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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Museum Mysteries by Steve Brezenoff

On 04, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Museum MysteriesMuseum Mysteries written by Steve Brezenoff, pictures by Lisa Weber

The Haunted History Museum

The Case of the Missing Museum Archives

The Case of the Portrait Vandal

The Case of the Stolen Sculpture

I bought and read three of these little mysteries. It’s such a tricky balance to strike in these early chapter books, trying to get enough story and character in there that it’s well written without making it too complex and long for kids who are just beginning to read. I personally am fine with books that lack a bit in an involved mystery and character development. I know kids who read these types of stories and enjoy them. I also happened to be one of those kids. I think these mysteries really do a good job of striking that balance. The diversity in ethnicity of the kids comes off as a little shallow, but I think for this type of books it’s just fine. Kids in my library are just happy to see themselves on the cover and read about a kid that they can picture looking like them.

Book number two (the one pictured at the left) is especially important right now. It’s a girl in a hijab who is not a terrorist. She also happens to love space travel and math. STEM girl for the win. The story is wee bit far fetched as the father is about to be fired for something that he didn’t do and the evidence that he lost some important documents is shaky at best. But the characters are likable and the story is fun if you put aside your grown up sensibilities.

When I bought these there were only four that I found on Amazon. On Goodreads it appears there are a few more that feature the same kids in new mysteries which if you have a population that likes mysteries I highly recommend getting. The original Nate the Great was pretty easy, but some of the later chapter books he is in get a lot longer and more wordy. I would say these could replace those longer Nate the Greats of be a place to move to afterward.

I highly recommend these for beginning chapter book collections. They’re a fun introduction to mystery novels and they feature a diverse cast of characters.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The City Kids by Zetta Elliot

On 03, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

PhoenixThe City Kids series by Zetta Elliot

The Phoenix on Barkely Street

From Goodreads: Best friends Carlos and Tariq love their block, but Barkley Street has started to change. The playground has been taken over by older boys, which leaves Carlos and Tariq with no place to call their own. They decide to turn the yard of an abandoned brownstone into their secret hang-out spot. Carlos and Tariq soon discover, however, that the overgrown yard is already occupied by an ancient phoenix! When the Pythons try to claim the yard for their gang, the magical bird gives the friends the courage to make a stand against the bullies who threaten to ruin their beloved neighborhood.

Dayshaun’s Gift

From Goodreads: Summer vacation has just begun and Dayshaun wants to spend Saturday morning playing his new video game. But Dayshaun’s mother has other plans: she volunteers at a nearby community garden and that means Dayshaun has to volunteer, too. When Dayshaun puts on his grandfather’s grubby old gardening hat, something unexpected happens-the hands of time turn backward and Dayshaun finds himself in the free Black community of Weeksville during the summer of 1863! While helping the survivors of the New York City Draft Riots, Dayshaun meets a frail old man who entrusts him with a precious family heirloom. But will this gift help Dayshaun find his way back to the 21st century?

So far this is a great series for readers who are ready for a little more text, but aren’t ready for full blown chapter books yet. In other words, they’re transitional. And totally engaging. I’m not normally one for science fiction/fantasy in my books, but I know a lot of kids who are and, as I’ve found this year, there aren’t a lot of those books out there for them unless they are strong readers (most fantasy books seem to be damn thick books with small print, even in the middle grade section). Even fewer of the books available across the beginning chapter book market feature diverse kids or kids who live in urban settings (we didn’t all grow up on a farm or in a large house, myself included). There is a lot here to appeal to kids at the second/third grade level.

In The Phoenix on Barkley Street kids who are all about being green will love that the kids clean up and repurpose a vacant building’s yard. The bullying theme will resonate with many children who, at the beginning chapter book age, are very attuned to social justice. Parents looking for a book that promotes community and friendship will appreciate the themes in the book as well.

I especially loved Dayshaun’s Gift. It was such a great time travel book and it took him back to a period of history that, despite taking American History three times in my school career, I never even heard mentioned. Dayshaun is such a kid, though, and he will feel very real and inviting to kids, even ones who might not pick up a books if there is a whiff of anything educational about it. This is one of the brilliant things about all Elliot’s books. She manages to open your eyes to something new and teach you about it without the books feeling didactic or breaking the story. Spoiler alert: Dayshaun does make it back to the present and he returns to the outhouse of the Weeksville historical village. Kids will LOVE that tiny detail.

