Archive | November, 2014

More interesting than THE INTERESTINGS

29 Nov

I hated Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, so I was skeptical when I heard she had written a YA novel.


Mostly, I hated The Interestings because I didn’t like any of the characters.  Fortunately, Belzhar was full of characters I liked and a premise that I found interesting. One might say that the theme is “Art saves Lives”.

Jam Gallahue goes to a therapeutic boarding school in Vermont following a tragic event from which she has not recovered. She is one of 5 students selected for an exclusive English class called “Special Topics in English”which is taught by veteran instructor Mrs. Quenell when she has the perfect set of students. Mrs. Quenell chooses to focus solely on the work of Sylvia Plath with Jam’s small class and gives each student a journal to write in weekly. It turns out that this is no ordinary journal and, as they write, each of the five students has an opportunity to travel to Belzhar, named in honor of Plath’s novel, where they can go back to a time and place where they were happier.

Magical realism might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it works here. And, when you read the ending, you can see why it is so important to the story about the fragile teens at the school. Wolitzer treats teen mental health issues seriously and sensitively.

Did you eat too much yesterday?

28 Nov

My idea of a great Black Friday involves sitting on the sofa. I loathe crowds and shopping on a good day, so today would be torture. And so, I sit here, content reading children’s non-fiction about animals.

The one most appropriate for the day after Thanksgiving is  Get The Scoop on Animal Puke! by Dawn Cusick.


I am someone who gags easily and this book did NOT make me gag. It is pretty fascinating and funny titles like “Puke Defense”, “Baby Pukers” and “People Puke”. Chapters are short and full of many wonderful photographs of animals expelling their food, but Cusick’s point is  that this action has many purposes. As someone who has dogs, I thought I knew a lot about animal puke, but there is a whole world of puke out there. Kids will love this work and adults won’t be grossed out reading it. Backmatter includes a glossary, research source notes, further reading, and indexes.

“Espionage, Sophronia had learned, was tough on petticoats.”

26 Nov


I finished Waistcoats & Weaponry earlier this week. It is the third book in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School  series and the best one yet. I laughed out loud many time because the language is so sharp and witty.

“We are on the side of curiosity and evenhandedness. Once we know what’s really going on, then we choose.”

“That’s a very murky position,” objected Felix.

“So’s the weather. But this is England, we must learn to live with uncertainty.”

In one of my favorite  passages from early in the book, Sophronia is asked about the qualities she seeks in a young man. She has high standards and mentally lists things like understanding, intelligence and sensitivity. What she said out loud was “I want a man who stays out of my way.” Brilliant!

Goodreads Summary: Sophronia continues her second year at finishing school in style–with a steel-bladed fan secreted in the folds of her ball gown, of course. Such a fashionable choice of weapon comes in handy when Sophronia, her best friend Dimity, sweet sootie Soap, and the charming Lord Felix Mersey stowaway on a train to return their classmate Sidheag to her werewolf pack in Scotland. No one suspected what–or who–they would find aboard that suspiciously empty train. Sophronia uncovers a plot that threatens to throw all of London into chaos and she must decide where her loyalties lie, once and for all.

If you like historical fiction, but have never read any Steampunk, this would be a great series to pick up.

100 Things – A Slice of Life Story

25 Nov


Inspired by  the example of many other Slicers, I decided to see what my 4th graders would do with the 100 Things I’m Thankful for Challenge. I worried there might be groans.Instead, I got kids asking, could they take it  for homework and asking if they could go past 100! I keep saying these stream-of-consciousness impulsive puppies are kind hearted. I worked on my list while they worked on theirs. I walked around a bit to monitor and saw some wonderful things on their papers. rather than listing my 100, I’m going to give a sample of some of the things they came up. I chose on thing from each student’s list.

  • butterflies
  • Girl Scouts
  • hot cocoa
  • Kool Aid
  • smelly markers
  • stuffed animals
  • dictionary
  • brain
  • constellations
  • legos
  • polar bear ear muffs
  • gravy
  • fuzzy pajamas
  • Christmas movies
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • tie-dye shirts
  • electric cars
  • noodles
  • soccer
  • meeting Ken Jennings
  • Roberto Clemente
  • US Navy
  • Minecraft

Soccer Goals

24 Nov


When I saw my class list in late August I noticed a name I recognized and knew to be a naughty boy. I was surprised when there was none of the naughtiness I anticipated. Instead, I found a young man who has to work hard at school, but was a positive influence. I just figured he had matured.

