Posted by: kidsbooksreviews | May 12, 2008

A conundrum of sorts

Professional reviewers have a tough job.  I’m not sure I could do it.  I know I’d be torn between being nice, being honest, and the knowledge that not everyone will share my opinions or tastes.

I’ve tried, in these reviews, to avoid interjecting my own opinion of the book itself, and rather, opine solely on its instructional value.  This means that I’ve read a stack of books that I just haven’t gotten around to reviewing because I’m trying to remain objective, and I know I won’t be able to write anything about them right now without coming across like I’m gushing or trying to sell something.  Or both.  And if I come across a book that I feel might only be suited to certain tastes, I’ve tried to include that in my review.  Some examples include Black Storm Comin’ and The Willoughbys.

So what should I do with a book that I feel is horrible?  This is the conundrum I now face.  I could ignore it, but it’s a book that my colleagues, particularly those in Missouri (due to it being nominated for a Missouri-based book award), might have in their classrooms.  It’s the book that kids will take home and then not manage to finish, and will have shallow responses to in their in-depth response journals because frankly, the book in question lacks depth.  And oddly enough, Amazon’s reviewers have ranked it highly, but an informal poll of teachers and students who have also read the book have shared my own opinion, which not only has me feeling a bit validated, but also has me scratching my head:  Do I post a review that says, “Don’t read this book!”  and risk offending someone who thinks it’s The Best Book Ever?  Or do I extol its (very, very few) virtues and add a disclaimer that I didn’t personally care for it?  I don’t think I have enough readers now for it to matter, but I did notice the other day that some of my posts are in the top five links for searches for reviews of some of the books here (yay!) and I know eventually, traffic will increase.

If you’ve found this site in any way useful, please provide some feedback here.  I’m truly torn on what to do.  I don’t want to ignore the problem, and I hate to avoid reviewing a book just because I personally hated it.  Besides, that’s the lazy way out!

Posted by: kidsbooksreviews | May 7, 2008

The Willoughbys, by Lois Lowry

If you’re the sort that recalls with fondness old-fashioned tales of plucky orphans surviving against all odds and making the world a better place in the process, this is not a book for you. If, instead, you are the type that considers such tales “saccharine” instead of “sweet”, then you will not only love The Willoughbys, but you will also find yourself reading portions of it aloud to any unfortunate soul you can capture the attention of long enough. Four children, who describe themselves as “children from an old-fashioned book”, decide that they should be orphans to better suit the description. Their parents, on the other hand, have decided that they’d much prefer to be like the parents in Hansel and Gretel, and attempt to rid themselves of their tiresome children by taking off on an extended vacation and putting their home up for sale, children included.

This book could be used to teach many things, and children who like Lemony Snicket will adore this book. Dry and dark humor, parodies, cliches, and satire can all be introduced using this book. The book also uses an abundance of new vocabulary words (some handily addressed in the glossary, which defines the words with the same sense of humor the rest of the book is written in), and references many classic books (also handily summarized in the Bibliography, which describes them as “Books of the past that are heavy on piteous but appealing orphans, ill-tempered and stingy relatives, magnanimous benefactors, and transformations wrought by winsome children.”) Which, of course, allows for plenty of text-to-text connections, as well.

Approximate reading level of this book is mid fifth grade level.

Posted by: kidsbooksreviews | May 6, 2008

What are kids reading?

I found this report fascinating.  I’ll spend more time on the list this summer, and if things go well, I’ll try to get the majority of the books listed for grades 3 and up posted here.

One thing I really like about this list is that it offers grade levels.

I would like to add a personal and slightly unrelated note here:  I learned this past week that I’d be teaching science instead of communication arts, so I spent a few days brushing up on state standards in science instead of reading and posting about books.  I have two or three reviews to write, and one draft that needs a bit more polishing first.  Just because I’m not teaching reading, doesn’t mean I’ll abandon this project!  I tend to do things in spurts, so don’t be surprised if I go a few weeks with no new posts, and then post four or five in a single day.

Posted by: kidsbooksreviews | April 29, 2008

Defiance, by Valerie Hobbs

In Defiance, a cow teaches a boy about living with cancer. Toby has discovered a new tumor growing on his side, and to avoid further treatment, he hides his condition from his parents. His neighbor, Pearl, has a cow nearing death, and by watching the cow’s battle, and Pearl’s own challenges, Toby learns to view his own condition in a new light.

This book is excellent for students who are struggling with death, illnesses, or aging. The narrative is very poetic, and poetry is another central theme (including a scene where Pearl lectures Toby on the proper way to read a poem). Despite this, the figurative language is clear and easily understood.

This book was a Mark Twain Award Nominee for 2007-2008, and is ideal for fourth grade or higher.

Posted by: kidsbooksreviews | April 28, 2008

Cryptid Hunters, by Roland Smith

Crytozoology, the study of “mythical” animals like unicorns and Bigfoot, is explored in a fresh and exciting way in Cryptid Hunters. Twins Marty and Grace learn that they will be moving from their boarding school to their uncle’s home. Travis is a cryptozoologist, and he’s in a race to find a living dinosaur before his rival does. The children find themselves in the African rain forest, fighting for their lives.

