Rapid Fire Thursday: Boy Book Picks

They can’t put it down. Dan Gutman’s THE GENIUS FILES

I know it’s not right to judge a book by its cover, but hey, it’s summer.  I compiled several covers here intended to entice boys in summer mode to pick up a great read.  This is no small feat!   (Why do I hear the voice of Richard Attenborough from PLANET EARTH… “And here, we have a glimpse of the rarest sort:  Settled beneath the shade of a large tree, we see an eight-year-old human male engaged in the act of reading a book…”)  May many of these– or just one– snag your boy.

Please Mind the Gap

I’m always on the hunt for well done early middle grade books.   Perhaps you know a young lady or gentleman who fits the following criteria:

-S/he is between seven and nine years of age.

-S/he has a great sight word vocabulary and can attack longer words with reasonable success.

-S/he has conquered a few easy reader series, such as the Mudge books.

-And all this allows said child to focus more on comprehension so as to enjoy richer plots.

The beloved Henry and Mudge books usher many children into independently reading.

You know someone like this, right?  Well, if you’re an elementary librarian, you’re talking about a quarter of your clientele.  Do you feel my pain of trying to find books to match this reading level?  Good books?  Books that completely hook them and leave them jonesing for more?  Do you nod your head in agreement when I ask the heavens, why aren’t publishers putting out more of these books?  This is a great market!  These kids can plow through series at heart-stopping speed.  That means lots of sales, publishers!  And step on it, before we lose them all to apps and gaming forever, for crying out loud.

Breathe.

There is a developmental staircase in reading, and to go from Frog and Toad All Year to The Witches would be fun, but also would skip some steps. Go ahead and use the “sneak peek” at Amazon to note the difference in these two books.  Many more words per sentence and per page, more pages per chapter, a huge shift upward in vocabulary, and more complicated plotting.  The switch would be akin to throwing a kid into the English Channel as a reward for finishing the Guppy level at the YMCA.

Dahl’s “The Witches” is deliciously wicked and appeals to many early middle grade readers (7 to 9-year-olds), but the text is too challenging for many.

Of course, it’s not like children will drown if they jump to harder books.  No, the result is more troubling (speaking metaphorically, anyway).  When I mistakenly put a child into a book she isn’t ready for, I get, “Yeah, I didn’t like it.”  I know sometimes it may be just that.  But when a child says he didn’t like a universally beloved novel like Charlotte’s Web, really what you’re probably hearing is that he couldn’t decode the text at a rate that allowed him to fall into the story.  Can’t you see him edging towards his Mario Cart or iPad?

Research indicates that if students skip a step in reading development altogether, weaknesses show up in fluency and comprehension later, like in middle school, when the reading is often assigned and in text books.  So, I find I’ve become that prissy lady in glasses crying out (into the darkness), “No skipping stairs, please!  One step at a time!” When I do, I’m often trampled by a surge of third graders running for copies of Twilight.  And as parents, once our kids are reading, it’s hard not to push them towards harder and harder books.  Hey, a lot of the books for older kids are just more alluring.  Who doesn’t want to read Percy Jackson or Harry Potter over, well, I will let you fill in the blanks here.  Emotionally, kids are ready for rollicking fun adventure stories.

Besides, kids love skipping steps. There is nothing particularly glamorous about the taking of stairs one at a time, especially if the books at that level seem babyish.   I can rattle off the names of three second graders who snickered at me when I suggested they’d enjoy The Hunger Games even more a few years from now.  Second graders.

Kids’ reading develops best with a steady climb, with lots of reading at each level.  The tricky part is that it is equally important for children to feel excited about the book they’ve read.  Cool, even.  I suggest reading aloud the fancier books, while otherwise keeping them in books that will nourish their “nutritional” needs, if you will.

It’s a complex game.  So when I spot a chapter book well done, with the promise of snagging eight-year-olds who insist they just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you can be  very sure I’m sharing them with you.

Spread the word on this great new series, in the name of good nutrition!

The Trouble with Chickens, A J.J. Tully Mystery (Harper Collins/Balzer&Bray, 2011)

by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Kevin Cornell

ImageTully, a hard-bitten search and rescue dog accustomed to death-defying missions and living in an ongoing adrenalin rush, finds himself retired at a country farm house, surrounded by chickens.  The chickens call on Tully to help find and rescue a missing sibling.  The little chick has been kidnapped, it is believed, by Vince the Funnel, a spookily enigmatic indoor dog who wears a post-op cone around his neck.  Tully describes the mother chicken as having eyes “tiny and black, set so close together they practically touched.  I’d be surprised if the right eye could report back seeing anything other than the left eye.  Chickens make me nervous.”

