Mrs. McGriff's Reading Blog

Happy reading!

July 22, 2011
by Mrs. McGriff
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The Year of the Bomb by Ronald Kidd

year of the bombThe Year of the Bomb (Simon and Schuster 2009) by Ronald Kidd combines horror movies, conspiracy theories, and quantum physics in this historical fiction novel set in Sierra Madra, California, during the spring of  1955. 

Friends Paul, Oz, Arnie and Crank enjoy nothing more than scaring themselves silly at the Saturday movie matinee.  They’ve seen them all–The Thing, The Day the Earth Stood Still, It Came from Outer Space, Invaders from Mars.  They can’t believe their luck when they learn that the movies are coming to town.  An entire film crew will invade their town to film Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  While hanging around the movie set, the boys strike up a friendship with two extras, Laura and Darryl.  But Laura and Darryl may not be who they claim, and soon the boys are involved in unraveling a Communist spy plot.

Now the fear is not just in the movies.  It pervades real life through bomb drills at school and dark accusations of Communism.  Are Paul, Oz, Arnie and Crank in over their heads?  Who can they trust when anyone could be a spy?

I’m not a horror movie fan, but I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at movie making and history provided in this story.  I also enjoyed the boys at the center of the story.  Paul holds the group–and the story–together.  The movies and his friends are his escape from the predictable, black-and-white-world at home.  Oz provides movie-making knowledge from his sound director father.  His family also shows the devastating consequences people faced when accused–fairly or not–of being Communist.  Arnie would much rather face his fears on the screen rather than in real life.  Crank is sometimes blinded by his need for the world to be neatly divided into good guys and bad guys. 

The Year of the Bomb opens a window on a different time period that shares at least one characteristic with our own:  the fear that pervades society, whether from terrorists or communists.  The stories of both reflect that fear.  So, what are your favorite scary stories?

July 21, 2011
by Mrs. McGriff
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Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix

foundMargaret Peterson Haddix has created another page-turning mystery that stretches current science just beyond where we are now into the realm of believable science fiction. Found is the first book in The Missing series.

At first Jonah thinks the letters are a middle school prank. Inside an envelope with no return address is a single sheet of paper with this message: You are one of the missing. The second letter says, Beware! They are coming back to get you. Then his new neighbor Chip gets identical letters. The only conection linking the two boys is the fact both are adopted (a surprise to Chip, but not Jonah). With the help of Jonah’s younger sister Katherine, the clues and questions pile up until Jonah can no longer ignore them. Why is FBI agent James Reardon assigned to their case? Who is the “janitor boy” who appears and disappears? Just what did Angela DuPres see the night a train full of thirty-six babies pulled up to the Sky Train gate with no warning? The answers are surprising.

The only thing I didn’t like was the ending. It left too many questions unanswered. At least I have the next two books in the series waiting in my TBR pile.

July 21, 2011
by Mrs. McGriff
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The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

mysterious benedict societyIn the tradition of Roald Dahl, and Lemony Snickett Trenton Lee Stewart has crafted an intriguing mystery where only exceptional children are smart enough to outwit the villain. I enjoyed matching my wits right along with these incredible children as they responded to a mysterious advertisement and completed a bizarre set of tests. Only four passed, but what a group of four children they are who found The Mysterious Benedict Society (Little, Brown and Company 2007).

Reynie Muldoon is an orphan who is always curious and questioning. He is by far the most exceptional student his tutor, Miss Perumal, has ever met. Kate Wetherall, who ran away from the orphanage to join the circus, can perform incredible physical feats and approaches any challenge with optimism and a unique perspective. George “Sticky” Washington instantly memorizes and remembers anything and everything he’s ever read, but he’s not sure he’s up to being brave. Finally, tiny Miss Constance Contraire is, well, quite contrary. No one is sure just what her contribution will be, but they wait and see.

The four join the mysterious Mr. Benedict, the energetic Number 2, hopeful Rhonda Kazembe, and the gloomy Mr. Milligan to defeat the evil Dr. Curtain. Will these four children be able to infiltrate L.I.V.E. (The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened) on Nomansan Island and discover its true purpose before it’s too late?

July 20, 2011
by Mrs. McGriff
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Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 by Charles C. Mann

before columbusIt turns out almost everything I learned about early US History was wrong. Squanto–actually Tisquantum–was not just a friendly Indian who helped the Pilgrims plant corn and survive the winter. The “New World” was not a vast untamed wilderness, either. The civilizations that filled North and South America were much larger, far older, and more complex than historians realized.

Maybe history doesn’t change, but our understanding of it sure does. Charles C. Mann journeys through those places long ago and far away to reveal a clearer picture of what life may have been like in Before Columbus: The Americans of 1491 (Scholastic 2009). Historians and archaeologists hotly debate which version of history is accurate, and this book raises those interesting questions.

If more nonfiction was written in such an engaging manner as this is, I’d definitely become a fan. In fact, I’ve already read excerpts of 1491 (the grown up version) on Mann’s website and want more. This YA version is packed with pictures and photos as well as astounding facts and stories. Sidebars raise–and offer possible answers–to intriguing questions such as Too Many Mummies? or Why No Wheels?

