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Monday, January 22, 2018

Books to make students chuckle, laugh, or guffaw.

Renner, Benjamin (2017) The Big Bad Fox  New York: First Second.

Image result for Big Bad Fox

            Opening lines:  Well, it is a graphic novel, and has more images than words, so here are the opening panels (which are not framed panels but more sort of round blobs of color).  Panel 1, a woods with tall trees and undergrowth and a hold in the side of a slight hill.  Panel 2:  A fox’s head emerges from the burrow.  His eyelids are half open.  He is either sleepy or shifty.  Panel 3, he stretches and says “Gnnn…”  Panel 4 his body slumps and he breathes heavily, as if stretching has worn him out. 

            The fox’s life is hard enough to start with.  His attempts to steal a chicken or two for dinner are continually foiled by the farm’s guard dog or the chickens themselves, who have started taking self-defense classes.  Then the huge wolf in the woods, who the fox wants to be like, threatens and bullies him into stealing some eggs and raising the chicks so they can have chickens to eat.  When the little chicks imprint upon the fox, deciding that he is their mom, the fox’s life becomes exponentially more complicated.  Equal parts slapstick, comedy of errors, cringe humor and  touching story, this book is silly enough to make third graders laugh out loud, and serious enough to give middle school students something to think about.  Highly suitable fr your classroom library, this book could also become part of a 5th or 6th grade’s language arts curriculum.  It is a good , funny story with some interesting themes. 




Scieszka, Jon, Ed. (2010) Guys Read:  Funny Business. New York:  HarperCollins

Image result for Guys Read FUnny Business

Opening Lines:  (Since these are short stories, I’ll treat you to a series of opeing lines form different stories)
            --Ernest was a nerd, but it was fourth grade: we are all nerds.
            --Between peeling off his nightshirt and pulling on his school uniform, Will examined himself from head to hairiline.
            --I have four brothers.  That’s five boys altogether all living in a small house, which is a recipe for major property damage at the very least.
            --Dwight Howtzler is an idiot.
--One night in the fall of fifth grade, my dad finally got fed up with me and decided it was time to make me a man.
--My younger brother, Patrick, is a normal, functioning adult.
--My gramps, Papa Red, has been living with us for a year now and is straight-up nuts.
--This all started because I wouldn’t take out the trash.

When I was looking up opening lines for the above section, I started rereading the opening page of one of these stories and ended up rereading the whole thing.  Because although this collection is meant to group together funny stories, they are also stories that are interesting, gripping, well0-written, sometimes exhilarating, and almost always delightful.  Adam Rex’s story “Will” is about a kid going to a school for superheroes even though he doesn’t appear to have any special talents or powers, and of course, he is the one who must face the inevitable peril.   Kate DiCmillo and Jon Sciszka’s “Your Question for Author Here” gives us the letters of a kid who is forced to write to an author for an assignment, and the clever, sarcastic, manipulative, and ultimately encouraging responses from that author.  Paul Fieg’s “My Parents Gave my Bedroom to a Biker” is self-explanatory, but no less funny for it.  I laughed out loud at several points in reading this book, but found myself grinning almost constantly. 
Good-humored readers from fourth grade and up will enjoy this, girls as well as boys.  I didn’t notice anything in here likely to draw any challenges from parents.  It would probably work best as a classroom library sort of book.  There are themes here to be sure, but books whose main focus is humor do not tend to help up well to classroom study.  Buy this one. 




Yorinks, Arthur; Lamb, Braden; Paroline, Shelli (2017) Making Scents.  New York: First Second.

Image result for making scents

            Opening Lines:  The first panel shows a boy’s hand writing on notebook paper the words, “First I was born…”  The inset panel shows a man carrying a baby into the woods.  On the next page, in four panels, the man leaves the child in a hollow in the base of a tree, then walks away.
            Mickey’s mom and dad raise bloodhounds and provide them to police and other people who need to hunt for someone or something.  Mickey is raised alongside their dogs, who thinks of as brothers and sisters, and is taught to use his nose much as the bloodhounds do.  When he is old enough for school, he is at first ridiculed for his tendency to go around on all fours and use his nose to find things.  His parents advocate for him and soon he is showing off his talents in an all-school assembly.  Even as he is gaining the respect of his peers, however, they are killed in a car crash, and soon Mickey is sent away from his dog brothers and sisters to his dog-hating aunt and uncle who live in the city.  They hope to teach him to behave as an ordinary child. 
            This graphic novel is illustrated in a kind of 1950s style that reminds me of Margaret Bloy Graham’s illustrations of picture books like Harry, The Dirty Dog, or P.D. Eastham’s illustrations of Are You My Mother? and the like..  Though some of the story is serious, Mickey’s dog habits in the context of a very conventional school are funny and should cause second and third grad readers and up to find humor in them.  This is a fun and sometimes silly book that is unlikely to cause any challenges.  Good for your classroom library and a special hit with kids who are dog lovers. 




Lawrence, Mike (2017) Star Scouts  New York:  First Second.

Image result for Star Scouts

Opening Lines: 
The first panel is a two-page spread of a spaceship in orbit of a planet.  A narration box says “QDS Pumpernickel,  Deli class destroyer.  Low Zirdon orbit.”  One inset panel shows a close up of the ship with a single speech balloon coming from what looks to be the bridge. “Mabel!  You’re going to be late!”  The other inset panel is a still closer view.  Two speech balloons.  The first asks, “Have you finished your scout homework yet?”  The second responds, “Almost done!  Be there in a minute!”
            In this colorfully rendered graphic novels, Mabel is a space alien who accidentally teleports Avani, an earth girl who is having a hard time in a new school, up to her spaceship (Mabel was trying for a newt, but accidentally nudged the controls).  They become friends, and then Mabel asks Avani if she wants to join her Star Scouts Troop.  The next thing Avani knows, she and the other scouts are embroiled in a competition to figure out which troop is the best at a variety of space-based events.   What follows resembles a Disney kids comedy with hijinks and goofiness galore, and, of course, in the end, the plucky youngsters show they can compete with the rest of them through a combination of teamwork and good sportsmanship. 
This one is best for younger elementary readers, maybe second through fourth or fifth.  It would be a good one for a classroom library.  Nothing offensive here. 