Cronin describes the mood she creates as “film noire,” and Tully as Humphrey Bogart.  If you can recall some of those Looney Tunes episodes with Bugs Bunny in a trench coat, you get the tenor of the book.  Clipped dialog, mystery, and characters we aren’t sure we can trust are woven together with plenty of belly laughs and great illustrations.

Cronin’s book trailer says it all:

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda: Read it you must.

There are directions for folding Origami Yoda at the end of the book. Took me a few tries, but behold!

Yes, I made that Yoda finger puppet myself.  And, yes, you can, too.  Really!

While I understand that you, presumably a grown-up, may have no desire to do so, I can assure you that anyone between the ages of 8-12 is in on making Origami Yoda.  So in.  They are also so in to reading Tom Angleberger’s book, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, a comic romp through the absurd and profound that is middle school.  You know how sometimes the fact that a blockbuster movie is a blockbuster somehow cheapens it?  Well, this book is a bestseller.  Let’s say my expectations for its literary value were moderate. Let’s also say I knew my summer book club boys wouldn’t care a lick (or should I say, an i-yoda?) about literary value.  Just the cover and the title by themselves are a no-brainer for a teacher like me, trying to hook a bunch of pre-adolescents on the brink of middle school themselves.  If the book was a little scant on substance, so be it.

How can anyone resist this?

And then, I read it.  I was anticipating it would be hilarious, and it is.  I knew the format would be engaging, like the Wimpy Kid and Big Nate series, and indeed that is true, also. There are funny, kid-like doodles on all the pages, and each page looks like a crumpled paper that has done time in a backpack. What was less predictable was the  great characterization.  And even less predictable, it has depth.  It has depth!  The fact is that at its heart, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda raises radical questions for kids.  Is that nerdy loner you all think is a total loser really smarter than anyone in school?  No, smarter is the wrong word.  Smart in and of itself doesn’t hold much cache in middle school. Is that kid wiser?  Is it possible that that kid is not oblivious to middle school norms, but rather quite aware and simply doesn’t care?  In other words, is it possible that middle school norms are bull poop?

Whoa.

The narrator, named Tommy, outlines the mystery gripping his circle of friends at vdms:  Is Dwight’s origami finger puppet of Yoda magically spouting words of wisdom, or is it just Dwight?  Dwight, resident goober of the sixth grade, seems incapable of the kind of psychic, Zen-like advice given by Origami Yoda.  This is a guy who generally appears to self-sabotage any chance of winning respect among his peers.  He uses his straw to eat hamburgers.  He wears a vomit green sweater vest with an orange reindeer on it.  He spends a lot of time standing in a hole he dug in his backyard. Yet, when Dwight’s finger puppet of Yoda gives advice, in a rather pathetic imitation of  Yoda’s voice, it’s spot on, causing Tommy and his friends to ponder their presuppositions about Dwight.  Tommy has particular urgency in getting to the bottom of it all, as he needs some advice about his love interest Sara, and nothing less than his dignity is riding on whether or not Origami Yoda is for real.  Hence, Tommy tells us, he has assembled a “case file” of first-hand accounts, gathered from classmates who have benefitted from Origami Yoda’s advice, so as to weigh out the evidence.

What follows is a series of scenarios in which Angleberger expertly captures all that is embarrassing, funny, silly, honest, and guarded about that unique time in life known as sixth grade.  In Origami Yoda and the Embarrassing Stain, Kellen spills water on his pants so it looks like he’s peed his pants seconds before he has to enter his homeroom.  Yoda’s advice:  All of pants you must wet. Tommy splashes water over the rest of his pants, thus avoiding total humiliation (enduring the discomfort is no sweat by comparison).  Quavando, plagued by his school-wide nickname “Cheeto Hog” because of an unfortunate choice he made in a vending machine incident, is told by Origami Yoda, Cheetos for everyone you must buy.  Indeed, it works.  Origami Yoda also correctly predicts who will get kicked off American Idol even though Dwight doesn’t watch TV.