It’s times like these I feel very grateful that I am in charge of what books we buy and where we buy them from for our library. Elliot has self published many of her books and that makes it difficult for some libraries to buy her books. If you have any say, these would make an incredible addition to any library collection that serves kids starting out in chapter books.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Room in My Heart by Zetta Elliott

On 07, Mar 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Room in my heartRoom In My Heart by Zetta Elliott

From Goodreads: It took some time for Nikki to adjust to her parents’ divorce, but now she and her little sister Natalie enjoy their new routine. Daddy comes over for dinner on Tuesday nights and the girls spend each weekend with him. But everything changes when Daddy picks them up for their weekend visit and introduces the girls to his new friend Sylvia. Nikki feels invisible when Sylvia’s around and so she decides not to spend the weekend with Daddy anymore. Only after talking about her feelings with her aunt does Nikki learn that her father’s love is unchanging, and that there is room in his heart to love many different people.

Another Zetta Elliott that I bought for my library and love, love, loved. I have to say I connected with this book on a personal level as much as I saw it being a good book for the right kid. Forgive me, but I’m about to get a bit personal in this review. My parents divorced when I was young but this was not something I often saw reflected either in my reading or other pop culture I consumed. My mom remarried a couple times and my dad dated a lot. Although I don’t remember struggling in quite the way Nikki does here, I related to so many of her feelings and her situation. It’s hard going between two households and it’s weird when you introduce new people into the family. I am so glad to see a book that reflects that and talks about it without feeling forced or as if it is telling a child how to feel or respond.

I also think the book does a beautiful job allowing Nikki to have her feelings without casting them as something awful or something she shouldn’t have. We often don’t allow children their emotions. We’re always shushing them and telling them they’re okay when they cry, etc. I think this is best seen when Nikki is upset with her father and decides not to spend the weekend with him, her mother says her father is disappointed:

I just shrugged and went upstairs to unpack my overnight bag. I told myself I didn’t care if my father was disappointed in me. I was disappointed in him!

The father in Room In My Heart puts manners and politeness and his own feelings before Nikki’s. Elliott gets at the ridiculousness of this. Sure, Nikki learns something by the end of the book, but Elliott doesn’t invalidate her feelings. She makes all the characters acknowledge them and address them. All this is to say that Elliott really hit the nail on the head in conveying many of the feelings and troubles of kids whose parents are divorced and at some larger issues for children.

As with Max Loves Munecas I worried that I would have to hand sell this to the kids, that they wouldn’t pick it up on their own. I don’t mind hand selling books and I think those hand sells are very important especially for reluctant readers, however I just don’t have nearly enough time to do it often enough or well enough. So I worry that the books won’t get read after the first few months they’ve been in the library. But Zetta Elliott put this post up on her blog* and in her first part of the conversation she totally speaks to why that doesn’t matter. I am so glad she framed it this way and I feel silly for not having thought of it that way before.  I am not going to worry about that any more. Thank you, Zetta Elliott, for assuaging my anxiety about this and for making books that are perfect for giving to the right reader at just the right time. (Update: I put the book out on our new arrivals shelf and lo and behold a kid checked it out with zero prompting from me. I was totally wrong about it.)

*This is not at all the point of her whole post, by the way. I do recommend reading the whole thing. There is so much there to think about and reflect on and Elliott and Kwaymullina are great people to be learning from.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Max Loves Munecas by Zetta Elliott

On 29, Feb 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Max Loves MunecasMax Loves Munecas by Zetta Elliott, illustrations by

From Goodreads: Max wants to visit a beautiful boutique that sells handmade dolls, but he worries that other children will tease him. When he finally finds the courage to enter the store, Max meets Senor Pepe who has been making dolls since he was a boy in Honduras. Senor Pepe shares his story with Max and reminds him that, “There is no shame in making something beautiful with your hands. Sewing is a skill–just like hitting a baseball or fixing a car.”

