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.

The Adventures of Beanboy

The Adventures of Beanboyby Lisa Harkrader

235 pages of everyday life with super hero connections.  What is your super power?  I bet you have one that you haven’t noticed yet.

Tucker MacBean is a seventh grader.  He has a passion for comic books . H2O man is his favorite super hero, but they’re all pretty cool in Tucker’s mind.  He has a best friend, Noah Spooner who is organized and driven to do his best in school.  He has a little brother, Beecher who is most often his main sidekick while his mom is trying to juggle single parenthood, a demanding job and a full load of night courses at the local college.  And, he may have an arch nemesis, Sam Zawicki, who seems angry at the world.  Though Tucker pretty much tries to stay out of her way, their paths keep crossing.

It might seem that Tucker MacBean is a typical kid at first, but the more you get to know him the more you admire is choices. He’s pretty extraordinary. Tucker’s mom is a phantom presence in his life – sticky notes and piles of clean laundry are often the only signs he has that she’s been home.  He doesn’t complain.  He just makes sure Beecher has what he needs.  That’s not always easy.  As Tucker puts it, “Something happened when Beecher was born.  He didn’t get enough oxygen in his brain right at first.  So he doesn’t do everything the way everyone else does.”  Tucker is resourceful.  When the opportunity arises, he decides he will enter a contest to earn a scholarship for his mom so she won’t have to work so hard.  He’s observant.  He notices how his classmates treat one another.  Maybe it is because he really does have a super power of invisibility that he is able to see so much and try to understand the other perspective.  He is honorable.  Tucker MacBean chooses to do what is right rather than what is popular most of the time – and that is hard!

The contest that Tucker has decided to enter says:  “H2O’s sidekick must possess the true heart of a hero.  Reach deep within yourself, find that heroic heart, and create a sidekick who can rank among the greatest sidekicks in comic book history.”  You’ll have to read The Adventures of Beanboy to find out how similar the powers of an ordinary seventh grader are to those of a super hero.  Maybe it’s the Clark Kent effect.

In reading about the author, Lisa Harkrader said she was looking forward to creating more books about Beanboy.  I hope she does because I am looking forward to reading them.

Same Sun Here

Same Sun Hereby Silas House and Neela Vaswani

297 pages of letters telling the story of deepening friendship that middle school readers will enjoy and think about – the world is an amazing place

Each year I share the poem Books to the Ceiling by Arnold Lobel with kids in my class.  I adapt it a bit at the end to say “I’ll have snow white hair by the time I read them” rather than a long beard.  That poem is certainly true for me right now.  I have books everywhere waiting to be read.  I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the titles I want to tell you about and all the rest patiently waiting their turn to be opened.

It took me a year to get to Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani.  This book begs to be read aloud and in two voices if you can.  The story is told through the pen pal letters written by River Dean Justice from coal country in Kentucky and Meena Joshi, living in New York City’s Chinatown.  They share everything in their letters – they share their quirks and weirdnesses with each other because through these letters they feel they can let the true selves show.

People who don’t know River might assume he is an uneducated hillbilly.  He tells Meena that’s what a lot of people think.  Big shot businessmen are buying up all the land so they can remove the top of the mountain and take out all the coal.  They think that money can buy everything and since they’ll be leaving when the mountains are gone, they don’t care that the water is polluted or the land isn’t fit for living on.

People who don’t know Meena might assume she is trying to take advantage of this country.  She tells River of how hard her family works and how much to they do to help their neighbor Mrs. Lau so they can stay in the rent control apartment she is allowing them to use.  Meena’s family can’t afford to live anywhere else so they can’t be found out or they’ll be forced to leave.  All of their life has to fit easily into a box so it can disappear if the landlord comes and questions.  Meena is always afraid of losing the life she has because there is no other option.

River and Meena are very different, but very much the same.  Their voices are caring, brave and strong.  Their families are committed to making things better for their children – but they aren’t always able to do that.  The twists and turns and connections of these two friends will surprise, concern and delight you.  River and Meena develop a strong friendship through their letters.  They share so much about themselves and their lives that they will become your friends too.  You’ll be cheering and gasping, hoping and sighing right along with them.

I loved this book.  I hope it is read all over.  It shares lives and places that are not often written about in a way that is real and honest.  Being able to share your own true self is a wonderful gift.