My readers flip-flopped their opinions with each “case,” weighing the evidence and formulating their own theories.  There’s a part in most of us, I suspect, that wants Origami Yoda to be magic.  But then, there’s another part that wants Dwight to be a genius, too.  In the end, Harvey, the cynical tough guy throughout, is hung out to dry.  Dwight wins the girl.  So does Tommy!  And he’s learned to accept Dwight for who he is, in all his eccentric glory.  True, the mystery about Origami Yoda remains unresolved.  My book clubbers are so glad!  Otherwise, there wouldn’t be need for the sequel, which comes out this fall:  Darth Paper Strikes Back.

Uh-oh. He looks a little more complicated.

I wonder if I’ll be able to make the Origami Darth Paper.

A Midsummer Night’s Read

Charlotte autographs her THE ACCIDENTAL ADVENTURES OF INDIA McALLISTER for the girls.

My friends, I have had a long hibernation from blogging, but it is not because I haven’t been reading.  In fact it’s midsummer, which means I’m midway through teaching my summer reading groups, which means, of course, that I’ve got a slew of new books for your favorite 8-12’s.  I’m most excited to share The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister, by Charlotte Agell, for a whole bunch of reasons.  One of them is that when I contacted Charlotte to let her know who I was and told her I had thirteen girls reading her book, she said she’d love to meet them in person.  And she did!  (See photos.)  Meeting or no, let me tell you why I love this book:  it is so honest.  It is honest about life, it is honest about age ten, it is honest about the way adventures are usually accidental, not planned.

The character India McAllister is a plucky, adventure-seeking fourth grader growing up in a quiet Maine town.  Her family situation is anything but conventional.  She is adopted from China (not India), and wishes she knew more Chinese people– heck, any Chinese people.   Her mom is an artist who is loving but flakey, sometimes forgetting to make dinner, and proudly displaying a plaster cast of her breast in the living room.  India’s parents are divorced, and her father now lives with Richard.  Richard is just in the way, as far as India is concerned, and takes up too much of her father’s attention.  India’s best friend is a boy, and some kids at school think this is weird.

Okay, people, I know at least one alarm went off in your head in reading that description.  If not an alarm, then at least the popping up of your eyebrows.  If it weren’t for the masterful handling of the content– completely un-exploitive and utterly, well, honest– I could understand that.  But this book made the ALA Top Ten Rainbow List for 2011 as well as the Bank Street College of Education’s 2011 Best Children’s Books List for a reason, and my guess on that reason?  India McAllister deals with difficult realities facing children today without overdramatizing them.

Let’s talk about Richard.  To India, a fourth grader, it is not foremost in her mind that her dad lives with a man.  The thing that bugs her about Richard is the same thing that bugs lots of kids about their parents’ love interests.  This person is an intruder and potential rival.  A ten-year-old doesn’t think sexually, so the fact Richard is male is unimportant.  Jealousy is an all-inclusive emotion.  India wouldn’t be any more or less jealous if her father’s lover was female.  I’d wager any of India’s readers who are themselves children of divorce can relate to her feelings.  In this way, Charlotte Agell quietly promotes tolerance by getting at the universal root  emotion, rather than getting hung up on who is what gender.  Other readers may connect more immediately, having gay parents themselves.  Still more may just recognize a friend or classmate’s family in India’s situation.  Same-sex couples are no longer invisible, and I love that Charlotte lets fiction reflect this reality in a politically neutral way.  The children can make up their own minds.  Or, they may not even pick up on it!  I’m not sure my own daughter did, but that may be because she has known same-sex parents and just thinks this is one more kind of family.  A brave new world.

Shall I discuss the breast?  I cracked right up when I read this part of the story.  It comes when India is longing for a mom with a more traditional job, citing the breast on the living room shelf as a reason.  The why behind the breast? India’s mom is a breast cancer survivor, and she made the cast right before the surgery– as a sort of homage to loss and strength.  Honest.  Charlotte brings up something sad that kids hear about.  Three out of thirteen of my students shared stories of moms, grandmothers they’d never met, and aunts who’d had breast cancer.  Who else writes about this in middle grade fiction and manages not to have it be a major plot point?  It’s brilliant.

And, children adopted by parents of different ethnic backgrounds, Charlotte is thinking of you, too.  Giving you a voice without making your other-ness define you (or define the plot of this book).  When one student of Asian descent (not adopted) told Charlotte at our meeting she could relate to how India wished for more people who looked like her in her town, a little round of applause sounded in my heart.

