Mrs. McGriff's Reading Blog

Happy reading!

April 16, 2014
by Mrs. McGriff
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Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

imageI was captivated by Willow’s voice from the first page of Counting by 7s (Scholastic 2013) until the very last page.  Willow is not your ordinary girl, and she won’t let you forget it.  First off, she’s brilliant, but not the teacher’s pet.  I suspect her teachers don’t get her.  She loves numbers and is fascinated by plants and medical conditions.  She also picks up other languages such as Vietnamese in her spare time.

She also does not fit in at her new middle school.  When she scores a perfect score on the state standardized test (after showing no aptitude for high ability to her teachers), the principal accuses her of cheating and refers her to Dell Duke, the school psychologist.  Outside of his office, Willow meets Mai, a chance encounter that will change all of their lives.

What do I love about this book?  Let me count the ways.  There’ll be seven since that is Willow’s favorite number.

1.  Connections:  Even when life seems random and cruel, connections bring people together.  Willow has a real talent for bringing people together, especially people who didn’t realize they needed each other.

2.  Voice:  Once you read what Willow has to say, you won’t be able to get her voice out of your heart.  She is true and honest and sees the world a bit differently–more brilliantly–than the rest of the world.

3.  Alternating points of view:  Willow is not the only teller of this story.  A third person narrator fills us in on the rest of the characters from pseudo-psychologist Dell Duke to Vietnamese nail salon owner Patty and generous taxi driver Jairo.

4.  Unforgettable characters:  Even the ones who rub you the wrong way at first–like Dell Duke and the angry Quang-ha–turn out to have a better side.  Mai is a loyal friend from the start, and Pattie opens her arms and home to a little girl.

5 .  Coincidences:  Is life random and cruel?  Is life random and lucky?  Maybe it’s all of these and none of these, but Willow experiences them all.

6.  Passion:  Willow gives everything to her interests.  She has mastered medical textbooks and would be glad to sit down with you to discuss any concerns you have.  She has created a garden oasis out of a desert–not just once, but twice.

7.  Family:  Whether it’s the family she’s lost or the new family she’s found, Willow comes home to people who love her for who she is.  Now if we could all be that lucky.

Holly Goldberg Sloan has crafted a brilliant story of love and loss, passion and friendship, tragedy and miracles.

April 14, 2014
by Mrs. McGriff

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

imageWhen I first heard the buzz about The Lions of Little Rock (Scholastic 2012), I thought it would be set during 1957, the first year of school integration and the story of the Little Rock Nine.  I was wrong.  Instead Kristin Levine weaves a story of friendship that is set during the following year of 1958, when Little Rock closed their high schools in order to prevent further integration of the schools.

When Marlee and Liz becomes friends that year, they never dream that their friendship will test not only their loyalty to each other, but will also take on segregation and put their families in danger when Liz is caught “passing” for white at Marlee’s middle school.  No matter that the world is set against their friendship Liz and Marlee reach out to each other and help each other.

Marlee tells the story of their friendship, which is quite remarkable considering that Marlee is too frightened to talk to most people.  She even freezes up with her own mother.  Liz, however, pushes Marlee to find her voice and to speak up for herself.  Marlee teaches Liz how to be quiet.  Together, they face the tumultuous changes that come.  Marlee misses her big sister Judy, who is sent to live with a grandmother so she can go to school.  Liz finds a bit of romance.  Marlee joins The Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools and the Stop This Outrageous Purge campaigns and learns to talk to her mother.  Together, they learn that “a friend is someone who helps you change for the better” (289).

April 12, 2014
by Mrs. McGriff

Guitar Notes by Mary Amato

I don't have a guitar, but this book might inspire me to pick up my dulcimers again.

I don’t have a guitar, but this book might inspire me to pick up my dulcimers again.

For my students, music is not only the soundtrack of their lives (as it is for mine, too), but music is their lives.  If they could, they would go through their days with music pouring into their ears.  Many of them have music pouring out of them as well, through singing or playing an instrument.

