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Lula Bell on Geekdom, Freakdom and the Challenges of Bad Hair

Written by C. C. Payne

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“Let your light shine” is the piece of advice from Grandma Bernice that Lula does NOT want to follow.  She is bullied by her former BFF, Kali, and she is afraid to try out for the talent show.  She wants any friend beside Alan who is a confirmed geek.  She wants very badly to fit in and nothing she does brings her closer to that goal.  None of that matters to Grandma Bernice who brings love and joy to Lula’s life along with  a whole lot of instructions.  Lula doesn’t appreciate Grandma Bernice’s sayings until she dies unexpectedly.  Lula has a hole in her life that she doesn’t know how to fill.  Mama doesn’t have the time to do all that Grandma Bernice used to do.  Kali still attacks and the talent show looms.  She feels ready to explode.  When she least expects it, Lula feels that Grandma Bernice is with her, helping her to find a way to “let her light shine.”

Lula’s strong Southern voice takes center stage in this school story.  She puts in little asides by saying “Here’s a little tip for you…” mimicking the way Grandma Bernice gives advice in bite-sized pieces but with her own style.  The characters are lovingly drawn and uniquely individual.  Once Lula finds the courage to go to Kali’s house to give her Grandma Bernice’s last hand-made quilt, she has embraced her grandmother’s teachings and can face the world again.  Because the voice is so strong, this book is a good class read aloud.  Students could make a book trailer using Lula’s tips as a script for a literacy activity.  There are discussion questions on the author’s website: (http://www.ccpayne.net/lula-bells-discussion-guide/).

  • Lula BellTITLE: Lula Bell on Geekdom, Freakdom and the Challenges of Bad Hair
  • AUTHOR: C. C. Payne
  • PUBLISHER: Amazon Children’s Publishing, 2012
  • REVIEWER: Risa Brown
  • EDITION: Hardcover, 266 p.
  • ISBN: 978-0-7614-6225-5
  • GENRE: Middle-grades fiction, school stories
  • LEXILE: 950, Reading level 5.6

Deviants: The Dust Chronicles

Written by Maureen McGowan

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Get ready for a fast-paced read through a well-thought out dystopian world. Glory, sixteen years old, is left alone in a harsh post-apocalyptic society, not only to fend for herself but also to take care of her crippled brother.

The book follows  the well established tradition of dystopian novels going all the way back to the 18th century, and maybe even earlier. The Brave New World, 1984, The Chrysalids, Fahrenheit 451The Giver are but a few of the novels that depict a society trying to cope with a world gone awry. In more recent memory we have The Hunger Games.

Maureen McGowan crafts a detailed world for her characters to live out their lives. Asteroid showers and volcanic eruptions have almost destroyed the earth. The population of this novel lives in the domed city of Haven. As in all dystopian novels there is the inside, in this case Haven, and the outside. But is inside a comfortable place? The inhabitants comprise the Management, living a life of luxury; the Employees, eking out a miserable existence; the parasites who do nothing; and the Deviants of the title, whose life is in danger. Discussion points can be many; for example, the rise in the number of dystopian novels, world-creation and the evolutionary path.

Brief descriptions paint the complete picture: “Impossible to believe that one family lived alone in the nearly 5000-square-foot space.” This in today’s McMansion world! There is an ease of comprehension.

Glory is a Deviant, her gift (?) that, if emotionally aroused, she can kill merely by making eye contact with another, be it rat or human. Her brother has a different Deviance, and is a parasite besides. In Haven’s harsh society he would probably be expunged. Glory hides him away from the authorities, scrambles to find food enough for two on rations for one. It is a hard world, and a cruel one. The threat of being thrown ‘outside’ where the Shredders roam, and the dust destroys is ever-present.

The story moves along briskly. There is friendship and betrayal, heroism and sacrifice; above all a feisty heroine who keeps us glued to the page, even though we fault her for her faulty decisions. A great read.

  • DeviantsTitle: Deviants: The Dust Chronicles
  • Author: Maureen McGowan
  • Publisher: Amazon Children’s Publishing
  • Reviewer: Anjali Amit
  • Hardback:   312 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-6121-83671
  • Genre: Novel
  • Lexile Score: 970

The Arab World Thought of It: Inventions, Innovations, and Amazing Facts

Written by Saima S. Hussain

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The Arab World Thought of It: Inventions, Innovations, and Amazing Facts Is written for fifth grade level readers and above. It is a picture and text guide to exciting and little known facts about some things very familiar to readers, but who may not know much about the Arab contributions to our world.

