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Inkling by Kenneth Oppel - a book review

Publisher's Synopsis: "From the acclaimed author of The Nest, The Boundless, and Airborn comes a brilliantly funny, breakout book about a boy who discovers an ink blot that’s come to life! Perfect for those who love Hoot and Frindle and sure to be a hit with kids everywhere!
       The Rylance family is stuck. Dad’s got writer’s block. Ethan promised to illustrate a group project at school–even though he can’t draw. Sarah’s still pining for a puppy. And they all miss Mom. So much more than they can say.
       Enter Inkling. Inkling begins life in Mr. Rylance’s sketchbook. But one night the ink of his drawings runs together–and then leaps off the page! This small burst of creativity is about to change everything.
       Ethan finds him first. Inkling has absorbed a couple chapters of his math book–not good–and the story he’s supposed to be illustrating for school–also not good. But Inkling’s also started drawing the pictures to go with the story–which is amazing! It’s just the help Ethan was looking for! Inkling helps the rest of the family too–for Sarah he’s a puppy. And for Dad he’s a spark of ideas for a new graphic novel. It’s exactly what they all want.
       It’s not until Inkling goes missing that this family has to face the larger questions of what they–and Inkling–truly need.
       Kenneth Oppel has given us a small masterpiece of middle-grade fiction. Inkling is funny and fizzy and exciting, and brimming with the kind of interesting ideas and dilemmas that kids will love to wrestle with. And Sydney Smith is creating wonderfully inky illustrations to bring the story to vivid life. Get ready. A little ink blot is about to become your new favorite character!"

My Two Cents: Inkling is a master class in personification. Taking an ink blot and not only giving it character, but DEVELOPING that character into a full-blown bildungsroman is brilliant.  Inkling devours ink as sustenance and his pal (and the protagonist) Ethan feeds him some great literature choices. Watching Inkling grow and develop on ink from the BFG, Moby Dick, Anne of Greene Gables (and others) speaks volumes about the ways in which literature has the power to shape who we are. I can not decide if I liked Inkling's BFG or Captain Ahab influenced speech better! AND... there is that double entendre name! This book is metafiction perfection for literary-inclined readers.

The Sinking of Captain Otter by Troy Wilson and Maira Chiodi - mini book review

Publisher's Synopsis: "Kelpy is an otter―and also a passionate sea captain. He builds himself a ship that he adores, from keel to cabin to crow’s nest. All the other otters and pirates and sharks just laugh at Kelpy’s ramshackle craft, but Kelpy sails on. Until one day on the high seas, he encounters a sailor even more laughable than himself―a petite butterfly pirate in a teeny-tiny boat. Kelpy’s laughter shifts to empathy when he realizes how much he has hurt the tiny pirate’s feelings. So Kelpy decides to scuttle his beloved boat in a playful ploy to repair the emotional damage he’s done. Along the way, an unlikely friendship (and rivalry) begins. Packed with rhyme, repetition, and lots of humor, this is a read-aloud with a heartwarming message about following your dreams even in the face of ridicule and doubt, and how even an underdog can lift someone up."

My Quick Two Cents:  It's a little harder for me to "review" all picture books. First, I'm solidly a middle grades gal myself, having spent the bulk of my teaching career between 3rd - 8th grade. Secondly, I could go all 'reading specialist' on a review and try to come up with phonics and foundational reading activities - even if I had to think a bit harder on them. So, it's sometimes easier just to talk about if I like a book (or not) and if I think kids will like it and, consequentially, if teachers and parents should buy it.

Book Bit: Sleep, Sheep! - a bedtime story for the reluctant sleeper

Publisher's Synopsis: "There are lots of things Duncan likes about bedtime --- the stories, the pajamas, the bubblegum-flavored toothpaste ... The only thing he doesn't like is going to sleep. And he'll do anything he can to avoid it. Until one day, Duncan's mom has had enough of his stalling. ?Try counting sheep,? she tells him. So, he does. At first, it's kind of fun. As he counts, each sheep appears, wearing its number like a race car, and leaps over the bed. But then comes Sheep #68, who hesitates. He needs a drink of water before he can jump. Then he has to go to the bathroom. Then he wants to put on running shoes. Will Sheep #68 ever do what he's supposed to?