Renner, Benjamin (2017) The Big Bad Fox  New York: First Second.



            Opening lines:  Well, it is a graphic noel, and has more images than words, so here are the opening panels (which are not framed panels but more sort of round blobs of color).  Panel 1, a woods with tall trees and undergrowth and a hold in the side of a slight hill.  Panel 2:  A fox’s head emerges from the burrow.  His eyelids are half open.  He is either sleepy or shifty.  Panel 3, he stretches and says “Gnnn…”  Panel 4 his body slumps and he breathes heavily, as if stretching has worn him out. 
            The fox’s life is hard enough to start with.  His attempts to steal a chicken or two for dinner are continually foiled by the farm’s guard dog or the chickens themselves, who have started taking self-defense classes.  Then the huge wolf in the woods, who the fox wants to be like, threatens and bullies him into stealing some eggs and raising the chicks so they can have chickens to eat.  When the little chicks imprint upon the fox, deciding that he is their mom, the fox’s life becomes exponentially more complicated.  Equal parts slapstick, comedy of errors, cringe humor and  touching story, this book is silly enough to make third graders laugh out loud, and serious enough to give middle school students something to think about.  Highly suitable fr your classroom library, this book could also become part of a 5th or 6th grade’s language arts curriculum.  It is a good , funny story with some interesting themes. 




Scieszka, Jon, Ed. (2010) Guys Read:  Funny Business. New York:  HarperCollins

Image result for Guys Read FUnny Business

Opening Lines:  (Since these are short stories, I’ll treat you to a series of opeing lines form different stories)
            --Ernest was a nerd, but it was fourth grade: we are all nerds.
            --Between peeling off his nightshirt and pulling on his school uniform, Will examined himself from head to hairiline.
            --I have four brothers.  That’s five boys altogether all living in a small house, which is a recipe for major property damage at the very least.
            --Dwight Howtzler is an idiot.
--One night in the fall of fifth grade, my dad finally got fed up with me and decided it was time to make me a man.
--My younger brother, Patrick, is a normal, functioning adult.
--My gramps, Papa Red, has been living with us for a year now and is straight-up nuts.
--This all started because I wouldn’t take out the trash.

When I was looking up opening lines for the above section, I started rereading the opening page of one of these stories and ended up rereading the whole thing.  Because although this collection is meant to group together funny stories, they are also stories that are interesting, gripping, well0-written, sometimes exhilarating, and almost always delightful.  Adam Rex’s story “Will” is about a kid going to a school for superheroes even though he doesn’t appear to have any special talents or powers, and of course, he is the one who must face the inevitable peril.   Kate DiCmillo and Jon Sciszka’s “Your Question for Author Here” gives us the letters of a kid who is forced to write to an author for an assignment, and the clever, sarcastic, manipulative, and ultimately encouraging responses from that author.  Paul Fieg’s “My Parents Gave my Bedroom to a Biker” is self-explanatory, but no less funny for it.  I laughed out loud at several points in reading this book, but found myself grinning almost constantly. 
Good-humored readers from fourth grade and up will enjoy this, girls as well as boys.  I didn’t notice anything in here likely to draw any challenges from parents.  It would probably work best as a classroom library sort of book.  There are themes here to be sure, but books whose main focus is humor do not tend to help up well to classroom study.  Buy this one. 




Yorinks, Arthur; Lamb, Braden; Paroline, Shelli (2017) Making Scents.  New York: First Second.

Image result for making scents

            Opening Lines:  The first panel shows a boy’s hand writing on notebook paper the words, “First I was born…”  The inset panel shows a man carrying a baby into the woods.  On the next page, in four panels, the man leaves the child in a hollow in the base of a tree, then walks away.
            Mickey’s mom and dad raise bloodhounds and provide them to police and other people who need to hunt for someone or something.  Mickey is raised alongside their dogs, who thinks of as brothers and sisters, and is taught to use his nose much as the bloodhounds do.  When he is old enough for school, he is at first ridiculed for his tendency to go around on all fours and use his nose to find things.  His parents advocate for him and soon he is showing off his talents in an all-school assembly.  Even as he is gaining the respect of his peers, however, they are killed in a car crash, and soon Mickey is sent away from his dog brothers and sisters to his dog-hating aunt and uncle who live in the city.  They hope to teach him to behave as an ordinary child. 
            This graphic novel is illustrated in a kind of 1950s style that reminds me of Margaret Bloy Graham’s illustrations of picture books like Harry, The Dirty Dog, or P.D. Eastham’s illustrations of Are You My Mother? and the like..  Though some of the story is serious, Mickey’s dog habits in the context of a very conventional school are funny and should cause second and third grad readers and up to find humor in them.  This is a fun and sometimes silly book that is unlikely to cause any challenges.  Good for your classroom library and a special hit with kids who are dog lovers. 




Lawrence, Mike (2017) Star Scouts  New York:  First Second.

Image result for Star Scouts

Opening Lines: 
The first panel is a two-page spread of a spaceship in orbit of a planet.  A narration box says “QDS Pumpernickel,  Deli class destroyer.  Low Zirdon orbit.”  One inset panel shows a close up of the ship with a single speech balloon coming from what looks to be the bridge. “Mabel!  You’re going to be late!”  The other inset panel is a still closer view.  Two speech balloons.  The first asks, “Have you finished your scout homework yet?”  The second responds, “Almost done!  Be there in a minute!”
            In this colorfully rendered graphic novels, Mabel is a space alien who accidentally teleports Avani, an earth girl who is having a hard time in a new school, up to her spaceship (Mabel was trying for a newt, but accidentally nudged the controls).  They become friends, and then Mabel asks Avani if she wants to join her Star Scouts Troop.  The next thing Avani knows, she and the other scouts are embroiled in a competition to figure out which troop is the best at a variety of space-based events.   What follows resembles a Disney kids comedy with hijinks and goofiness galore, and, of course, in the end, the plucky youngsters show they can compete with the rest of them through a combination of teamwork and good sportsmanship. 
This one is best for younger elementary readers, maybe second through fourth or fifth.  It would be a good one for a classroom library.  Nothing offensive here. 




Riordan, Rick (2015)  Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer  Los Angeles:  Disney Hyperion.

