Mrs. McGriff's Reading Blog

Happy reading!

April 8, 2014
by Mrs. McGriff
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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.

October 13, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff
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Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

imageThe Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen is one of the most inspiring and heart-wrenching books I’ve read in a while.  There are so many things I love about it.  In addition to winning the Schneider Family Book Award (awarded to three books each year for the artistic expression of the disability experience for children or teens), this book has a a whole list of reasons why you will love it, too.

  1. Jessica is devastated by the accident that causes her to lose a leg.  Since she is no longer a runner, she’s not sure who she is.  Yes, she is strong and determined and inspiring, but she is also whiny and impatient and angry.
  2. Fiona is the best friend everyone should have.  She is bossy and organized and simply will not let Jessica waste away in despair for too long.  Not to mention, she can through an awesome party!
  3. Rosa is a math wiz who rescues Jessica from certain failure in her toughest class.  Not only is she smart at math, but she is also wise and funny.  At first Jessica has a hard time seeing past Rosa’s disabilities from cerebral palsy, but once she does, she wants the rest of the world to see Rosa, too.
  4. Romance is in the air, but not too much.  Jessica has long had a crush on Gavin, the popular, good-looking student body president.  Is he paying attention to her now out of pity, or might there be something more?
  5. A bad guy (or in this case girl) who you can love to cheer against.  This racer from another school is such a sore loser that she blames her loss on Jessica’s presence at at a track meet.  Can you believe the nerve of blaming a lost race on someone who just lost a leg?  It
  6. I love orphan stories (especially those involving magic), but it is refreshing to see parents in YA who are believable.  Mom and Dad love Jessica and want what’s best for her, but they are struggling with her accident as much as she is.  My favorite scene is when Mom comes home and finds Jessica upstairs by herself.
  7. Teachers and coaches who can be tough and fair and even surprise their students every once in a while.
  8. An amazing dog named Sherlock stays loyal to Jessica even when they can’t go on their morning run together any more.  Hey, every good story needs a good dog.
  9. I’m glad to find a book that focuses on a different sport–track.  There are track meets to win and even a 10-mile race to complete.
  10. The structure of the book seems backwards at first, but it fits perfectly.  The story begins at the finish line and works its way backwards through the stages of a track event until it ends at the starting line.  It works.

October 7, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff
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Game Changers by Mike Lupica

imageGame Changers starts a new series by Mike Lupica, one that sports fans will enjoy.  Several of my seventh grade students saw me reading it and have been clamoring to get their hands on it.  I’m glad I can tell them that this story doesn’t end with championship football game and that they can follow Ben and his friends right into basketball season.

I enjoyed this story, but I might have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t seemed quite so comfortable and familiar.  Ben McBain is small for his age, but he has big dreams.  Even though no coach can see past his small size, he knows he is destined to be a great quarterback just like his hero, Doug Flutie (who even gave a blurb on the back of the book).    Ben knows the game of football because he is constantly either watching or playing the game.  He can read the field and go in at any position.  And above all, he is a good teammate, even when being a good teammate means helping the coach’s son improve at being quarterback.

Ben is surrounded by supportive parents and good friends.  Where would he be without Lily, the smart, athletic girl who knows just what to say and when to say it.  Sam and Coop will have his back even when they don’t see eye to eye.  What will happen when Ben finally gets his chance to prove himself at the position he’s always dreamed of?

Football fans will love that the book is packed with action on the field.  They may even be inspired to look up the game-changing plays that Ben watches on You Tube.  Everyone can enjoy that the pages are also packed with friendship and perseverance. I always love it when the underdog wins!

July 9, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff
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The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow

imageI love historical fiction, and one of my favorite time periods to visit is World War II. That may be because there are so many excellent books that recreate those years of danger and courage. I’m adding The Berlin Boxing Club (Scholastic 2011) by Robert Sharenow to my list of favorite tiles to recommend.

Growing up in Berlin under the shadow of the Nazi rise to power, Karl Stern watches as his life spirals out of control. His father’s art gallery is losing business. His mother suffers from more frequent periods of depression. Even though his family has never been religiously observant, the bullies at school mark him as Jewish and lie in wait to beat him up. Eventually, his family loses their home and struggles to find enough to eat.

