Monthly Archives: November 2011

A Google a Day!

I am probably the last person on the planet to discover A Google a Day.  It’s simple:  every day, Google gives you a question to search, and you submit your answer, trying for the best time, and it lets you know if you got it right.  The questions seem to be pretty kid-friendly, based on my playing around with it this morning, but they aren’t so simple as to be boring.  I think kids will LOVE to play this little game, and I think it has some real educational value in teaching them to find the right search terms and read the question carefully.

A similar type of game that students have loved playing is The Wikipedia Game.  The gist is simple as well, but it can be somewhat challenging depending on what topics you choose.  You choose two completely unrelated topics (the only guideline is that both must have a Wikipedia article devoted to them).  Pull up the article for one, and using only links within Wikipedia (no going to external sites that are linked from Wikipedia pages!), get to the other.  For example, get from “Collegiate School” (yes, we have a page!) to “Carrot,” or from “Marshmallow” to “Muhummad Ali.”  There is a site called The Wikipedia Game that will provide subjects to link to and from, but the suggestions and articles aren’t always kid-appropriate, so I have the kids come up with their own, which is usually far more random and entertaining than whatever I might come up with.  Whenever I play this game with a class, I have to brace myself for months of “Can we play the Wikipedia Game today?  Pleeeeeaase!!” every time they come back to the library, and kids will come up to me and randomly say stuff like, “I got from Lady Gaga to Toothpaste last night!”  It’s fun!  And they learn a few things, I think: how to browse text to find what they are looking for, and also how to look for connections.  I have yet to see two topics that can’t be connected somehow.


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The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer

I am not sure exactly how I feel about The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer.  I wanted to really like it, and in some ways I did, but in other ways it just didn’t quite make it for me.  But there was enough good in there to make it a book I will recommend to students.


The novel grabbed me right away, and I flew through it.  The writing is strong, and it felt to me like Wolitzer captured the language and world of middle school well.  And while I wouldn’t call it a mystery exactly, there were some little mysterious elements to the story that kept me engaged and wanting to keep reading.

The main characters, three middle school kids who are all headed to a major Scrabble tournament, each for very different reasons (Duncan because he hopes to win the cash prize; Nate because his father is pressuring him to win in order to avenge his own loss when he competed in the same tournament years ago; and April because she simply loves the game), are all interesting and quirky and appealing.  I would happily read a novel devoted to any one of the three of them.


The very thing that grabbed my attention at the beginning of the novel (and would likely grab students’ attention if I read the first few chapters out loud to them) is probably the most problematic part of the book.  Duncan Dorfman, one of the three main children, has a strange special power that allows him to “see” with his fingertips.  In the world of Scrabble, this means he can reach into the tile bag and know exactly what letters he is pulling out–an obvious advantage at a tournament.  As the novel progresses, this special talent isn’t really central to the story, or at least not necessary, and in the end, I felt like the book would have been stronger without that element of magic.

It felt like there were a few too many plots thrown in.  The main stories of the three children were all compelling, but a side story about Nate’s dad’s former Scrabble partner didn’t grab me and just seemed like too much.  I also felt like the ending of Duncan’s story was too rushed and superficial.

In the End:

In the end, I would recommend this book to kids who like realistic fiction with a bit of a twist; kids who like E. L. Konigsburg (this book has a similar feel to many of her novels); and kids who like to write.  And I would definitely recommend it to kids who like Scrabble–there are a ton of neat tips and word lists included in the novel!

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Brain Candy: Fun Factoid Books

Is your copy of The Guinness Book of World Records falling apart from overuse?  Does the photograph of the Largest Forehead Inflation (wha?) fail to impress you because you’ve seen it so many times?  Have you read Ripley’s Believe It or Not so much, it has become all too easy to believe?  If so, here are some other middle-school friendly books that don’t need to be read cover-to-cover to be relished and enjoyed.

Pick Me Up by DK Publishing.  This one is new to our library, so I have only had a chance to peruse it lightly, but from what I can see, it is chock full of facts about just about everything, presented with loads of fun illustrations and engaging bits of text.  Entries include cross-referential links to other articles in the text, and part of the fun of reading this book is jumping from one place to another via these links.  (To write this blurb, I started reading through the book again, and I swear, I could spend all day with it and not get bored!  I did not know that there are 99 million sheep in Australia!  Or that the average American eats 230 sandwiches a year!  Or that Albert Einstein’s brain was 15% wider than the average human’s!)

