Category Archives: fiction

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

I should probably wait and process Liar & Spy before I make grand statements–I only just finished it about ten minutes ago.  But here I go anyway:  this just might be a perfect middle grade novel.

Georges (named after painter Georges Seurat) and his family have just sold their home and moved into an apartment as a result of his father losing his job.  Georges still attends 7th grade at the same school, where he is bullied about his name (“Gorgeous”), among other things, but the new apartment brings new friends, in particular an odd boy named Safer and his younger sister, Candy.   The novel centers on Georges and Safer trying to solve the mystery of Mr. X, a neighbor who dresses all in black and comes and goes from his apartment carrying suitcases.  Safer speculates that Mr. X might be a murderer, and the spying that ensues includes some tense moments.  The mystery here is solid and ultimately unpredictable, and the resolution of the novel is immensely satisfying.

What is also solid is the character development, and this is really a realistic coming-of-age story as much as it is a mystery.  Georges’ voice is spot-on and unique, and the other characters who populate this story, kids and adults, are equally compelling.  A bit of the school dialogue struck me as unrealistic, but on the whole, it felt like I was reading about real, often quirky people, and if you read this blog, you know I love quirky characters!

I think middle school students, especially 5th and 6th graders, are going to really enjoy this story, both for the thoughtful mystery and the realistic fiction elements centered on family and friendships.  It’s a short, readable book, but there’s real depth to the story and the ending packs a quiet punch (is there such a thing as a quiet punch?  there is now!).   I can’t wait to share this story with students next week and start hearing their feedback!


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The One and Only Ivan

Have a hankie handy when you read this one.  For sad tears and for happy ones.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is the story of a gorilla, Ivan, who has lived for decades as one of a handful of animals at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall, a combination shopping mall, arcade, and tiny roadside circus.  Ivan has friends–elephant Stella, stray dog Bob, and Julia, the young daughter of the man who cleans the windows of his cage.  He has his art–drawings he makes with crayons and paper slipped into his cage by Julia and that his owner, Mack, sells for $25 each (with frame).  He tries not to think about what he doesn’t have–freedom, companionship of other gorillas, space to roam around and explore.  The painted jungle on one wall of his cage is as close as he can come to that, and he learned when he was very young that wanting more would just cause him more pain than he could bear.

So, he doesn’t think about it.  Until a baby elephant, named Ruby, comes to live at the Big Top Mall.  When he sees Ruby, and envisions her future as a lifetime spent in a small cage, Ivan does begin to think.  His protective instincts kick in, and he comes up with a plan that he hopes will lead to a better life for Ruby, and maybe for himself as well.

What I love about this book:  it is moving, and I would call it a feel-good book in the end, but it doesn’t shy away from some harsh realities of how animals are treated in some environments.  As Ivan talks about in the novel, there are good humans, and there are bad humans.  We see both kinds in this novel.  This is definitely a good book to give to kids who love animals, but I think I would let the kids know that there are a few places in the book that are difficult to stomach, especially if reading about an animal being hurt or dying is too much.  It ends on a very happy note, but there is some rough stuff along the way.

I also love Ivan’s voice.  I did not expect to love this book, because the concept of a gorilla narrator seemed hokey to me, but Applegate really pulls it off.  Within a few chapters, I was able to suspend any disbelief I had and just surrender myself to the story.  I’m not sure how to explain it, but Ivan’s voice came off as authentically gorillan to me, even though I know that a gorilla would not actually think or talk that way.  Maybe what I want to say is that Applegate didn’t simply stick human thoughts into a gorilla narrator; she tried to imagine how the world would really look to a gorilla, and how, if a gorilla could think and talk in our language, that would look/sound.

As far as age range, this one is excellent for grades 4-6.  The chapters are short, and there is an added bonus of beautiful illustrations by Patricia Castelao.  But I would not limit this book to younger readers.  The subject matter of animal rights is something that could interest any reader, and while the language is somewhat simple, the story being told is complex.  I certainly learned some things in reading this story.

I suspect we’ll see this on some Newbery lists, for good reason.  Highly recommended.

