Monday, May 30, 2011


Despite my best efforts, I don't find many books that appeal to my school-hating, sports-loving, techno-god, artistic, rap-writing sons. They just don't find many books they even want to try. I think a lot of this is because the high school guys in books just aren't kids that my boys know or want to know.

I spent a good chunk of my afternoon reading STUPID FAST, a new YA novel by Geoff Herbach, an author that I really believe knows boys like mine. In a recent blog post, "So That Post- Pubescent Boys Shall Read" Herbach writes of his experiences as an adolescent:

"In some ways, I was a pretty mainstream kid: I played sports. I played in the orchestra (bad cellist). I joined clubs, etc. I looked good on paper. But, at the same time, I didn’t feel normal. I was paranoid. My feelings were bruised a lot. I had the sense that I didn’t understand the world. I showered twice a day, but always felt dirty. I always felt on the outside of something. Unpleasant. These weren’t terrible times, at all, but I often felt terrible. I could’ve used a good book…

Oh! I was so alone… Um, wrong, dork.

Having taught 18 and 19-year-olds for the last six years, I’ve come to the understanding that this generalized sense of somehow being unfit is the most generalizable aspect of teendom. It does not matter what demographic the kid comes from. What gender. What clique or sub-group of that clique. When my students write about high school, most write about themselves as feeling like dorks, being dorks, standing on the outside looking in.

These days, there are lots of titles geared for teen girls that speak to this outsiderness. There are not many for boys. Why?"

Felton Reinstein, the main character in STUPID FAST is a fifteen-year-old geek, a nerd, a dork. Felton's life is further complicated by a very difficult family life. His professor father committed suicide when Felton was five. Felton lives with his mom, who insists on being called Jerri, and a younger brother, Andrew, a gifted pianist.

The year he turns 15, Felton's luck begins to change. He begins to grow. And grow. And grow. In a PE fitness test, he discovers he has also become much faster, in fact, he has become one of the fastest kids in the school. The track coaches beg him to come out for their team. The football coaches also can't wait to get hold of this rising star. Felton makes new friends and finds himself fitting in with a crowd he had never imagined joining. He also falls in love with Aleah, a concert pianist, whose father is teaching a summer course at the local university.

While things with his peers are on the rise, however, things at home are falling apart. Felton's mother is sinking deeper and deeper into the throes of depression/mental illness. Felton escapes to the weight room or practice field, but his little brother has nowhere to go. And things just keep getting worse, and worse, and worse…

I loved this book. Loved Felton, whose insecurities mirror those of the teenage boys I know. Loved that STUPID FAST was about football and the power of sports as an outlet in kids' lives. Loved Felton's less than perfect family. Loved the format of the book- short chapters with great titles.

This one is going on my kitchen table in about the next five minutes. One of my guys just might pick it up!

Friday, May 27, 2011


It's the last day of school. My job was eliminated because of budget cuts, so I'm packing my boxes and heading out to a new assignment. But for the next month or so, I'm mostly looking forward to reading, and playing with my camera, and seeing friends, and reconnecting, I hope, with my sons…

Marcus Millsap: School Day Afternoon
by Dave Etter

I climb the steps of the yellow school bus
move to a seat in the back, and we're off
bouncing along the bumpy blacktop.
What am I going to do when I get home?
I'm going to make myself a sugar sandwich
and go outside and look at the birds
and the gigantic blue silo
they put up across the road at Motts'.

Read the rest of the poem at Poetry 180.

I subscribe to YOUR DAILY POEM. I absolutely love the poems that come to my mailbox every morning, tons of really great, short, modern work by poets that are new to me. Today's is by Suzanne Comer Bell, a preschool teacher, and it's a perfect end of school poem. Check it out here.

