A Grimm Warning

by Chris Colfer

for intermediate and middle grade readers who don’t mind a bit of romance mixed in with their magic and mayhem

The Wishing Spell (The Land of Stories, #1)The Enchantress Returns (The Land of Stories, #2)A Grimm Warning (The Land of Stories, #3)

I am a fan of books telling the backstory of fairy tale characters and combining worlds – past and the present. The Land of Stories series by Chris Colfer is all that and more.  If you’ve not read books 1 and 2, you’ll probably want to get caught up before reading this next part of the series.

Ezmia has been defeated.  The kingdoms of The Land of Stories are being rebuilt.  Alex Bailey is by her grandmother’s side in the Fairy Kingdom and on the Fairy Council.  She is learning all she can about magic and wishes and dreams. It seems that growing up is challenging no matter where you are.

“Sometimes I don’t know if I should be a fairy.  Don’t get me wrong:  I love magic and I love helping people.  There are days I’ll get up and feel so good about what I’m doing for people, and then others when I feel like I’m just screwing everything up.  Some days I don’t think I’m helping enough people and then other days I don’t think people even want my help.  And when I don’t feel confident, my magic suffers – it becomes unpredictable.”

Conner is living in our dimension with his mother and step-dad, fulfilling his charge to keep stories alive by writing and sharing them with the world.  He’s discovered that he’s quite a good storyteller and that he truly enjoys writing.  Because of his skill and interest, Conner is offered an opportunity to travel to the University of Berlin for a Grimm Fest where the first reading of three Grimm tales from a two hundred year old time capsule will take place.

Conner misses his twin terribly, and despite recent challenges in talking to each other in their mirror, the night before he leaves he is able to talk to Alex.  At the end of the conversation they each snap off a corner of their mirrors so they’ll be able to communicate wherever they are.  That turns out to be an important thing because the new stories are much more than just stories.  They are a warning, and the worlds – both The Land of Stories and our own – and in grave danger.

It is up to Conner and his friend, Bree, to collect items in our dimension and for Alex, with Rook’s encouragement, to uncover and discover features of her magical world that can combine to be more powerful than anything before.  Throw in a wedding, an inaugural ball, elves, troblins (troll/goblins) unicorns, a dragon, a masked man and Napoleon’s Grande Armee along the way and you’ve got an amazing adventure.

“How are you taking all of this so well?  Don’t you think the idea of another dimension seems insane?”  Conner asks.

Bree answers, “Not at all.  I’m a writer too, Conner, and the reason I write is because I’ve always believed there is more to life than most people are willing to believe.  You’re just the first person to prove it to me.”

You’ll be convinced of this too as you read and when you’re done you’ll be looking for the next volume in the series hoping to find answers to remaining questions and that maybe, just maybe, Mother Goose will let her secret slip.

Four Books by Christy Jordan Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

two picture books and two companion chapter books share the true story of a girl caught in the tension of change when traditions meet modernization

lots to think about for elementary, middle grade and adult readers – a important story to know

162768598585187What do you do when something that you have wanted so badly is nothing like what you thought it would be?  How can something like school and the people who run it be so thoughtless and cruel?  Those are things you will wonder when you read When I Was Eight and the chapter book version of the same story, Fatty Legs, about the Inuit girl who left her village to go to the outsiders’ school.  At first Oleman was excited to be there because she so wanted to learn to read.  Quickly her excitement turned to dread and fear.   Everything she loved was taken from her.  They cut her hair.  They changed her name.  They put her in scratchy, thin, uncomfortable clothes.  They made her speak only French and English and forced her to do endless chores with little food.  The sisters who ran the school took everything Inuit away from the girls in their charge.  When I Was Eight tells the first part of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s story.  Not My Girl and A Stranger At Home tell the second part. 

1870657111482930Eventually the ice melted in the bay and the rivers and the summer was long enough for a boat to travel up the Mackenzie River to bring Margaret home.  After two years at the school, Margaret couldn’t wait to be with her family again in Tuktoyaktuk.  When she arrived, however, everything had changed.  She no longer knew the Inuit words she needed to talk to her family.  Her uniform and canvas shoes were impractical from Artic life – even in the summer, and her stomach was now unaccustomed to the rich and fatty foods she had once so well loved.   Though she was home, she felt like an outsider. 

