Mrs. McGriff's Reading Blog

Happy reading!

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 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.

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.

February 20, 2014
by Mrs. McGriff

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman

imageI want a job at the New York Circulating Material Repository.  It’s like a library, but it lends out objects of all kinds–teacups and spoons, paintings and sculptures, clothes and wigs (even one of Marie Antoinettes’s  wigs).  Deep in its basement is a secret collection–the Grimm Collection–where there are shelves and cabinets filled with magical objects straight out the tales from the Brother’s Grimm.

Elizabeth is thrilled when her history teacher recommends her for a job at the Repository, and she can hardly believe it when she learns that magic is real.  As is usually the case with magic, things start to go wrong.  Some of the items from the Grimm Collection are disappearing or losing their magic.  Someone on the inside must be helping the thief, but who can it be?  Who can Elizabeth trust?  Surely she can count on her new friends Anjali, Marc, and even Aaron.  All of them are hiding secrets, and soon their paths lead them to adventure and danger and even romance–but not too much.

I loved this modern take on fairy tale fantasy.  What could be more magical than a room full of charmed objects?  Well, I would not want the magic mirror (from Snow White’s stepmother) hanging in my bedroom, though I did laugh at the evil images it showed.  It may not be able to lie, but that doesn’t mean it has to tell the whole truth.  There are fairy tale tropes–an act of kindness to a homeless woman leads to Elizabeth getting the job, and the act of kindness is repaid in a magical way in her time of need.  There are evil witches (want anyone turned into a doll? )  and annoying little sisters.  There’s even a stepmother and stepsister who, while not evil, make life difficult for Elizabeth.

You never know what you might find lurking in the stacks or flitting between the pages of The Grimm Legacy (Scholastic 2010) by Polly Shulman.

January 25, 2014
by Mrs. McGriff

Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson

imageFeathers (Puffin Books 2007) is a quiet book packed with the power of hope.  You know hope–the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.  Jacqueline Woodson weaves this snippet of poetry from Emily Dickinson throughout Frannie’s story, and in reading it, I find that hope is weaving its way into my thinking, too.

Frannie has much to hope for–or worry about–that snowy winter in the 1970s when she is eleven.  Mean girls make fun of her older brother Sean because he is deaf.  Her mother is pregnant, and everyone worries she might lose this baby, too.  At school, a new boy–a white boy–moves into her class and challenges all of them to reconsider who belongs. She doesn’t hold go much to church, but her best friend Samantha sees Jesus in the new boy.

Through it all, Frannie thinks and thinks and thinks.  Woodson’s lyrical prose doesn’t provide all the answers for faith and family and friendship life and death and racism, but her words do sing with hope.

January 17, 2014
by Mrs. McGriff

Risked by Margaret Peterson Haddix

imageJonah and Katherine hope to have a little time to spend in the twentieth century before going on another time adventure, but the past catches up with them when Daniella (Anastasia Romanov in 1918) shows up on their doorstep with their friend Chip.  Before they know it, Gavin (formerly Alexei Romanov) has whisked them back to Russia on July 16, 1918, where time is running out for the Romanov family.  How can Jonah and Katherine save their friends without a fully working Elucidator and without any contact with time agents.  Is there any hope at all when modern day scientists have discovered the remains of the entire family, including the bones of Alexei and Anastasia?

Just like the first five books in the series, Risked by Margaret Peterson Haddix is packed with nonstop action and history.  Just when Jonah and Katherine come up with one solution, ten more problems pop up, including bad guys Gary and Hodge, who have escaped from time prison and are determined to make their money from selling the missing children from history.  As the series progresses (and as the characters grow through their experiences), Haddix explores more of the philosophical issues of time travel and fate and destiny and God.

Of course, we still don’t learn who Jonah was in history, but we do know who he is through his time adventures.  We still have a lot of missing children to account for and to save from history.

January 6, 2014
by Mrs. McGriff

Graphic Novel Roundup

My students love graphic novels, and my one small shelf cannot keep up with the demand. I’m excited to have several more to introduce after Christmas break.  One of the things I am enjoying as I explore more graphic novels is the great variety of stories that are told through this format.

Pandemonium (Scholastic graphix 2012) by Chris Wooding and Cassandra Diaz

imageThe world of Pandemonium is dark and full of secrets.  Seifer Tombchewer is a hero in his small mountain village for playing skullball, but he longs to see what lies beyond.  One day he gets his wish, but it is not at all what he expected.  He has been kidnapped because he looks just like Prince Talon.  Now he is to take the prince’s place in order to fool the kingdom until the real prince can be found again.  He knows nothing of royalty, but begins to make a better prince than the one who disappeared.  I enjoyed this dark and fantastical twist on a tale of mistaken identity, but there are many more questions to be answered.  Where is the missing prince?  How did the royal advisors know of Seifer’s existence in a village that has forgotten the wider world?  Just what other secrets lie in Seifer’s past that even he doesn’t know?  Not only is this gem a dark fantasy, it rocks with British humor!

Resistance:  Book 1 by Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis (First Second 2010)

imageTravel through history to when World War II raged across the globe and land in France, where part of the citizens support the occupying Germans, and where many of them fight against the occupation.  It is hard for Paul and his sisters to know who they can trust, but when their friend Henri’s parents are rounded up by the Nazis for being Jewish, they must decide which side they will take.  Their first action is to hide their friend Henri, but soon they find themselves delivering messages for the Resistance as well trying to reunite Henri with his parents.  I can’t imagine living in an occupied country and having to make the decisions faced by people such as Paul and his family.  I hope I never have to learn.