I love, love, loved this book. Despite having read the blurb, something about the cover and the title gave me a different impression of what the story would be about. I thought it would be more about Max and him wanting to play with dolls. Instead it’s an inspirational story about Senor Pepe and how he learned to sew and how he grew up in Honduras and then New York with a difficult, but not insurmountable, childhood. And Elliott accomplishes this in just a little over 100 readable pages for third and fourth graders.

I appreciated the story because of my connection to the makerspace. I think it’s important for us not to gender activities. Sewing, dolls, crafts, art, cooking, you name it. Max is struggling with his desire to examine the dolls in Senor Pepe’s shop, afraid the other kids will tease him. He may want to play with them, that’s not really touched on, but his interest is in the technical aspects. He loves their jewelry and their clothes, wonders about how they are made and wants to make them himself.

The ability to create this stuff is not girly, it’s an art form and a difficult one at that. I find it sad that by the time my second graders get to makerspace the girls do the crafts with glitter and the boys make weapons. Why not the other way around? I have had only two boys learn to use the sewing machines and that was once they realized to finish the invention they were working on they needed to sew something. Huh. Sewing machine as tool. Not badge of womanhood. Weird.

While I want my kids to read this story, the illustrations and title might make it something that I will have to hand sell (not a problem). I decided, though, to give it first to one of the second grade teachers. Our second grade studies various cultures through the year as part of their social studies curriculum and the final unit is Latinos. I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to have the book read aloud to the students so they can discuss and appreciate the story.

I also want to point out that the story ends happily. It’s not free of sadness and distress (Pepe is orphaned fairly early on and lives for awhile in fear that he will be turned out onto the street), but it’s not so maudlin that kids will leave it feeling depressed.

An excellent addition to any school or public library collection.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Year of Miss Agnes

On 28, Dec 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Year of Miss AgnesThe Year of Miss Agnes by Kirkpatrick Hill

Lexile: 790L

From Goodreads: Ten-year-old Frederika (Fred for short) doesn’t have much faith that the new teacher in town will last very long. After all, they never do. Most teachers who come to their one-room schoolhouse in remote, Alaska leave at the first smell of fish, claiming that life there is just too hard.
But Miss Agnes is different — she doesn’t get frustrated with her students, and she throws away old textbooks and reads Robin Hood instead! For the first time, Fred and her classmates begin to enjoy their lessons and learn to read and write — but will Miss Agnes be like all the rest and leave as quickly as she came?

So my first read of this book was that it was a beautiful story about the transformative power of a good teacher, a teacher who respects her students and cares. And it certainly is a story about that, but there are also some really problematic elements.

To begin with the story very much follows the white savior storyline. The kind white teacher arrives and helps all the poor native kids (and some adults) assimilate more fully into Western culture by teaching them to read and do math and love music. I will say Miss Agnes does have an appreciation for the children’s culture and she never belittles it or forces them to give it up, but she is teaching them foreign ways.

There is also the underlying issue of the Indian boarding schools that is not addressed here, but looms over the story if you know about them (which most non-native school children don’t). I’m not sure this was the story to bring them up in, but this story stands in contrast to them, but still doesn’t completely get away from the ideas that they were founded on, namely to Westernize native children.

My suggestion: read it in class and pair it with Fatty Legs. There would be a great opportunity to discuss the differences in theses experiences and talk about how things could still have been better in Miss Agnes’ class. Certainly the kids needed to learn to read and write to survive a changing world, a world that was knocking on their door and encroaching further every year, but they also needed their culture respected further.

I also took issue with Frederika’s voice. There were times it felt purposely stilted and silly to drive home the point that she was native.

Is this an essential book for a library collection, no not by any means, but I think there is a lot of good here and a great conversation starter for non-native kids about the horrors of education of native populations. I do also firmly believe that many kids will connect with the theme of finding a transformative adult or teacher.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: EllRay Jakes Is Not a Chicken

On 23, Dec 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

EllRay JakesEllRay Jakes Is Not a Chicken written by Sally Warner, pictures by Jaime Harper

Lexile: 840L

From Goodreads: Eight-year-old EllRay Jakes is sick of getting picked on. But every time he tries to defend himself against class bully Jared Matthews, EllRay is the one who winds up in trouble. It’s just not fair! Then his dad offers him a deal: If EllRay can stay out of trouble for a week, they’ll go to Disneyland! But being good for one whole week is not so easy. . . .

