Mrs. McGriff's Reading Blog

Happy reading!

September 26, 2012
by Mrs. McGriff
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The Crossing by Jim Murphy

Don’t know much ’bout history…At least I thought I knew a little something about history.  Then I started reading books like The Crossing:  How George Washington Saved the American Revolution (Scholastic Press 2010) and realized how much my history textbooks left out.  Don’t worry.  Jim Murphy has come through to fill  you in on all the juicy details.

This side of history views George Washington  as a great military leader, our first president, and the father of our country.  The other side of history was not nearly as sure of Washington’s success.  Washington wasn’t sure he was up for the job either since he had never commanded such a large military force.  The first years of the war didn’t give anyone much reason to hope for victory as Washington and his army was outmaneuvered by the British army again and again.  The Continental Congress was ready to replace Washington with someone else.  In fact, they would have replaced him with General Charles Lee, but he had the misfortune of being captured by the British first.

The famous painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze may not be historically accurate, but it does dramatically portray one of the key turning points of the American Revolution.  Somehow a ragtag army led by an inexperienced commander defeated the mightiest army in the world at that time.  The rest, as they say, is history, and Jim Murphy brings it to life.

September 25, 2012
by Mrs. McGriff
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Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins

I admit that sometimes I gripe and complain when things in life don’t go my way.  Then I read a book like Bamboo People (Charlesbridge 2010) by Mitali Perkins, and I realize how lucky I am.  Set against the backdrop of war in Burma, this powerful story brings together two boys who must make a choice about the kind of men they wish to be.

Chiko is more interested in books than politics, but after his father is arrested, he is desperate to find work to support himself and his mother.  He also wants to impress the girl next door in hopes she might return his affection.  When he goes to apply for a job, he is kidnapped and forced to join the Burmese army.  He becomes friends with a street boy, Tai, and together they try to survive the army long enough to return home.

Tu Reh feeds the anger in his heart against the Burmese soldiers who burned his Karenni village.  He is finally old enough to go out on patrol when his group comes across a group of dead and wounded Burmese soldiers.  Tu Reh is left with the choice of what to do with the wounded Chiko.  Should he kill him, leave him for wild animals, or bring him to the safety of the refugee camp.

Can these two boys from opposite worlds learn to see past their anger and find forgiveness?  Could you?

September 24, 2012
by Mrs. McGriff
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Happenstance Found by PW Cantanese

I put off reading The Books of Umber:  Happenstance Found because I couldn’t get past the cover.  I still think it is a weird cover, but I’m glad I didn’t let it stop me from encountering this magical tale.  PW Cantanese has created a world filled with magic and monsters and mystery.

Happenstance awakens in a dark room in an underground city.  His mind is as dark as the world around him, but as he encounters new things, his brain provides the words for it.  There is just one thing he cannot know or remember:  who is is and where he came from.

He joins a group of adventurers who seem to have come to the underground city just to find him.  Lord Umber leads the group on endless adventures.  The shy Sophie is an archer and becomes a loyal friend.  Oates is bound to tell the truth even when it hurts. Even as Happenstance is eager to learn the mysteries of his past, Lord Umber is hiding secrets of his own.  Neither are from this world, but both may have a chance to save a world from destruction.

But first, Happenstance must escape from the evil Occo, who is chasing him across the sea and who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.   Just what powers (besides seeing in the dark and not needing sleep) does Happenstance have?

I still don’t like the cover (though I get where the images came from), but I definitely want more of the Books of Umber.

August 26, 2012
by Mrs. McGriff
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Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel

I have a line of students who are waiting to read Ghostopolis (Scholastic Graphix 2010).  Many of them have already read and enjoyed Bad Island, the other graphic novel by Doug TenNapel that I have in my classroom library.  They are not going to be disappointed.  I liked Ghostopolis even better.  I frequently chortled out loud while reading this one!

Garth Hale is sick, with doctors offering not much hope.  Even though he is waiting to die, he doesn’t expect to be accidentally zapped to the ghost world by a washed out ghost wrangler named Frank Gallows.  While Frank desperately tries to explain and find a ride into the ghost world to rescue him, Garth discovers that he has special powers in Ghostopolis.  He befriends a skeleton horse he calls Skinny and meets his grandfather, who is a twelve-year-old.  (You see, time and physics don’t work the same way in the afterlife.)  Before long, though, the evil leader of Ghostopolis gets word of Garth’s arrival and starts to hunt him down. In the final confrontation, secrets are revealed–but I’m not telling.

I loved the word play and the pokes at culture and history. How can you not love a ghost named Claire Voyant?  All of Ghostopolis was created by the mysterious Joe, a Tuskegee Airman in life, who built this place for ghosts to live.  It either took him six days or a billion years.  No one really knows since time is all mixed up in the afterlife.  The pictures are saturated with vibrant color.  My favorite, though, are the facial expressions on the characters.

