21 February 2011

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

Chasing Vermeer is not your typical mystery.  To love this book, you need to love quirky characters and schools that are not quite typical.  Luckily, I am a fan of both of these things.  Another element about this book that I found particularly nice was that it was a  mystery that ... actually requires detective work! In a lot of middle grade and young adult mysteries I have read lately, there is a lot of luck involved, a lot of stumbling across clues, a lot of providential happenstance.  I felt that in Chasing Vermeer Balliett did an excellent job of creating characters who were smart and used their brains to seek out answers.  Sure, there is going to be a little bit of happenstance helping every mystery along, but this one was a little more reminiscence of true detective mysteries like Holmes and Poirot.  

Without giving anything away, Petra and Calder are two students at a school on a university campus.  Their teacher is very in to letting them explore their own interests and designing their own learning experiences.  When a famous Vermeer painting not only goes missing, but is in danger, Petra and Calder dive into the mystery with enthusiasm and a little bit of adventure.  

I think that this book will appear to a lot of different types of readers.  The mystery crowd, obviously, will be shoe-ins for enjoying this title.  Calder's math and logic focused perspective could draw in readers who would normally rather solve a sudoku puzzle than pick up a book.  Additionally, it is a rare book that can equally capture the interests of the mathletes and artists amongst middle school readers - but the art history elements of this story definitely appealed to me and made me want to go out and learn a little more about Vermeer.

Excellent job all around, Balliett.  I'm looking forward to reading The Wright Three next.

15 December 2010

Great Book Gift Ideas for Middle Grade Readers - Round One

Here are some books you may like to ask for (or give) at Christmas this year!

Round One: For the sports fanatics:
  • MIKE LUPICA!  Did you catch that?  A prominent sports writer in general, he is also, in my humble opinion, Mr. Young-Adult-Sports-Fiction.  Million Dollar Throw is his latest sports novel.
  • Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls may appeal to the young outdoorsmen in your midst.  Hiking and hunting abound in this classic.
  • Jerry Spinelli's Crash and Maniac Magee stealthily hide some of those great life lessons about growing up in tales about football (Crash) and running (Maniac Magee).
  • Now, I must confess that I have not read these next two, but John Feinstein's Cover-Up: Mystery at the Super Bowl and Last Shot fit the bill for this category and have gotten some positive reviews for this age group.
  • You may also want to check out some athlete biographies geared towards this age group.  Soul Surfer by Bethany Hamilton is a particular favorite of mine.

15 November 2010

Of Beetles and Angels by Mawi Asgedom

Another great addition to my growing non-fiction repertoire. Of Beetles and Angels is the author's account of his transition from a refugee camp in Sudan as  young boy to eventual Harvard graduate and full-tuition scholarship recipient.  The author's tone flows easily and reads like a letter from a friend.  He remains accessible and engaging despite the tough issues his experience inherently encounters without discounting the struggles or depressing the reader.  Like Mawi, the reader finds ways to remain hopeful through the tougher stuff.  Through the stern reminders, stories, and lectures of his father, the shining example of his older brother, his mother's remembrances of home, and his own determination, Mawi is truly a force to be reckoned with in his Chicago community.  Don't be mistaken - Mawi and his family are not perfect.  They are a great example, though, of the power behind hope, faith, and determination presented in a way that I believe would be interested even to disinterested readers.

25 October 2010

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson (Young Reader's Edition)

I want to start off by dispelling some myths about this book so that misconceptions do not keep anyone from reading it.  It was a great book, and I highly recommend it.
  • Myth #1 - This book is about how the government should fix education or this book is about how the government should fix Afghanistan:
    • I remember this title being all over the bookstores about two years ago, but I was hesitant to read it due to my sometimes-aversion to non-fiction.  Also, being a teacher, I am sometimes nervous about books about education because I think I will be too invested in the topic, and I may get defensive or irritated.  Let me tell you right now - This is not a book about what is right and wrong in education.  Thank goodness!  If it was, why would you, a young adult, pick it up?  So read away!  This is not an instructional book on how to have good schools.  phew.
    • Similarly, this is not a book on how to fix Afghanistan.  Greg Mortenson is certainly helping Afghanistan and hopes that others will join him, but he is not professing to have the end-all-be-all fix from America.  Thank goodness, again.  If he was trying to say that, I would probably get annoyed.
    • Fear not, young readers, this book is not telling you what to do.  Although, I hope you will be inspired by the example it sets.
  • Myth #2 - The Young Reader's Edition is babyish.
    • Well that's just not true.  It is at a young adult level.  It is readable and engaging for pre-teens and teens without you feeling like it is too easy.  It will stretch you!  That being said, I don't think the regular version is too difficult for any of you, either.  If you are interested in this book, take a look at both editions and choose the one that suits you - either way, you're getting a good read.  That being said, I'm using the Young Reader's Edition for this review
Greg Mortenson starts off trying to climb K2 in honor of his sister.  Opening with this event, the book jumps straight into the true-adventures genre.  He gets lost, nearly dies, is rescued, is taken in by virtual strangers, and make new friends for life within the span of the first few chapters.  Wow!  After this experience, Greg is burdened with a desire to help the village that welcomes him in as a stranger by building them a bridge and school.  It does not go easily at first.  There are set-backs and moments of discouragement both stateside and abroad.  At one point, Greg is even living out of his car to save money.  He is also kidnapped and held hostage in Pakistan!  Provisions and aid come through, though, exactly when they are needed.  Before too long, Greg is building schools and bridges all over Afghanistan and Pakistan.  I like the Young Reader's Edition, in particular, because of all the extras it gives you.  It is kind of like getting a super-loaded special features menu on a DVD.  There is a wealth of full-color and black and white photos; there are interviews with his daughter, Amira; and there is a lot of good information on his charities.  This book breaks down the barrier between "girl books" and "boy books"  and mixes adventure together well with a close look at another culture and what is being done to help that culture.