Image result for magnus chase the sword of summer

Opening Lines:  “Yeah, I know.  You guys are going to read about how I died in agony, and you’re going to be like, ‘Wow!  That sounds cool, Magnus.  Can I die in agony too?’
            No.  Just no.”
            This is the first book in Rick Riordan’s Norse mythology series.  And he somehow manages to write about the Norse gods in a way that is faithful to the original source material (Come on, am I the only one who has read Snorri Sturluson’s Edda ) bu is also funny most of the time.  The main character, Magnus, is living on the streets of Boston when the book opens.  Though he is a street kid, he has a pretty good sense of humor.  But when he gets attacked by a fire demon and finds out that two of his street friends are actually and elf and a dwarf and then gets killed and wakes up in a luxury hotel that is Valhalla, he does so with irreverent humor.  Don’t get me wrong, he is a likable character and as the story goes on, he reveals himself to be loyal, compassionate, strong of heart, and occasionally funny.  There were parts in this book where I laughed out loud.  The context between Blitz and the master forger is one example. 
            While Magnus is the main character, a secondary character named Samirah al-Abbas is a high school student and a Valkyrie (one of Odin’s Choosers of the Dead).  The dynamic is similar to the Percy Jackson books.  Like Annabeth, she is not on every page, but when she is, she is amazing and dynamic and fun to read about.  This may be enough to draw female fans of Annabeth into the series as well. 
            I did not notice anything in this book that would cause anyone to challenges it (other than the fact that it is fantasy literature.) It is perhaps best for fifth grade and up (at 497 pages, it is a big book, which could be rather daunting to less-accomplished readers.)  This book is funny and exciting.  Visit your independent bookstore and buy it. 


Monday, January 15, 2018

Excellent Adventure-based Graphic Novels: Delilah Dirk, The Nameless City, Pandemonium, and Spill Zone

Cliff, Tony (2016) Delilah Dirk and the King's Shilling.  New York:  First Second.

Image result for Delilah Dirk and the King's Shilling

First Lines:  "My name is Erdemoglu Selim.  I was once a lieutenant in the Turkish Janissary Army.  I abandoned that life, however, for this one.  The sort of life where I had been tasked with creating a distraction."

This is the second book in a delightful series.  In this one, Delilah (adventurer, skilled swordswoman, righter-of-wrongs) discovers a British officer spying for the French and must go to London to expose him.  While there she returns to her childhood home and, as Alexandra Nichols, must deal with her mother who wants her to resume her identity as an English gentlewoman.  There are themes of identity and expectation, but what will grab the attention of your readers is the rollicking adventure storyline and the clear and exciting way that Tony Cliff shows fight sequences and depicts intrigue so that the reader is rarely confused.

This could be ideal for fourth-graders and up.  There is almost nothing that is offensive, except a reference on page 64, where a character identifies someone who is acting foolish with a term normally reserved for donkeys and posteriors.  This book would be an excellent addition to your classroom library.




Hicks, Faith Erin(2016) The Nameless City  New York:  First Second

Image result for The nameless City

Opening lines:  "...on the 34th day of our journey down the River of Lives, we came to the great City, Daidu.  But something was amiss, for the City was not called Daidu by those we spoke to at the gates."

Kaidu is the son of Adren, the general of the conquering armies that have taken control of the Nameless City.  In the City he meets a street urchin named Rat.  She shows him how to run across the rooftops.  As a city person, she hates the conquering Dao armies.  Kaidu has seen the scorn the soldiers have for the people of the city.  Kaidu and Rat develop an unlikely friendship and together help to convince the various leaders of the city to meet for peace talks.

That summary doesn't do justice to what is an amazing experience.  Hicks has built a fascinating world and the illustrations invite us into that world.  The details are magnificent, the characters interesting, and the story believable. I can imagine walking in her city.

There is some violence in this story, but nothing excessive.  This would be excellent as a classroom library book for about fourth grade and older.  It might also be worth undertaking as a language arts text.  Excellent stuff.





Hicks, Faith Erin (2017) The Nameless City:  The Stone Heart.  New York:  First Second.

Image result for The nameless City

Opening Lines:  "On our eighth day in the Nameless City, my travelling companion happened upon some of his people, far from their homelands.  They had travelled miles to buy and sell in the City.  It was a common story, repeated many we spoke to.  The Nameless City is different from many cities we passed through in our journey down the River of Life.  The City does not have a single population.  Rather it is filled with many different people from many different nations.  I had to ask:  Who does the city belong to?  Who are its rightful people?"

The story of the Nameless City continues in this second volume.  We learn that Rat's parents were killed by the Dao, Kaidu's people.  We also learn that Kaidu's dad, the general, is working on a peace plan in which the city would be governed by a city council, with every tribe having a seat, to break the cycle of invasion and subjugation.  As the peace plan gets closer though, it becomes clear that the enemies of peace -- those who wish to hold on to power, are willing to go to great lengths to ensure that the peace plan is never realized -- and those great lengths will change everything for Rat and Kaidu and present them with their greatest challenge ever.  This is a wonderful story of sudden twists and turns punctuated by moments of great beauty.

You need to read this, seriously.  It is one of the finest graphic novels stories I have read in a long time.  Good for fourth or fifth grade and older.  Great for your classroom library.  Especially good for English or History classes.  (Obviously this is a work of fiction -- but it raises some interesting questions of tribal conflict and democratic governments -- when it isn't moving at breakneck speed toward the next plot twist.)  I loved this book.





Wooding, Chris; Diaz, Cassandra (2012)  Pandemonium.  New York: Scholastic.


Opening Lines:  "Let's play skullball!  And it's a great catch by Seifer Tombchewer, captain of the home team!"

Okay, I'll admit, when I saw the cover and read the first couple of lines, I figured this was going to be another run-of-the -mill manga-style vampire story.  Turns out, every assumption I made was wrong.  The story begins when Siefer (pictured on the cover), son of the chief of a little town in the middle of nowhere is kidnapped and taken to the great city.  It turns out his is a dead ringer for the prince of the realm, who is missing.  Siefer's job is to act as a decoy and rule in his stead until the Prince is found and the culprits captured.  But Siefer knows nothing of how to govern, and nothing of magic, which the prince is known for.  throw in the fact that the Prince is engaged to be married and his fiancee is coming for a vist soon, and add a girl is age who comes to the castle to plead her case and ends up teaching him how to do magic and you have a story that is not only engaging, but actually quite funny at times.