Now Margaret/Oleman was afraid she didn’t fit anywhere.  She was neither part of the Outsiders’ world, nor part of her family.  Fortunately, family is just that – always a place to come home to and eventually Oleman finds her place.  She comes to feel at home again with her sisters and her parents and her dogs.  But, once change happens it stays.  Not My Girl and A Stranger At Home helps us think about change; how we learn and grow to understand more about other people and ourselves through our experiences.   We all have choices.  We can see differences as weird and bad – something to get rid of so we are all the same.  Or we can see differences as interesting and wonderful – something to celebrate so we are richer because we are unique.   These are great books to read as a family.  There is so much to wonder about and consider – even the questions left unanswered are important.



The Quirks – Welcome to Normal

16059382by Erin Soderberg

for intermediate readers who are interested in celebrating their quirks and finding the magic in differences big and small

A while ago I went to hear Kim John Paine speak about children and learning.  He is a psychologist who works with children and families with a wide variety of needs.  One of his points that stuck with me had to do with how we think about differences.  He asked us to think of all the people we worked with – our students and our colleagues – and he asked us to consider their quirks.   After a bit of time, he pointed out that we all have quirks.  They are the things about us that drive people crazy; and they are the things that make us special and endearing.  We smiled and nodded knowingly.  Next he reminded us that we could think of these quirks in in different ways.  We could take those quirks, acknowledge them, polish and highlight them so that over time were seen as gifts. A person with them becomes gifted.  Or we could take those quirks, worry them, flog and reshape them until they became raw so that over time they were seen as a disability. A person with them becomes disabled.

He created this continuum:  D    ………………..     Q   ……………….    G

Reading The Quirks- Welcome to Normal made me think of this presentation.  The Quirks are a family of six.  Grandpa has the ability to rewind time.  Grandma is a fairy grandmother (literally) living in a small house in the willow tree.  Mom has the ability to make you think what she wants you to think.  Penelope’s imagination runs wild and comes true in real life. Finn is invisible to everyone but Molly, Penelope’s twin. And Molly’s quirk?  She doesn’t have one.

Because of their quirks, the family has moved around a lot.  They’ve lived in twelve states and twenty-six towns in nine years (and three quarters.)  Things get out of hand and the Quirks move on.  Just recently they have moved into Normal, Michigan.  Fourth grade will begin in a day or two for the twins.   It’s an anxious time.  Molly longs to fit in and stay in one place.  Penelope wants that too.  She is working very hard to keep her mind calm and empty, her imagination under control.   It is a lot of work to fit in and hide your family’s quirks.  It’s scary and frustrating and hard!

The most exciting day in Normal is the fall festival.  Every year the town does something extraordinarily abnormal to try to break a record.  They’ve made more pancakes at one time than any other town, and they’ve built the longest graham cracker staircase in the world.  So far, the town has never failed to meet the goal.  Each year they collect suggestions from the townspeople, one is selected at random and then they all come together to celebrate the wild and wacky on Normal Night and break a new record.

At least that’s how it normally works.  They’ve never yet, but they’ve never had the Quirks in their town before either – five people who are able to do real magic, and it’s Finn’s suggestion that has been chosen.  “This year, the town of Normal will by trying to build the world’s largest ball of A.B.C. on record.”   This all has to happen in one night – before 10 pm.  Read The Quirks- Welcome to Normal to see if the Quirks can manage their quirks so they will be able to stay.  Will they polish their quirks or the quirks or hide them away?

Absolutely Almost

18225037by Lisa Graff

for intermediate  and middle grade readers, for teachers everywhere – there’s no one who shouldn’t read this book

If there is one thing I learned this year, it is that kindness is a super power and that true kindness, is exceptional.  To me true kindness means acting compassionately for the betterment of others with no thought of yourself because it is just the right thing to do.   In my world, generous hearts and selfless souls are precious and rare.

Albie struggles in school.  He can’t read as well as everyone else, but he does okay.  He can’t spell as well as everyone else, but he works super hard.  Math…just totally does not make sense.  Because of this, Albie is asked to leave his private school that upsets and concerns his parents greatly.  He’s not sure of the exact reason why he has to leave, but he’s pretty certain it is because he is almost at everything.   No matter what he does at school or with friends, it’s never quite good enough.

Albie doesn’t have many friends.  His one true friend is just down the hall.  The cool thing is that from Albie’s apartment 8A, he can flash his light to say goodnight to Erlan when he’s in his bedroom in 8F.  Now that Albie doesn’t go to the same school as Erlan he doesn’t get to see him everyday.  And also Erlan’s family is starring in a new reality TV show.  Erlan is one from a set of triplets who have older sisters who are also triplets too.  Their time together at home now is pretty limited too.  The cameras are always everywhere.