I don’t expect to see this one on the shelf once I put it out.  Now what TenNapel book should I get next?

August 25, 2012
by Mrs. McGriff
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Crunch by Leslie Connor

Crunch by Leslie Connor is one of my favorite kinds  is realistic fiction with just one twist of science fiction?  Most of the story seems realistic.  Only one small part moves beyond where we are right now, but it’s not so much a technological advance as it is a technological disaster!

The characters are realistic and believable.  Five kids are staying home alone while their parents take an anniversary trip.  Lil is the oldest who tries to keep everything together.  She is also an artist who decides to paint a mural on the barn when her art class is canceled.  Angus and Eva, the five year old twins, just miss their mom and dad, but are usually pretty cheerful and friendly.  Vince is much more reclusive, but is a genius at bike repairs.  Dewey is the main character.  He takes on the responsibility of running the bike repair shop in his parents’ absence.  He’s pretty responsible with it, but the sudden demand for bikes and repairs soon has business overflowing.  I like how he tries to keep things running even when it gets tough.

The setting is mostly realistic.  Most of the story takes place on the Mariss farm.  They have a big garden, two chickens, and some goats.  The kids gather eggs and milk the goats every morning.  The bike shop is in the barn next to the house.  It’s a small community where people look out for each other.  Pop and Mattie check on the Mariss family frequently.  Officer Runks also swings by on a regular basis, especially when bike thefts become a growing problem.  The coolest part of the setting is the now car-free interstate highway.  Since no cars can go anywhere, people begin walking and biking down the highway.  They even organize themselves by speed of travel!

It’s the main problem of the story that gives a little science fiction twist.  Just as the parents are headed home, the world runs out of gas.  That has not happened yet, thank goodness, but it could be a possibility.  The lack of gas causes many complications.  Obviously, the kids have the continue taking care of themselves without their parents.  Because cars can’t run without gas, the demand for bikes goes up.  Dewey has more business than he can handle even with Vince’s help in the bike shop.  It’s also hard to get supplies (like bike parts and groceries) since trucks aren’t running.  There are a few electric cars, but no big technological breakthroughs.

I really liked the upbeat tone of this story.  Other books that imagine a world without gas (such as Suzanne Weyn’s Empty) take a much darker view.  In Crunch, most people work together to solve the crisis.  For example, people are orderly on the highway.  Dewey gives a guy named Robert a ride on his tandem.  Robert then comes around to help out in the bike shop.  There are a few bad guys taking advantage of the situation.  Someone is stealing a little bit here and a little bit there from area businesses.  Some people on the highway will beat up drivers to get a gas ration card, but most people are good.  I also liked the word play.  Vince comes up with the word crunch to describe the lack of gas since shortage doesn’t seem strong enough.  Vince also describes Robert as a hitchbiker.

August 22, 2012
by Mrs. McGriff
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Borrowed Names by Jeannine Atkins

Three amazing women were born in the year 1867.  Three extraordinary women grew up to have an impact on the world and their daughters.  Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in log cabins and sod dugouts across the frontier. She told stories of those days to her daughter Rose, and together they wrote those stories in books that are read and loved today.  Sarah Breedlove, the daughter of former slaves, dreamed of a better life for her daughter A’Lelia. She created a beauty empire and took a new name–Madam C.J. Walker.  Marie Curie left home to study science.  She went on to discover radium and was the first person to win two Nobel prizes.  She sent math problems to her daughter Irene, who grew up to become a scientist in her own right as well.

Jeannine Atkins explores the relationships between these mothers and daughters in Borrowed Names (Henry Holt and Company 2010).  The stories are shared through poems that capture moments in the lives of these extraordinary women and their daughters.  Some are moments that you can read about in history books.  Other moments are grounded in household objects and everyday routines.  Read together, these poems offer glimpses into lives shaped by challenges and choices in a changing world.

I thought I knew at least the basic facts of the lives of these three women, but I learned even more reading these poems.  The more I read, the more my respect and admiration for these three women grew.  Even though they lived such very different lives, all three women faced hardship with courage and determination.  Their daughters shared the same courage and determination in continuing the work of their mothers and making it their own.

August 19, 2012
by Mrs. McGriff
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A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

One of the things I love about reading is that a good book can take you to another time and place.  Linda Sue Park transports you to the same place–Sudan–and two different times in her book A Long Walk to Water (Clarion Books 2010).  I can’t wait to share this Young Hoosier book with omy students this year.  I know our librarian read it aloud to her 7th grade social studies class last spring, and they were hanging on the edge of their seats as they listened.