Two things provide an escape for Karl. He constantly draws cartoons and caricatures in his journal to make sense of his life. Then Max Schmeling, world-champion boxer and German hero, offers to give Karl boxing lessons. The training and boxing lessons transform Karl in both body and soul, but will it be enough for him to protect his family from the growing Nazi violence?

I don’t even like boxing (I’m much more like Greta, who questions why anyone would willingly fight), but I found myself cheering for Karl every time he stepped in to the ring, and even more when he fought Nazi bullies who attacked him. I also loved that Karl’s cartoons were included in the book, from the Winzig and Spatz cartoons he drew for his little sister to the drawings of his boxing opponents that served as notes on their strengths and weaknesses.

Very few of the characters in this book are simple and one-sided. Instead, we see different facets of the characters revealed in different situations, none more so that Karl’s father. As Karl learns more about his father’s past, he learns to appreciate the choices his father has made. Karl also comes to question his hero Max Schmeling, who both has Jewish friends and hobnobs with the Nazi elite.

Berlin under the rise of Nazism was not an easy place to grow up, but Karl Stern does so with courage and strength.

June 23, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff
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Million Dollar Throw by Mike Lupica

Even though Nate Brodie loves football (and like many of Lupica’s character, he is that one-in-a-million player who both loves and knows the game), Million Dollar Throw is different from Mike Lupica’s other books.   Nate has won a once-in-lifetime opportunity to throw a football through a target during halftime of a Patriot’s game.  If he makes it, he will win a million dollars.  The pressure of making that throw is not all that weighs on Nate.  His dad lost his job and now his parents are juggling three and four part time jobs to make ends meet.  If something doesn’t change, they will lose their house.  Even worse, his best friend Abby is losing her sight to a rare eye disease.  Nate would give anything to help his friend see again well enough to paint her pictures.

The ever increasing real-world problems give this book a more somber mood than other Lupica books, but it also has many of the trademarks that my students enjoy from Lupica’s books.  Obviously, Nate is the ultimate kid athlete.  Abby is is best friend, who is both encouraging, pretty (with just a hint of a possible romantic interest) and witty.  Abby definitely has the best lines.  Nate faces obstacles both on and off the field, but he always gets up when he’s knocked down on his way to achieving greatness.

February 13, 2013
by Mrs. McGriff
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Nothing Special by Geoff Herbach

I have lots of readers (myself included) who loved Geoff Herbach’s debut novel Stupid Fast.  They will be glad to know that I have finally read the next installment, Nothing Special (Sourcebooks Fire 2012), and will share it in my classroom as soon as my daughter finishes reading it.

Felton Reinstein is back, and he’s still fast and insecure.  Knowing that college recruiters and coaches are watching him run track or play football gets him off his game, and so do mysterious emails from Detective Randy Stone.  While trying to survive day-to-day without the presence of Aleah (who wanted to take a break while she plays piano in Germany), Felton comes to the realization (thrown in his face by his former best friend) that he is a narcissist.  Is there any hope for a cure?

I liked the more complex structure of this text that shows the different journeys Felton takes to arrive at a new place in his life.  The entire novel is written as a letter to Aleah.  He describes his current journey to Florida that includes missed flights, unplanned layovers, and finally multiple transfers on a Greyhound bus.  He also reflects back on his first journey to Florida the summer before where he thought he was searching for his missing little brother.  Instead, as these two journeys weave together, Felton might just discover himself.

Just as in Stupid Fast, Felton’s voice funny, insecure, engaging, and absolutely honest.  I can’t wait to hear what you think about it.  And for the true Felton Reinstein fans, there’s a third book coming soon.  Look for I’m with Stupid to hear more of Felton’s story.

September 21, 2012
by Mrs. McGriff
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Rush for the Gold

I think I have read my favorite John Feinstein book yet.  Rush for the Gold: Mystery at the Olympics uncovers yet another sporting scandal.  This time Stevie is on his own (well, Tamara and Bobby from the Washington Post and Herald are with him) to figure out what the sleaze bags are up to this time.  This time, Susan Carol is the athlete, competing at the Olympics in the 100 and 200 butterfly.

