Posted by: kidsbooksreviews | April 25, 2008

Finest Kind by Lea Wait

Finest Kind is a story about a family in 1837 that faces financial ruin, and is forced to move to rural Maine to pick up the pieces. Jake’s father takes a job that has him spending extended periods of time away from home, and Jake finds himself responsible for supporting his mother and six year old brother, who is severely disabled.

Some of the themes of this book include family, stereotypes, how people with disabilities were treated in the past, medical advancements, and keeping secrets. These secrets include hiding Jake’s brother’s condition, and another character’s alcoholic mother. The alcoholism is only briefly mentioned towards the end of the book. At one point it is mentioned that Jake’s parents have been blamed for his brother’s condition due to their “sins”, but this is not expanded upon.  Jake also takes a job working in a prison, cleaning cells.  None of the inmates are depicted as being truly horrible.  Beyond that, there are no controversial issues in the book.

I would use this book as a springboard for discussion on the rights of the disabled, how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.  The author’s note at the end of the book includes several topics that could be researched and expanded upon, as well.

This book is a 2008-2009 Mark Twain Award Nominee.

Amazon.com lists the reading level as appropriate for ages 9-12.

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Posted by: kidsbooksreviews | April 25, 2008

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Life As We Knew It is the book that led to the creation of this blog. I was asked to review it to see if it was appropriate for a K-4 building. In short, it’s not.

That’s not to say it’s not a wonderful book. It was gripping, and really explored how the moon affects our climate, and how families survive during crisis. My reasons for finding it inappropriate for younger readers stems mostly from two things: discussion of sexuality, and a central theme that can be a bit frightening for some kids.

(Highlight for spoiler text that may not be appropriate for younger readers)

I’ll address the sexuality primarily here, because it’s not mentioned on any of the reviews. Basically, it was pretty tame stuff. The main character has a friend who is promiscuous, and this is not depicted in a positive light. There is also a teen romance that does not progress beyond sneaking off for a few stolen kisses, but the character’s mother, upon discovering this, gets upset about it not being an appropriate time to worry about a teen pregnancy. The main character then contemplates why she would not have sex with her boyfriend (referred to as “making love”) and what she wants in that type of relationship first. It’s presented in a strong manner, and does endorse waiting for the “Right person”. Still, many parents of fourth and even fifth and sixth grade students may not be comfortable with this topic. I will note that it’s handled with a lot more subtlety than the majority of Judy Blume’s work. (end spoiler text)

Another thing to consider is something I didn’t pick up on, but is commented on in many of the reviews I read: Female relationships are not very strongly presented, there’s a “save the boy first” mentality (although it’s attributed more to his being the youngest), and there’s a slight anti-religion theme. This is one that I’d probably argue against, but there are several reviewers who were put off by the fact that the only character who is portrayed as religious belongs to a cult of sorts.

I think that this book is wonderful for mature readers (even in the lower elementary grades), but I highly suggest that parents and teachers review the book first and know the child they’re giving this book to well. By that, I mean have an awareness of whether or not the child can handle the issues presented by this book.

This book is part of a trilogy, with the third still being in progress. From what I’ve read on the author’s blog about the third book, I would NOT recommend this series to any child that would insist on finishing all three books if the parent of the child is not comfortable with the sexuality element or violence. For those that want to learn more about the series and author, visit the author’s website at http://www.lifeasweknewitbook.com.

Posted by: kidsbooksreviews | April 25, 2008

Coming Soon: My current reading list

I just got a new book order today, so I’ll be adding the following books as I finish them:

Small Steps by Louis Sachar (I also have Holes, which this is the sequel to, so I will probably post both at the same time. I”m actually using Holes in the classroom right now, so I’ll have a handful of student reviews to go along with it)

The Old Willis Place by Mary Downing Hahn

Three Good Deeds by Vivian Vande Velde

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (I’ve got a ton of Spinelli that will go up eventually; this is just the one that happens to be on my “read soon” list)

Gossamer by Lois Lowry (Another author I’ve got tons and tons of and will have multiple reviews of, hopefully this summer)

Almost Home by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck (I just went through a handful of Peck’s books in the past week or two, so I’ll probably add A Long Way From Chicago, A Year Down Yonder, and maybe a few others at the same time)