Yet, somehow, The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister is not an issues book.  It is a delightful story of a girl searching for adventure and never quite finding it.  A failed UFO sighting attempt.  A trumped-up whodunnit mystery around a purse that was simply lost.  A mysterious stranger playing a saxophone who turned out to be…a stranger playing a saxophone.  And then the accidental adventure itself, where India gets lost in the woods.  This book is not tightly plotted, and to me that’s what made it the most honest of all.  Being ten doesn’t have rising action, a climax, and resolution.  It’s just a series of adventures, large and small.  I cannot wait to read more of India’s.  Book Two is on the way (release date TBA).  Meanwhile, India has a blog of her own.

Charlotte explains she includes sad things in her books so kids who experience them in real life don't feel so alone.

A reader comments on India's spying tree, where she hides to eavesdrop on a pesky classmate.

Charlotte shows us her drawing pen of choice, inspiring us with its simplicity.

Topics in the story prompt the readers to share their own experiences.


Get Ahead of the Curve! This Lunch Lady Will Be Played By Amy Poehler.

To get in the mood for this post, watch the author’s quick promo for his series.

What crime fighter packs a spork cell phone, fish stick nunchucks, and taco-vision night goggles?  Why, Lunch Lady, of course– “Serving justice and serving lunch!” In this six-book series, Lunch Lady can handle any danger– and we’re not talking runny sloppy joes here.  Fishy characters around Thompson Brook School have no idea what they’re up against. She knows martial arts, she scales buildings, she carries whisk whackers and is not afraid to use them.   James Bond has Q, and Lunch Lady has Betty, another cafeteria worker with a double life.  Betty develops excellent gadgets like hamburger headphones and fancy ketchup packet lasers in their super secret lab housed in the school Boiler Room.  When confronted with shocking revelations, Lunch Lady will exclaim things like, “Green beans!” or “Oh, my tater tots!”  What’s not to love about Lunch Lady?  I ask you.

Krosoczka grounds readers with a healthy dose of the familiar through the characters called “the Breakfast Bunch”– three kids who eat in the cafeteria every morning.  Through them, everyday topics like soccer tryouts and bullies are mixed in with preposterous plots such a cyborg substitute taking over the school. What does their lunch lady do when she isn’t slinging Salisbury steak? the Breakfast Bunch wonders.  With a little sniffing around, Hector, Terrence, and Dee discover their lunch lady’s time off is action-packed.  Lunch Lady and Betty frequently rely on the kids to seal the deal on crime, which is a departure from the classic, untouchable superhero, like say, Batman.  I like how these books empower kids in that way.

Heads up, parents and teachers of reluctant readers!  There’s a lot being written about the value of graphic novels for developing readers out of non-readers these days.  The preponderance of current wisdom says, YES!  Give kids graphic novels to encourage literacy (make sure they’re age appropriate, of course).  Series like Krosoczka’s Lunch Lady get kids in books.  The librarian where I teach says she can’t keep them on the shelves. Hooray for the Lunch Lady!  Apparently, Amy Poehler agrees. She’s has an interest in the series, and plans to star in the upcoming movie.  I bet that makes real life lunch ladies everywhere smile.

Toys Go Out: Timeless Theme, Original Cast

Toys Go Out taps into a classic childhood fantasy:  What do my  toys do when I’m not looking?  Winnie the Pooh, The Velveteen Rabbit, Pinocchio, Corduroy, Raggedy Ann and Andy are fixtures in the children’s lit canon for a good reason.  To the child at a certain point in development, it’s more unimaginable that the toys aren’t alive than that they are.  The “Pink Bear” my eight-year-old daughter has been dragging around since toddlerhood is much more to her than the now dishwater-gray polyester pile of flattened plush my husband and I see.

Emily Jenkins masterfully taps into that magical childhood mindspace and brings to life toys in the very same way a child does.  As promised on the cover, the book chronicles the adventures of a stuffed stingray, a “toughy little buffalo” named Lumphy, and “someone called Plastic.”  The book is organized into six stand-alone chapters.  But, reading them consecutively guarantees you fall in love with the hodgepodge cast.