Young readers are curious and ready to discover facts that maybe even their parents don’t know so reading this or studying this in the classroom will keep them engaged with new and fascinating information.  The scalpel, for instance, might be familiar to the reader, but the fact that the first one was the invention of an Arab physician may come as a surprise. Teachers and librarians will agree that this book is full of interesting factual information that will enhance World History and Social Studies.

The book aligns with the core standards for the fifth grade through middle school level reader and the language is easy to comprehend. The additional pictures and captions will assist even a lower level 5th grade reader with a great understanding and will spark more interest in what some might feel is a dry historical topic.

More information about the series is available on the website of the publisher at www.annickpress.com but the last pages of the book will also give further reading, samples of the Arabic Alphabet, and common words translated into original Arabic words giving extra activities for the 5th grade classroom teacher or for parents who home school their children.

The book is a great addition to classroom, library, or home collection of books for the 5th grade level reader and will serve as a great resource when comparing other cultures and their contributions to our world. Discussions and further study regarding language, sports, medicine, architecture, and astronomy will be enhanced with The Arab World Thought of It.

  • The Arab WorldTitle: The Arab World Thought of It
  • Author: Saima S. Hussain
  • Publisher: Annick Press
  • ISBN: 978-1-55451-476-2
  • Reviewer: Terri Forehand
  • Genre: Nonfiction, culture, inventions
  • Lexile: 1140

Losing It

Written by Erin Fry

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The most unlikely kid finds comfort by running.  Bennett Robinson and his dad bonded over baseball games and hamburgers, talking more about the Dodgers than his mom’s death from cancer.  They seemed to bond over food, too, because both of them were obese.  Then Dad had a stroke and Bennett knew that Dad’s weight had a lot to do with it.  Pushy Aunt Laura took over.  She took over his meals and his life, but Bennett didn’t have anyone else now.  Dad was stuck at the rehab center and the insurance was running out.  At school there was the bully who wouldn’t leave him alone.  The next thing Bennett knew, Aunt Laura planned out an exercise routine for him, manipulating him with his concern for Dad.  Bennett tried walking.  He sort of liked it and kept doing it.  He saw a flyer for cross-country track.  His life already had so many changes, what was one more?  But Bennett had to wonder if he was setting himself up to fail big time.  He found the strength to persevere.  He had to make this happen for Dad and him.  He didn’t see what an amazing thing he was doing…until he did it.

The power of love is at the heart of this story.  Bennett found the courage to exercise to make his life better so he could take care of his father and show him a healthier way.  Bennett also had to learn that he could ask for – and receive – help.  There are plenty of life lessons to talk about in a discussion group.  The reading level is easy enough that it could be a class novel or book club selection.  Draw in readers with a nicely done book trailer on YouTube: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFzxWnt33YM).  The author is a teacher so there are literacy activities in the curriculum guide on the author’s website: (http://erinmfry.com/for-teachers/).

  • Losing ItTITLE: Losing It
  • AUTHOR: Erin Fry
  • PUBLISHER: Amazon Children’s Publishing
  • REVIEWER: Risa Brown
  • EDITION: Hardcover, 261 p.
  • ISBN: 978-07614-6220-0
  • GENRE: School stories, Sports stories, Realistic fiction
  • LEXILE: 450, Reading level 5.0

Mirage (Above World)

Written by Jenn Reese

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In book two of the Above World series, Aluna, the sea-dwelling Kampaii, and her three genetically modified friends race across the desert to the great city of Mirage to warn the half-human, half-horse Equians about Karl Strand’s plans of domination and destruction. But they arrive too late. Strand’s evil clone, a human woman named Scorch, has already formed an alliance with their leader, High Khan Onggur, and has convinced him to join Strand’s army. With Aluna’s Equian friend, Dash, sentenced to death for breaking his exile, the stakes are high for these four futuristic friends, including Hoku, the tech-loving Kampaii, and bird-girl, Calli. The only way to restore Above World order is to defeat Scorch at the upcoming Thunder Trials, an Olympic-like competition. The fiercest warrior of the group, Aluna, secretly worries about her legs; they are slowly fusing into a fishtail, and she fears she is running out of time.

Reese creates a richly imagined dystopian world with unusual names and vocabulary words that will enhance comprehension skills for those ten and older. Treachery, martial arts sequences, and the introduction of more unique characters (particularly the snake-people) should hold the interest of fifth graders who have invested their time in the first book. For new readers, though, like myself, I would not start with book two! This is a true sequel, not a stand-alone, and I found myself spending too much time playing catch-up – sorting out the characters, their customs and codes of honor, and deciphering references to the first book. Perhaps this is why, in the end, I felt emotionally detached to the characters and to the story itself.