In and around all these changes enters Calista, Albie’s new nanny, babysitter or someone to hang out with – whatever you want to call her.  Where Albie’s parent worry and want him to be like other 5th graders, she just watches him and helps Albie become more.  When Albie’s parents are too busy with worry and work, Calista has time to notice and see.  She sees who Albie is and how hard he tries.  She cautions him when he tries to follow the rules to become cool.  She cares and is always there helping Albie to navigate 5th grade, friends and parents – almost.

Everyone should read Absolutely Almost to discover all the places where kindness resides.  It can be in red gummie bears, math camp jokes, newly labeled book covers and coffee cup towers.   Absolutely Almost helps us see how that is so. Absolutely Almost is a must read book – not just once, but over and over.  Kindness is a super power – rare and precious.  I think this book could help us change that.  Read it and lets us know what you think.


Penelope Crumb – Never Forgets

Penelope Crumb Never Forgetsby Shawn K. Stout

for intermediate readers puzzled by friendship and the ways of the world – Penelope’s  often in trouble, but it’s really not her fault

Now that Penelope has discovered (in book 1 – Penelope Crumb) that her grandfather is alive and living a metro ride away, she has begun helping him and is curious about his work as a photographer.  He’s traveled everywhere and had his photographs published in famous magazines like LIFE and National Geographic.  His pictures spill out all over in his apartment.  Each one has a story and Penelope likes to know them and discover the details that are remembered about them.

Penelope wonders about memories. On her field trip she wonders about the stories behind the collection of artifacts displayed in the Portwaller History Museum.  What were the people like who ate off these plates or hugged this teddy bear or wore those shoes?  While she is wondering about these people from the past, she notices that most of the kids are in the gift shop.  Most of the kids have not even looked at most of the artifacts in the museum.  Penelope doesn’t think this is right and she decides to ask her best friend, Patsy Cline about it.  And that’s when she notices that Patsy and Vera are buying best friend necklaces.  If they are doing that, then Penelope must not be Patsy’s friend anymore.  That hurts and not taking time to notice things in the museum seems disrespectful.  When Penelope says so in a voice that her teacher, Miss Stunkle thinks is too loud she is asked to spend the rest of the field trip on the bus waiting with the driver.

Penelope decides then and there that she will not forget the people who are important to her.  She decides to turn her closet into a museum in honor of all the people who are important to her.  She calls it her Museum of Forget-Me-Notters and she collects things to display.  Unfortunately they are things that the people she cares about needs.  Her grandfather needs his camera.  Her mom needs her sketch book and Patsy needs her necklace back.

Penelope has a lot of problems to solve.  You’ll be surprised when you find out how everything unravels in the end.  Here’s a teeny peek:

Mom is quiet most of the way…”It’s not easy being you, is it?”  I shrug.  “I don’t know how to be anybody else.”  She nods and gives me a half smile.  “I guess that’s true.” …”What’s it like being you?” I ask.  She squints her eyes like she’s really giving her brains a workout and takes a while to come up with an answer.  When she pulls up to the curb outside of Grandpa’s apartment, she says, “Challenging.  Some of the time.”  She strokes my hair.  “But also pretty wonderful.”  “Maybe it’s not easy being anybody. Even dead people have the problem of being forgotten,” I say.  “And also the problem of being dead.”

I like Penelope.  I hope you will too.

Flying the Dragon

18240265by Natalie Dias Lorenzi

an exploration of cultures, disappointments, loss and joy – a perfect mix for intermediate grade readers

I would like to learn more about the traditions of kite building and flying.  I am sure it is far deeper and more complex then I can imagine.  Reading Flying the Dragon by Natalie Dias Lorenzi has piqued my interest.  Hiroshi and grandfather stand in the wind from Tachibana Bay flying their dragon kite.  They kite they built together for Hiroshi’s first entry in the annual rokkaku kite battle.  Finally old enough, Hiroshi will fly the kite this year, while grandfather minds the reel.  Their kite is beautiful as they test it in the wind for the first time, excitement tingling down the line.

Skye is a lead scorer on her team.  She also has great vision on the field and knows how to pass and place the ball for her teammates to succeed.  Finally she has been invited to be part of the all-star team.  Skye plans to finish this season as strongly as she can so she’ll be ready for stiffer competition the new team will bring.

