Archive for Fiction

A Night Divided

Written by Jennifer A. Nielsen

There was no warning. It happened in the middle of the night. A city was cut in two. Gerta’s family was cut in two. Many families in Berlin were cut in two.

Gerta’s father and middle brother had gone to West Berlin to look for jobs and an apartment for the rest of the family one September day in 1961. That night, East Berlin border guards were ordered to build a barbed wire fence. No one was allowed to cross the fence. Within days, a wall was built with barbed wire atop it. East Berlin was shut off from the rest of the world. Food shortages, work shortages, and brutal interrogations of citizens followed.

One day, on her way to school Gerta saw her father on the other side of the wall pantomiming a song about digging a garden. Later, it occurred to her he might be suggesting she build a tunnel under the wall.

The story is tense, fast-paced and very accurate. Grade five and grade six readers will get a realistic, if frightening, look at part of the past. Teachers and librarians will fulfill the core curriculum standards in history and literature by including this book in their reading lists. It will open discussions of freedom as well as open doors to further research. Some of the students may be able to find family members or neighbors who lived through the experience. Students will be awestruck at how many people did not live through it.

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  • A Night DividedTitle: A Night Divided
  • Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 317 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-545-68242-8
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Grade level: 3 to 7
  • Extras: historical photographs

The Great Greene Heist

Written by Varian Johnson

Jackson Greene, middle schooler, is way too smart for his own good. He’s a budding con man who rarely gets caught, but he does take big risks. Then again, his heart is in the right place. The one time he did get caught earned him a bad reputation with the principal and alienated the love of his life, Gaby. When Gaby ends up running for student body president against Jackson’s sworn enemy and cheater, Keith, Jackson decides to help Gaby. Without her knowledge. Jackson and Gaby’s twin brother, Charlie, devise an elaborate plan, partly Star Trek and partly Ocean’s Eleven inspired, to make sure Keith doesn’t steal the election. With a few surprises, the team, sometimes referred to as Gang Greene, get the job done.

Kids, especially middle schoolers, will love the hilarious adventure and recognize people they know in the characters. From the geeks and nerds who speak Klingon to the jocks and rich kids who feel entitled. Teachers and parents will like the fact that each transgression carries consequences.

This is a chance for kids to practice their literacy skills while being entertained.

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  • Great Greene HeistTitle: The Great Greene Heist
  • Author: Varian Johnson
  • Published: Scholastic, 2015
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Paperback, 240 pages
  • Grade Level: 5 to 9
  • Genre: Fiction, Friendship, Honesty
  • ISBN: 978-0-545-52553-4

The Secrets to Ruling School (Without Even Trying)

Written and illustrated by Neil Swaab

Well, at least I think this is fiction, but the author seems to have an awfully firm grasp of middle school and all the nuances of life there. Young Max Corrigan has taken it upon himself to help new students adjust to life in William H. Taft Middle School. He’s even devised a packet illustrating his methods and appointed himself head of the welcoming committee. After Max introduces himself to the new student, he outlines the plan, which consists of trying to fit into many of the known cliques in the school. He begins by teaching him to use humor to try and fit in with the Class Clowns. He then moves on to how to look like an Artist, what Band Geeks are really like, fitting in at lunch, how to deal with the principal, and how to talk to Preps. On the second day, he learns how to raise money and how to avoid the Jocks and the Tough Kids. By Wednesday, the new kid is in trouble and needs advice on how to lie effectively. Much of Thursday is spent trying to hack into phones and learning to ditch class. By Friday, the new kid and Max are the heroes of the school and can go to the Saturday birthday party in style.

Swaab is an excellent illustrator and that is a major strength of this book. Crowd scenes are especially entertaining – in a “Where’s Waldo” sort of way. With the right approach, this book can be very humorous and stress-relieving for fifth graders about to enter a new world. Teachers and parents need to be aware of some of the more subversive elements, though, such as the recipe for fake vomit.