Show Off: How to Do Absolutely Everything. One Step at a Time by Sarah Hines Stephens and Bethany Mann.  I would love to go back in time to when I was 10 and get this book for my birthday.  Instead, I’m going to have to buy it for my kid and get her to do the activities with me, which I suspect will be met with plenty of enthusiasm.  Show Off is full of step-by-step instructions for doing a wide variety of random things, such as:  mess with a computer (e.g., put opaque tape on the mouse censor); read palms; blow a nose bubble; fake a cheek piercing; make an exploding volcano; weave a friendship bracelet; make friends with a cat or dog; make fortune cookies; tailwhip a scooter; moonwalk; and tons of other fun stuff.

Do Not Open by John Farndon.  Full of mysteries, codes, illusions, interesting stories and anecdotes (some on the macabre side), all conveyed with a lively combination of text, charts, and a variety of colorful illustrations, this is just the sort of book to dive into on a rainy Saturday.  Like in Pick Me Up,  many entries include “links” to other, related parts of the text.  Students in my library have really enjoyed this one.

Other browsable titles to look for . . .

The Wicked History of the World by Terry Deary and Martin Brown and The Stunning Science of Everything: Science with the Squishy Bits Left In! by Nick Arnold and Tony De Saulles.  Our library copies of both of these titles are well worn.  Both are full of cartoon illustrations and all the gross facts and details behind the stories or facts.  Note:  These titles are not for the faint of heart; the descriptions of torture techniques in Wicked History truly made my stomach turn.  (Also note: I think the Wicked History one has been republished as Horrible History, but it appears to be the same book.)

For Girls Only: Everything Great about Being a Girl by Laura Dower and For Boys Only: The Biggest, Baddest Book Ever by Marc Aronson.  I will confess that I am not always keen on books that label themselves as for girls or for boys.  Why reinforce gender stereotypes like that?  But the truth is, many kids love these books (including my own, who recently spent an entire weekend immersed in For Girls Only), and these two are pretty good examples.  Both are full of trivia, advice, puzzles, facts, activities, etc., all conveyed with humor and wit.

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Fun for Future Engineers

Remember those marble run toys, where you put track segments together in various ways to create interesting paths for the marble?  Cuboro Webkit 2.0 is a fun web version of those toys.  I’ve only played with it a little so far, but I can see kids (and adults!) spending hours exploring the possibilities.  You can even create an account (for free) and save/share your tracks.

I recommend looking at some of the samples in the Track Gallery to get inspiration and/or if you need help figuring out how it works.

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Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor

Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor is not an easy read for a kid, because Addie, the 12-year-old girl at the center of novel, does not have an easy life.  She lives in a small trailer with her neglectful mother–and when I say “neglectful,” I mean it–and desperately misses her stepfather and younger siblings, who have moved away because of her mother’s inability to function and care for the children.  Addie gets to visit them, but even those visits are difficult because they highlight for her what she does not have: a stable, loving home.  Addie is a kid who has to fend for herself, physically and emotionally, and it can be heartbreaking to read her story.  But in spite of her difficult situation, Addie is full of spirit and spunk and optimism, and her character moves and teaches readers about strength and perseverance and the power of community.

And, hey, in addition to educational value, kids simply LOVE this book.  Addie is a character they can relate to; even if her life circumstances are very different from their own, her voice and feelings make sense to them.  I sometimes have a difficult time getting a kid to check out the book (the plot description is daunting, I think), but when they do take it, they almost always come back saying, “I really liked that book.  Do you have more like it?” and/or come back a year later saying, “I want to reread that book.”  My own daughter (age 11) read a library copy, then chose it as her annual book to donate to the lower school library, and then bought her own copy at the school book fair.  If that’s not book love, I don’t know what is!

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Truly Gross!! (Disgusting Nonfiction)

Here are a few titles for the kid who wants to read a nonfiction book and prefers something disgusting or shocking over something delicate or moving.

Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story about Brain Science by John Fleischman.  In 1848, Phineas Gage was working on building a railroad when an explosion drove a tamping rod (like a large, iron spear) through Gage’s head, coming in under his cheekbone, going through his brain, and coming out the top of his skull.  What makes this story especially interesting is that Gage survived, and lived another eleven years.  This book alternates between Gage’s story and information about brain science and medicine at the time of the accident.  A great choice for kids interested in brain science, with a fascinating story that brings the science to life.

How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg, illustrated by Kevin O’Malley.  The title explains it all:  disgusting deaths of famous folks like Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette, Marie Curie, Ludwig van Beethoven, and more.  All it took to get a load of sixth grade boys clambering for this one was reading out loud the description of Mozart’s deadly strep infection (there were pustules; there was the “stink of rotting human;” there was vomit and fever and sausage-sized fingers).  The writing here is humorous and snarky, and the descriptions truly gross.

Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know about Fast Food by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson.  The young readers’ version of Fast Food Nation, this book might stop you from eating fast food altogether (um, poop in the hamburger meat? no thanks!) or it might not (you don’t have to think about what might be in the meat!), but what it will definitely do is give you an interesting perspective on how the fast food industry works in America and its effect on our society.  This is one that kids tend to recommend to each other after reading it; it’s the kind of book you want to talk about and share.

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If You Liked The Hunger Games, You Might Like. . .

I would like to do a series of posts based on what kids might like, based on what they already know they love.  The extremely popular titles fly off our shelves so easily and build up long lists of holds, but there are always so many other great books that don’t get as much attention.

First up, since it has been so steadily in demand for two years now: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  Fans of The Hunger Games series might also enjoy. . .

The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men)   

Todd is the youngest person in a society of only men, in which everyone’s thoughts (including those of Todd’s dog Manchee) can be heard in a chaotic mass of Noise.  One day, Todd finds a space of silence in the woods, and begins a journey of discovering the history of his world and exploring its uncertain future.  The writing here is incredible—suspenseful, imaginative, and intense from the very beginning.

The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch

I mentioned this one in my last post.  My book club kids have been reading it, and seem to all agree that it’s “really good, but really dark, but not so dark in the end, but really dark.  But really good.”

The Maze Runner trilogy by James Dashner (The Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials, and The Death Cure)

Thomas wakes up in an elevator, with no memory of where he came from, and becomes part of a society of boys trapped in an enclosed space, surrounded by a maze they attempt to escape from each day.  When a girl arrives with a mysterious note, things begin to change.  This series has been raved about by pretty much every kid I’ve known who has read it.

The Books of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau (The City of Ember, The People of Sparks, The Prophet of Yonwood, and The Diamond of Darkhold)

This is a gentler version of a dystopic future that lends itself well to younger middle school readers.  A city has been created underground to preserve the human race in the event of war, but the inhabitants have no awareness of the world beyond them.  Supplies in Ember have begun to wane and the future is uncertain, when two kids discover an ancient clue that might lead to a way to survive.  Fast-paced and full of drama.

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

From the review by Anne Bartholomew:  “The shifting landscapes, unexpected plot punches, and bold, brave characters found in Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron are nothing short of thrilling: fans of Garth Nix and Suzanne Collins will take to this epic, twisty fantasy instantly, but it’s also the kind of book that will draw in the most hesitant fantasy reader.”   Only a few kids have grabbed this one so far, but they have come back wanting the sequel, Sapphique.

Matched by Ally Condie

From the description on “Cassia has always trusted the Society to make the right choices for her: what to read, what to watch, what to believe. So when Xander’s face appears on-screen at her Matching ceremony, Cassia knows he is her ideal mate . . . until she sees Ky Markham’s face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black.”  A bit of romance mixed in with a bit of dystopia.  Kids have really been enjoying this one, and the sequel Crossed is in high demand.

Trash by Andy Mulligan

From the description on “In an unnamed Third World country, in the not-so-distant future, three ‘dumpsite boys’ make a living picking through the mountains of garbage on the outskirts of a large city. One unlucky-lucky day, Raphael finds something very special and very mysterious. So mysterious that he decides to keep it, even when the city police offer a handsome reward for its return. That decision brings with it terrifying consequences, and soon the dumpsite boys must use all of their cunning and courage to stay ahead of their pursuers. It’s up to Raphael, Gardo, and Rat—boys who have no education, no parents, no homes, and no money—to solve the mystery and right a terrible wrong.”

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Fast-paced and dark, this dystopic novel set in the Gulf Coast follows the struggle of a teenage boy and his friends as they try to balance basic survival, protection of an important treasure that might change his life dramatically, and the boy’s precarious relationship with his drug-addicted, abusive father.  This was a Printz Award winner and National Book Award finalist, for good reason.  The writing is tight and the suspense relentless.

And a few more . . .

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

The Uglies Series by Scott Westerfeld

The Gone Series by Michael Grant

If you can think of others, please comment and add your suggestions!

Note:  My recommendations in this post are probably most appropriate for 7th and 8th graders (and older teens), because this genre of book tends to be dark and violent.  I have not read all of these titles.  Many of them get on my radar from reviews, but most of these have been recommended and enjoyed by some of our older middle school students.  For parents who are concerned about appropriateness for their child, I highly recommend the website for detailed information about specific titles, including language, violence, drinking/drugs, educational value, presence of positive role models and points/questions for family discussion.

(Apologies for the wacky formatting of this post.  I can’t get the thumbnails and text to line up the way I want!)

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Filed under dystopia, fantasy, If You Liked, post-apocalyptic, science fiction