Hiroshi has spent years preparing for this battle.  He will take his place among the great kite fliers of his family.  Skye has practiced for years to make the all-star team and now she has qualified.

Hiroshi and Skye, one from Japan and one from Washington DC, are cousins.  They are each 11.  Their fathers are brothers, twins and eldest sons of the Tsaki family. Grandfather has cancer and it is decided that he will receive the best treatment in Washington DC.  Hiroshi’s family will move.  Skye’s family will help them adjust and care for grandfather.  This means Hiroshi must leave his dream of winning the rokkaku battle behind and Skye must go to Japanese school on Saturdays rather than play for the all-star team.

Hiroshi and Skye feel anger and resentment over their losses.  They despise the changes they must make, but they love their wise and gentle grandfather.  He loves his family and can see how challenging it is for them to make adjustments in their lives.  Kites and the stories competitions and battles unite the generations.  Grandfather uses them to extract a promise from them that they will form a team and enter the rokkaku competition held during the Cherry Blossom Festival on the Mall.

The contrast between the tension and bitterness both cousins feel toward each other and in school learning new languages and new cultures and the ease and wonder they experience in the wind with the kite is striking.  When the kite swoops and swirls higher with each breeze and gust it blows away the feelings of humiliation, failure and worry.  Kites can’t do everything – will it be enough?  There is much to love about Flying the Dragon.  It reminds us of the importance of family, forgiveness and taking time to appreciate both traditions and new beginnings.

I Kill the Mockingbird

18465605by Paul Acampora

There is so much to love about this book for middle grade readers.  Have fun!

The end of 8th grade is just around the corner and the summer between all that is known and all that is unknown (high school) is just about to begin for Lucy, Michael and Elena.   The final reveal of 8th grade is the summer reading list.  There are seven titles ranging from David Copperfield to Fahrenheit 451 to Enders Game to To Kill a Mockingbird.    What’s striking about this list, is not that the books are tedious or unreadable – in fact Lucy, Michael, and Elena have already read most of them.  It’s the length.  At the beginning of 8th grade their English teacher, Mr. Nowak, had announced that the only book for summer reading would be To Kill a Mockingbird.  He said that he hoped by then they’d all “be good enough readers to appreciate it.” Mr. Nowak defined a good reader as someone who “starts to see what an entire book is trying to say.  And then a good reader will have something to say in return.  If you’re reading well, you’re having a conversation.”  That definition stuck with Lucy – she was already a good reader, wasn’t she, but what about the conversation?

Mr. Nowak passed away quite suddenly and they’d finished English with Miss Caridas, not nearly as dynamic as Mr. Nowak, but bearable.  That’s how the summer list had grown from one book to seven.  Best friends since kindergarten, Lucy, Michael and Elena have always loved books.  They always have at least one to read.  They have read them over and over and argue and discuss them.  Elena thinks that David Copperfield is a “sleeping pill.”  Michael can’t believe that.  “What are you talking about?  Dickens novels are like roller coasters.  You have to enjoy the ride…Plus, he puts the whole story right there in the first sentence.  That’s real writing.”

These three love reading and great writing and they want books to matter.  They know they’re weird and they’re okay with that.  Still books should be read.  They devise a plan so they can “speak for the books” and get a conversation going – a conversation that Mr. Nowak would be excited to be part of.  Thus, ikillthemockingbird.com is created.  It starts slowly at first, but suddenly books become a topic of discussion way beyond West Glover, Connecticut.  The I Kill the Mockingbird campaign crosses the country.  How do you stop something once it has taken on a life of its own?  How will it end?

Read I Kill the Mockingbird as a lover of reading AND a lover of life.  Enjoy it funny twists and turns. Life and reading is always better with true friends, understanding family and great books.  This one gets added to the list.

One for the Murphys

12926804by Lynda Mallaly Hunt

a perfect intermediate and middle school book – and one that every teacher should read as well

I don’t know if everyone has a TBR pile like mine.   It’s nearly as large as Everest.  Some of the titles have been there for several years.  Each summer I vow to catch up before I think of getting new books – but then a new title comes out that I know I must read and if I don’t get it now, it’ll be out of print…  If you’re addicted to books as I am, you’ll know every excuse in my mantra.

One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt was one of those books that have been waiting patiently for me to pick it up.  Nudged by the July2, 2014 Nerdy Book Club post I began.  If you have not read it yet, please don’t wait any longer.  Go to the library, go to the bookstore, find it wherever you can and read it.