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Guest Post: John Claude Bemis, author of The Prince Who Fell from the Sky

Today’s post is a treat.  A guest post written by John Claude Bemis, writing about his latest novel, The Prince Who Fell from the Sky.  I will post my own full review of the book soon, and you’ll get a good idea of what it’s about from his post, but I will say for now that I really enjoyed this moving, thoughtful book.  It’s hard to categorize–a good choice for fantasy lovers, animal book lovers, kids who enjoy family stories, and even younger fans of dystopian novels.  What stood out to me was how strong the characters were, how “real” their emotions felt to me, and I think John’s post below will help explain why.  When a writer loves their characters, it’s natural for us as readers to love them as well.

John Claude Bemis writes:

I’m a nice guy.  Really!  I snuggle up with my daughter and read Mo Willem books to her.  I don’t bark at my students when they talk out of turn.  More than that, I’m always there for them with hugs and kind words.

But get me behind my laptop and I can be downright mean.  A writer has to be mean to his main character.  It’s a funny thing.  You grow to love your main character, you desperately want him or her to succeed, but to make for an exciting story, you have to throw every terrible thing their way…and enjoy doing it.  Sadistic, isn’t it?

The main character of my new novel The Prince Who Fell from the Sky is a bear named Casseomae.  She’s an outcast among the other forest animals because all her cubs have died at birth.  The animals whisper that she’s cursed or a witch.  Casseomae longs for cubs of her own.  She’s a sweet old thing, but tough and powerful and scary when she needs to be.  I deeply love her.

So why did I have to be so mean to her?  Why not fill the forest with generations of her cubs?  Why not spare her from her lonely existence?  Because she wouldn’t be a very interesting character, that’s why.

When the idea for Casseomae’s character came together in my imagination, I wanted something good for her.  I wanted her to find happiness.  I knew if I gave it to her too easily, I’d have a sappy, boring story.  So I gave her first the possibility of happiness in the form of a human boy.

Casseomae lives in a future where there are no people left on Earth.  All the animals of the forest however have legends about us and most aren’t too pretty.  When a spaceship crashes and the lone survivor emerges, Casseomae is faced with a choice.  Kill the boy, as she knows the ruling wolves of the forest would demand.  Or protect him from the animals that want humans to stay gone.  She decides to protect the boy, but I didn’t give her the happiness of a cub yet.  She has to earn that through the story.

Being a writer is like being one of those trickster gods from myth.  Those gods who stir up trouble, up-end people’s lives, take away what they love most.  But in the end, those trickster gods bring a lot of good to their victims.  I might have to begin a story being mean to my characters, but it’s for their own good.  I want Casseomae to grow and transform.  I want her to be happy.  But I can’t just give that to her.  That would be boring.  She has to work for it.

And work for it she does.  In The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, Casseomae faces unbelievable odds to protect her “cub.”  And I love her all the more for it!  I hope you will too.


John Claude Bemis is the author of The Clockwork Dark, a fantasy adventure trilogy that takes place in a mythical America. The first book, The Nine Pound Hammer (Random House), was described as “a steampunk collision of heroes, mermaids, pirates, and good old-fashioned Americana” by Booklist and was a New York Public Library Best Children’s Book 2009 for Reading and Sharing.  The trilogy continues with The Wolf Tree and The White City and has been described as “original and fresh” and “a unique way of creating fantasy.”  His new book The Prince Who Fell from the Sky was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month for May 2012.   John lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with his wife and daughter.

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Hunger Games for Youngsters, Part III

So, I’ve been asking this question, in various forms, to various people (kids, teenagers, adults):  “Should 5th graders read The Hunger Games?  Should they see the movie?”  They are reading it, in huge numbers at my school (in my last class of 20 5th grade girls, 11 had read it and 4 had seen the movie, and that seems like a pretty typical breakdown), but should they be?

Here’s an attempt at summarizing and analyzing what I’ve heard.

1.  Reactions from the younger kids themselves

The 5th and 6th graders who have read the books are not disturbed and upset by them, on the whole.  A few girls have said that they were a little disturbed, but for the most part, they are not having trouble.   I think the kids who would have trouble, and I’m sure there are many, are steering clear of the book, either by their choice or parental choice.  I’ve had a few kids ask whether they should read it, while sending me a very clear unspoken message that they want me to steer them away from it.  They are feeling pressure from peers to read it, though.