Action is swift in this book, which makes it good for discussing plot, rising and falling action, and climax. The existence of cryptids could make for a lively classroom debate, as well as discussions on ecological topics such as species preservation and habitat destruction.

Controversial issues include some violence.

The reading level of this book is about fifth grade or higher.

Posted by: kidsbooksreviews | April 28, 2008

Black Storm Comin’ by Diane Wilson

Black Storm Comin’ tells of Colton and his family, traveling west to Sacramento to rejoin his mother’s sister. Colton’s father accidentally shoots him and ends up taking off, leaving Colton to care for his mother and younger siblings. He does this by running away to join the Pony Express. Colton’s troubles are magnified by the fact that while he appears white, he is actually multi-racial. If he is discovered, he will not only lose his job, but may also face death.

This story can be used to supplement instruction about the westward expansion, the Pony Express, how race was viewed in the 1800s, and the events that led up to Abraham Lincoln becoming president.

This book uses a lot of vernacular, and the plot doesn’t move at nearly the same pace as the Express riders did, which may lose some readers. The second half of the book is much more captivating than the first half. I would suggest this book to students who are very interested in historical fiction; those who are unenthusiastic about the genre will have a hard time getting involved with this book.

This book was a 2007-2008 Mark Twain Award Nominee.

Posted by: kidsbooksreviews | April 28, 2008

Three Good Deeds by Vivian Vande Velde

Three Good Deeds is a little book with a big message. Howard, caught harassing the geese near an old woman rumored to be a witch’s house, is turned into a goose, and told that he will not return to his human form until he performs three good deeds. Howard quickly learns that doing good things for the sake of good things is nothing like true kindness.

Howard’s struggle to learn kindness and forgiveness is related in language that will be easy for most students in the mid-to-upper elementary grades. Along with the message of what kindness should be, there’s a fascinating look at the lives of geese.

This book would be good for predicting, with students stopping at the end of each chapter to discuss what could happen next, and problem solving – After all, what “good deeds” can a goose perform?

Posted by: kidsbooksreviews | April 28, 2008

Holes, by Louis Sachar

Holes is a Newberry Award winning book, and with good reason. Stanley Yelnats is sent to Camp Green Lake Juvenile Facility for a crime he didn’t commit, he digs a hole every day: five feet wide in every direction, and five feet deep. The camp’s staff says that digging holes builds character, but the boys know that there’s a deeper purpose behind all the digging.

This book opens the door for discussion on crime and punishment, as well as how inventions change lives, superstitions, racial relationships and equality (including inter-racial romances), the history of race relations, how drought affects the landscape, and what the motives are behind some crimes. One character promotes folk medicine over traditional medicine, which could lead to a brief discussion on folk remedies. There are multiple settings here, with four stories being told simultaneously. Generations of characters’ stories are told, with their ancestors’ lives intertwining seamlessly.

There is once instance where a character says, “What the hell”.

I have used this book with grades 4 and 5 in a special education setting. Some of the activities we did was a comparison between settings, mapping out some of the story locales, and discussing how race was viewed 100 years ago compared to now.

This book presents a unique opportunity to look at author’s purpose if you’ve got time to show the movie; the screenplay is written by Louis Sachar also, and kids can examine why he chose to change some of the plot for the purpose of the movie.

Posted by: kidsbooksreviews | April 28, 2008

Wait Till Helen Comes, by Mary Downing Hahn

Mary Downing Hahn is a master at the scary story, and this is no exception.  Very reminiscent of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark‘s twisted folklore, Wait Till Helen Comes tells about a blended family that moves to an old church, complete with graveyard, and seven-year-old Heather’s fascination with one of the graves, marked only with initials and a date.  Heather is an expert an manipulating her father against her new step-siblings and step-mother, and when her new brother and sister try to defend themselves, Heather threatens to unleash Helen, the ghost of a girl killed in a fire over 100 years ago.

This book is a wonderful read aloud, with lots of foreshadowing and creepy atmosphere.  The book references Richard Adams’ Watership Down, and students who are advanced enough to have read it can expand their thinking by comparing the characters of both books.  It’s also a good look at the struggle newly blended families have getting along and acclimating to new living arrangements.

Posted by: kidsbooksreviews | April 25, 2008

A Small White Scar, by K. A. Nuzum

A Small White Scar tells the story of twin brothers, one of which is mentally challenged (the story hints strongly that the disability is Down Syndrome, but this is not stated outright). They live on a ranch in the 1940s, and Will’s deepest desire is to escape the family ranch, where he is primarily responsible for taking care of Denny, and do well enough in the rodeo to be hired on at a ranch elsewhere, where his skills will be more appreciated. Will tries to run away, and Denny ends up tagging along. The small white scar referred to in the title is one that binds them as brothers, and Will spends most of the story struggling with his feelings about his brother and how he is expected to care for him. There are no controversial topics in this book, and students interested in the rodeo or who have disabled siblings will be very interested in it.

This book is suited more for older elementary students.

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