At conferences, his mother told me that he was on a soccer team and his coach had very high scholastic expectations for his players. If they don’t do their homework or get in trouble at school, they don’t play, or might even lose their place on the team. Soccer has really turned this boy around.

In Eugene Yelchin’s Arcady’s Goal,  Arcady is an excellent soccer player, but lives a bleak life in an orphanage, the son of, what Stalinist Russia called, “enemies of the people”. One day his life changes and he is adopted by one of the orphanage inspectors. Believing the inspector is actually recruiting youth players for the Soviet’s greatest team -the Red Army- in disguise, Arcady calls his new benefactor Coach, and treats him like one, always trying to impress Coach with his skills. Ivan lives up to his new title, creating a youth soccer team just for Arcady to play on. There is no escape from the labels Stalinism has put on Arcady and Coach. However, as they learn to live together, they learn that this might be the glue holding their relationship together.

Short chapters and pencil sketches keep the reader interested. I think I might like this book even more than I liked Breaking Stalin’s Nose,  which was a 2012 Newbery Honor winner. The author;s note at the end is beautiful and heart-breaking.

Ursula Le Guin and The Princess in Black

21 Nov

Did you see or hear Ursula Le Guin’s acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014?

Like many people she was one of the first science fiction/fantasy writers I ever read.I was probably in my teens.  There certainly wasn’t much of anything science fiction or fantasy-like  for me before I was a teen.

Nowadays, there is so much more for kids. A nice little entry level book is The Princess in Black written  by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, and illustrated by LeUyen Pham.



I have a girl in my class who is really into superheroes. This is a little young for her, but wouldn’t it have been great if this had been around when she was  in kindergarten or first grade!

Goodreads Summary:Who says princesses don’t wear black? When trouble raises its blue monster head, Princess Magnolia ditches her flouncy dresses and becomes the Princess in Black!

Princess Magnolia is having hot chocolate and scones with Duchess Wigtower when . . . Brring! Brring! The monster alarm! A big blue monster is threatening the goats! Stopping monsters is no job for dainty Princess Magnolia. But luckily Princess Magnolia has a secret —she’s also the Princess in Black, and stopping monsters is the perfect job for her! Can the princess sneak away, transform into her alter ego, and defeat the monster before the nosy duchess discovers her secret? From award-winning writing team of Shannon and Dean Hale and illustrator LeUyen Pham, here is the first in a humorous and action-packed chapter book series for young readers who like their princesses not only prim and perfect, but also dressed in black.

If you know a young person who loves superheroes, this is a wonderful read for them. I also think it would be great to shake things up a little and see what ahoys would think about this book. It would pair nicely with Robert Munsch’s The Paperbag Princess. 


I still smile thinking about the time I read it to a class of first graders. When we got to the end a sweet little girl named Mina had a look of horror on her face. That wasn’t the ending she was expecting. Success!

Easy chapter books

20 Nov

One of our easier OBOB (Oregon Battle of the Books) titles is The Trouble With Chickens by Doreen Cronin.


All the adults who have read it think it is wonderfully funny. The 4th graders I know who have read it like it less. I think they think it is beneath them. It is an easy chapter book and thin. Yesterday, at our OBOB meeting, one student actually said to me, “I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by it’s cover, but I do. I choose them if they have bright colors and are thick.”

I haven’t really followed the adventures of JJ and the chicks since the book came out in 2011. Since then, Cronin has publish one other JJ Tully mystery,  The Legend of Diamond Lil (2012).


She has also created a spin off series about the chicks, The Chicken Squad, two books of which were published this year.

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These are even easier chapter books than the JJ Tully mysteries, with a larger font, but still maintaining the chapter book format.

If you have kids ready to move on to chapter books, give JJ and the Chicken Squad a try.

Randy Ribay

YA author, teacher, nerd

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