Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Grades 6-8’ Category

Nature and animals are themes that run through the following three books. The latter two also contain a message about finding oneself in the world.

Sunny Day Point and Match by Rosie Wingert is a colorful and sturdy board book that gives parents a fun activity to do with their toddlers. Together families can talk about objects, sounds, seasons, and more. Items to find on the page are illustrated at the top. Inside the cover are a list of other ideas for how parents can use the book, including matching shapes, finding favorite colors, counting related objects, and making sounds from nature. One parent told me that Sunny Day helped their son learn memory and matching skills by age one!

Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae is a fun story with an inspiring message. Gerald was a tall giraffe whose knees were crooked and whose legs were thin. Unfortunately, while he was good at standing tall and munching shoots off trees, he wasn’t so good at dancing. This was a big problem for the giraffe at the annual dance. The solution is contrived, but readers will find hope in Andreae’s message about self-esteem. In addition, the bold artwork exudes a party vibe and the rhyming text has a lively style that will young readers will enjoy.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate should be on every animal lover’s list of must-read books. The plot drew me into another world, that of a gorilla who lives in a glass-enclosed display in a mall. Ivan fills his days drawing bananas, watching television, and talking with friends. I loved how Applegate integrated the theme of friendship and of hope. Ivan seems content until a kidnapped baby elephant joins the mall menagerie and his friend Stella becomes sick. Slowly he’s forced to remember his past, and to fight for a better life for himself and his friends. Finally, the short paragraph’s written from Ivan’s perspective are mesmerizing. I quickly found myself loving this easygoing gorilla, who has unique ways of expressing himself.

Reprinted with permission from Lincoln Kids. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2018.

I always enjoy a new novel by Kathryn Erskine. The Incredible Magic of Being is no exception. In this middle-grade story, Erskine has once again given a fresh approach to the themes of diversity, family relationships, and of loss and grief.

As with many of Erskine’s characters, Julian has a unique way of looking at the world. Through chapter titles, narrative, and the Facts and Random Thoughts sidebars, Julian’s love of science shines in both serious and humorous ways. For example, the first chapter is called Black Holes and Messier Objects. In this chapter, Julian compares his sister to a black hole. Anyone who has met an explosive teen with sympathize. At the same time, I can’t help but laugh when Julian shares that his sister at times makes a noise like an orangutan, wears earbuds and sunglasses even inside, and has moods that spook him. And then I feel sad again when Julian compares himself to a Messy Object. This isn’t a reference to a messy room but to an object that gets in the way.

Family relationships are an integral part of The Incredible Magic of Being. The changing dynamics between Julian and his sister Pookie will feel real to anyone who has a sibling. The two used to be like magnets. Pookie would even read to Julian when he had nightmares. Now the two have drifted apart. At times, the two quarrel such as during the car drive to their new home in Maine. Pookie tells Julian to stop kicking her backpack. Julian’s mom takes his side, asking him to stop jiggling his feet and to instead take calm breaths. When she calls him a freak, Julian chooses to touch Pookie’s backpack and inwardly hopes that she won’t notice. At times, Julian still tries to connect with his sister. When their parents assign them both chores to prepare for the family’s new Bed and Breakfast venture, Julian asks Pookie to work together with him. Because she hates the Bed and Breakfast, Pookie refuses to do even her own chores,  and so Julian elects to do all the chores to keep the peace. The enmity continues until their neighbor has a heart attack and they need each other.

Despite the fact their neighbor could prevent their family from building a Bed and Breakfast by the nearby lake, Julian feels sorry for Mr. X who has lost his wife and is now completely alone. At first Julian acts like an obnoxious child in his insistence that Mr. X needs to have him as a friend. Just as much, Mr. X acts like a grumpy old man who has no time for anyone or anything because of his age and grief. Through a series of twists and turns, a magical relationship develops between these two strong characters of very different ages. For example, in Julian’s mind, Julian’s desire for a dog and Mr. X’s need for a companion can be met, if Mr. X adopts a dog but allows Julian to care for it. Except then Mr. X surprises Julian by asking that he teach his dog and himself water safety, something that Julian doesn’t want to do due to being afraid of water, drowning, and death.