This is the first book in a series, and like the first Harry Potter book, there is not a ton here in terms of teachable themes, but it is a book that your students will enjoy.  I am going to guess middle school and up with this one, mostly because the romantic intrigues might fly over the heads of younger kids.  Well worth getting a hold of.




Westerfeld, Scott; Puvilland, Alex (2017)  Spill Zone.  New York:  First Second

Image result for Spill Zone Westerfeld

Opening Lines:  "Whenever I go in planning to shoot, I always come out with more pictures of the playground.  A hundred years ago, Victorians thought that cameras captured glimpses of the spirit world.  They thought the fugitive wisps of light in their photos meant something.  But frankly, they just had shitty cameras back then.  It doesn't matter what I shoot with, digital, infrared, even old school chemical film, nothing ever shows up on the swing.  People think there is something hidden in the Spill, fairies in those wisps of light.  They're wrong.  The spill zone shows everything.  My guess is Hell does too. "

Addison lives with her little sister, Lexi ever since the Spill that claimed her parents' lives.  No one quite knows what the Spill was -- nanotech gone bad, aliens, extra-dimensional invaders, all they know is that within the Spill site, things get really weird.  Addie makes her living sneaking into the Spill Zone and taking pictures of the weird and frightening creatures there.  When a customer offers her a fortune -- enough to get her and Lexi away from the Spill Zone forever -- to retrieve an artifact from a hospital within the Zone, Addie agrees.  But the law keeps getting closer to figuring out that she is the one sneaking in there, and the artifact has some disturbing properties on its own.  And of course, there are the creatures within the Zone.  For Addie to get in and out one more time will not be easy.

Westerfeld and Puvilland have crafted a convincing and frightening world and a gripping and entertaining story. There isn't much thematically here for a literature class, but it would be a good addition to a high school classroom library.   Lexi has a doll who has been animated by the Spill that is rather disconcerting, and the rest of the story is also frightening from time to time.  There is also some sparing use of vulgar words, but there is nothing here any worse than a typical Steven King novel.

It was a good story.  I am looking forward to the sequel.  If you like your adventure stories with a touch of horror, you should pick this one up.


Thursday, January 4, 2018

Five Excellent Books that Can Help you Get Students Excited about Science.

Holm, Jennifer L. (2014) The Fourteenth Goldfish  New York:  Yearling.

Image result for the fourteenth goldfish

Opening Lines:  “When I was in preschool, I had a teacher named Starlily.  She wore rainbow tie-died dresses and was always bringing in cookies that were made with granola and flax and had no taste.”

Okay, so the story is maybe a bit far-fetched.  Ellie is a sixth-grader who gets a call to pick up her grandfather from the police.  She knows her grandfather is a scientist/genetic inventor who experiments with jellyfish.  She eventually finds out that he has invented a genetic formula that has regressed his body to that of a sixth grader.  He has retained his crankiness, old man fashion sense, and passion for science.  At first Ellie finds him annoying and embarrassing, but eventually he ignites an interest in science in her, which eventually grows to a passion, and she helps him to consider some of the ethical implications of his research.  Throw in a boy classmate who joins them, mostly to spend time with Ellie, which leads to a budding first romance and you have got a story that will grab middle grade students and may even get them to love science (real science – which doesn’t necessarily translate to what we teach in school I am afraid.) 

Nothing objectionable here that I noticed.  Should be great for fourth through seventh grades or so.  




Heiligman, Deborah (2009) Charles and Emma:  The Darwin’s Leap of Faith. New York:  Henry Holt and Company

Opening Lines:  “In the summer of 1838, in his rented rooms on Great Marlborough Street, London, Charles Darwin drew a line down the middle of a piece of scrap paper.  He had been back in England for almost two years, after a monumental voyage around the world.  He was in his late twenties.  It was time to decide.  Across the top of the left-hand side he wrote Marry.  On the right he wrote Not Marry.  And in the middle: This is the question.”

Image result for charles and emma

            In the world we live in, Charles Darwin is the father of evolutionary theory which some people hold equal to atheism.  In the world and time that Charles Darwin lived in, however, things were not so clear cut.  Like everyone else in his time, Darwin was raised attending church and living in a society rooted in Christian ethics and understandings.  When he began to think about evolution, he questioned and doubted the Christian understanding of how the world began and how God maintains it.  However, this belief system was not easily dismissed by Darwin.  One reason he struggled with belief in God his whole life and never fully settled the question was his wife Mary. 
            Yet this is not a book with an axe to grind.  It is a carefully researched and well- written book about a remarkably strong marriage and the evolving thought of a very thoughtful couple. I did not know that Darwin studied theology at University and intended to become a country parson before his interest in science took over.   In 1836, for example, Darwin published a letter in a South African newspaper arguing for increased funding for missionaries.  Two years later he notes in his journal that while he remains a strong believer, he is beginning to question the literal interpretation of the book of Genesis.  Before he married Emma, Darwin asked his father if he should discuss his doubts with his fiancĂ©.  Darwin’s father counselled him against such an action.  Darwin talked to her about it anyway.  When Emma’ sister Fanny died, Emma became more devout.  As they grew older together, the death of several of their children and Charles’s own illness continued to drive Emma deeper into belief and caused Charles to question more deeply – but until his death, he continually was searching for ways that he could share the depth of Emma’s belief. 
            Heiligman doesn’t slouch in describing the development of Charles’s understanding of the the way the animals of the world interact and change over time.  And in the end, the book does not try to argue either side of this debate, but perhaps to argue that the debate itself is an unfair reading of what Darwin himself was thinking.  It may help students who struggle with this question themselves to understand that it is not always necessary to have a clear answer to all such mysteries.
            This book is ideal for high school students.  There is nothing objectionable here, though teachers should recognize that this is a sensitive issue for some parents.  




Koch, Falynn (2017) Science Comics: Bats: Learning to Fly.  New York:  First Second.