As soon as I saw the cover of Guitar Notes (Scholastic 2012) staring at me from the shelf of the Scholastic Book Fair, I knew I wanted to add it to my classroom library.  Mary Amato did not disappoint me with this witty and heartwarming story.  The premise is clever.  Two students–completely opposite in temperament and musical styles–end up sharing a music practice room on opposite days.  They begin leaving notes for each other–at first insulting, but later revealing.

The point of view switches between Tripp Broody and Lyla Marks, letting us get to know them separately and gradually, just as they get to know each other.  Tripp is desperate to spend time with a guitar–any guitar–now that his mother has taken his away until he pulls up his grades.  Lyla is desperate, too, but desperate for a break from the high expectations her father and friends place on her for perfect grades and perfect cello notes.  Neither Tripp’s mom nor Lyla’s dad are bad parents;  they are just imperfect ones who don’t see what’s right in front of them.

The notes that Tripp and Lyla write are highlights of the book.  They are funny and sarcastic, downright snippy at first.  But soon Tripp and Lyla are looking forward to receiving and writing the notes.  They challenge each other to be honest, and they teach each other what they love about music.  As they come together, they begin writing songs to share together.  As I shared bits of the book with my students, they were sure romance was on the way.  I was glad Amato did not take the obvious path with that part of the plot.  The friendship that grows between Tripp and Lyla is so much more than just a romance, even if it takes a tragedy to reveal the depths of their friendship to their parents and friends.

This novel is an ode to the power of music, and it doesn’t stop with the last page. In the back of the book is a copy of the “Thrum Society Songbook,” which has the lyrics and chords for each of the songs that Tripp and Lyla write.  Throughout the book, Tripp and Lyla share pages from their notebooks where they brainstorm and write their lyrics.  You can also visit the Thrum Society website where you can listen to and download the songs for yourself.  Amato provides the tracks and karaoke tracks.  Even though the songs are copyrighted, Amato gives permission for readers to write their own lyrics, perform and record the songs, or create music videos for the songs for noncommercial use.  The website also gives free resources for songwriting–writing notebooks, blank chord charts, links to songwriting videos and more.

April 11, 2014
by Mrs. McGriff

More I Survived by Lauren Tarshis

The I Survived series of historical fiction has been extremely popular in my classroom this year.  For students who are not sure about historical fiction, they provide a short (less than 100 pages), quick introduction to the genre.  Lauren Tarshis chooses some of the most exciting, most dangerous times in history to write about–the Battle of Gettysburg, the Japanese tsunami, the Nazi invasion of Europe.  With these dramatic historical events as the background, Tarshis creates a young character who must survive.  Whether an escaped slave or a young American overseas, each character is both believable and relatable for modern readers. I already had six of these titles in my classroom library.  Now I have extra copies of those six plus three new adventures to share.  Here is where–and when–the latest titles will take you.

I Survived the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 (Scholastic 2013) imageThomas and his little sister Birdie are slaves on a Virginia plantation.  When they hear that their master wants to sell Thomas, they flee into the woods to search for freedom.  They are lucky enough to meet up with some Union soldiers who take them in.  Corporal Henry Green looks out for Thomas and Birdie as they travel with the army and tells them stories of his home in Vermont.  Soon the army receives orders to march to Gettysburg.  Will Thomas and Birdie survive this bloodiest, deadliest battle of the Civil War?  

I Survived the Nazi Invasion, 1944 (Scholastic 2014) When my students first start reading about the Holocaust, many of them ask why the Jews didn’t fight back.  The answer is that some Jews–along with Resistance fighters from different countries and faiths–did fight back.  Max looks out for his little sister Zena (and she looks out for him, too) while they are trapped in the Jewish ghetto in their town in Poland.  After a daring escape, they encounter Resistance fighters, including one who surprises them.  As they are traveling to the secret camp deep in the forest, German fighter planes drop bombs throughout the forest and German soldiers sweep through the trees with machine guns.  Will Max and Zena survive the explosions and fire and be able to reunite with their family?