Two narrators tell their story of walking through war-torn Sudan.  Nya, in 2008, spends her days walking through the heat to bring back water to her village.  She makes the trek twice each day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.  There is not time for anything else in her days.  Salva, in 1985, is walking, too.  He is walking away from his destroyed village to find safety from the soldiers that would either kill him or force him to fight.  One step after another, his walking leads him across borders to Ethiopia to Kenya to the United States to back home again.  When their two paths cross, two lives might be changed.

Even more inspiring that the story alone is the fact that it is based on the true story of the life of Salva Dut, who came to the United States as one of the first “Lost Boys” from Sudan.  He went back to Sudan to find a way to help and founded Water for South Sudan to drill wells for villages like Nya’s.  A well that provides clean, safe drinking water can transform the opportunities for an entire village and the surrounding countryside.  I can’t imagine just surviving the things that Salva endured in his childhood.  Salva did not just endure, he triumphed and returned to give back.  After the story, Salva writes a message of hope that he wants to share with young people.   It ends with these powerful words of encouragement:

“I overcame all the difficult situations of my past because of the hope and perseverance that I had.  I would have not made it without these two things.  To young people, I would like to say:  Stay calm when things are hard or not going right with you.  You will get through it when you persevere instead of quitting.  Quitting leads to much less happiness in life than perseverance and hope.”

 

Here is Linda Sue Park and Salva Dut discussing the true story behind the book:

August 17, 2012
by Mrs. McGriff
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Sources of Light by Margaret McMullan

Over the past several years, quite a few books that focus on the 1960′s in the U.S. have come across my path.  I am still trying to wrap my brain around the violence and hatred that percolated–and often erupted–throughout our country during that decade.  Margaret McMullan’s Sources of Light is one story that you will want to add to your TBR pile and let transport you behind the dark shadows that fell across Jackson, Mississippi the summer of 1962.

Sam and her mother must make choices that will change the course of their lives.  Will Sam fall for the wrong sort of boy?  Will the girls ever accept her with her hand-me-down clothes?  Will she ever understand the anger and hatred confronting the lunch-counter sit-ins and voter registration drives?  Then a gift of a camera opens up the world in a new way for Sam.  As she clicks the shutter and develops the pictures, she reveals truths that not every one is ready to see.

August 10, 2012
by Mrs. McGriff
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The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe by Loree Griffin Burns

Let’s be honest.  If I walked by The Hive Detectives:  Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children 2010) in the library, I would probably have kept on walking without giving it a second glance.  Honeybees?  What would I want to know about them?

I am so glad Loree Griffin Burns’ nonfiction title is on this year’s Young Hoosier Books list for middle school.  Because I read all twenty books each year, I picked this one up and read it.  Wow!  I was blown away by how much I didn’t know about honey bees and by how fascinating they are.

Reading The Hive Detectives is like having Loree Burns sit down with you to excitedly share all the cool things she has learned about honey bees.  I’m still trying to wrap my brain around some of what I learned (and I thought I knew something about bees since my dad was a hobbyist beekeeper during much of my childhood).  Do you know how bees make honey?  If you like to eat honey, you may not want to know.  I’d heard about colony collapse disorder, but Burns bought the crisis to life with the stories of beekeepers and scientists working together to identify the cause and find a solution.  I don’t even want to imagine our world without bees.

Just as I enjoyed reading the text, I was amazed by the photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz.  I’ve never see a bee so close up, much less the inside of a beehive with its intricate lace of honeycomb.  I find myself going back through the book just to savor the pictures again.

I may not bee ready to keep a hive of bees in my backyard (they are a lot of work), but I will certainly appreciate the work of bees the next time I enjoy honey or the fruits and vegetables that grow thanks to the hard work of bees.

August 3, 2012
by Mrs. McGriff
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Slob by Ellen Potter

I thoroughly enjoyed Slob by Ellen Potter even though it was not at all what I was expecting.  I didn’t expect to be amazed by Owen’s intelligence and courage in facing up to the bullies in his present and to the secrets in his past.  I wanted to be able to invent gadgets like the booby trap to catch the Oreo thief stealing from his lunch every day.  Owen’s most important invention just might shine truth on the terrible secret from his past.

I didn’t expect to be impressed with Jeremy’s stubbornness and loyalty.  She may be loud and sometimes obnoxious, but she will do anything to stand by her brother.  It took me a minute to figure out why Jeremy was a she, but I soon figured out why she would lead the GWAB (girls who want to be boys).

I didn’t expect to be horrified by Mr. Wooley, the gym teacher who terrorizes Owen in PE class.  He is truly diabolical in the torments he creates.  I cheered when Mason outsmarted him and when Owen finally stood up to him.

I didn’t expect to enjoy the secondary characters so much either:  Mom, who has the voice you want in your ear during a crisis; Nima, the Tibetan neighbor who makes delicious momos and gives wise advice; Mason, the misunderstood juvenile delinquent; and Izzy, the extra-tall best friend.

I think this book trailer is a good way to end.  Enjoy!