Image result for Science Comics Bats Learning to fly

Opening Lines:  Hoo!/ Ugh./ I hate to admit it… but I think I’m lost.  Little brown bat.  Myotis lucifugus./ I’m glad y’all could make it out for this special nighttime hike.  The national park only does this a few times each year.

            This graphic novel is one of the latest in a series.  Some of the earlier books in the series seemed to be struggling to figure out how the graphic novel format could be effectively utilized to explain science.  With this book, the series seems to have found its fee.  There is a single narrative through-line about a little brown bat and a teenaged girl who initially is not so interested in what the ranger has to day, but when the bat gets close to the group and one of the panicked humans swats it, the girl decides to help the bat in any way she can.
But woven through the narrative is plenty of explanation and exposition about nearly every aspect of a bat’s life.  There is plenty here to interest students from third grade up.  This is an excellent book for your classroom library.  It would work as an in-class text as well, though I am not aware of any elementary curriculum that divest that deeply into the biology of a single creature.  




Loux, Matthew (2017) The Time Museum  New York: First Second.

Image result for The Time Museum

Opening Lines:  Image of time travelers working on building a machine outside of tier time travelling vessel/ Image of a triceratops herd stampeding.  Time traveler:  I wonder if they know somehow…/ Man in sunglasses and trenchcoat:  Unless you wish to remain and ask, I suggest you finish your work!
            Delia is a science nerd.  Her thorough report on the life cycle of the dung beetle puts her class to sleep, including the teacher.  When he best friend deserts her for a cooler friend at the beginning of the summer and she finds out she and her family are going to visit her eccentric uncle, she takes it in stride.  When it turns out that her uncle s the curator of the Earth Time Museum, that he is himself a time traveler form the future, and that he is offering her a chance to do a summer internship with the museum, she is overjoyed.  When she finds out that she will have to compete with other science students of the position, and that most of them are from the future and seem to know much more than she does, she is close to despairing.  The contests begin and she soon finds herself making decisions that may save the museum or doom it.
            This isn’t hard science and, in fact, the reader will learn little about science at all from this graphic novel, but a consistent theme throughout the book is that scientific thinking, passion for science,  and problem-solving ability is more important than memorized facts, a concept that might be very encouraging to some young science students.
            There is nothing in this graphic novel that reasonable parents would find objectionable.  It would be best for fourth grade and up. It is a lot of fun.





Benjamin, Ali (2015)  The Thing about Jellyfish:  New York:  Little Brown.

Image result for The Thing About Jellyfish

            Opening lines: “A jellyfish, if you watch it long enough, begins to look like a heart beating.  It doesn’t matter what kind:  The Blood-red Atolla with its flashing siren lights, the frilly flower hat variety, or the near transparent moon jelly, Aurelia aurita.  It’s their pulse, the way they contract swiftly, then release.  Like a ghost heart—a heart you can see right through, right into some other world where everything you ever lost has gone to hide.”
            Suzy Swanson’s friend Franny Jackson drowned a few months ago.  Suzy is trying to piece her life together.  Jellyfish may hold the key she thinks.  That is really all I can tell you.  You are just going to have to read it. 
            This book is a kind of exploration of how a kid looks and the world and science.  It is also kind of a mystery story … and kind of a treatise on friendship … and kind of a moving narrative about grief. It is a nerd story in the best sense of the term.  It is about a kid who is different, persistent, and who cares about things that really matter.
This is a really good one.  You should read it.  I t is about grief and so I suppose a parent might object to it on the grounds that it is morbid – but I have not heard of any such objections.  It would be best for fifth grade and up  Check it out. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Top Five Books of 2017

2017 was a great year for some really exciting books, but because of a back injury toward the end of the year, I have a huge pile of books I have read but have not been able to review yet.  I will be getting to those in the next couple of weeks.  For now, though, here are the top five books I reviewed in 2017:  (Remember these are books I read in 2017 --but not all were published in that year.)

1.
Anderson, M.T.,Offerman, Andrea (2017) Yvain:  The Knight of the Lion.  Somerville, MA: Candlewick.

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For English teachers, this is an excellent graphic novel to introduce anything that touches on King Arthur.  Though Arthur only makes a cameo or two in the book, it captures the excitement of a knight with a pet lion fighting against evil magic, a dragon, and enemies -- but also concerns itself with the relationship between Sir Yvain and the queen whose husband he killed in battle.  It is a relationship with intense hate and, eventually, deep love as well.  Ideal for late middle school and high school.




2.
Pratchett, Terry (2015)  The Shepherd's Crown  New York: Harper.

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Terry Pratchett's fantasy series are not exactly Young Adult fiction.  They are written for an open audience that might include everyone from middle school through adulthood.  My friend Kris introduced me to the Tiffany Aching series and I continue to love them.

Tiffany Aching serves two villages as their wise woman/witch, even though she herself is very young.  Though she faces remarkable challenges, she alwasy seems to come out on top, partly because she has been adopted by a group of utterly unpredictable and savagely loyal allies, the Wee Free men -- eight inch tall, hard-drinking, tough-as-nails-and-about-as-bright celtic creatures.  The story is great, the writing is exceptional, and these are excellent books.

Some parents might objcet to the existnce of witches in this book -- but the witches Pratchett depicts are more on the order of wise woment in the village than they are the horrid, evil,toad-sacrificing women from other corners of the children's ltierature world.  Worth reading.



3.
Shusterman, Neal (2016) Scythe  New York:  Simon and Schuster.

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This is my favorite book that I read this year.  Schusterman is excellent at world-building and has created a utopian future where a benign computer called the Thunderhead protects humans and regenerates them through healing nanites such that they need never die.  Unfortuantly, since the planet cannot sustain a growing population, the Thunderhead creates an independent group of humans, the Scythes, to randomly glean people and keep the population under control.  When a group of scythes starts flaunting the rules and gleaning people for the joy of killing them and watching them panic, two teenaged apprentice sythes find themselves on opposite sides of escalating conflict.  Masterfully written and utterly gripping,-- this is the sort of book that you (and your students) can't wait to loan out.  Upper middle school and high school.  Nothing here any reasonable person would object to.  Good stuff.



4.
J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter Series

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I reread it this year.  Harry and his friends still completely captivate me and have me on the edge of my seat.  This is a world worth revisiting.