A large part of this project will be to help catalog my own collection so I can help myself remember what I love about them, and what I don’t love about them. I’m torn on the idea of skipping the “classics”, because really, who doesn’t know Charlotte’s Web or most of Beverly Cleary’s work? Still, I know that not every teacher or parent reads every book, and sometimes we forget – Did Ramona wear pajamas to school in Ramona and her Mother or Ramona the Pest? I’ll probably focus on the newer titles first, and go from there. Series books might simply be lumped together for simplicity sake, although there are some series, like the Narnia Chronicles, that have some books that stand alone very well, or have some that might not be appropriate in an educational setting. The Last Battle, for example, is so full of religious references that I’ve never seen it used for instruction, even if it is kept in the classroom library, but most kids don’t make it through elementary school without reading The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

What do you think?

Posted by: kidsbooksreviews | April 24, 2008

All of the Above, by Shelly Pearsall

All of the Above is an instructional goldmine. The book will appeal to a wide variety of upper elementary to middle school students, and deals with a variety of issues. It tells about a group of middle schoolers attempting to break a world record by creating the largest tetrahedron ever. The students are all lower income, urban, African-American. While some students might think this means that all the characters have the same background, this book will quickly disprove that theory. Some of the things that can be taught or introduced using this book are:

Tetrahedrons and other geometric concepts

Foster families

Group work and common goals

The Vietnam War and its effect

Reading recipes and how food affects mood

Using art to express emotions

Family structures and what defines family

How drug use affects families

How vandalism affects the victims

Point of view

This story is told from the points of view of all of the major characters, and is always related in first person. For younger students or struggling readers, this might make the book excessively challenging, even when the readability is not necessarily too difficult. Possible controversial issues include child abandonment (one of the students is left to fend for herself by her foster family), drug use (always portrayed negatively in this book), and one student knows a relative is guilty of a crime but does not turn that person in. (Highlight for spoiler): One student’s brother breaks into the school and tears up the tetrahedron project. This student knows his brother is guilty, but does not tell on him.(end spoiler)

The reading level of this book is probably an upper fifth grade level. The paperback edition has a Reader’s Guide in the back.

This Mark Twain Award Nominee is a compelling look at different cultures, the importance (and sometimes downfall) of a large vocabulary, and how the choices our parents make for us affect us. Cornelia’s mother is a famous pianist and is frequently away from home, leaving Cornelia to be raised by their French housekeeper. When an elderly author and her Indian servant move in the apartment next door, Cornelia is drawn to the eccentric woman and her stories of growing up with three bold sisters in the late 40’s and early 50’s.

Some of the themes explored in this book are family, friendship, and cultural expectations, both now and in the 50’s. This book is excellent for introducing a variety of vocabulary words, learning about cultures and different social classes, and exploring how friendships can help us evolve as people. It is good for setting, because it bounces back and forth between two different time frames, and for inferring and making predictions. Art history is also briefly talked about, as well as the different ways people communicate with each other.

There are really no controversial issues in this book, but (highlight for spoiler)

there is a main character that has cancer and eventually succumbs to it, although this is not discussed until the very last few chapters of the book. Observant students might realize this is the case earlier on.

Reading levels
Grade level: 3.5

Guided reading level:Q

Lexile: 650

Posted by: kidsbooksreviews | April 24, 2008

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules by Jeff Kinney

This sequel to Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a combination between comic book and traditional novel. It is full of hilarious illustrations that help tell the story, and in some cases are crucial to understanding the story itself.

The writing is easy for fourth grade students and appeals to a wide variety of students, particularly boys who are reluctant readers. The content is generally family friendly, and there are no controversial topics. Bullying and sibling rivalry are prominent themes in this book.

Posted by: kidsbooksreviews | April 24, 2008

Welcome!

This blog will, hopefully, become a goldmine for both the classroom teacher of upper elementary grades, and the students, as well.  Each entry will be a review of a book written by myself, a grade 3-5 teacher, and the comments will include reviews by students and other teachers.  Feel free to add your own thoughts on the books I post about, or have your kids post their thoughts.  I am not just looking for the type of review that says, “Wow, this is great!”, but rather the types that will help both teachers and students decide what to read.

If you have a request for a review, send me an email and I will see what I can accomplish for you.  Thanks for reading!

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