  • MirageTitle: Mirage
  • Author: Jenn Reese
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press
  • Reviewer: Lauren Abbey Greenberg
  • Hardcover: 356 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-5418-4
  • Genre: Fiction / Science Fiction
  • Lexile Score: 960

Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey

Written by Gary Golio

Illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez

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This is the latest in a series of books by Gary Golio about Jazz musicians. Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey is a brief, but compelling biography of John Coltrane’s journey: from the church where his mother played the organ while his grandfather preached the gospel, where John soaked up the music along with all he heard about the power of the Spirit to guide and heal each human being and taking us thru the depths of drug addiction and recovery. The story tells how John lived his music, how his music was him, not an extension of him. We also read about how he finally returns to his mother’s home, to rid himself of the drugs, and how his gift of music was restored, better than ever before.

“Swing, blues, bebop, hot jazz, cool jazz, gospel, and classical—everything John had ever heard was blending together in his mind and heart. It was a heavenly mix of sounds, like what he had imagined years ago, sitting in church as a boy.”

This story is an excellent story of rediscovering yourself, and turning your life around. A story of a life dedicated to the music, John felt inside that was struggling to get out. John had struggled to bury the sadness in his life from losing so many members of his family by turning to drugs, but then came to the realization that numbing his body and mind also numbed his music.

The book is awash with stirring paintings done by the illustrator Rudy Gutierrez. Gutierrez does an excellent job of catching the vibrancy of life and the soul searching that took place in John’s life.

This book can lead to discussions on making the right choices in life, on the value of family, on seeking the truth about who you are.

This book was written for 4-6th graders, and is an excellent book to introduce grade school children to the many facets of the musical world. This book has received several awards and is on many book lists.

  • Spirit SeekerTitle: Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey
  • Author: Gary Golio
  • Illustrator: Rudy Gutierrez
  • Publisher: Clarion Books
  • Reviewer: Carole Robishaw
  • Hardcover: 48 pages
  • ISBN-10: 0547239947
  • Genre: Music, biography
  • Lexus Score: 980

The Garden of My Imaan

Written by Farhana Zia

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A lively story about choices facing today’s Muslim American girls.  Aliya is a typical fifth grade girl: she wants to talk to a boy she has a crush on, she wants to know how to stand up for herself and she wonders how to reconcile school life with life at home.  The difference is that she is Muslim and she feels uncomfortable with what that means in America today.  Then she is asked to show a new girl, Marwa, around.  She is a strict Muslim.  She already wears a hajib but, even more, she is calm and confident in the face of discrimination and bullying.  Aliya resents being asked to be Marwa’s friend because it calls everyone’s attention to the fact that they are both Muslim.  Aliya is embarrassed partly because she doesn’t know what she believes.  She begins to write letters to Allah to express her frustration and confusion.  Thanks to the gentle guidance of her grandmother and Marwa’s example, Aliya begins to see that complaining doesn’t accomplish anything, but doing something does.  She is bold enough to stand up to the class bully.  She finds the courage to run for student council.  She even sees that an offer of friendship is the best way to make peace with the mean girl.

Aliya grows and matures in a way that will speak to any girl no matter what her religious background.  The story helps explain Muslim beliefs and shows that there is no typical Muslim.  Aliya’s family is from India, while Marwa’s is from Morocco, and yet they are treated the same by people either carrying prejudice towards Muslims or who simply don’t know the differences.  The grandmothers are fun.  There is a grandmother, great-grandmother and a great aunt, all of whom influence Aliya and entertain the reader.  Aliya’s best friend is Winnie, who is part Korean, so the theme of understanding different cultures is carried throughout.  This would be a good book club selection for a girl’s book club.  If this is used as a read aloud, be aware that there are several Arabic and Urdu phrases woven into the dialog.  The students could look up these phrases on the internet and hear them pronounced as a literacy activity, perhaps gaining insight into families with different backgrounds.

  • Garden of My ImaanTITLE: The Garden of My Imaan
  • AUTHOR: Farhana Zia
  • PUBLISHER: Peachtree, 2013
  • REVIEWER: Risa Brown
  • EDITION: Hardcover, 230 p.
  • ISBN: 978-1-56145-698-7
  • GENRE: Middle-grades fiction, school stories, multicultural fiction
  • Lexile 600

Ruby Redfort: Take Your Last Breath

Written by Lauren Child

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Ruby’s parents get thrown overboard a ship. They are assumed dead. All the sea animals seem to have gone crazy. Bodies keep showing up strangled. And it all has something to do with Redfort family’s long lost rubies. Now our new junior detective must disobey and lie to her superiors at Spectrum to save the day again. She continues to lean on her best friends, especially Clancy, to come to her rescue every time that she goes out on a limb, and even a wooden plank, as she deals with pirates and giant sea animals. An additional variance includes Clancy’s fear of water in this seafaring adventure where modern pirates clash with psychopathic bad guys. The story starts out a little confusing until the pieces start to make more sense like any good mystery.