So I will be buying several of the books in this series for my library. It was funny and true to life and my kids like realistic fiction. Also, EllRay is black and middle class with two parents- a professor father and an author mother. He is also one of the few black kids in his school (and one of the few black families in his Southern California neighborhood). I need more books like this that reflect the African American kids in my school. So often books that feature black families feature them as poor, or single parent, or living in a bad neighborhood or sports (i.e. stereotype!) and by and large those are not my students of color. I work in a very wealthy private school and my kids aren’t really seeing themselves in the few novels that do feature characters of color.

Now, I was of another mind about the actual story for the majority of the book. EllRay is being bullied by a kid in his class for some reason, a reason he isn’t sure about until the end. EllRay’s plan to avoid the bully isn’t particularly good nor is it effective and he won’t share with an adult that it’s going on. I think this is exactly how a kid in second grade would handle this. In fact I know it is, because we had an issue with a bully last year in the third grade and it went down in much the same way. But! But, I wish there had been some sympathetic adults. EllRay’s parents are more concerned about his behavior at school because of a progress report that went home. And his teacher is clueless as to how her actions affect the class and home dynamics. I find that really frustrating as an adult. On the other hand I don’t want a didactic story. The final page, though, explains that everything isn’t gravy but things are better and I think that made the rest go down easier.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Seesaw Girl by Linda Sue Park

On 21, Dec 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

SeeSaw GirlSeesaw Girl written by Linda Sue Park, pictures by Jean and Mou-Sien Tseng

Lexile: 810L

From Goodreads: Jade never ventures beyond the walls of her family’s Inner Court; in seventeenth-century Korea, a girl of good family does not leave home until she marries. She is enthralled by her older brother’s stories about trips to the market and to the ancestral grave sites in the mountains, about reading and painting, about his conversations with their father about business and politics and adventures only boys can have. Jade accepts her destiny, and yet she is endlessly curious about what lies beyond the walls.

Linda Sue Park writes the most beautiful books and she is so good about weaving in parts of Korean history and culture into the stories without making it feel didactic or like an info dump. On the other hand, these are books that strike me as good classroom reads. They are short, but harder (see the Lexile rating) and the stories are gentle and quiet and make you think. My current group of kids would be hard pressed to pick this up on their own. They don’t read a lot of contemplative stuff (although there are some who will!) and they don’t tend toward historical fiction.

That being said, this book is so worth a read. It’s fascinating to see a girl restricted by social mores break them and discover the consequences. She also begins to strive to find a way to work within the system instead of rebelling constantly. There is a really poignant conversation Jade has with her mother about making what she has enough instead of always wanting more.

As the story unfolds the reader comes to realize that Jade will never see her best friend again and will eventually have to give up her mother and family. It’s a tough realization and makes you think about life for these girls. The tedium of washing clothing, sewing clothing, needle point, and food serving are very vividly brought to life. But so is the beauty of a life well and simply lived.

Well worth having on the shelf as is Park’s A Single Shard which gives the male peasant perspective on a similar (same? I can’t remember exactly) time period.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Eagle Song by Joseph Bruchac

On 16, Dec 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Eagle SongEagle Song by Joseph Bruchac, pictures by Dan Andreasen

Lexile: 680L

From Goodreads: Danny Bigtree’s family has moved to Brooklyn, New York, and he just can’t seem to fit in at school. He’s homesick for the Mohawk reservation, and the kids in his class tease him about being an Indian—the thing that makes Danny most proud. Can he find the courage to stand up for himself?

Another great story from Bruchac. He has worked in a legend about peace and history that weaves perfectly into a modern tale of bullying. The chapters are short and the story pretty universal. Not only is Danny homesick for his old life he is being picked on at school by a couple kids and needs to learn how to navigate that situation. It would be the perfect book for any new student who is having trouble fitting in or for a class that’s having trouble accepting their new classmate.