The peer pressure element is interesting.  It has come up in several conversations.  One girls said her brother (also in 5th grade) had begged her to read it.  A seventh grader said, ” My sister [5th grader] read it because it was the popular thing to do.  It’s like a peer pressure thing.  It’s not pressure, but it’s the thing everyone is doing.”  I’ve heard a LOT of “You HAVE to read it!” declarations from 5th graders to other 5th graders.

Here’s what I think about these kids reading the book:  I think that the horror of the premise (kids killing kids?  are you kidding me?) is beyond most of the younger kids reading this book.  It is so out there, so fantastical, it isn’t real.  They aren’t scared or freaked out by it because it’s more like reading about Lord Voldemort than about something that might possibly happen.  While I tend to read dystopian fiction as a sort of warning about what might happen in the future if we aren’t careful, these kids read it as pure fantasy.  They love the action and suspense of the book, and don’t really think too much about the premise.  I’m sure there are ones who do “get it,” but I haven’t talked to any young kid who expressed any sort of horror.  It has been all excitement about the action.

The movie is a different story.  I got really mixed reactions on that.  Obviously, since it just came out, I have a small sample size to work with, but there are kids who love the movie and kids who have been upset by the movie.

The most interesting comment I got was from a 5th grader this morning, a girl who had loved the book:  “When you read the book, you can visualize it in the way you can handle it.”  (I asked her to clarify, and I didn’t write down her exact words, but she basically said that you only imagine what you can handle, that your brain protects you from picturing something you can’t cope with.)  She said she had watched a youtube video of the scene from the movie where Rue dies, and said, “I was freezing cold for like the next hour.  I forgot that it was fake.”  That’s a pretty common reaction to trauma.

I also heard variations of, “It’s fine, unless you get freaked out easily.  If you get scared by Pirates of the Caribbean or Mission Impossible, you can’t read it or watch it.  If you can handle violence, you’d be fine.”  Lots of kids talked about how the movie doesn’t show the worst violence.  “It doesn’t focus on the killing.   It’s more focused on before and after the killing.”  One boy said, “One point in the movie was more violent than the book [the part with the wild doglike creatures].  I heard a bunch of people scream, and one person started crying.”  I asked if he was scared, and he said no.  A colleague wrote, “The violence was not gratuitous and could have been much more gory and explicit, but it was still pretty rough at times (as evidenced by the bawling 10 year old sitting next to us during a death scene).”

A few kids talked about vastly preferring the book because of how the book gives you Katniss’s thoughts.  “I thought it was really good, but they left out some major parts and a lot of the book was from Katniss’s brain’s point of view, and they couldn’t really do that.  I still liked it, but I didn’t like it as much because of that.”  One boy talked about the book being a more “full” experience than the movie.

One girl said, “I hunt, so it wasn’t that big of a deal.  I see this stuff, so it wasn’t a big deal.”  This comment really highlights to me how these kids aren’t seeing it as realistic at all.  I don’t think this kid would think it was “no big deal” to see an actual human killed, but the gore didn’t bother her because she has been exposed to gore via hunting.  The characters are more like animals than actual people.

2.  Reactions from slightly older kids (grade 7 and 8)

I was really surprised by the conversation I had with four of my book club kids.  Three are in 7th grade, and one in 8th.  These are hardcore readers, and all of them have read and really enjoyed the book, and three had seen the movie.

Asked whether 5th graders should read the book, three of them were emphatic that younger kids should NOT read the book.  One said, “It’s too violent.”  But then another said, “I don’t think it’s too violent, but the concept is too. . . mature.” The first agreed, “Yeah, not too violent.  Too mature.”  For these kids, the premise is not complete fantasy.  It’s disturbing to think about kids killing other kids, to think about a future and a government that would involve something so horrible.  And since they get how sick it is, they don’t want little kids reading it.  “I would NEVER let my brother [4th grade] read it.  NEVER.”

I’ve seen this before with other books.  Kids can be very protective of younger kids, of that innocence.  I think that for many 7th graders, there’s this sense of yourself that has come where you feel like you just aren’t a kid anymore, that you have lost some level of innocence.  And there’s a nostalgia for it.  The 5th grader wants very much to be older and read the books for older kids, and the 7th grader realizes that they can never be little again and kind of longs for that time.  (Of course, there are also ways in which the 5th grader wants to stay little, and the 7th grader wants to be in high school!  It’s hard to be that age!)