24 September 2010

Non-Fiction Series

If you are in my 8th grade Language Arts class, the upcoming titles to be featured on the blog will look pretty familiar to you.  We are reading a collection of non-fiction books that all examine individuals who have overcome hardships.  I used to shy a way from non-fiction.  One of my large purposes for reading was to escape from the real world and live in someone elses imagination for a little while.  This possibility is still one of the great appeals of reading for me.  However, I am learning to appreciate non-fiction more and more.  Excitement, adventure, inspiration, and intrique does not just exist in the imaginations of others but also in this great big world we live in.  As I have been revisiting the titles we are examining in class, I have been reminded of all the great things these books have to offer and would  love to share these glimpses into the world around us with you, dear reader.  Not all of the books are considered Young Adult Literature.  They were written for a wide and varied audience, but are still topically and stylistically appropriate for both young adults their preceding generations.  So what is to come?  Here is a glimpse at the Bookshelf's playlist for the next couple of weeks:
  • Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (Young Reader Edition adapted by Sarah Thomson)
  • Of Beetles and Angels by Mawi Asgedom
  • Behind Enemy Lines: A Young Pilot's Story by H.R. Demallie
Non-Fiction, here we come!

08 September 2010

Zlata's Diary by Zlata Filipovic

Now that I have read Zlata's Diary, I am surprised that I had not read, or even heard of it, sooner.  I am glad to have finally discovered it, though.  I picked it up after reading about it in The Freedom Writer's Diaries and hearing what an impact it had made in the lives of those students.  (They even got to meet Zlata!)  I can see why.

Zlata's Diary tells her story in a voice that is raw and honest as well as relate-able and engaging.  Zlata is eleven when she starts writing to Mimmy, her diary.  The war in Bosnia had not yet been loosed in Zlata's hometown of Sarajevo when she began writing in 1991.  She is a typical fifth grader worrying about her grades and looking forward to weekend trips to the mountain.  Within a few short months of her first entry, however, war has arrived in Sarajevo.  Neither Zlata nor her beloved city will be the same again.  The reader experiences the war through Zlata's eyes for the next two years until she is a thirteen year old girl, still living in war, missing her childhood, and wise beyond her years.  I think Zlata explains the project best when she writes to Mimmy that, "I wrote to you about the war, about myself and Sarajevo in the war, and the world wants to know about it.  I wrote what I felt, saw and heard, and now people outside of Sarajevo are going to know it." (From the entry marked Thursday, October 14, 1993). 

I appreciated the unique perspective Zlata's Diary offered on the Yugoslav Wars.  The "kids" (read politicians)  to a backseat to the human experience of war as felt and observed by a normal teenage girl in a very abnormal situation.  You don't have to know the politics of 1990s Bosnia to understand Zlata's experiences.  You don't have to understand the particulars of the war to understand her when she says "Of course, I'm 'young,' and politics are conducted by 'grown-ups.'  But I thing we 'young' would do it better.  We certainly wouldn't have chosen war." (From the entry marked Thursday, November 19, 1992).  She doesn't dwell on the ins and outs of the conflict, but questions its existence to begin with. 

Zlata's Diary is not a "girl book" or "boy book."  It is non-fiction with a narrative, story-telling style.  It is very, very real, even for those of us untouched by war.  I can't recommend it enough.

Interested in hearing more about Zlata, beyond just reading her diary?

Check out this site to read a recent interview with Zlata.

She also has a new book that I am interested in reading:  Stolen Voices.

10 June 2010

Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins

In a small town in the summer, a group of fourteen-year-old friends find new discoveries in everyday occurrences.  Each with their own tale to tell, the lives of Debbie, Patty, Lenny, Hector, and Phil wind in and out of each others' stories.   In the midst of it all, they come together each week to listen to the radio show "Criss-Cross" in the cab of Lenny's dad's truck.  This is a great piece of realistic fiction about growing up.  I liked it reading it now, and I think I would have loved it reading it when I was in middle school.  I admire Hector's goofy self-confidence; he wore a grass skirt to a luau for goodness sake!  I was also impressed with Lenny's mechanical genius.  Most of all, I enjoyed following Debbie as she learns that she is not as ordinary and boring as she thinks.

This is not a book for every reader.  If you like a lot of action or mystery, you will not find it here.  There is no fantasy or science fiction.  It takes place in the 1970s, but there is not enough to classify it as historical fiction.  However, if you are worried that a book that follows a couple teenagers around for a summer can't hold your interest (you are living it after all), it works hard to keep the pace up.  This book is realistic fiction to its core, and that endorsement will hold its own value for many readers.  As the title suggests, the plot line criss-crosses between each of the characters and back again; they each get their own chance at the limelight.  The writing style switches it up every now again, too, criss-crossing between styles.  Just frequently enough to keep you on your toes, you will encounter a chapter presented like a script; or perhaps in a question and answer format; there is even a chapter of haikus.
Here is my haiku in honor of Criss Cross:

Ordinary days
More exciting than they seem
Fun at every turn.

(c) 2005       Publisher:  Greenwillow Books     Number of Pages:  337     Awards:  Newberry Medal Winner