For first time readers, it is worth noting that while the first couple of books are ideal for a forth or fifth grade audience, later books become much more dark, scary, and sometime violent.  In our family, we read them all out loud to our kids to slow things down. I recomment this approach.




Busby, Cylin; Busby, John (2008) The Year we Disappeared  New York:  Bloomsbury.

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This also was not written specifically as a YA book, but it is an amazing true story that high school students would find utterly captivating.  John Busby, a police officer in a Massachusetts seaside town, was driving to work one night when another car pulled alongside him and fired a shotgun through his window, blowing off his lower jaw.  The book tells the story of how he evaded the other car, got help, eventually recovered, determined who had shot at him and that they were still after him, and decided to take his family into hiding. 

High school students would love this book.  It will grab and hold their attention throughout.  Obviously it is violent and sometiems scary -- but ultimately the message of Busvy's recovery is that he has to let go of hate. 


Friday, November 10, 2017

Five Novels Suitable for Use in English Language Arts Class (some more than others)

Reynods, Jason (2016) Ghost.  New York: Atheneum.

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Opening lines:  "Check this out.  This dude named Andres Dahl holds the world record for blowing up the most balloons...with his nose.  Yeah.  That's true.  Not sure how he found out that was some special talent, and I can't even imagine how much snot must be in those balloons, but hey, it's a thing and Andrew's the best at it."

Castle Crenshaw's voice sounds upbeat and sarcastic, but a couple of pages after the opening lines above, we find out that one night years ago, Castle's dad had been drinking and when Castle's mom fought back against the usual physical abuse, Castle's dad grabbed a pistol  Castle and his mom ran for it, and Castle's dad got arrested and taken to jail.  The story, however, takes place years later and opens as Castle stands looking through a chain link fence at tryouts for an all-city track team.  On a whim, he walks over and challenges one of the kids to a race.  Though the coach is angry about the interruption, he gives Castle one chance.  When Castle ties the kid, the coach convinces Castle to give the team a try, though Castle isn't very enthusiastic about it.

And of course, it doesn't go smoothly.  Castle, who takes on the nickname Ghost, is fast but insecure, can be a hard worker, but is inconsistent, and is embarassed by his tennis shoes so he shoplifts a better pair.  He is nearly kicked off the team several times, and yet it is clear to the reader that Ghost has found a home.

One of the things I love most about this book was Coach Brody.  He is a tough guy who cares about the kids on his team and  is willing to push, encourage, cajole, and challenge them to get them to commit to something and experience what being excellent at something can do for them.  Ghost finds out  that, though Coach Brody drives a cab to pay the rent, he is a former Olympic team member.  Ghost also finds out that his fellow team members, who he initially doesn't think much of, have their own stories and eventually become people he cares for.

My daughter is a runner and loved this book.  I am not a runner and I loved this book.  I would be best for maybe fourth grade at least through middle school (my daughter read it last year, when she was an eighth grader).  There is nothing in here that I could imagine would be challenged, unless someone objects to the authentic depiction of poverty and injustice and the ability for kids who have been through a lot to still be able to challenge themselves..

If you teach English Language Arts (or Phys Ed, for that matter) , you need this for your classroom library.  Seriously.  You might also think about using it for literature circles or incorporating it in a unit.




Meloy, Colin; Ellis, Carson (2011) Wildwood.  New York:  Harpercollins.

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Opening line:  "How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries."

I have always loved books that take me to other worlds.  Narnia, Middle Earth, Xanth, Barsoom, and other worlds fascinated me when I was younger.  J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series introduced the idea of another world that coexisted in the same space as ours.  Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series extended that idea.  Now along comes Colin Meloy (Lead singer and songwriter of the band The Decemberists) who introduces us to the Wildwood.  The Wildwood is just outside of St. Johns, a neighborhood of Portland, Oregon.  Usually the Wildwood stays separate from our world, with people coincidentally choosing never to go there and thinking nothing of it, but some people are able to penetrate the barrier.

Prue and her classmate Curtis, chasing a murder of crows who have abducted Prue's baby brother Mac, find themselves in the Wildwood, a land of coyote soldiers, human bureaucrats, owl kings, and many other animal factions which seem to have trouble working together.  Prue escapes the evil Dowager Empress and finds her way out of the Wildwood, but she also learns something about her parents and her past.  She decides to return to the Wildwood, even though that idea of doing so scares her.

Prue and Curtis find themselves desperately fighting to stop the Dowager Empress before she sacrifices Mac, reawakens the Magical Ivy, and destroys the Wildwood (and maybe the whole world).  But to do that they will have to unite the bandits, the mystics, and the bird kingdom.

This is a world you can immerse yourself in.  The protagonists are likable and bad guys fun to dislike.  Other than the fact it is fantasy, there is nothing here I could imagine anyone objecting to.  This novel would work well for fifth grade and up, though the fact that this first volume in the series weighs in at over 540 pages may give less experienced readers pause (and delight the readers you cannot recommend books to fast enough).  This would be good for your classroom library.




Lu, Marie ((2011) Legend  New York:  Penguin.

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Opening lines:  "My mother thinks I am dead.  Obviously I'm not dead, but it's safer for her to think so.  At least once a month I see my wanted poster flashed on the JumboTrons scattered throughout Downtown Los Angeles."

Day cannot be captured.  He strikes against the California Republic,  destroying military weapons, stealing money, and always escaping before anyone even sees him.  Also, he never kills.  Then when an attempt to steal medicine for his family goes wrong, he throws a knife at a soldier, who later dies.  That soldier's sister, June Iparis, the only person to ever get a perfect score in her trials (sort of comprehensive standardized tests), is assigned to find him.

This dystopian novel includes themes of deception versus truth, power inequity, and loyalty to family versus the state,.  It also explores some interesting ideas of bioethics.  Told in alternating voices of Day and June, it is primarily an adventure book, but, like many of the better dystopian novels, digs into some serious ideas worth discussing.

This book would work best for high school, both in your classroom library, but also potentially as part of a dystopian literature unit.  There is nothing here particularly objectionable beyond some non-extreme violence and romance.




Conoghan, Brian (2016) The Bombs that Brought Us Together.  New York:  Bloomsbury.