I Survived the Japanese Tsunami, 2011 (Scholastic 2013) imageBen, his little brother Harry, and their mother are visiting their dad’s hometown in Japan.  The visit brings back painful memories of Ben’s dad, who died a few months earlier in a car crash.  But Ben’s memories of his dad and his dad’s stories from the Air Force give Ben the strength and courage to survive the devastating earthquake and tsunami that swept across Japan.  The roiling waters rip Ben from his family and he must fight to survive all alone.


If you want even more about these survival stories, check out the Scholastic I Survived Website.  You can learn more about each of the disasters, see what I Survived book is coming up next, and even take a quiz to test your survival skills.

April 9, 2014
by Mrs. McGriff

Wolf Storm by Dee Garretson

imageStefan auditioned for a part in the action movie Ice Planet Earth never dreaming that he would actually get the part.  Now he finds himself on location in mountains of Slovakia.  He is trapped with a stuck up costar Raine, annoying costar Jeremy, and supposedly cursed costar Cecil.  Throw in some trained wolves for the movie and wild wolves surrounding the set–a run-down abandoned castle–and a blizzard closing in, and Wolf Storm (Scholastic 2011) has all the ingredients for an action-packed adventure.

Dee Garretson creates a story filled with suspense and danger.  The tension between the young costars soon turns to tension to survive against ever escalating dangers.  A snowstorm turns into a blizzard.  A blizzard turns into an avalanche.  Wild wolves circle closer, hungry.  Now Stefan, Raine, Jeremy, and Cecil have one chance to do whatever it takes to survive.

April 8, 2014
by Mrs. McGriff

The Batboy by Mike Lupica

imageMy middle school sports fans love Mike Lupica, and I enjoy his books, too, even though I’m not a big sports fan myself.  Now that baseball season has rolled around once again, it is the perfect time to introduce The Batboy (Scholastic 2010) to my classroom library.

Brian Dudley loves baseball, especially his home team of the Detroit Tigers.  Even though his dad was a big league pitcher, Brian knows he is lucky to have a spot on his travel team.  Along with his best friend, Kenny, he plans to make the most of this summer of baseball.  But travel ball is not the only ball in Brian’s summer.  He has his dream job–batboy for the Detroit Tigers.  He gets to see every home game from his post right beside the dugout and wear the Big League uniform.  Brian doesn’t care that being batboy involves lots of work both before and after the games as long as he gets his fill of baseball.

Just like Lupica’s other books, there is plenty of baseball action, but there is much more than sports.  Brian’s dad may have been a great pitcher, but he loved baseball more than he loved his family.  Brian is elated when his baseball hero, Hank Bishop, comes back to play for the Tigers.  Unfortunately, Bishop doesn’t act like much of a hero in the locker room.  Brian’s efforts to deal with the disappointment caused by his heroes provides the heart of this story.

April 2, 2014
by Mrs. McGriff

Full Ride by Margaret Peterson Haddix

imageMargaret Peterson Haddix has created a thrill ride full of secrets and deception, danger and intrigue, and suspense and tension.  Full Ride (Simon and Schuster 2013) delivers on every page.

Becca and her mother fled their hometown and comfortable life in Atlanta in order to start over with new identities after Becca’s father was convicted of embezzlement.  They protect the secrets in their past in order to avoid discovery. But now that Becca is a senior in high school, she needs to apply for financial aid in order to go to college.  (One benefit of giving up her social life is that she is now a straight-A student.)  But applying for financial aid might reveal their secrets to the world.

Stubborn Becca applies for a local scholarship anyway because of the potential for it to pay her entire way to college.  As she digs deeper into the past of both her family and her new hometown, she discovers secrets that might endanger her life as well as her privacy.  To what lengths will she go to learn the truth?  Will the truth set her free?

April 2, 2014
by Mrs. McGriff

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

imageI was captivated by Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and have been waiting for the release of the second book, Hollow City (Quirk Books 2014).  Ransom Riggs did not disappoint.  Hollow City picks up just where the first book ends–with the peculiar children rowing the boats across the sea to reach the mainland and escape from the wights who are chasing them.