 Kerry Lyn Sparrow's hilarious picture book story offers a new take on a universal experience. Using delaying tactics to avoid going to sleep at bedtime is a common routine for young children, and they'll love the sly humor when Duncan's own tricks get turned on him by the (?sheepish?) sheep. In subtle colors with lots of telling details, Guillaume Perreault's illustrations bring Duncan's bedtime rituals and his unexpected sheep guests humorously to life. This book makes a fantastic, funny read-aloud, appealing to both children and adults."

My Two Cents: Sleep, Sheep! is mostly a bedtime book for small pre-school age children, but I wanted to give it a spot on here because it may not get a lot of buzz in the US (Canadian folks involved) and it has some strong merit in the bedtime story department. There's lots of humor complimented by very interesting and elaborated illustrations. I like the idea that the "mom knows best and is always there for you" as that is clearly part of my own favorite picture book (Reading Rumpus didn't get named accidentally!).

Louisiana's Way Home by Kate DiCamillo - a great middle grade read

Publisher's Synopsis: When Louisiana Elefante’s granny wakes her up in the middle of the night to tell her that the day of reckoning has arrived and they have to leave home immediately, Louisiana isn’t overly worried. After all, Granny has many middle-of-the-night ideas. But this time, things are different. This time, Granny intends for them never to return. Separated from her best friends, Raymie and Beverly, Louisiana struggles to oppose the winds of fate (and Granny) and find a way home. But as Louisiana’s life becomes entwined with the lives of the people of a small Georgia town — including a surly motel owner, a walrus-like minister, and a mysterious boy with a crow on his shoulder — she starts to worry that she is destined only for good-byes. (Which could be due to the curse on Louisiana’s and Granny’s heads. But that is a story for another time.)

My Two Cents: I typically shy away from writing about books that I know will get a lot of “buzz.” Mostly because I am a late-to-the-party girl and by the time I set out to write a review, all sorts of accolades from folks way more influential than I have already been given. But, Kate DiCamillo is one of my very favorite, like top five - count on one hand, children’s writers and I don’t think I have ever written a word about any of her books! Her fabulous collection of meaningful and powerful works of art have their very own special shelf in my home, but nary a word on this little blog. That ends today with Louisiana's Way Home! I will still reserve my favorite Kate DiCamillo spot for the fantastical The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread, but Louisiana's Way Home has all the makings of another Newbery-worthy addition to the Dicamillo canon. Just like most of her stories, it's filled with: Hope, Forgiveness, Trust, and Tenacity. Not surprisingly, since I read it as an eBook, I’ll be rushing out to my local bookstore in order to add the book to my DiCamillo shelf.

Banned Books Week: How Harry Potter Brought the Devil into My Classroom

Anyone who has read this blog, even a little, knows my adoration for the Harry Potter books. But LOTS of people adore those books (duh). My Harry Potter story is a bit different. Although I adore the books as a reader, my true adoration lies within the joy they brought to my students back in 1999, 2000 and 2001. My adoration began before the MANIA, before nary a toy or movie, before Harry Potter hysteria took over.

My story is that of a sixth grade reading and language arts teacher whose PTSA offered to buy her classroom sets of books. Ever frugal, it just so happened that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was the Scholastic Books ninety-nine cent selection that month. I knew it was getting some 'buzz,' but honestly, I hadn't paid that much attention. I borrowed a copy from our school library, took it home, and read it, in one night, showing up to work exhausted but certain of my PTSA book selection.

CYBILS: Kid Appeal & Literary Merit. The Perfect Award.