Seconds – Waiting for Thirds

I’ve been reading – but with the beginning of school, I have not taken the time to tell you about the books.  I’ve decided to remedy that.  I have a large pile to tell you about – so here’s a start.

The White House (I.Q., #2)Right after reading I, Q: Independence Hall, I went to the bookstore to get the next book.  It had taken me quite a while to read this series after all, Skye and Matt recommended it to me four years ago.  But good books stay good until you find them.  That is certainly true for this series.  I, Q: The White House continues following “Match” on their national concert tour.  After performing in Philadelphia they make a quick stop at the White House to perform a private concert for the President, his daughter and son and select invitees.

That is exactly what the terrorist ghost cell has been waiting for.  They quickly activate their plan, sure to cause chaos in the United States.  They have infiltrated the White House staff and are waiting for the perfect moment to disrupt the country.  The twist and turns of the plot had me eagerly following Q and Angela through the White House, meeting the President, learning more about the SOS and keeping track of the plots and counter plots.   Complicated, exciting and intriguing!

Boone and Croc remain a the key to the puzzle of who is working with whom and how they are connected.  Though as more of the past is revealed, and the actions of the present become clearer, questions emerge and linger.  The more you learn, the more mysterious it all seems.  Will Angela’s mother stay alive?  Where is the next ghost cell waiting?  Will the President’s daughter, Bethany be safe?  Are people really who they claim to be?

This thrilling spy adventure surrounds you with interesting characters, richly detailed places and exciting action.  You’ll be wonder “what-if” all the way to the end and when you finish, just as you did when you finished the first I, Q, you’ll have to get the next one and keep reading.

The Silver Door (The Three Doors Trilogy)When I finished The Golden Door, I couldn’t wait to read The Silver Door.  Though there are many books waiting in my pile, I began reading it as soon as it was in my hands.  I love how Emily Rodda creates places and bring their inhabitants to life.  Weld is not a nice place to live, but because Rye and Sonia live there I want to be there with them.  I want to understand why life is the way it is there.  I want the best for them and I so hope their lives will be easier. I hope those they care about will find some happiness by the time their quest comes to an end, but I am not certain my wishes will come true.

I think this is one of the beauties of these books.   While good prevails, evil still exists and I am left wondering what will happen to the characters I care deeply about.  What will happen to the Warden’s daughter?  How are the lands found by going through the gold door connected to the lands that are found on the other side of the silver door? How did magic come to be and why does it seem so corrupt?  Is it only about power and who has it?  What has upset the balance so that so many people live in fear and endure so much deprivation?  I can’t wait until September 24 for The Third Door, the last part of the trilogy so I can find the answers to my questions.  Emily Rodda’s characters, stories and writing are a real treat that I hope many readers find and enjoy.

Melonhead and the Undercover Operation

Melonhead and the Undercover Operationby Katy Kelly

243 pages of deliciously funny, mysterious adventure for middle grade readers

I really like Melonhead.  He makes me laugh.  When I am reading I know things aren’t going to work out – (I thought, “Oh, please make the deliveries first.  Just do it and then go watch.  Oh, you really have to.”  Knowing, of course, that he and Sam would not do that.) – and I can totally understand the reason for the choices they make.  Melonhead is all about doing and working really hard to keep out of trouble so his mom doesn’t have to worry about him.  His dad travels often an in Melonhead and the Undercover Operation he gives Adam a list called The Melon Family Guidelines for Life that he hopes will help Adam and his mom stay calm.  Its a list of 9 actions to consider and take like 2. plan ahead or 4. when in doubt, ask an adult or 8. remember the ways of ladies.  These G’s for L replace the Remind -o-rama with do’s rather than don’ts – and they sort of smooth things out.  Melonhead works very hard to follow them but that can be difficult when you take being a Junior Special Agent for the FBI seriously and you feel certain that the newly posted person on the 10 Most Wanted Criminals in the country lives in your neighborhood.

The characters are terrific – even if they only make a cameo appearance in this book.  The actions are laugh out loud, but not outrageous.  I don’t know which I like best: the human periscopes or the old lady disguises.  I like how Adam and Sam have friend that are girls like Jonique and Lucy Rose and friends that are old like Pops and Madam and Mrs. Wilkins.  And there is a serious side to.  I am glad there are four Melonhead books so far, along with three Lucy Rose books because these are great characters to have around.