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A book that touched my heart

2 Oct

I’ve been a little lax about writing over the last few months. I’ve lost a little of my mojo. but I read a book recently that I can’t stop thinking about, and I really want to write about it. It’s called The Boy at the Back of the Class  and it is Onjali Q. Raúf’s debut novel.

It’s not the deepest book on it’s subject (refugees, friendship) but the voice of the narrator is so heart-felt and beautiful that I couldn’t stop reading.

One of the things that bothered me at first was that I couldn’t tell if the narrator was male or female. As I moved through the book, it mattered less and less, so that, by the end, when the protagonist’s name and gender become evident, it is immaterial. In the same way that the narrator just wants to be friends with the boy, regardless of where he came from, I loved this character and wanted to be their teacher, regardless of gender. Because this kid is every teacher’s dream student, and yet their voice and way of thinking feels authentically nine. (she how I am also not revealing the name or gender?)

There is a scene in the book where our protagonist makes a journey to Buckingham Palace that had me thinking about The BFG. I hope both you and Queen Elizabeth read this lovely book. If the characters were a little older, I’d consider this as a class read aloud.

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Publisher’s Summary: Told with humor and heart, The Boy at the Back of the Class offers a child’s perspective on the refugee crisis, highlighting the importance of friendship and kindness in a world that doesn’t always make sense.

There used to be an empty chair at the back of Mrs. Khan’s classroom, but on the third Tuesday of the school year a new kid fills it: nine-year-old Ahmet, a Syrian refugee.

The whole class is curious about this new boy–he doesn’t seem to smile, and he doesn’t talk much. But after learning that Ahmet fled a Very Real War and was separated from his family along the way, a determined group of his classmates bands together to concoct the Greatest Idea in the World–a magnificent plan to reunite Ahmet with his loved ones.

This accessible, kid-friendly story about the refugee crisis highlights the community-changing potential of standing as an ally and reminds readers that everyone deserves a place to call home.

20 May

Books set in summer seem to be finding their way to me. Thoughts about summer are certainly making their way to me, and my students. I was grateful for the return to rain after three weeks of summery weather – it helps keep students focused.

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The main character of Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s  Shouting At the Rain also appreciates a good storm.

Publisher’s Summary: Delsie loves tracking the weather–lately, though, it seems the squalls are in her own life. She’s always lived with her kindhearted Grammy, but now she’s looking at their life with new eyes and wishing she could have a “regular family.” Delsie observes other changes in the air, too–the most painful being a friend who’s outgrown her. Luckily, she has neighbors with strong shoulders to support her, and Ronan, a new friend who is caring and courageous but also troubled by the losses he’s endured. As Ronan and Delsie traipse around Cape Cod on their adventures, they both learn what it means to be angry versus sad, broken versus whole, and abandoned versus loved. And that, together, they can weather any storm.

As a teacher of 6th graders, I see this sort of relationship struggle frequently. Kids come into 6th middle school with friends from their neighborhood and elementary school. Middle school is a bigger pond. Some friendships endure. Some are abandoned. Some take a new shape. Watching my students negotiate this can be tough. Right now I am watching a good kid fall under the spell of someone with, shall we say, less of a work ethic. I have a feeling he will be all right, but I am am watching him and will intervene if I think I need to.

 

Bunnies, hearts and grief

8 Apr

As a middle school teacher, I sometimes forget how young my students are. I spend so much time with them everyday, that their age falls away, until they say or do something that makes me say, “Oh yeah, they’re twelve.”. Those middle years, with one foot in the teen world and on foot in the world of young children – can be hard to capture. Kevin Henkes does a wonderful job in Sweeping Up the Heart.

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Publisher’s Summary: Amelia Albright dreams about going to Florida for spring break like everyone else in her class, but her father—a cranky and stubborn English professor—has decided Florida is too much adventure.

Now Amelia is stuck at home with him and her babysitter, the beloved Mrs. O’Brien. The week ahead promises to be boring, until Amelia meets Casey at her neighborhood art studio. Amelia has never been friends with a boy before, and the experience is both fraught and thrilling. When Casey claims to see the spirit of Amelia’s mother (who died ten years before), the pair embarks on an altogether different journey in their attempt to find her.

Using crisp, lyrical, literary writing and moments of humor and truth, award-winning author Kevin Henkes deftly captures how it feels to be almost thirteen.

This is a slow quiet book, named for an Emily Dickinson poem, and a little melancholy in places. It tackles complex themes with beautifully simple language that will touch your heart.

At the beginning, it is made very clear, that the book is set during Spring Break in 1999. I was expecting that to have some significance beyond worries of the Millennium Bug, but it didn’t. I suspect the year only served to orient readers to a world without cell phones. There are points where Amelia feels younger than twelve, but then I think about my students. They are an inconsistent lot. I think fourth or fifth grade readers are probably the target audience, as young people generally like to read about characters who are a bit older.  Overall, a lovely book that addresses issues around grief, change, and communication.

All that and there’s a basset hound, too!

4 Apr

It’s only been a month, but it feels like forever since I’ve written about books. After floundering around thinking about which book I’ve read in the last month, I finally settled on one that has a basset hound, because what’s better than books and bassets, right?

The basset hound in Jeff Zentner’s Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee  is not the main character. He does make several appearances though and provides both comic relief and comfort.