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  • Ruling SchoolTitle: The Secrets to Ruling School (Without Even Trying)
  • Author/Illustrator: Neil Swaab
  • Published: Amulet Books/Abrams, August, 2015
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 240 pages
  • Grade Level: 4 to 7
  • Genre: Fiction, humor
  • ISBN: 978-1-4197-1221-0

 

 

Cast Off: The Strange Adventures of Petra De Winter and Bram Broen

Written by Eve Yohalem

Mutiny aboard ship, would you be with the captain or against? Petra and Bram would each have to decide. They didn’t care about the gold the mutineers were stealing from the hold. They were each trying to find a place and way to live free from danger in the world.

Petra’s father would likely kill her if she were forced to return to Amsterdam. Bram would never find a place he truly belonged in the world because of being a mixed race boy.

This story of life aboard the ship, The Golden Lion, in the year 1663 is a fast paced tale of pretending to be a boy while surviving a long journey at sea. It involves bad weather, an attack by pirates and mutiny at sea.

The diagram of a ship of this sort is accurate. Much research went into writing this book with as much accuracy as possible. The author’s note explains the amount of research, but it would have been helpful, from an educational viewpoint, to have included some of the sources.

The book will still fulfill literacy requirements, as well as, core curriculum standards for geography, history. The world map showing the journey is great, but an added timeline as to how this story fits into world history would be a good thing to have students create as they enjoy this exciting swashbuckling adventure.

Grade four, grade five and grade six readers will enjoy reading this ocean journey late into the night, maybe with a flashlight under the covers!

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Cast OffTitle: Cast Off: The Strange Adventures of Petra De Winter and Bram Broen

Author: Eve Yohalem

Publisher:  Dial/Penguin, 2015

Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz

Format: Hardcover, 312 pages

ISBN: 978-0-525-42856-5

Genre: Historical Fiction

Grade level: 5 up

Extras: Diagram of Ship, Map of Journey, Author’s Note

Circus Mirandus

Written by Cassie Beasley
Illustrated by Diana Sudyka

Can you see it? The tents, animals and acrobats of the circus. Can you hear the music?  If not, then you probably don’t believe enough in the magic.

Micah believes and so does Grandpa Ephraim, but Jenny, well, some, maybe, sometimes. She tries, but then, she is almost eleven.

Circus Mirandus is a special kind of circus. It has been going on without interruption since 500 BC. It can move without being seen and is capable of opening portals between our world and its.

Magic and miracles are things we all need in life from time to time. But is it always available when we really need it? Do we know how to recognize it? Do we dare ask? These are some of the questions Micah faces throughout the story and our readers will wonder, too.

Cassie Beasley’s debut novel will take you from the doldrums of everyday life and open your eyes to the possibilities around you. Hope, humor and optimism carry the story along from one adventure to another.

Micah lives with his Grandpa, but is now face to face with Grandpa’s failing health and imminent death. Aunt Gertrudis has come to help take care of them and she has no time for the nonsense of magic.

This is a marvelous tale of unexpected friendship and ingenious planning to accomplish dreams.   Fifth grade readers and sixth grade readers will enjoy reading it on their own while fulfilling literacy skills. Librarians and teachers will want to include it in their collections for students to have a chance to read it before the movie comes out.

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  • Circus MirandusTitle: Circus Mirandus
  • Author: Cassie Beasley
  • Illustrator: Diana Sudyka
  • Publisher: Dial Books/ Penguin, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 292 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-525-42843-5
  • Genre: Fiction, fantasy
  • Grade level: 4 to 7

Echo

Written by Pam Munoz Ryan
Illustrated by Dinara Mirtalipova

Beginning with enchantment and a spell, this book seems like a fantasy. But it continues on to become a kind of historical fiction. There are three main sections of the book, however, the character that bridges these sections is not a person, but a harmonica.

The story is very well written, as one would expect from Pam Munoz Ryan, an award-winning author. Each section of the book is a well-developed story in itself. In each case, the importance of music to our everyday lives is illustrated. The rhythm and rhyme of life are totally intertwined with the music we hear and make.