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Opening lines:  "It was hard to remain silent.  I tried.  I really did, but my breathing kept getting louder as I gasped for clean air.  My body was trembling, adding noise to the silence."

Charlie Law is fourteen years old and lives in Little Town.  His new friend, Pavel, is a refugee from Old Country.   Little Town is under threat from Old Country that wants to take it over. When Old Country invades Little Town, Charlie finds himself in need of food for his family and medicine for his asthmatic mom.  He ends up beholden to the Big Man, the head of a black market criminal enterprise. Charlie must make a series of decisions which have difficult consequences, and he really has little choice in how he makes those decisions.  Life as a refugee in a bombed out city ruled by an egomaniacal thug is not fun.  Neither is this book (but of course, it isn't trying to be).

This would seem at first glance like a good choice for teachers who might want to help their students explore the plight of refugees.  Honestly,though, it has some significant flaws.  Though Charlie and Pav refer to themselves as friends, I didn't see much evidence of any real friendship there.  After wading through a lot of darkness, violence, vulgarity, tension, and despair, we get to see justice (sort of), friendship (somewhat), and the beginnings of a romance between Charlie and Erin F. (someday), win out.

And there is a part of me that really believes that high school students should not just be reading happily-ever-after books, but I worry that it would be hard for students to identify or even care for Charlie.  I also wonder if many of them would be interested in it.

Although Charlie himself is between middle school and high school, I see this more as a high school book.  I am not sure why I think that, though.  Middle school students could handle the vocabulary.  There is some vulgarity in the book though it tends to be kind of obscure slangy references to pubic hair or terms like "butthole".  I am not sure I would fight for this one, though.

This one would be okay for your classroom library, but I don't think it is something that you absolutely must get a hold of.




Clark, Kristin Elizabeth.  (2016)  Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity.  New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux.


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Opening line:  "Something about my mom's new age music makes me want to stab myself in the eye."

Within the last couple of years, it seems like the Young Adult Literature market has been flooded with books dealing with aspects of LGBTQ life.  Like all other topics for books, some of these are quite good.  Many of them are not as worthwhile as others.  This one well worth the read.

Jess is going on a road trip from her mother's house in California to Chicago where her dad is getting married.  Since the last time she saw her dad, she was a boy named Jeremy, Jess is worried about this trip so she is bringing along Chunk.  Chunk was her best friend when she was a guy, and he seems to accepted her change without much fanfare.  As they head west, though, Jess's increased anxiety about how people perceive her, causes her to think that everything is about her.  When Chunk takes a detour to meet Annabelle, a girl he met through a Star Trek chat room, Jess is irritated by Chunks lack of attention to Jess.

While the story is told through Jess's voice, the message comes through loud and clear.  Jess thinks the story is about her bravery in revealing her transformation to her father.  This is what I expected, a book about Jess finding herself and discovering the courage she needs to make a successful transition and Chunk and Annabelle accepting it as well.  It is actually about her eventual realization that the world doesn't revolve around her.  That sets this one apart from others I have read.

This would be ideal for high school readers.  While there is no graphic sex or anything like that in the book, expect it to be challenged as it does feature a romance involving a trans person (though only at the very end).




Tuesday, October 10, 2017

For Middle School and High School History Classes: One graphic novel and three conventional novels.

Falkner, Matt (2014) Gaijin:  American Prisoner of War New York: Disney Hyperion.

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Opening lines:  Sunday, December 7. 1941.  It’s Koji Miyamoto’s 13th birthday. // “Koji – why don’t you turn on the radio while we do the dishes.”  “Sure thing, Ma,” / “How about I wash and you dry.”  “Okay.” / “Hi-Yo, Silver!”  “Swell, the Lone Ranger!” 

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            This graphic novel follows the life of 13-year-old Koji Kiyamoto.  Koji lives in San Francisco with his mom.  His Japanese father is overseas.  When Pearl Harbor is bombed, Koji starts being bullied at school, then the authorities confiscate the radio, and then finally, Koji and his mom get a letter that he is being taken to a relocation camp.
After Koji runs afoul of a gang of boys who ridicule him and call him gaijin (Japanese for foreigner) because of his mixed-race ancestry and gets in a fight, the camp commander assigns him to be an assistant to Mr. Asai, a Japanese man who fixes things in the camp.  When Koji accompanies Mr. Asai to his house on a day pass, they find that the couple renting Mr. Asai’s house have taken it over, broken into his storage room, and stolen and sold his stuff.
Later, though, Koji’s affection for Mr. Asai is tested when the gang peer-pressures him into throwing a dirt clod at Mr. Asai.  And the bottom line of this graphic novel is that it is as much about Koji growing up and grappling with divided loyalties as it is about the way the United States handles (or mishandled) the treatment of Japanese –American citizens. Koji is also worried that his mom is spending time with the American guards at the camp and is being unfaithful to his father. 
In an afterward, Matt Faulkner tells the story of a great aunt of his who fell in love with a Japanese man, married, moved to Japan, then, an earthquake in Tokyo caused them  to move back to Boston.  After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they got a letter saying that her husband and children would be taken to an internment camp.  Though Faulkner’s aunt (who was Irish –American) was not required to be interred, she chose to go to the camp with her family.  This became the basis for Faulkner’s graphic novel. 
Generally, this is a good book.  The drawing is strong, though the caricature-like style that Faulkner employs at times made it hard for me to fully invest myself in the main character.  Also, the lettering is clearly typeset, which makes the voice of the novel seem stilted and sterile.  Some readers may take offences at the repeated use of the term “Jap” to refer to Japanese American characters in the book.  Overall, though, the story realizes important questions we still struggle with today, including, what it means to be an American, including how we treat those who look different from us, and what it is like to be an outsider. Faulkner’s book teases these ideas out over a variety of narrative turns.  The ending seems a bit rushed, but is still satisfying.  
This would be a good acquisition for a classroom library and might also work well as a supplemental book for classes studying the Japanese iInternment Camps in World War Two. 





