If you are a fan of middle-grade fiction, you have most likely heard of the book Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. Wonder deals with a child who has a cleft palate and his experiences when he goes to a real school for the first time rather than being home-schooled. He can’t hide his condition but he also won’t allow it to define him. There is a reason this book has received a great amount of praise. For similar reasons, the new book Caleb and Kit by Beth Vrabel (Running Press Books, Sept. 2017) is going to be a hit for the middle school crowd.
Caleb and Kit tells the story of 12 year old Caleb, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, a diagnosis meaning lungs that fill with mucus and a shortened lifespan. He feels completely overprotected by his mother and his “perfect” big brother. Even his closest friend, Derek, makes sure that he is included when the other kids play sports, but also makes sure that he doesn’t over-do it. Caleb is aware of his condition and knows how to take care of himself, but no one ever seems to let him. When summer break comes and he has to spend each day in a camp with mostly 8 and 9 year olds, he just can’t take it. To add insult to injury, his father has started a new life with a woman who seems oblivious to his condition.
Caleb’s life changes when he gets lost in the woods behind his house one day and meets Kit. Kit is like no one he has ever met. She is home schooled and seems to be free as a bird. Kit believes that she can talk to animals and fairies and doesn’t worry about what anyone thinks. Her mantra is “I do what I want,” a concept that especially appeals to Caleb who feels so trapped by those looking out for him. Kit’s fantasy world and the freedom Caleb feels when he is with her lure him to make some very unwise decisions, including some that risk his health. Early on the reader knows that there is more to Kit than meets the eye. She isn’t just a girl with a lot of freedom, she is a girl who isn’t being cared for and who is struggling simply to survive. It just takes Caleb a lot longer to figure this out.
I couldn’t put this book down. It was wonderfully written, honest, and had true to life middle grade voices. Caleb had moments of exceptionally bad behavior, but a) he’s 12 and b) he is fighting for his own voice and his life. Caleb had never really been given the ability to make his own decisions and figure out who he was. He also had quite a chip on his shoulder and found it difficult to comprehend what others might be thinking or feeling. Common enough for any tween, let alone one with CF. Caleb and Kit is a must read and one that I couldn’t stop thinking about.
***Note – I received a digital review copy from NetGalley in return for my honest review.
A big part of growing up is figuring out friends and, as you get a bit older, what it means to be more than friends. I remember that when I was in the 5th and 6th grade, one of the book series that was incredibly popular, and which I adored, was Sweet Valley High. Now no one is going to argue that this was high quality literature, but it was fun. These books hit on topics that I was thinking about, but wasn’t ready to quite voice or fully understand. Most of my friends were at least a year older than me, and the notion of boys was definitely in play.
Back in the day, the Sweet Valley High books were intended for preteens, the market that we now consider tweens. Were the SVH books quality literature? Not even close. Were they brain candy and super fun? Absolutely. Kids have to be kids and read light fluff from time to time, especially when we put so many pressures on them. So where am I going with this? I want to take a look at the Choose Your Own Ever After series published by Kane Miller and available through Usborne Books & More.
Choose Your Own Ever After is a series of books that were first published in Australia in 2014. The concept behind these books is that each one lets you choose your own path and change the story based on your decisions. Many people recall the Choose Your Own Adventure series written in the late 70s and early 80s. These books work within that same concept, but have fewer decisions to make and the choices are based on bigger issues. A sample question is do you go to the big party with your two closest friends so they can chase the boys they like or do you go to the movie night/fundraiser for the club at school that you have been a long-time member of? Continue reading →
Being a kid is hard. Every day a new challenge comes around that might stop you in your tracks. How you deal with it is key.
There are a lot of books out these days about believing in yourself. I’ve written a bunch about the idea of believing in yourself in the past, but it is a topic that resonates with me and with children. When you are learning to do something new, it is so easy to just give up when it is hard, but where would that get you?
Not giving up is the main focus of Ashley Spires’ new book, The Thing Lou Couldn’t Do (Kids Can Press, May 2017). In this story, Lou and her friends are brave adventurers who have big dreams and can do anything. Except that one day when they decide to play pirates, her friends suggest that the pirate ship be a tree and she has never climbed one before. Lou suggests other games, comes up with excuses why she can’t climb the tree, and finally admits to her friends that she just doesn’t know how. With a little help and encouragement, she decides that she will give it a try. What’s even better? Spires doesn’t actually show Lou getting up the tree. She gives it a go, still doesn’t make it, but she will be back another day to attempt it again. We loved Spires’ earlier book The Most Magnificent Thing, and this is a great addition to books about perseverance and determination. Continue reading →
When I first heard that Shannon Hale was writing a graphic novel memoir I knew that it was one of those books that I was going to have to get my hands on. Thanks to NetGalley, my daughter J and I were able to read this before it actually came out, but I also still have a copy of it pre-ordered in my Amazon account.