There are many more features to The Incredible Magic of Being that I’ve left out such as the relationship between Julian’s lesbian parents. It shows the realistic struggles that every couple faces in attempting to stay connected, raise children, and find a meaningful place in the world. Then there’s the slightly paranormal undertone, which leads to a surprisingly revelation. I encourage you to read The Incredible Magic of Being and experience Erskine’s memorable writing for yourself.

When looking for books to read, a perfect place to start is with the award-winners. They’re available for all ages and in all genres. Here are three recent ones.

We Are Growing by Laurie Keller bursts with the exuberance one would expect of a winner of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award. Such exuberance is also perhaps the only way an author could comically write about such a mundane topic as grass. Each blade of grass is growing and proud of being the tallest, the curliest, or the silliest. But one long piece of grass doesn’t know what’s special about him until a lawn mower reduces them to the same size. Through googly-eyed grasses and slapstick moments, Keller gently teaches that we’re all the best at something.

Jean-Michel Basquiat grew up drawing with the support of his mom, who would lie with him to draw on old work papers. From her, Basquiat learned that art is found not just in museums and theaters but also in the games he played and the people he met. Basquiat overcame serious injuries suffered when he was struck by a car at age seven, and the institutionalization of his mom at age 13 to become a famous artist. Steptoe captures Basquiat’s life in his rich writing style and creative illustrations. To give meaning to the book’s artwork, Steptoe collected bits of scrap wood from around Basquiat’s home in New York City, and used them as canvases onto which he painted scenes from his book. He also adeptly integrates Basquiat’s favorite motifs into his illustrations. Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe is a brilliant Caldecott-winner biography!

Entrenched in fantasy, complex characters, and poignant themes, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill is impossible to put down. Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch that lives in the forest. But nothing is at is seems in this Newbery-winning novel. For example, the witch is kind. She rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest. One year, the witch discovers one of the children possesses magic and decides to raise Luna as her own. But the baby’s mother is searching for her. And the mother meets a man who is determined to free his people from the witch. Eventually, all paths intersect with a message of love.

Reprinted with permission from Lincoln Kids. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2018.

Mariana Weber is so passionate about global warming that she used to regularly write letters to the president. Then she realized that his replies were all the same and that a co-worker had probably drafted a form letter for such requests as hers. Undeterred, Mariana decided to both form an organization for environmental protection and to write a book. For the latter, she enlisted her illustrator friend Joanna Whysner, whose colorful drawings add to the charm of The Global Warming Express.

Through an easy-to-read fantasy, Weber entertains while also making a plea for change. Earth is in peril. Several animals and two young people decide to join forces. They ride a magical train to the White House, where they hope their cry will be heard by the president.

The adventure begins in Antarctica, where an emperor penguin named The Fluff has just lost his mom, who died after swallowing a piece of plastic from the ocean. The girls also meet other animals whose stories engage while also drawing upon sympathies: a harp seal named Creamy who almost drowned when the ice she called home melted before she could learn to swim, a bear named Tomas and a salamander named Sally whose homes have been destroyed by fires caused by drought, a polar bear named Flora who found herself separated from her parents due to melting ice, a mountain goat named Edgar who has nowhere left to migrate, a caribou named Lauren who has no place to call home due to the destruction of muskeg, a duck named Zolo whose feathers have been permanently damaged by oil, a fish named Bobbi Sue whose aquatic home is toxic, and a rat named Zingo whose home is being destroyed by hurricanes that have become increasingly severe. One would be hard-pressed to read the tales of all these animals and not be stirred to action.