The spell set forth at the beginning of the book can only be broken when the harmonica is used to save someone’s life, as does happen in the last episode in the book.

Besides many literacy skills that can be taught using this book, there is a great deal of American history, German history, music history, as well as the history of the harmonic itself as an instrument, all that qualifies as material for fulfilling the core curriculum standards. While librarians and teachers will probably not use the entire book, due to its length, it can be introduced by sectional readings. Still it would make a great present for a middle grade student who loves to read about adventures of the past. It also opens the door for great discussions about how our lives might intertwine with others through the medium of music and/or shared possessions.

It is an interesting and thought provoking book.

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  • EchoTitle: Echo
  • Author: Pam Munoz Ryan
  • Illustrator: Dinara Mirtalipova
  • Publisher: Scholastic, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 587 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-439-87402-1
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Grade level: 5 to 8

Fish in a Tree

Written by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Ally is a smart girl, but she has moved around among a lot of different schools. Her inability to read stays hidden behind her many ways of causing classroom distractions.  She is tired of being called, “dumb” and “slow”.  But reading words on a page makes about as much sense as a fish in a tree.

Her current school, especially the principal, is getting equally tired of her. Ally is sent to the office practically every day. The worst being the day she gave her pregnant teacher a sympathy card during the class baby shower. Ally didn’t intend to be mean, she just didn’t know what the words on the card said. She bought it because of the pretty yellow flowers she thought her teacher would love.

Luckily, the substitute teacher is more attune to Ally’s reading problems. He is gentle and affirming. He highlights Ally’s amazing ability to draw in expressive detail. Eventually she admits how the letters move about the page when she tries to read.

This carefully woven novel is about more than just dyslexia. Ally has a father serving overseas in the military and a hard-working mother struggling to make ends meet. There is also an older brother who cannot read, but is a fantastic mechanic. Before the book’s conclusion Ally recognizes her brother has the same learning problem and gets him help. It is a book full of hope and possibilities.

Lynda Hunt also tackles the ever-present issue of bullying in this book.  She approaches it in funny and satisfying ways that relieve the problems rather than escalate them. Ally makes friends slowly with two other students who are also seen as being “different” from the popular crowd. Readers will recognize them as great friends. All the characters are developed thoroughly and become completely recognizable. Adult readers will enjoy recognizing character “types” they have known throughout life.

Chapters are short and contain a lot of dialogue, so this is a fast-moving, entertaining book for fifth grade readers and beyond. It could be used for a book club to open discussion about acceptance of others. Librarians, teachers and counselors can recommend this book to students who may be experiencing dyslexia, a parent in the military or any particular kind of bullying. This text can be used to meet the core curriculum standards in literacy as well as in the social studies content of learning about others with needs as well as how to deal with bullies in the classroom or the school at large.

After reading this book, students may want to look for Lynda’s previous book, One for the Murphys.

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  • Fish in a TreeTitle: Fish in a Tree
  • Author:  Lynda Mullaly Hunt
  • Publisher: Penguin, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 276 pages
  • ISBN:  978-0-399-16259-6
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Grade level: 5 up
  • Extras: Letter from the author to the reader that explains how Lynda Mullaly Hunt understands these problems. She had them herself in school and finally realized the actual problem was one of perception. She became able to perceive herself and others in a new light.  Her heart felt letter will bring a sigh of relief to young struggling readers.

The Terror of the Southland

Written by Caroline Carlson
Illustrated by Dave Phillips

Hilary Westfield is the pirate readers met in the first book, Magic Marks the Spot. It was in that book that she earned the name, Terror of the Southland. In this second book in the series, “The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates,” follows Hilary on another adventure where she goes off to save the Enchantress.

Readers from grades three well beyond grade seven will enjoy this swashbuckling tale of bumbling pirates and magic coins. Among the kidnapping and spying, Hilary shows her strong character of loyalty to friends as well as her fairness in all things. These traits cause a problem between her and the league, as most pirates are neither loyal nor fair. During the entertainment young readers will find themselves thinking about these issues in their own characters.