Susan Carol swam out of nowhere to become the “It-girl” of the London Olympics.  Her father has signed contracts with agents who promise millions–if Susan Carol can make the Olympic team and win a gold medal.  Now her life is spinning out of control in a swarm of media and sponsors.  Will she be able just to swim and hang out with Stevie?  Will Stevie uncover the scandal before it’s too late?

I found myself out of breath reading all the way through this one.  The swimming races were exciting and down to the wire.  The agents and various others were complete sleazeballs.  And as always, I enjoyed seeing behind the scenes of one of the biggest sporting events of all.  It will probably be the closest I ever get to an Olympic game.  I have a few more past mysteries to catch up on, and I am looking forward to Stevie and Susan Carol’s next adventure.

May 31, 2012
by Mrs. McGriff
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Tangerine by Edward Bloor

I am always looking for more sports books to connect with my students who are athletes.  I’ve found lots of books around basketball, baseball, and football, but not so many for soccer.  Tangerine (Scholastic 1997) by Edward Bloor will be one of those books that I put into the hands of my soccer players and many other readers.  Paul Fisher lives to play soccer, but Tangerine is about so much more:  disturbing family dynamics and  willfully blind adults.

Paul Fisher may be the only character wearing thick glasses, but he is the only member of his family to see things clearly in this new place they’ve moved.  On the surface, the town of Tangerine is filled with gleaming subdivisions and is bursting with opportunities.  As Paul struggles to fit into another new place, he discovers some very strange things going on.  Thunderstorms fill every afternoon, but not even a lightning strike that kills a student will cancel sports practices.  A muck fire constantly burns underground while mosquitoes fill the air above.  In between, termites are eating away at those new houses.  Inside his new house, Paul is terrorized by his older brother Erik, the football hero.  His parents are blind to the torment dished out by Erik and can only focus on the Erik Fisher Football Dream.

Paul tries not to let it get to him until he’s kicked off the middle school soccer team because of his disability.  (Did he really damage his eyes by staring at a solar eclipse?)  Then a sinkhole swallows most of Paul’s middle school.  The chaos afterwards opens up a new opportunity for soccer at a different school, Tangerine Middle School.  The students there are much rougher, but Paul earns the respect of the War Eagles on and off the field.   With their friendship, he gains the courage to see the truth about his community and to confront the dark secrets in his family’s past.  Ultimately, he decide if he has the courage to speak the truth to people who don’t want to hear it.

May 5, 2012
by Mrs. McGriff
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Boost by Kathy Mackel

Savvy lives for basketball.  She’s entering the eighth grade, is six foot two (and still growing), and can nail her three point shot anytime, anywhere.  She’s had to move across the country from New Mexico to Rhode Island, and basketball gets her through it.  With her new friend Gonzo she tries out for–and makes–the elite 18U basketball team, the Fire.  As her new coach tells her, she has the raw potential and talent, but it needs development.  The older girls push her around on the court, and Savvy finds herself sitting on the bench for the first time.

Meanwhile, there are problems at home.  Savvy’s older sister Callie makes the varsity cheerleading squad just to find that she’s grown too heavy to be a flier.  She also snags a boyfriend–the football player Savvy has a crush on.  Mom and Dad are stressed about work and finances.  Aunt Betty, who took in the family, ends up in the hospital and comes home frail and too weak to care for her sheep.  Savvy finds unexpected peace in caring for the sheep under Aunt Betty’s guidance.  As an added bonus, lifting all those hay bales builds the strength she needs on the court.

The ultimate crisis finally erupts when pills are found in Savvy’s gym bag during a tournament.  Savvy swears that the pills–steroids–are not hers, but no one entirely believes her.  Savvy is suspended from the team.  Has all her hard work been for nothing?  Will she loose the one thing that keeps her going?  Or will she lose something even more important?

Once I started this book, I couldn’t put it down.  I like Savvy.  She chaffed under Coach Fitz’s criticism and constant drills, but she did them and grew as a player.  Even when life through the worst at her, she struggled to keep going.  She can be cocky (after all, she is a good basketball player) and she loses her temper.  She gets respect on the court, but has to put up with jerks at school.  She is also willing to own up to her mistakes and learn from them.  She doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind, even when people may not want to hear her. 

I can’t wait to put Boost (Penguin Speak 2008) by Kathy Mackel in the hands of my students.  Savvy is a strong, talented athlete anyone can look up to.