I've written many a post about the fabulous CYBILS award over the years. Those who know me in person have heard me drone on about how it is the best children's literature award out there because it removes the politics involved in awards from various organizations. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE those awards too, but I think they usually lean way to the 'adult' side of the children's literature (typically) equation without a lot of consideration for kid appeal. The CYBILS are a complete LABOR OF LOVE with all volunteers, reading frantically, discussing into the wee hours of the night, trying to find that perfect balance of both literary merit and kid appeal. Having done it four times, I can attest that it is no easy task! So...
I am EXCITED to return as a CYBILS Round 1 Judge! 

In 2010, I was a round 1 judge for Middle Grade Fiction.
In 2011, I was a round 1 judge for Middle Grade Fiction again.
In 2012, I was a round 1 judge for Middle Grade Fantasy & Science Fiction.
In 2013  I was a round 1 judge for Young Adult Nonfiction.
Then, I had to lay low as lots of 'life stuff' got in the way. This poor little blog nearly went stone cold, but that's a story for another day!
This year, 2018, I will be judging Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction!!!!!!!

Two Books to Add to Every Classroom Shelf & a Little Soapbox on Citizenship

I'm going to talk about two books today that need to be on every classroom shelf ; I'm talking K-12, even though they are listed as for a younger crowd. The reason I want to talk about them BOTH has mostly to do with my own tardiness. When I read Her Right Foot last fall, I was very, very, very remiss in not mentioning it because I so instantly adored it for so, so, so many reasons. Then, when the team of Eggers (writer) and Harris (illustrator) followed-up with What Can a Citizen Do?, and Chronicle Kids sent me a copy, I knew I couldn't just talk about one without the other.

Her Right Foot got plenty of love and I tend to shy away from writing about those books. I may love them alongside the masses, but my nature leans a supporter of the underdog.  Her Right Foot was going to be fine. It was going to make it into lots of kids hands. All the kid lit darlings were talking it up. It did not need my little blog. And it was sort of overwhelming in it's educational possibilities. I'd have to REALLY offer some great teaching thoughts and there was the matter of finishing my doctorate that semester. So....yeah, excuse.

What Can a Citizen Do? is releasing in two days and I've seen a smattering of glowing thoughts on it, though one was rather critical (more on that later). I didn't instantly love it the way I had Her Right Foot, but by the third read, I definitely thought it belonged right alongside Her Right Foot on every classroom shelf.

Subtlety is a foundational key in stellar writing for children and writers tend to lean way, way too didactic when they set out to write a "children's book," especially authors who typically write for an adult audience. Mr Eggers has done a fabulous reining-in of the adult-to-kid speak on two topics that could have very easily leaned toward didactic. Both books have A LOT to say about our American societal experiment and What Can a Citizen Do? is even more subtle than Her Right Foot, not only because clocks in at 40 pages versus 104, but because our current state of affairs defining citizenship in this country creates presuppositions regarding what the book MIGHT say in an adult reader's mind.

Eraser by Anna Kang with illustrations by Christopher Weyant

Publisher's Synopsis: "Eraser is always cleaning up everyone else’s mistakes. Except for Ruler and Pencil Sharpener, none of the other school supplies seem to appreciate her. They all love how sharp Pencil is and how Tape and Glue help everyone stick together. Eraser wants to create so that she can shine like the others. She decides to give it a try, but it’s not until the rubber meets the road that Eraser begins to understand a whole lot about herself."

My Two Cents: Honestly, those little pink erasers have always been a forgotten tool in my classroom; the idea of a little under-appreciated eraser is quite on point! 
Time for school supplies = colorful pens, shiny new crayons, sharp pencils, full glue sticks, and white stacks of crisp paper. Eraser is a very creative idea, executed wonderfully with fun puns and engaging illustrations. It's a great opportunity to teach that mistakes are not only acceptable, but expected - teachers give you a special tool for them after all!

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier

Publisher's Synopsis: "It's been five years since the Sweep disappeared. Orphaned and alone, Nan Sparrow had no other choice but to work for a ruthless chimney sweep named Wilkie Crudd. She spends her days sweeping out chimneys. The job is dangerous and thankless, but with her wits and will, Nan has managed to beat the deadly odds time and time again.