Exaggeration and sarcasm are two literary elements students will identify and enjoy. Of course, the comic fellow everyone loves is Hilary’s gargoyle. He has a healthy self-esteem and has time in this book to begin dictating his memoirs to Hilary.

The book includes fictional newspaper articles, posters, announcements, invitations and even the kidnappers’ note. It provides students with an opportunity to distinguish between different types of writing and will be a fun way for teachers to illustrate them in literacy classes.

These books will be a tease for reluctant readers and just might draw them in for more than one adventure. Arrrgh!

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  • Terror of the SouthlandTitle: The Terror of the Southlands
  • Author: Caroline Carlson
  • Illustrator: Dave Phillips
  • Publisher: Harper, 2014
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-06-219436-7
  • Genre: Fiction, humor
  • Grade level: 3-7
  • Extras: An excerpt of the next book in the series.

The Paper Cowboy

Written by Kristin Levine

Kristin Levine’s new book introduces readers to the damage done by rumors at any time and place. However, this story takes readers to small town America in the 1950’s. The rumor has to do with who might be a communist. But it isn’t the rumor that takes center stage. It is more about the damage caused by that, Tommy, the twelve year old main character. It is also about all the things that happen to Tommy.

The simple everyday task of burning the trash causes a tragedy in Tommy’s family. This accident pushes Tommy to mature very rapidly. He takes over an early morning paper route to help his parents earn enough money to pay the bills. But he is also covering up for other sins of the family.  His mother is suffering from depression and often beats him when she is angry. Other days she spends the whole day in bed, neglecting the needs of the little children and the house.

Levine seamlessly takes us into the life of this family and the heart of young Tommy who dreams of being a cowboy. While he daydreams about the heroes of the old West, he is busy saving his whole family. He isn’t an unrealistic hero though as he stumbles along his way getting into one scrape after another. Finally, he learns to ask for help and the most unusual people in the town come together to solve the problems.

Grade 5 readers and well beyond will enjoy traveling back into the 50’s to spend time with Tommy and his family. Teachers and librarians will be able to use this book to further develop literacy skills, American history, and social studies. Many of the people who come to Tommy’s aid are immigrants who had great careers in their home countries, but have nothing in their new land. Except the strength of their morals and education, both of which help solve the largest problems Tommy has to face.

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  • Paper CowboyTitle: The Paper Cowboy
  • Author: Kristin Levine
  • Publisher: G.P.Putman’s, 2014
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 352 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-399-16328-9
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Grade level: 5 and up
  • Extras: Author’s Note, photos

Outside In

Written by Sarah Ellis

Lynn was standing at the bus stop when the Werther’s original toffee got stuck in her throat and blocked any air from coming in or going out. People around her panicked, yelled for help, and dialed 911.  Only one quiet voice said, “I’m going to help you.” The skinny arms removed Lynn’s backpack and did the Heimlich maneuver. But before Lynn or her friends could say thank you, the stranger was gone.

So begins a most engaging story between the haves and the have nots, or the citizens and the Underlanders. It is a tale the causes readers to determine what constitutes a family, as well as what good are our material things.

The secret friendship between Lynn and Blossom causes many problems for both girls as their worlds begin to intersect and collide. A promise lightly given then broken causes fear, betrayal and heartbreak.

A truly wonderful thing about this story is that neither side presumes to save the other. Those that our world might label as the have-nots are able to continue their own lives though. They do have to move.

Subplots include an irresponsible mother who goes from boyfriend to boyfriend without ever growing up, a special needs boy, and a couple of batty professors.

Fifth grade readers and beyond will enjoy this story of discovery and friendship. Reading teachers and librarians will use this book to reinforce literacy skills and fulfill core curriculum standards. It would also be an excellent reader aloud for upper elementary or middle school classes.

  • Outside InTitle: Outside In
  • Author: Sarah Ellis
  • Publisher: Groundwood Books, Toronto, April 2014
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 206 pages
  • ISBN:  978-1-55498-367-4
  • Genre: Contemporary Fiction
  • Grade Level: 5-8

 

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