But here’s where I was surprised.  I asked about whether 5th graders should see the movie, and the responses flipped!  The one kid who had said yes to the book said, “No, no, no!  Not the movie.  The movie is too gross.  Too much blood for a 5th grader.  I would never take my brother [4th grade] to that movie!”  And the three who had been adamant that kids should not read the book were completely fine with the movie.  “The movie is fine.  My brother in 4th grade saw the movie, but I wouldn’t let him read it.”  They talked about how the movie cuts away from the really violent parts.  “It would not be rated PG-13 if it was violent.”  And listen to this: “If you’re reading the book, you imagine stuff in your head that’s not in the movie.”  The 5th grader above expressed the same sentiment, only for her, it was a gentler version in her head.  For the 8th grader, it was worse!

3. Reactions from older kids and adults

“Don’t take your daughter to see the movie.  It was too intense for my sister [6th grade].”

“We just got back from seeing [the movie] and I would be hesitant to bring a pre-teen to see it.”

“It was too much for 5th grade.  I wouldn’t let my 5th grade daughter read it or see it.”

“[Husband] and [13-year-old son] thought the violence in the movie was not bad; [10-year-old daughter] and I thought it was far worse in the movie than in the book. I wondered if the male gender imagines and sees violence in their head more than we do?”

“I thought the violence was well played because it was quick or more audio than visual or so blurry you couldn’t tell who was winning in hand to hand combat.   The whole premise of the book is that the games are not a good thing and even more than the books, the movie stressed the overall hatred for the violence of the games.”

“I do not think that kids are able to wrap their brains around how absolutely sick and twisted the underlying theme of this book is. The plot is so upsetting and disturbing to me that I had a hard time reading the first two chapters. My opinion is that adults are able to see how demented it truly is and can read it for what it is worth. I think kids (sorry to generalize- I know there are PLENTY of teenagers do not fall into this category) are not mature enough to comprehend how deeply disturbing the plot is, but are hooked on the characters, the excitement of the ‘games’ and the suspense it all brings.”

Overall, adults are all over the place with their opinions.  Some have been super excited to take their own kids to the movies and are anxiously awaiting the next installment.  Some are absolutely horrified by the fact that kids this young are reading the books and seeing the movie.  Most would say, “It depends on the kid.”

Which I will end with, because that’s very much how I feel about it!  It absolutely depends on the kid.

Time to find something else to obsess about!

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More on Hunger Games for youngsters

A colleague came to chat with me today about the Hunger Games movie, and we had an interesting (I thought) conversation about that difference between print and screen violence I mentioned in my last post.  For me as an adult reading the book, my mind creates images that are probably pretty close to whatever is going to show up on the big screen.  We all have the experience of frustration when a character doesn’t look like we imagined them or the plot is messed with in some way, but in general, assuming the director hasn’t taken huge liberties, there isn’t a dramatic difference.  I’ve seen loads of movies with violence and action and suspense and gore and all that jazz, so when someone stabs someone in a book, what I picture in my head is pretty much the way it looks when someone in a movie stabs someone.

But for my kid, who might a bit atypical in terms of lack of exposure to violence on the screen (big or little; we’ve never had cable, and she has had no interest in anything even remotely violent except the slapstick violence of Home Alone), I’m guessing that what her brain filled in while reading the book was a heck of a lot milder and unformed than what the movie will present.   I don’t know that she has ever seen someone get stabbed on screen (not because of my protection, by the way, but just because of her interests).  She is probably unusual in this regard, but I’m not sure how unusual.

So I haven’t got a clear idea of what a typical 5th or 6th grader creates in their head while reading a book like The Hunger Games, and I have no idea how they will handle the movie.  It’s interesting to me, though, to think about it in this way, because it explains some of the popularity with my younger students.  If the violence that is quite shocking to us as adults is processed in a very different way for them, I can see how their focus would be on the suspenseful plot.  The violence isn’t real to them in the same way.

I think that’s how I want to view it, rather than to think they have seen so much screen violence already, they are immune to it, both in print and on screen.  That thought actually scares me.

I really do not know how I feel about this.  I’m very curious to hear feedback from my younger students about the movie, and that will probably help me figure out what I really think/feel about it.

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Interesting. . .

If you are a Hunger Games fan (or a Hunger Games detractor), this article might be of interest.  Apparently, a Japanese book and movie with an identical premise existed years before the Hunger Games.  Hmmm. . .

