– And by Saturday, even her mother is mad at her.
Okay, fine. Clementine is having a DISASTROUS week.
Clementine is such an incredible character. First and foremost, she is one of those kids who can’t sit still, whose mind wanders, who is a complete disaster when it comes to organization. Those kinds of kids are out there. I have known those kids. And I think it is so important for those kids to see themselves in a book and see that people (in this case Clementine’s family and friends) love her exactly the way she is.
Clementine is also just a fun person. Her mind wanders, but in the most interesting of ways and often in hilarious ways (ceiling snakes?!). She notices minute details that make the world more wondrous. She is very artistic, active and inquisitive. I loved that her parents were so understanding of who she is. They are so patient with her and gentle. It was incredibly refreshing to see this.
The story itself is full of humor and hijinks. Like how she cuts Margaret’s hair to help hide the spot Margaret has snipped off. Sure, it’s a terrible idea but it makes perfect sense to a kid. Things just get worse from there, at least from an adult perspective. If left to her own devices Clementine (and her friend Margaret to some extent) would have had a great week. Neither of them seems to care too much that their hair is chopped unevenly short or that it’s been colored with permanent marker. It’s the adults stepping in and making assumptions about what has happened and seeing things from an adult perspective that make all their plots and solutions seem like maybe they weren’t so good.
My only point of confusion was that Clementine is supposed to 9 and in third grade, but she seems a little younger. I wasn’t sure if this was my bias or if she was intentionally written a bit younger. Either way this is a great read for strong second grade readers and certainly third graders. It might work for lower readers in fourth and fifth grade, although they could feel that Clementine is a bit young to relate to. I would be especially sure to recommend it to those kids who seem constantly off task, but are clearly thinking.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Pearl likes to write poems, but despite the insistence of her teacher, Ms. Bruff, Pearl’s poems don’t rhyme, and neither does she. She wishes she could grow gills so she could stay underwater in swim class without drowning. And she hasn’t a clue why perfect Prudence bumps her desk and sends her pencils flying. Pearl thinks there’s no nicer sound than the bell at the end of the day, even though back at home, Granny, always a crucial part of their family of three, sometimes doesn’t recognize Pearl, and Mom is tired from providing constant care. In a lyrical novel told with clear-eyed sympathy, humor, and heart, Sally Murphy follows a girl who holds fast to her individuality even as she learns to let go– and in daring to share her voice, discovers that maybe she’s not a group of one after all.
This was such an incredible book about death, loss and grief. It is also about a girl feeling isolated from her peers, but discovering that she is putting up barriers, not her classmates. Pearl is also a poet. The story is written in one long verse (e.g. no chapter breaks or clear stand-alone poems). The format really brings Pearl’s sadness to the fore.
The illustrations are also so perfect. Pearl is just darling and her mother and grandmother look so warm and inviting. The expressions on faces and the body language are easy to read. The scenes that are illustrated are the perfect vignettes to highlight the story.
Because the book is so specifically about death and grief I think the audience could be narrow, but I think kids with close relationships with their grandparents, especially if the grandparents are slipping away either through dementia or illness may find comfort in Pearl’s journey. It’s definitely a book for thinking kids as much of what is said goes on in Pearl’s head as she tries to understand and cope with her new reality.
Despite the tragedy at the end there is also a lot of hope as Pearl realizes she is not alone and makes a new friend and slowly comes to find she can move past her grandmother’s death. Just see if you can get through Pearl’s eulogy without at least tearing up.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 10, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: It’s the same thing every day for Babymouse. Where is the glamour? The excitement? The adventure? Nothing ever changes, until . . . Babymouse hears about Felicia Furrypaws’s exclusive slumber party. Will Babymouse get invited? Will her best friend, Wilson, forgive her if she misses their monster movie marathon? Find out in Babymouse: Queen of the World, a graphic novel with attitude!
I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I think it always bears repeating, graphic novels are excellent for getting low readers reading more. Don’t get me wrong they’re great for kids who like that visual component too, but they have tons of picture support without the stigma of being a picture book.
Babymouse is a mouse who knows herself. She is swayed into thinking she wants something she doesn’t have, but it doesn’t take her long to come back to her senses. She also has such a rich fantasy life. It’s very funny to watch her fall into putting herself into other roles, like noir detective and Wild West gunslinger. This was a quick enjoyable read.
The art fits the quirkiness of the characters and the humor and quips of Babymouse. It does a good job, when Babymouse delves into one of her daydreams, changing the panels to indicate that it is just that, a daydream. I also like that the art has a simplistic quality to it that I could see kids trying to copy or mimic and doing so successfully.
Babymouse would be great for middle school kids but is certainly appropriate for elementary. The story has a social theme that feels like middle school, but I can see how elementary school kids face the same issues and nothing about it is too mature for any kid who can handle the text. There are a ton more books in the series making it a good way to get kids to keep reading once they’ve clicked with Babymouse. I would give it to anyone who likes graphic novels that feature realistic plots and to those kids who are a bit quirky and maybe a little less socially mature than their peers.