Stingray is neurotic and overcompensates by being a know-it-all whose facts are questionable.  In the first chapter, when the principals are stuffed in their little girl’s backpack and don’t know where they are going, Stingray becomes convinced they are headed for the dump  (kind of like Stuart Little).  From that single assumption, she spirals to, “We’ll be tossed in a pile of old green beans and sour milk cartons…it will be full of garbage-eating sharks, and it will smell like throw-up.”  Stingray is the character who voices the fears that pop into the minds of most of us, but we’re too sensible or embarrassed to utter them.  She cracks third graders up.

Lumphy the buffalo, meanwhile, is a rugged cowboy with a vulnerable side.  He’s plagued by the fear that he’s not a real buffalo, and is given to aggression towards Stingray.  Why does Stingray get to sleep on the High Bed with the Little Girl while the rest of the toys are stuck on the floor?  In the chapter “How Lumphy Got on the Big High Bed and Lost Something Rather Good-looking,” he confronts Stingray but loses his tail as a result.

Plastic– the ball– has a total identity crisis.  What is a plastic, anyway?  Readers aren’t sure either, as she is not identified by anymore than her name.  Plastic can read, but the dictionary definition is inscrutable and the poor thing panics until the wise old bathroom towel Tuk Tuk sheds light on the situation.  “Plastic is just your name…It’s obvious, to anyone who knows anything, precisely what you are.”

Plastic:  “It is?”

Tuk Tuk: “I’ve seen balls before you, I’ll see balls after you.  A ball is what you are.  Tell me, do you bounce?”

Plastic: “Yes! I do?”

Tuk Tuk: “And do you roll?”

Plastic: “Yes!”  (She rolls around the bathroom until she smashes into the base of the toilet.)

Tuk Tuk: “And have you got front legs and back legs?”

Plastic: “Um, not exactly.”

Tuk Tuk: “And no fur whatsoever?”

Plastic: “No.”

Tuk Tuk: “That’s normal for a ball, you know.”

Plastic: “What about how I don’t have very much nose?”

Tuk Tuk: “You mean, how you don’t have any nose?”

Plastic: “Um . . . yes.”

Tuk Tuk:  “I have been around a long time.  I have never seen a ball with fur, or legs, or a nose.  You’re a ball, Plastic.  Don’t let anyone tell you different.”

Plastic:  “I’m a ball!  A ball, ball, ball!”

Jenkins’ storytelling is tender.

Absurd.

Perfectly childlike.

If you know me at all, you know I hold nothing against potty humor or slacker middle-school boys in books.  If those things get more youthful eyes scanning text, bring ’em on.  But there is something to be said for a good, old-fashioned story well told.  Something to be cherished, like an old, gray Pink Bear.

Horrid Henry– Horrid Enough to Hook Reluctant Boys

Horrid Henry is a truly horrid child.  He does all the things grown-ups disdain.  He torments his brother, Perfect Peter.  (“Do you want to be free from the mummy’s curse?” Henry asks Peter after he’s wrapped him in toilet paper.  “Then you must stand still and be quiet for thirty minutes.”)  He ruins the school theater production by being the runaway raindrop.  He strategically plucks the stakes out from all the tents at a family campground.  And yet, something about him is appealing.  Even to grown-ups.  To kids– particularly the target audience of 7-10 year-old boys– he’s so outrageous he’s irresistible.  Just look at him.  I mean, who tricks the Tooth Fairy?  I’ve yet to put my finger on why I like him in spite of his utter lack of conscience, but I suspect it’s the way Simon sets up the situations. Like all comic bad boys, Henry is perfectly contrasted against “straight” characters.  His parents often sigh and wonder why they had children.  Perfect Peter is perfect and therefore loathesome.  His controlling theater teacher is fun to unravel.  In one character Henry’s met his match.  His neighbor Moody Margaret won’t be outdone by Henry.

Horrid Henry is appealing too because each of his twenty (!) books contains four short stories. That’s manageable reading for even a stubborn sort of kid.  Manageable and wicked.  What boy doesn’t love that?  Also, illustrator Tony Ross captures Henry’s mischievous hilarity with wobbly-lined genius.  If  a young someone is particularly resistant to reading stories, there are Horrid Henry joke books.  Simon also has a great website for this series.

http://www.horridhenry.co.uk

Road tested titles include:  Horrid Henry, Horrid Henry and the Mummy’s Curse, Horrid Henry and the Soccer Fiend, and Horrid Henry’s Joke Book.

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