Because of the movie coming out tonight, I have been hearing a lot about the Hunger Games.  A fellow faculty member was in the library a few days ago, wondering out loud about whether she should allow her own daughter to read the books (the kid is asking to read them).  There was a small group of 5th grade girls in the library working on something, so we asked them if they had read it, and what they thought about it, and whether it scared them or kept them up at night.  I had to leave mid-conversation because another student needed me, but what I did hear was interesting:  out of 4 girls, 3 had read at least the first book (1 had read all three, more than once).  The one who had read all 3 was completely unfazed by the violence.  One of the others was a bit iffy about it–at first said it was no problem, but then admitted to being a bit freaked out by it.   I had to leave before the third girl weighed in.

I’m kind of stunned by how many 5th graders have read the book.  I knew it was filtering down and younger kids were reading it, but I am still shocked.  But, in the interest of full disclosure, my own 5th grader did read it this past weekend.  She is sensitive to violence and had no interest in reading it for a long time because of that, but as more and more of her close friends have read it (and books are a big topic of conversation in her friend group, apparently), she became curious.  She had read and LOVED Legend by Marie Lu, which doesn’t have as much violence but has a similar dystopian theme (but without the kid-on-kid violence that is, to me, the most disturbing aspect of Hunger Games).  So I gave her the go-ahead, with the usual rule that if she hits something she is uncomfortable with, she can close the book and come talk to me about it, and she doesn’t have to read another word.  In the end, she liked Hunger Games, but wasn’t begging to read the second one right away.  (She just followed it up with Wonder by RJ Palacio, and had a lot more enthusiasm for that feel-good story.)

The question now for many parents, I’m guessing, is whether to let kids see the movie.  I don’t have a final answer yet for myself.  On-screen violence is, in my opinion, a whole different world from reading about violence in print.  I’m not sure I even want to see the movie myself for that reason!  Common Sense Media’s review of the movie might be helpful to folks trying to decide what to do here.  My gut right now is telling me to hold off, wait for when my own kid is older and watch it together on DVD then.

If you have thoughts on this, please comment!  I know this could become quite a lively debate!

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Wonder by R.J. Palacio

There was a moment, about a quarter of the way into Wonder, when I stopped breathing, felt like I had been sucker-punched in the gut.  Up until that point, I was enjoying the novel and thought it was good, but I had this distracting feeling in the back of my mind that it just wasn’t quite realistic enough.  Let’s just say I was wrong.

Wonder is the story of August Pullman’s 5th grade year at Beecher Prep, told not only through his voice, but also those of his sister and her friends, and his classmates.  August would like nothing more than to be seen as the normal kid he feels he is, but he knows that is not likely to happen.  He has a genetic birth defect (actually a rare combination of defects) that has caused his face to look shockingly different from a “normal” face, even after multiple surgeries.  Auggie says, “I won’t describe what I look like.  Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”  When he goes out in public, people look away, whisper, stare, or sometimes even scream.  But aside from the difference in his appearance, Auggie is a pretty normal kid–he loves Star Wars and science; he plays with his dog; he argues with his older sister; etc.

August has never been to school before–in large part because of all of the surgeries he has had to undergo–but now he is starting middle school at a small private school.  Needless to say, it is not easy to be the new kid in middle school, but if you look as different as August does, it’s almost unimaginably difficult.  Yet, R.J. Palacio does, I think, an admirable job of trying to imagine what it’s like for August, as well as for his family and classmates.  There were some moments that were a bit too feel-good for me, but in the end, I was thankful for those moments.  There were certainly plenty that were not at all feel-good, and for a book written for kids (I would say it’s appropriate for ages 8 and up) about such a heavy topic, there is a real need for balance.  This is at times a sad book, but it is not a depressing book, and ultimately I would describe it as triumphant.

I’m curious to see how kids react to this book.  I think many of them will like it for the well-paced story and humor, and will take something away from it as well.   Highly recommended for kids who like realistic fiction, and probably a good book to use as a class read for talking about issues like bullying and prejudice.

UPDATE:  Kid response to this so far is really good.  I am reading the first few chapters in class, and getting a fair number of holds on it from both boys and girls (6th graders this week; will have 5th next week).  My own kid (5th grade) read it and loved it.

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