It is the story of Carley Connor who seems to have lost everything.  Released from the hospital into foster care, Carly feels frightened and alone.  She sees herself as officially an outcast and feels completely out of place with the Murphy family.  This perfect family that is everything she is not.  Three boys – Michael Eric into super heroes and pretend, Adam into matchbox cars and Daniel into basketball and totally angry with Carley for taking his mother’s time and attention.  Mr. Murphy, a Sox fan, is a fire chief and so it not always home and then there’s Mrs. Murphy, Julie, who’s always home, always listening and always genuinely seeming to care.  At first, Carley can’t seem to understand the angle.  She doesn’t fit and she doesn’t want to.  But with time she learns a lot about courage, honesty, kindness and compassion.  She learns the power of family and friendship.  She discovers the strength of caring and tears.

It is amazing how a life can change when someone pays attention to you first. I learned so many things by reading One for the Murphys that will stay with me about bravery, heroes and unconditional love.  I will be a better teacher because of this book.  I will slow down and take time to notice the wonderful gifts shared by my students each day AND I will let them know so they can become even more.  One for the Murphys is a gift to read.

Justin Case – Rules, Tools and Maybe a Bully

18525718by Rachel Vail

great realistic fiction for middle grade readers – it would be a great family read-aloud, a whole school read, or a teacher/parent book club

Justin Case – Rules, Tools and Maybe a Bully is the third in the series.  It is helpful to read the other two boos before reading this one so you fully understand the story – but you can enjoy it as your first dip into the series just as well.  My guess though, is that once you read it, you’ll go find the others to read too because Justin is a great character.  You’ll be wishing to spend more time with him.  What I love about Justin is that he’s not perfect and he’s not afraid to share that.  He knows he worries.  He knows he sometimes makes things larger than life by thinking about them, and he’s working on that.  He’s working on bravery and courage.

Justin is in 4th grade now.  He has Mr. Leonard – the first male teacher he’s ever had – who communicates by raising his eyebrows.  This is something Justin is not sure he understands so he’s trying to keep a low profile.  Justin is trying to figure out how he fits in and who his friends are.  He’s not a running around kind of boy.  He’s not good at sports but he loves to play.  He’s okay in school, but there are kids who are better.  He knows that it’s not cool to like girls, but his first best friend is Daisy even though he doesn’t do very much with her anymore.  His second best friend is Noah, but things are mixed up with him.  Justin is trying to figure out if you can have best friends or if it is better to just be friends with everyone.  He’s trying to figure out what is true and who he can trust – both kids and adults.  After all, Justin told his mom something in confidence and they she blabbed about it with the other moms and that totally got Justin in trouble at school.  He became known as a tattler – when he wasn’t really, or shouldn’t have been.  Justin has to figure out whether he should listen to what everyone is telling him or whether he should listen to his heart.  Justin’s solution is pretty amazing.  I know Justin thinks of himself as a worrier and as pretty ordinary, but he’s not just that at all.  Read Justin Case – Rules, Tools, and Maybe a Bully and let me know what you think.

Plant a Pocket of Prairie

18778015Plant a Pocket of Prairie by Phyllis Root begins, “Once prairie stretched for thousands of miles an ocean of flowers and grasses, a sea of sky, home for bison and elk, prairie chickens, borrowing owls, five-lined skinks, Plains garter snakes and Ottoe skipper butterflies.  Almost all gone now to farm and town and city even before we knew all the things a prairie could do.”  The book shares the life that could once be found in Minnesota’s native prairie – life of all kinds great and small.  Full of “what -ifs”  this book suggests that we pay attention to the habitat around us, understand it and care for it.  We will never be able to recreate the prairie we have lost – but we could plant a pocket and see what comes because of it.  And what would happen if the “pockets” grew together?  There’s no telling who will come.

The information contained in the end pages of this book are what makes it invaluable to intermediate and middle grade readers.  Focused solely on the prairie, the information can be applied to all habitats and ecosystems.  What ecosystems are threatened where you live.  What is there, and what can you do to understand the interdependence of plants and animals as a way of keeping it from slipping away.   The fact I found most striking in the end pages is that the 40% of the United States was once covered by prairie.  Now there is less than 1% of the prairie left and that makes it the most endangered ecosystem in the world.  Reading Plant a Pocket of Prairie makes you rethink about the impact of modernization and how we barge in without really knowing the impact or cost.  There is a reason this book base been talked about and reviewed so often.  There is something for every reader to thinking about.  Enjoy!