Once they reach the shore, their troubles have just begun.  Jacob, our hero, is now stuck in 1945 unless they can find an ymbryne who can open a time loop and send him back to the present.  While they search, the other peculiar children look to Jacob to lead them to safety–at least some of them do.  Others, including Jacob himself, aren’t sure he is up to the job and are sure he will never live up to his grandfather’s legendary feats.

Not only does Jacob discover the strength and power of his peculiar talent, but each of the children learns the strength they have.  Each of them is given the chance to be a hero and rescue the rest from near disaster and destruction.

Every page uncovers new secrets and reveals unexpected twists.  New characters from gypsies to peculiar animals help the children on their journey to London.  Along the way, nothing is what it seems to be.  The story races along, full of mystery and suspense.  The pictures that accompany the text are eerie and propel the story brilliantly.  I can’t wait for the next installment.

March 24, 2014
by Mrs. McGriff

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

imageI first met Deza Malone when I read Bud, Not Buddy.  When I learned that Christopher Paul Curtis had written her story, too, I couldn’t wait to read The Mighty Miss Malone (Scholastic 2012).  Not only is it a fun story with memorable characters, but it also opens eyes to the challenges of the Great Depression and echoes the challenges that many children and their families face today.

Deza is smart and determined–the perfect narrator to introduce her family and share their story.  At first it is a story filled with laughter.  Mr. Malone constantly speaks with over-the-top alliteration.  Big Brother Jimmie is always up to something–usually something that leads to trouble.  Mrs. Malone is the heart of the family and the hope that draws them together no matter how far apart they are.

I laughed through much of this book as Curtis brought to life the entertainment of the Great Depression, from the Joe Louis-Max Schmelling boxing bouts to the Negro Leauge baseball games and singing at speak easies.  But It only takes one bit of bad news to throw a family off track–or in this case on the tracks to a hobo camp.  No matter how bad their circumstances, Deza never forgets that she is something special.  Even as she clings to her promise, she learns to let go.

I enjoyed sharing bits and pieces of this story with my students throughout the day last Friday.  I hope I have convinced some of them to give historical fiction a chance.

March 22, 2014
by Mrs. McGriff

A Perfect Morning

imageI’m taking part in the weekly Slice of Life Challenge sponsored by  Two Writing Teachers, where teachers write and share each Tuesday. Join in yourself or head over to check out what’s happening with other slicers. If you’re taking part in the SOL, leave a link to your post. I’d love to read it.

I stretched under the blankets and wiggled my toes.  Soft, gray morning light seeped under the blinds as I opened my eyes.  I heard the first birds chattering just outside my window.  I might be ready to join them in the waking world this first morning in a long time I woke up without an alarm.

I padded down the hall to the kitchen where a fresh pot of coffee waited.  I scooped instant hot chocolate into my mug–one, two, three, four.  I poured the coffee over for the mocha to get me going.   I sipped slowly, watching the world come awake outside the window.  Stark branches stretched across an ever lightening sky.

My eyes glanced over at the book waiting for me to open its cover.  My fingers caressed the cover with its ring of fire above a Chicago skyline from the future.  I turned to the chapter one and soon found myself falling headlong into a brand new world where Chicago had fallen apart and was slowly being rebuilt.  Its people were divided into five factions.  I lived and breathed with Beatrice as she faced the looming decision before her.  Could she deny her nature to remain with her family, or could she forsake her family to join the faction that called to her?  I raced and climbed and fought with her as she dealt with the fallout from her choice and struggled to survive those in power who wanted to kill her.

I barely came up for air until I turned the last page.  Now I get it–the reason all my students and Nerdy Book Club friends are talking about Divergent by Veronica Roth.  Why did I wait so long to read this book?  It has everything I love in a good book:  a seemingly perfect world that hides dark secrets, a kick-butt heroine who doesn’t know her own strength and courage but discovers it when forced to draw on it, even a little romance (but thankfully no love triangles).  The best news of all?  I have the next two books waiting for me to enter their pages as soon as I’m ready.