Shannon Hale is one of our favorite authors who has written books from the Princess in Black Series to Ever After High and the Princess Academy series. You can check out some of our comments on those at an earlier post about Princesses who Defy the Rules. The characters that she writes about are strong, spunky, and take chances to be their own best self. Combine our love of her writing with the ever-trendy graphic novel format, and I knew there was a winning combination.
In her new book, Real Friends (being published this May by First Second), Shannon Hale and illustrator LeUyen Pham bring forth a graphic novel about growing up and the realities of friendship and cliques. Continue reading →
It’s interesting watching your reader grow in maturity. This year has seen great strides for J who continues to grow, not only as a reader, but in general maturity. Friday morning I was reading a post from the Nerdy Book Club about the “just right” book and what that means and it resounded with me. I am happy to say that J has never focused much on her “level” and always has read for pleasure. She has had great teachers and I’m definitely not one to push for reading levels.
These days, unfortunately, many kids focus a great deal on the “level” of the book and less on the story itself. That’s one thing if the book is required reading, but if you are reading for pleasure, it should be just that – pleasurable. When J was obsessed with Harry Potter or the Land of Stories, it was like you couldn’t pull her away from them. She knew every detail backward and forward. She could actually even recite the chapter titles from the first Harry Potter book.
So these year I watch with fascination as J approaches her required reading list for the Battle of the Books. J has long desired to be a part of the Battle of the Books. While she could easily read and comprehend most of the books at an early age, the rules state that you have to be in 4th or 5th grade for the elementary competition. A big reason for this, I believe, is less about reading level and more about having the maturity to read books that you don’t necessarily like all that much. She took a quick break from one book in order to plow through another and the different purposes and the distinction feels very clear to me.
The first book she is reading is Woods Runner, by Gary Paulsen. This is one of the books for the Battle of the Books this year and tells of a 13 year old boy living in the American frontier during the American Revolution. While Samuel is out hunting one day, his parents are taken captive by British soldiers. Samuel then sets out to find them. The story is filled with very detailed descriptions of muskets, rifles, bayonets and other weapons of the time. There are also many instances where readers learn of the practice of scalping someone. After each chapter there is also a page with historical notes that help fill in some of the holes that might exist by reading a book that takes place in such a different time. I would say that we are about half-way done with this book and while some parts are fabulous and keep you yearning to know what it going to happen, there are many other parts that you just have to trudge through.
The second book is Gertie’s Leap to Greatness. She inhaled this book. It was given to her on Thursday afternoon and by Sunday evening she had finished it. When I asked her what she liked about it, she just said it was great. I’ve started reading it myself, but haven’t gotten into the heart of the book yet. Gertie has been compared to Ramona Quimby, but slightly older and definitely more modern.
The story is primarily about Gertie Reece Foy, a fifth grade girl who has made it her goal in life to become the best fifth grader in the universe. Why? Her mother had moved out when she was a baby, but a few days before 5th grade started, Gertie saw a for sale sign in her mother’s front yard. Gertie feels the need to become her absolute best self so that she can walk up to her mother’s door, hand her back a locket that she had given her, and then her mother “would know that Gertie Foy was one-hundred-percent, not-from-concentrate awesome and that she didn’t need a mother anyway. So there.” But there is just one problem in Gertie’s plan. The new girl, Mary Sue Spivey, also wants to be the best fifth grader.
This book is the trials and tribulations of an 10 year old trying to become her best possible self. In seeking out her greater self, she stumbles upon the greatness that was already inside of her. Even if the kids who are reading it don’t completely get that message, they will see her try new things, fail, and pick herself right back up and figure out a new plan of action. Gertie’s “leap” to greatness is really made up of many small steps that all of us need to take.
I loved watching J tear through a book again, it just really made me think about how we all approach books. When a book really moves a kid, or an adult, they simply can’t put it down. Gertie’s Leap to Greatness, Serafina and the Twisted Staff, Frindle, The Monster War, these are the books that have been favorites recently in between the required reading she has done. She’s definitely enjoyed some of the BOB books more than others and doesn’t wait for me to share in the reading, but she absorbs them and enjoys them in a completely different way. That’s okay, she is learning of the wide variety of styles and flavors out there. If only we could all be as smart as our kids.
National Geographic knows that one of the best ways to capture anyone’s attention is through stunning photography. We recently received two of their newest titles and they are visually outstanding and super fun.
J’s favorites include items such as the toilet with a motorbike engine, the list of “Royally Amazing Castles,” which of course includes Neuschwanstein castle (Sleeping Beauty and mentioned in Land of Stories) and Alawick castle of Harry Potter fame, Ultimate Tree Houses, and crazy roller coasters.
The thing is, even though this information might seem useless, it can totally come up in conversation. Just yesterday afternoon we were talking about inventions that we would like to see happen. Of course I voted for a robot that cleans the house for me and one who folds laundry. J responded that “you know, there is a robot that plays the violin. And a robot that can find books.” Where did she learn these things? Amazing 8.