In terms of my collection, I bought a copy because we need to diversify, but this one might be hard sell for a couple reasons. The first is the quiet tone of the book. Personally I love that about Bruchac’s books, but I have readers right now that like action, adventure, and drama. More importantly I think it’s a bit dated largely by the pictures in it. The haircuts and the clothes. Kids can be finicky and often won’t pick up books that look “old”. What does all this mean? I just need to hand sell the book, read it aloud, or have a teacher take it on in the classroom.

The reading level is a bit high for beginning readers, but it would work well for the higher second grade readers and on into third grade. It would also work well for fourth and fifth grade struggling readers and being realistic fiction it might appeal more to those readers as well. I wish I had gotten it in hardback, but I’ll settle for having to replace it in a few years if I can get some kids into it.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich Smith

On 14, Dec 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Indian ShoesIndian Shoes written by Cynthia Leitich Smith, pictures by Jim Madsen

Lexile: 820L

From Goodreads: Ray Halfmoon prefers hightops, but he gladly trades them for a nice pair of moccasins for his Grampa. After all, it’s Grampa Halfmoon who’s always there to help Ray get in and out of scrapes — like the time they are forced to get creative after a homemade haircut makes Ray’s head look like a lawn-mowing accident.
This collection of interrelated stories is heartwarming and laugh-out-loud funny. Cynthia Leitich Smith writes with wit and candor about what it’s like to grow up as a Seminole-Cherokee boy who is just as happy pounding the pavement in windy Chicago as rowing on a take in rural Oklahoma

Another book I absolutely loved (and have bought a copy for our chapter book collection). As the description says the chapters are more like short stories. There isn’t an overarching story except the concept of Ray and his grandfather living in Chicago. I love stories about children and their relationships with their grandparents and I think many kids do too. Especially those that have special relationships with their grandparents and are seeing that reflected and validated in stories.

The lexile is fairly high on this one, but it has larger print, short chapters, and pictures interspersed into the stories so it felt younger than that number. If any of the vocabulary is hard I would say the format makes it appropriate to be a book a child stretches to read. The format of short story-chapters makes it easy to pick up and put down (great for SSR time at school or even a reading log *shudder*).

Some of the stories are bittersweet. Some are funny (the haircut!). And others are just fun. A good read for any age, really.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Donovan’s Word Jar by Monalisa DeGross

On 09, Dec 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Donovan's Word JarDonovan’s Word Jar written by Monalisa DeGross, pictures by Cheryl Hana

Lexile: 670L

From Goodreads: Donavan is fascinated by words. They seem to leap out at him from books, signs, even the back of cereal boxes. He savors each word as he learns to say it and discovers its meaning. He keeps the words he collects on slips of paper in a big glass jar. But one day the jar is almost full and Donavan has a dilemma. How can he make room for new words without giving up all the terrific words already in his jar? A visit to his grandmother provides the unexpected solution in this heartwarming story about how important words can be.

This was such a sweet story! Donovan loves to collect words. He writes them down on slips of paper and keeps them in a jar. But when the jar fills up he needs to find a solution for storing the words. He realizes that even if he gets a larger jar or switches to a notebook or file those will eventually fill up too and he doesn’t want that.

On a visit to his grandmother’s apartment he accidentally leaves his jar in the rec room where all the residents find the words and begin to talk and interact and laugh. Donovan had been resistant to the idea of sharing his words, but he realizes the power that words can have to do good and decides he likes giving them away.

In theory the story is didactic, but it never feels like it’s hitting you over the head with a message. Instead Donovan reads like a typical kid with a problem he wants to solve. Particularly when he keeps rejecting ideas that people offer him (we all know that kid- the one who wants you to fix their problem but doesn’t like any of your solutions). Despite the slightly dated cover and simplicity of the story I think it would appeal to most kids who are into chapter books. It has a few pictures in it, the chapters are short and it’s clearly realistic fiction so I suppose it isn’t the best book for every child, but I think the story is enjoyable enough that most kids will appreciate it.

If you have it in your collection promote it. If you don’t I suggest getting a copy.

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