Weber has done her research. In her introduction, she explains why the Earth is heating up and why we need to slow down the effects. Through a parrot named Inoah, she teaches reading about multiple issues related to global warming such as the burning of fossil fuels, drilling of natural preserves, releasing of carbon monoxide into the air, and dumping of oils. And, on her resources page, Weber provides multiple links to articles and websites related to climate change. Anyone who is stirred to action by The Global Warming Express will have obvious reasons and solutions.

The Global Warming Express isn’t simply a cautionary tale. It’s also a fun story of a cross-country adventure where several animals and two young people visit unfamiliar places and face dangers such as fires and hurricanes. One minor complaint is I’m not sure why the train takes them into Canada, given that their mission is to plead with the United States president to pass environmental protection laws. While on this ride, the train becomes a character too. If the passengers are sad it slows down and even stops, but if the passengers are happy it speeds up.

In addition to writing a book, Weber started The Global Warming Express program. Its website explains global warming, tells how adults can help, and provides updates on small and big goals that young people in the group have made towards climate change.

From the ravaged tiny Polynesian island of Vaitea arises a hero and heroine for our times. Based on his ten years of Easter Island research, Edward Stanton has written an inspiring adventure about a brother and sister, their island, and how they saved it. In Wide as the Wind, Miru and Renga face tough choices and much hardship when they set sail to a distant island to find the seeds and shoots of trees that could reforest their homeland. Their return to Vaitea reaps romance and additional challenges in this teen historical novel.

Adventure is at the forefront of this tightly-written novel. Prior to embarking on their journey, Miru and Renga learn the sailor’s craft. Their grandfather teaches them to weave sails of pounded bark, cut full-sized paddles, make nets of mulberry cloth, and fashion birdbone hooks. He also teaches them to coast the island in a longboat, navigate by the sun, moon, and stars, recognize winds, currents, and constellations, and to fish. After recruiting a third crewman, the brother and sister duo set sail. On their journey, they brave the elements. The wind gusts. The sea roars. Supplies are washed overboard. The sun burns, parching their throats. They encounter sharks and their third crewman is attacked. Miru, Renga, and their third crewsman sail fifty-two days before finding land, and this is just the beginning of their adventure.

At the heart of Wide as the Wind also lies a theme. Years of tribal wars have devastated Vaitea. Tribes people who survived are now facing starvation. To save them, Miru must personally sacrifice romantic love, suffer injury and loss, and even risk his life. Even when they return from their journey to a distant island with the seeds and shoots of trees necessary to reforest their homeland, the tribal wars threaten to continue. Although some historical accounts suggest that extinction of natural resources of the real-life Easter Island inhabitants started long before internal conflicts, the latter certainly didn’t help. In basing his story on a real place, Stanton has crafted a parable that shows how mankind’s violence can lead to environmental destruction and even the end of a world.

Wide as the Wind has many other positives. The characters are realistic. Miru and Renga are likeable teens to which every reader can relate. Miru disagrees with his father’s choices, enjoys swimming with dolphins, and sneaks away to spend time with his girlfriend. The descriptions are vivid; the diction is strong. Here’s just one phrase for example: “He sat down with them on paving stones that glittered with brine and fish scales….” There are even moments of humor. One of the funniest is when birds poop on Miru’s head, just after he’s received the call to save his people. My one complaint is that I felt at times the action moved too fast and kept me at an emotional distance from the characters.

Author Edward Stanton has written eleven books. His fiction, poems, and essays have appeared in publications across the world. He is a professor of literature, and has won grants for his travel, research, and writing. Wide as the Wind is a worthy addition to his literary accomplishments. It has won the 2017 silver Moonbeam Award for Young Adult Fiction and the 2018 silver Feathered Quill Award for Teen Fiction.


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2018

I am focusing this year on other commitments. Once a month, I’ll post reviews of Advanced Reader Copies. Titles will include: Freddy Frogcaster and the Flash Flood by Janice Dean, One Two by Igor Eliseev, Incredible Magic of Being by Kathyrn Erskine, Dragon Grammar Book by Diane Robinson, and Wide as the Wind by Edward Stanton.

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