The Eight Weird Wonders reminds me of my days working at a travel magazine and the stunningly wonderful natural world that we often don’t see, especially if we don’t have access to helicopters and such. This is a great book to have around whenever you need a quick break from reality or as something to keep a child occupied. It also is a great book for car rides as it sparks all kinds of fun conversations – what do you mean there is a pink lake?!?
The book 100 Things to Know Before you Grow Up also has a little bit of everything, but unlike Awesome 8, these are actually things that you can really use in your day to day life. It is “chock-full of the information that you need to be the best version of you. You know, a normal kid but with superhuman, super awesome skills for dealing with tough times.” There isn’t a method to the madness in terms of how the book is organized, but on some levels that works even better for kids because it keeps them turning the pages, waiting to see what comes next. Some of the topics include
- How to make snow ice cream
- How to say I’m sorry
- How to help someone who is choking
- How to do the laundry
- How to say No
- How to journal like a pro
- How to make a tie-dyed shirt
Interspersed throughout all of these two page “how-to” guides are interviews with experts and explorers to help you discover your passion, to stand up for what you believe in, and figure out how to let your imagination run wild.
There is simply an abundance of amazing and useful information condensed into this little book. There is even a check-list and index at the back of the book for future reference! A great addition for kids to pull of the shelf from time to time.
We really enjoyed these books and I am glad to have them as part of my collection. I’m including them as part of the non-fiction picture book challenge hosted by KidLitFrenzy. There is always an abundance of amazing picture books discussed on the blogs that link up. Go check it out!
In our attempt to broaden our reading horizons this summer, I have been encouraging J to read from the Battle of the Books list for the upcoming year. She is not allowed to participate yet, but the list of books is amazing and it definitely removes us from our normal comfort zone of witches, wizards, fairy tales and princesses. The first book that we managed to read off of the list was also one that we chose for our Book/Movie club and it was a rousing success.
Our school had already read Kate DiCamillo’s Edward Tulane as a part of the One School, One Book program, so we were accustomed to her writing style. That said, I don’t think either of us were prepared for how much we loved Because of Winn-Dixie.
India Opal Buloni is a lonely little girl who has just moved to Naomi, Florida with her father, the preacher. Her mother had left them years earlier and her father is often too busy in his role as preacher to perform his role of father. One day Opal goes into the Winn-Dixie supermarket and comes out with a dog. A big, ugly, suffering dog with a sterling sense of humor. A dog she dubs Winn-Dixie. This dog will manage to change her life.
In her loneliness, Opal opens up to Winn-Dixie and gathers up the courage to ask her father about her mother. Because of Winn-Dixie, the preacher tells Opal ten things about her absent mother, one for each year Opal has been alive. Winn-Dixie also helps Opal make the friends that she so desperately craves. They are not exactly typical friends for a 10 year old girl, but each one helps her learn something about the world around her and about herself. First there is the local librarian, Miss Franny Block, who once fought off a bear with a copy of War and Peace and whose great-grandfather, Littmus W. Block, invented a candy makes you feel a touch sad. This is to help you understand about how to survive sorrow and the blending of sweetness and sadness in life (think Inside Out). Then they meet Gloria Dump, who is nearly blind but sees with her heart, and who helps Opal learn not to judge others by what she sees. Finally there is Otis, an ex-con who sets the animals in his pet shop loose after hours, then lulls them with his guitar. Opal spends all that sweet summer collecting stories about her new friends and thinking about her mother. But because of Winn-Dixie, or perhaps because she has grown, Opal learns to let go, just a little, and that friendship—and forgiveness—can sneak up on you like a sudden summer storm.
J and I first started reading this book together and it was the kind of book that you start and don’t want to put down. After the first three chapters I did make her go to bed and then the next day she picked the book back up without me and finished it on her own. I think I would have enjoyed this book even more if we had been able to read it together so that I could hear her thoughts as the book went along, but I was amazed by it all on my own. This is one of those magical books where you have no idea what to expect from the story and then it just completely touches your heart.
When I asked J about her favorite part, she told me that it was when they were having a party at the end of the book and Winn-Dixie went missing. She also simply loves using the word “pathological” now because she learned the Winn-Dixie had a pathological fear of thunder storms. I have to admit, the ending of the book when she believed Winn-Dixie was missing was one of my favorite parts as well, but probably because of how much I felt Opal had grown and how she was able to let go.
We had the book/movie club meeting a few weeks ago and I was highly impressed by how well the book had captured everyone’s attention. They had really recalled a number of details and all seemed to enjoy the book. While I have read other books by Kate DiCamillo, this was the first one where I truly understood why people love her so much.
The lexile level for this book is 610 and is aimed at grades 3-5. This is one of those times where I think that the grade level is pretty accurate. Our group read it as they were all finishing 2nd grade. The biggest issue is less about whether they will actually be able to read the book on their own and more about if they are able to comprehend and appreciate the story. A great book of realistic fiction that kids really enjoy.