Mann starts with one of the best-known stories our our country’s beginnings–the Pilgrims–and explains why the simple school version is not nearly enough. The real deal is much more interesting as well, whether Mann is exploring the history of the Pilgrims or the Maya or Inca or other ancient civilizations. This book goes well with one of last year’s Young Hoosier nominees: Who Was First: Discovering the Americas by Russell Freedman.

July 20, 2011
by Mrs. McGriff
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Notes from the Dog by Gary Paulsen

notes from the dogAre you looking for a book that’s short, funny and by an immensely popular author? Gary Paulsen delivers all that and more in Notes from the Dog (Wendy Lamb Books 2009). I was expecting a fun read when I opened this book, but what I got was so much more.

Finn just wants to spend the summer alone, with no one to talk to but his dad, best friend Matthew, and his dog Dylan. That plan gets thrown out the window–or is it garden–when Johanna moves in next door. She hires Finn to create a garden for her, and before he knows it, Finn is doing things he never dreamed of including talking to total strangers and going on a date with the girl of his dreams.

Gardening may not be Finn’s true talent. Misadventures with dirt provide lots of laughs. My favorite is when Finn accidentally makes the yard full of reconstituted cow poop. Through it all, though, someone sees something in Finn that he can’t see for himself. The dog–Dylan–tells him so.

I found plenty of laughs as I read. I also found much more to think about as Finn as his dad discovere that they are no longer just a “family of men.”

July 19, 2011
by Mrs. McGriff
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Runaway Twin by Peg Kehret

runaway twinI love how Peg Kehret can take an ordinary situation and create a suspenseful story that I can’t put down in Runaway Twin.

Sunny Skyland has dreamed of finding her twin sister, Starr, ever since they were seperated at age three. When Sunny finds a bag stuffed with $820, she now has the means to find her long-lost sister. She has a picture of the two of them with an address written on the back for her only clue.

Along her journey, Sunny encounters bullies, learns to trust in the kindess of strangers, picks up a stray dog, and survives a deadly tornado. But it is not until she finds Starr that the real challenges begin. Ultimately, Sunny must reconcile her fantasy with her reality and make a choice about her future.

Peg Kehret’s books have been immensely popular with past students. Runaway Twill will fit right in.

July 19, 2011
by Mrs. McGriff
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Scat by Carl Hiaasen

scatCarl Hiaasen is true to form in his latest book for YA readers. Scat provides an intriguing mystery, oddball characters, wacky humor, and the ever-present concern for the Florida Everglades.

Friends Nick and Marta are terrified of their tough biology teacher, Mrs. Starch. What kind of teacher assigns a 500-word essay on zits as punishment and insists that it be funny? (Maybe I should take notes on her style?) At first they are relieved when she doesn’t return from the field trip to the Black Vine Swamp, but their relief turns to worry when the clues don’t add up. Besides, they are not sure how many more days they can take of Dr. Wendell Waxmo, their substitute teacher who dresses as a clown and teaches the same page each day of the week regardless of subject.

Meanwhile, classmate Duane Scrod (the one assigned the zit essay) keeps showing up with the mysterious Twilly in Mrs. Starch’s car. Throw in a hapless millionaire and a greedy oil man for bad guys and an abandoned panther kit who needs to be reunited with its mother and you have a gut-busting adventure waiting for you in the swampy Everglades.

July 18, 2011
by Mrs. McGriff
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The Beef Princess of Practical County by Michelle Houts

beef princessJust in time for county fair season (okay, just past our county fair), I read The Beef Princess of Practical County (Scholastic 2010) by Michelle Houts. If the county fair is the highlight of your summer–whether you complete 4-H posters, show animals, compete in the fair pageant, or just take it all in, you will enjoy Libby’s story.

This is Libby’s first time to show steers at the Practical County Fair in Nowhere, IN, and she is determined that she can live up to the Ryan family name and follow in her older brother’s footsteps. She picks out two promising calves and works to get them show-ready. She is less thrilled with her mother’s insistence that she also compete in the Beef Princess pageant. As the fair draws closer, the reality of the pageant and livestock auction loom ever larger, giving rise to conflicting emotions that Libby struggles with.

I found Libby to be a likeable and believable character. She may not always think through her decisions–like declaring herself a vegetarian at a family cookout–but her heart is in the right place. She soaks in her experiences and conversations to figure out her own place in the Ryan family tradition. I love the fact that her family is supportive even when her choices are surprising.

Other characters provide much humor as well. Little sister Frannie has two imaginary grandchildren named Eugene and Esmerelda Emily. Best friend Carol Ann doesn’t hesitate to tell it like it is. The Darling sisters–Precious, Lil, and Ohma–don’t miss an opportunity to antagonize Libby.

Open the pages to join Libby and the rest of Practical County for the biggest event of the year. Since our fair is already past for this summer, I’ll have to wait for the scoop of homemade ice cream, my favorite part of the fair. What is your favorite part of the fair?

February 13, 2010
by Mrs. McGriff
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Review of All the Broken Pieces

Once again poetry transforms something ugly and painful (war’s devastation on children) into something beautiful (hope).  Matt Pin is haunted by his past from war torn Veitnam and his present filled with prejudice and doubt.  Can baseball, a dying coach, and a paralyzed vet bring him hope for the future?  His story is told in lyrical poetry.