When Nan gets stuck in a chimney fire, she fears the end has come. Instead, she wakes to find herself unharmed in an abandoned attic. And she is not alone. Huddled in the corner is a mysterious creature—a golem—made from soot and ash. 

Sweep is the story of a girl and her monster. Together, these two outcasts carve out a new life—saving each other in the process. Lyrically told by one of today's most powerful storytellers, Sweep is a heartrending adventure about the everlasting gifts of friendship and wonder."

I'm just going to say it plain and simple...........  I LOVED Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster! There is just so much right about this tale: excellent writing, well-blended mix of history and fantasy, alternating perspective chapters, an endearing protagonist and her sweetly innocent monster. ALL of it is near perfection for the age range. I am even going to go out on a limb and name it a Newbery contender. 

The Affective Jacob's Ladder Reading Comprehension Program

I was given a copy of Affective Jacob's Ladder Reading Comprehension Program Grades 4-5 through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers. This was my first exposure to this particular reading curriculum which was developed by the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary. There are many grade ranges in the series, but this book appears to be the first that aims to broaden a student’s affective/social-emotional intelligence whilst also increasing reading comprehension (as appears the sole target of other books in the series). As full disclosure warrants, I must mention that my scholarly experiences do not lean toward the gifted/talented student; I have MUCH more experiences with struggling comprehenders. However, I must argue that many of the strategies employed by teachers of such labelled students are good strategies for ALL students, and I found that to be the case with this curriculum.

 This is a very mixed review. I liked the curriculum, found it to be a useful tool, but there always seemed to be a qualifier as I was writing what I liked about it.

Toaff's Way by Cynthia Voigt

Publisher's Synopsis: "Meet Toaff: a lovable squirrel, and new standout character, searching for a place to call home in this gem of a story by a Newbery Medal-winning author. Toaff is a small squirrel full of big questions. Why must I stay away from the human's house? Why shouldn't I go beyond the pine trees? Why do we fight with the red squirrels across the drive? His sister shrugs--that's just the way things are. His brother bullies--because I said so. And the older squirrels scold--too many questions! Can Toaff really be the only one to wonder why? When a winter storm separates him from his family, Toaff must make his own way in the world. It's a world filled with danger--from foxes and hawks and cats to cars and chainsaws. But also filled with delight--the dizzying scent of apple blossoms, the silvery sound of singing, the joy of leaping so far you're practically flying. Over the course of a year, Toaff will move into (and out of) many different dreys and dens, make some very surprising friends (and a few enemies), and begin to answer his biggest questions--what do I believe and where do I belong? Master storyteller Cynthia Voigt offers readers a rich and rewarding story of finding one's way in the world."

My Two Cents: I think maybe Kirkus reviews hit the nail on the head best when describing Toaff's Way as, "A brilliant, bushy-tailed bildungsroman." This coming-of-age story has A LOT of great stuff going for it: inviting chapter transitions, suspense, new and interesting creature characters, changing seasons to change the setting, cute little drawings, and an extremely likable protagonist. It is a super read-aloud choice for 1st - 3rd grade, but I think strong 2nd grade, and average 3rd - 4th grade readers will also enjoy this title for independent reading very much.

The Other Dog by Madeleine L'Engle - a tiny book review

Publisher's Synopsis: "Reissued in hardcover to coincide with the movie release of A Wrinkle in Time, here is a true tale of dog-meets-baby from Newbery Medal–winning author Madeleine L'Engle! Based on Madeleine L'Engle's own poodle's experience coping with a new baby in the house, this sprightly picture book presents a familiar domestic drama with an utterly charming new twist. Tongue-in-cheek wit, endearing illustrations, and a revealing author's note make this a publishing event to celebrate!"

My Two Cents: Popping it's little head back into publication on the heals of L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time movie hoopla, The Other Dog is a simple and sweet tale of a dog's jealousy when Mom & Dad bring home another dog (aka: baby). Although the book is a exaggerated look at sibling feelings with the addition of a new baby, I think it has a wider appeal. Lots of kids will enjoy doggie Touche L'Engle-Franklin's affronted tone and eventual love for the new family member.