The multiple twists and turns of this 5th grade comprehensive reading book keeps readers actively involved as the action causes them to stay focused because they do not want to miss anything. Each chapter leaves subtle clues to where Ruby looks next and even musical notes add a creative touch to how she solves this mystery.

These fun loving characters add layers and dimensions to this plot driven book where the past catches up with the present in this teenage detective novel where everything happens for a reason and science even plays a role in it. This book belongs on any reading list for mystery buffs that enjoy light reading combined with creative intrigue.

  • Ruby RedfortTitle: Ruby Redfort
  • Author: Lauren Child
  • Publisher: Harper Collins Publishing
  • Reviewer: Julia Beiker
  • Hardcover Edition
  • ISBN 13: 978-0-7636-5468-9
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Lexile Score 910

Garden Princess

Written by Kristin Kladstrup

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Princess Adela wishes everyone would stop treating her like, well, a princess. She would rather dirty her hands in the garden than learn how to embroider or waltz or drink tea. As Queen Cecile nags her to pretty herself so she can land a suitor, Adela dreams of traveling the world to collect and study exotic plants. So when her friend, Garth, receives an invitation to review the enchanted garden of the mysterious Lady Hortensia, Adela worms her way into the party.

The rumors are true: Hortensia’s garden is indeed magical. Colorful spring and summer flowers burst in full bloom even though it’s October! But as Adela tours the grounds on her own she makes an astonishing discovery. Hortensia has been turning all the beautiful female guests into flowers and pocketing the gems and jewels they leave behind. Then she casts a spell on the handsome male guests, making them swoon over her like lovesick puppies.

Hortensia’s thieving servant, a talking magpie named Krazo, becomes an unlikely ally as Adela tries to figure out a way to escape from this witch’s lair. Krazo believes a secret treasure buried underneath an attacking rose tree could break Hortensia’s spell, but she catches Adela first and transforms her into a weedy dandelion to be clipped and tossed into the rubbish heap. Krazo rescues her and transforms back into the young man he once was. Adela and Krazo fall in love and, in an untraditional fairy-tale twist, they do not rush to get married, but instead choose to travel the world together.

Fifth grade girls will appreciate Princess Adela, who stays true to her convictions despite how others think she is supposed to behave. Her down-to-earth nature and self-reliance makes her easy to route for and a good role model for this age group. Most of the characters in the story are in their late teens, but the romance scenes are modest (hand holding, swooning) and appropriate for a fifth grade reading level. With themes of self-esteem and beauty on the inside, readers who enjoy magic, talking animals, light romance, and yes, happy endings won’t be disappointed with Garden Princess. 

  • Garden PrincessTitle: Garden Princess
  • Author: Kristin Kladstrup
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press
  • Reviewer: Lauren Abbey Greenberg
  • Hardcover: 264 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-5685-0
  • Genre: Fiction / Fantasy
  • Lexile Score: 1070

The Ugly One

Written by Leanne Statland Ellis

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Micay, Beautiful Round Face, is known by far too many in her Incan tribe as Millay, the Ugly One. She keeps to herself as much as possible because her ugliness has been a source of torture for her as long as she can remember. The young men her age, particularly Ucho, never let her forget the fact that she is different. They make fun of her because her face is marred with a scar that extends from her right eye to below her lip. Of course, she wishes things were different; she wishes she were beautiful like her sister. But since she is not, she just wants to be left alone at which time she can draw comfort from her family and her faith in the Sun God. One day a stranger traveling from the jungle to Machu Picchu gives her a baby macaw. Her life takes on new meaning as the bird blossoms and connects her with Paqo, the medicine man, or Shaman. Will her scar eventually heal so that she can be like others, or is she destined for greater things?

Readers will feel Micay’s pain and rejoice in her victories. Putting themselves in her shoes, girls at the third to fifth grade levels will cheer at every advance Micay makes toward discovering her mission in life and boo whenever bullying rears its ugly head. Ellis provides such wonderful detail that the reader is transported to the times when the Incan Empire ruled. Boys will enjoy reading about these wondrous times. Finally, teachers will appreciate the reference materials at the end of the book. Reading comprehension for these fifth grade readers should be at an all-time high in this beautiful story about Incan culture.

Author’s Website: http://leannestatlandellis.com/Home.html

  • The Ugly OneTitle: The Ugly One
  • Author: Leanne Statland Ellis
  • Publisher: Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Reviewer: Bonita Herold
  • Hardback: 245 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-547-64023-5
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Lexile Score: 780
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