Baltimore: The Plague Ships (Dark Horse Books 2010) by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden, Ben Stenbeck

imageHorror is not my favorite genre.  (The blood and gore and general scariness give me nightmares), but I see students who are horror fans devouring this graphic novel.  Lord Baltimre is fighting the vampires, but he is cursed and downright creepy himself.  The vampires definitely do not sparkle.  They and the other creatures of the plague are dark and deadly and horrifically ugly as they creep out of shadows and sunken wrecks.  Throw in a superstitious witch and her beautiful but stubborn granddaughter, and the sense of foreboding grows.  The dark illustrations with lots of black and red enhance the feeling of fear throughout the story.  It is not for the faint of heart.  Who is going to stay up with me and my nightmares tonight?

December 30, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

imageAs soon as I finished reading Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, I put it in the hands of my fifteen-year-old daughter and told her, “Read this.  You will love it.”

She started reading in the car on our trip to North Carolina and kept reading as we settled into Grandma’s house.  Every once in a while I would ask her what she thought of Eleanor or Park, but she just shushed me and kept on reading.  When she turned the last page and closed the book, she looked at me and said, “That was the best book I’ve ever read until the end.  How could you give me this book knowing it ended like that?”

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that ending.  I won’t tell you what it is.  You will have to read the book to see how terrible, how infuriating, how perfect it is.  The journey through the pages will be a heart-breaking delight as you get to know Eleanor and Park for yourself.

I love Eleanor–her weirdness, that wild, red hair, her determination to survive no matter what her evil stepfather or the kids at school do to her.  I came to love Park–his vulnerability and insecurity, that roundhouse kick to Steve’s face, his determination to stick by Eleanor no matter what anyone else thought or no matter how hard she pushed him away.

Eleanor and Park is a love story that steals inside your heart while you aren’t even looking–kind of like love sneaks up on Eleanor and Park themselves.  Bus rides of shared comics and shared music bring these two misfits together in a world that seems just as determined to tear them apart.

December 20, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

imageI had high expectations before I started reading Code Name Verity (Hyperion 2012) by Elizabeth Wein.  I had read so many reviews that raved over the story of two female spies shot down over occupied France.  One is captured by the Gestapo and forced to choose between suffering a grisly death or revealing all she knows.  I was not disappointed.  I was captivated by the complex characters, twisting plot, and shifting relationships.  Weeks after finishing it, I am still drawn to the themes of heroism and friendship explored through this heart-pounding adventure.

This is also one of the more complex books I have read in a while.  In fact, I had to restart it three times before I could finish.  I started reading at school where I could only read 5 – 10 minutes at a time.  I often went days before I could find a few minutes to pick it up to read a few more pages.  After starting twice this way, I realized I would need to wait to start again and read it when I could dedicate longer chunks of undisturbed reading to it.  It was well worth the effort, but it made me think of what my students face when they are reading a challenging text.  What made this text challenging?  What did I do as a reader to meet those challenges?

  • First of all, Verity is completely unreliable as a narrator.  From the first page, I didn’t know whether or not to believe her.  I wasn’t even sure if she knew whether or not she was telling the truth after being tortured by the Gestapo.  I reread the beginning multiple times, looking for clues that I could use to verify what she said.  Eventually I had to trust that I didn’t know and keep reading until the end when I learned just how brilliant Verity is.
  • Shifting points of view:  Verity is writing her confession for the Gestapo.  She writes in first person, at least while talking about her present circumstances.  She recounts the story of Maddie, her pilot, in third person.  She even describes herself with Maddie in the third person.  I must thank the Gestapo officer von Linden for pointing out to me that Queenie was the one and the same as the captured Verity.  After that I had to pay attention to pronouns and names and remind myself who Queenie was.   It was sometimes hard to reconcile the image of the confident Queenie with the broken Verity.
  • Time is also fluid in Verity’s confession.  She moves quickly from whining about the deplorable conditions of the Gestapo prison to dredging up memories from her past. Sometimes those memories are even related to the list of military subjects provided by von Linden.  Paying close attention helped me make the leaps between past and present.  Who was she referring to or writing about?
  • It would have helped, too, if I had read the quote from the Secret Operations Manual before starting the story:  ”Passive resisters must understand that they are as important as saboteurs.”  That quote explains a lot.

Not many of my middle schoolers are ready to tackle Code Name Verity, but for those who are willing to take on a challenge, this brilliant book will be worth the effort.

December 11, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff

Which book will survive?

Today is our rescheduled meeting for Survivor Book Club.  If you couldn’t make it, check out the books we presented.  Which book will you read?  Which book will be your favorite?

Hidden by Helen Frost

Two girls are brought together by a carjacking turned kidnapping.  Years later their paths cross again at summer camp.  The alternating voices in this novel in verse will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Emerald Atlas by John Stevens

Three children are taken from their parents and hidden in orphanage after orphanage.  At their last stop, they discover a magical atlas and a dangerous prophecy that says they must save the world from the power of an evil witch and her friends.  The only bad news—this is the first of three books.

City of Orphans by Avi

The streets of New York City in 189 are a tough place to be if you’re a kid like newsie Maks or orphan Willa.  Can they avoid the Plug Ugly gang and free Maks’ sister from jail with the help of only a washed up detective?

Amelia Lost:  The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming

I thought I knew a lot about my favorite flyer, but I learned much about her life and the search for her after her plane disappeared.  I loved the photographs!