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Publisher’s Summary: Every Friday night, best friends Delia and Josie become Rayne Ravenscroft and Delilah Darkwood, hosts of the campy creature feature show Midnite Matinee on the local cable station TV Six.

But with the end of senior year quickly approaching, the girls face tough decisions about their futures. Josie has been dreading graduation, as she tries to decide whether to leave for a big university and chase her dream career in mainstream TV. And Lawson, one of the show’s guest performers, a talented MMA fighter with weaknesses for pancakes, fantasy novels, and Josie, is making her tough decision even harder.

Scary movies are the last connection Delia has to her dad, who abandoned the family years ago. If Midnite Matinee becomes a hit, maybe he’ll see it and want to be a part of her life again. And maybe Josie will stay with the show instead of leaving her behind, too.

As the tug-of-war between growing up and growing apart tests the bonds of their friendship, Josie and Delia start to realize that an uncertain future can be both monstrous…and momentous.

I’m going to be honest here, the story takes a bizarro turn when the girls meet the producer they think will change their lives. However, it also does a great job tackling how friendships evolve as young people grow older, the complex feelings around parental abandonment, and the excitement and uncertainty as high school ends and teens prepare to move on to the next phase of their lives.

 

Emerging from my cocoon

7 Jan

I spent the last two weeks in a delightful cocoon of my own making, filled with books and knitting.

It is hard going back.

But, back I must go.

I read several wonderful picture books during the break that touched my heart. One of them was Adrian Simcox Does Not Have A Horse  by Marcy Campbell.

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From the Author’s Website: Adrian Simcox tells anyone who will listen that he has a horse–the best and most beautiful horse anywhere.

But Chloe does NOT believe him. Adrian Simcox lives in a tiny house. Where would he keep a horse? He has holes in his shoes. How would he pay for a horse?

The more Adrian talks about his horse, the angrier Chloe gets. But when she calls him out at school and even complains about him to her mom, Chloe doesn’t get the vindication she craves. She gets something far more important.

Can I just say that this is the book we all need to read these days, when we are so quick to judge and spout our opinions. This is a book about empathy – getting to know ‘the other” and seeing their perspective. It teaches us that being right isn’t always the most important thing.

Corinna Luyken’s illustrations — in black ink, colored pencils, and watercolor — remind me of books published when I was young and makes the book feel timeless.

Strangers in a strange land

26 Nov

I didn’t do a Thanksgiving post. I am fortunate to have many things for which I am thankful and the Thanksgiving Break was one of them. I feel refreshed and ready for the next month of school.

Over the five-day break from school, I read a couple of books. One that really moved me, and reminded me of how fortunate I am, was Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh.

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Publisher’s Summary: Fourteen-year-old Ahmed is stuck in a city that wants nothing to do with him. Newly arrived in Brussels, Belgium, Ahmed fled a life of uncertainty and suffering in Aleppo, Syria, only to lose his father on the perilous journey to the shores of Europe. Now Ahmed’s struggling to get by on his own, but with no one left to trust and nowhere to go, he’s starting to lose hope.

Then he meets Max, a thirteen-year-old American boy from Washington, D.C. Lonely and homesick, Max is struggling at his new school and just can’t seem to do anything right. But with one startling discovery, Max and Ahmed’s lives collide and a friendship begins to grow. Together, Max and Ahmed will defy the odds, learning from each other what it means to be brave and how hope can change your destiny.

If I didn’t already have a read aloud with a female protagonist lined up, I’d choose this for my next read aloud. It really speaks to the idea that individuals can’t necessarily change the world, but we can change the world for one person. It goes back, too, to the idea I shared a the beginning of summer, that we are saved by saving others.

Max is pretty miserable in Brussels, but, once he befriends Ahmed, his life turns around. He has found a purpose and, in doing so, has found a place in his strange new world. If you are looking for a great gift book for the holidays for a reader in grades 4-7, consider Nowhere Boy. But read it before you give it, so that you, and the recipient can have a marvelous book discussion.

 

It’s as easy as Pi

8 Oct

I am always hypercritical of books set in school. My biggest pet peeve is referring to a Principal as Principal So-and-so. No one does that in real life. Authors take note: you always call the principal Mr/Mrs./Ms. So-and-so.

I also critique what teachers do in class and think,  A real teacher would never do that.  I often have to suspend my disbelief for the sake of the story.

There is only really one small moment  where I had to suspend my disbelief in The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, and it was a small moment with an English teacher. It doesn’t take away from all the good things about the book, which does a great job telling the story of a Math genius in middle school.

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Publisher’s Summary: Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning. She doesn’t remember it, but it changed her life forever. The zap gave her genius-level math skills, and ever since, Lucy has been homeschooled. Now, at 12 years old, she’s technically ready for college. She just has to pass 1 more test–middle school!

Lucy’s grandma insists: Go to middle school for 1 year. Make 1 friend. Join 1 activity. And read 1 book (that’s not a math textbook!). Lucy’s not sure what a girl who does calculus homework for fun can possibly learn in 7th grade. She has everything she needs at home, where nobody can make fun of her rigid routines or her superpowered brain. The equation of Lucy’s life has already been solved. Unless there’s been a miscalculation?

A celebration of friendship, Stacy McAnulty’s smart and thoughtful middle-grade debut reminds us all to get out of our comfort zones and embrace what makes us different.

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