Moss, Marissa (2012) A Soldier’s Story:  The Incredible True Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero

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Opening lines:  “Just a minute there,” the recruiter stops me as I lean over to dip the pen in ink.  “You can’t enlist.”
            I freeze.  Can he tell?  I’m wearing a shirt, vest, and trousers as usual.  My curly hair cut short except for a lock that insists on falling over my forehead.  I brush it away nervously and meet the man’s eyes.  I’ve been passing for nearly three years now, but every new encounter still brings with is the same fear.  I take nothing for granted.  The key thing, I remind myself is not to reveal anything, to act as normal as possible.
            “I beg your pardon,” I say as if I haven’t heard him clearly.  I keep my voice calm and low, pushing down the panic that’s building up inside me.
            “I know you love your country,” the man says kindly. “but you need to grow up a bit before you join the army.”  He looks at my peachy cheeks, free of any sign of a whisker.  “We aren’t taking sixteen-year-olds.”
            Eventually, though, Sarah Edmonds, AKA “Frank Thompson” joins the Union Army.  As she marches off the war we begin to slowly learn about her early life with an abusive father in Canada.  We find out what drove her from home and prompted her to disguise herself as a boy.  We find out about how she kept herself alive by doing odd jobs and eventually becoming a book salesman, and we find out why she wanted to enlist.
            Frank is affable and funny and a hard worker.  As we follow Frank through serving as a soldier, mail deliverer, spy, and nurse, we get to know the other soldiers, experience some of the important battles of the civil war, learn about daily life for soldiers, and most of all become more and more invested in Frank’s life.  At several points, she is almost discovered to be a woman.  She also falls in love with her fellow soldiers more than once and must hide her feelings.  In this book readers will find adventure, history, and some interesting ideas and themes to think about. 
            While teachers will want to know that the book contains some mild and very occasional vulgar language, they should also know that it is a gripping book that will engage readers deeply.  It would probably work best for high school students, but skilled and adventurous middle school readers might want to give it a try as well.  Though some boys eschew books with female narrators, they might want to give this one a try.  The descriptions of battles and spy missions are enough to hold the attention of action/adventure addicts. Moss includes excellent supplemental materials including biographies of generals, a civil war timeline, bibliographies, and an explanation of who the real Sarah Edmonds was.

            Excellent for your classroom library or for use in conjunction with a unit on the American Civil War.  




Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker (2015) The War that Saved my Life.  New York: Dial

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Opening Lines:  “Ada!  Get back from that window!”  Mam’s voice, shouting.  Mam’s arm, grabbing mine.  Yanking me so I toppled off my chair and fell hard on the floor. 
            “I was only saying hello to Stephen White.”  I knew better than to talk back, but sometimes my mouth was faster than my brain.  I’d become a fighter, that summer.
            Mam smacked me.  Hard.  My head snapped back against the chair leg and for a moment I saw stars.

It is 1939 in London.  Ada is ten years old.  Ada has a club foot.  Because her mother is ashamed of this physical difference, she abuses Ada physically and emotionally.  Ada is never to go outside and always to stay away from windows.  Ada’s younger brother Jamie, who is 6, is allowed to leave the house and play with his friends in the streets.
When World War Two breaks out, and London is threatened with bombings, the government orders that children be evacuated to the country.  Mam intends to send Jamie to the country, but keep Ada in London, since Ada is an embarrassment.  Instead, Ada and Jamie both escape and are sent to the country.  Once they arrive, all the other children are claimed, but not them.  Jamie and Ada are dirty, poorly dressed, and lack manners.  Eventually the woman coordinating the resettlement in the town sends them to live with Miss Smith who lives on the edge of town.  Miss Smith is not excited about taking them in.  It turns out that Susan Smith lived in the little cottage with her best friend Becky, and since Becky has died, Miss Smith has been in a state of grief and depression.  At first, Ada and Jamie take care of the cooking and cleaning, and Susan seldom leaves her bedroom.  Eventually, though, she begins to take a hand in the kid’s upbringing.  Ada, who has never known what it is like to walk without pain, learns the joy of riding a horse.  Miss Smith remembers what it is like to care for another person and slowly they begin to build a new life as a kind of family – but the war, bombing, Mam, and other conflicts threaten. 
And like many great books, the summary of this book does not convey what it is like to read it.  This book is delightful, and soon the reader is drawn into the little English town and is rooting so hard for Ada and Susan that the book becomes all encompassing.  I would say it will have you turning pages faster and faster to find out what is going to happen, except the writing is so good that it will slow you down so you can enjoy it. 
It would be a excellent book for a middle school or high school History class to be able to personalize the war and help student to understand what it was like for non-combatants at the time. It is also well-written enough that it would be an excellent addition to a middle school or high school English/Language Arts class.  And it would make a splendid read-aloud book.
It may be worth mentioning that there are very subtle yet clear implications that Susan and Becker were lovers, however, if the teacher does not focus on this, the majority of high school or middle school students will fail to make the connection.  Still, teachers should be aware of this.
And what a splendid ending.  Look, you should buy this and read it yourself if you do nothing else. 




Moss, Marissa (2016) Mira’s Diary:  California Dreaming.  Berkeley: Creston.

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Opening lines:  “July 10.  Usually I start a brand new journal with a brand new postcard, a picture of where I’ll travel to next.  But this time I’m starting with a drawing of what’s right in front of me, because it’s pretty spectacular. 
            “Much better than looking right next to me, at my oh-so-furious brother.  We’re finally doing something fun, taking a ride on the giant Ferris wheel in London and he looks ready to kill me.”
            This is part of an ongoing series in which Mira travels through time, trying to find her mother (and defeat the mysterious watcher who is working against them.). In this one, Mira must journey back to San Francisco just after the great earthquake.  She gets a job as an entertainment reporter and rubs shoulders with Mark Twain, finds her mother, another time traveler, and the watcher.  Along the way she is continually orienting herself based on her knowledge of both modern and historical San Francisco.  Her knowledge of history helps her out more than once.  The book does a nice job of showing that history happens in neighborhoods and cities where people carry out their regular day-to-day lives.  There is also a strong freedom-of-speech, anti-censorship theme. There is also the beginning of a romance happening.
            While this book is perhaps not as gripping as Moss’s A Soldier’s Story, it seems like a good way to engage late elementary or middle school students in beginning to think aobut their world from a historical perspective. I have not read the other books in the series, but suspect they also would serve this purpose well.