Heidi Mordhorst is hosting Poetry Friday at my juicy little universe.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


We are two days from the end of the school year. I should be doing paperwork because I'm buried. Or unloading boxes from the car because I'm moving schools and the back of my car is full of books. Or even doing dishes, because my dishwasher is broken for the third time in six weeks. But I'm not. Instead, I've been reading, because I just found a terrific new novel by a first time author. Listen to this great lead:

Since Saturday, I've fried Sergio like catfish, mashed him like potatoes, and creamed his corn in ten straight games of bowling. And it's just the middle of the week. People call Wednesday "hump day," but for Sergio it's "kicked in the rump day." I'm his daddy now, the maddest, baddest, most spectacular bowler ever.

That's the voice of thirteen-year-old Lamar, the King of Striker Lanes Bowling Alley. Unfortunately, Lamar is also the brother of Xavier, "the Basketball Saviour," an all-star player who dreams of going to the NBA, if he can only pass his algebra class. Lamar and Xavier's mother has recently died and the two boys are being raised by their dad, who is much more impressed by his older son's basketball trophies than his younger child's bowling abilities.

Xavier is not a very nice big brother and finally Lamar has had it. He teams up with the town punk to pull off a get-even prank, which quickly backfires and alienates his brother, his long-time best friend Sergio, and his girlfriend, Makeda, not to mention the rest of his basketball loving town. Lamar has to figure out a way to get himself out of all of the trouble he has caused.

LAMAR'S BAD PRANK is an almost perfect middle school novel. It's laugh out loud funny (in some places the voice almost reminded me of WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM), but also a great story of sibling rivalry, and of a kid who makes a mistake and has to fix it.

A terrific read. I hope Crystal Allen has something else coming out really soon!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


When it comes to nonfiction, there are some publishers and series that I know I can count on. National Geographic definitely fits into that category. The books are attractive, with visuals engage even the most dubious reader. The writing is strong and interesting. The information is accurate. There are lots of terrific nonfiction tools- headings, charts, graphs, maps, glossary, etc.- that kids need to be able to use.

This week, some new books from National Geographic arrived in my mailbox. The first one on the stack, TORNADO! THE STORY BEHIND THESE TWISTING, TURNING, SPIRALLING AND SPINNING STORMS is one I will be using at school today.

TORNADOES, aimed at intermediate grade or middle school readers (but you know I will be leaving it on the kitchen table for my high school guys to find!) is divided into four sections. The first, "An Emergency Situation" tells the story of a tornado that struck Greensburg, Kansas, in May, 2007, destroying 95% of the town and killing 11 people. The second chapter, "Nature's Most Violent Storms," contains lots of terrific tools- gorgeous photographs, a diagram of how tornadoes form, a chart of the Fujita Scale (this measures the strength of tornadoes), a map of common tornado sites in the United States, a sidebar article about why tornadoes are often accompanied by hail, and a pictoral dictionary of some common tornado terms.

The third chapter, "Killer Storms," tells the stories of some of the deadliest U.S. tornadoes. The last chapter, "Twister Prediction" explains the science involved in predicting tornadoes, including a really amazing two page spread of 25 photographs of a tornado passing over a weather probe camera in South Dakota. End tools include a glossary, list of additional print and web resources, messages from a tornado survivor and a scientist, and a bibliography and index.

A terrific and very timely new resource!

Review copy provided by publisher

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Warning to readers: This is probably another one of those- everyone else read this book awhile, but I hadn't, and I loved it, and so I'm going to blog about it anyway (I certainly have been doing a lot of those lately!).

Gianna Zales is a middle school student. She is a talented cross country runner, and a gifted artist. She is not, however, a particularly strong student, or at least not one of those kids who always has a pencil, and finishes homework, and has the organizational skills to finish projects ahead of time.

Gianna's science teacher has assigned a giant leaf identification project. And if Gianna doesn't finish it, she won't be allowed to run in the cross country sectionals, even though she is a star runner at her school. Bianca, a nasty classmate, is eagerly waiting to take Gianna's place, and does all that she can to make that happen.

Gianna's family life is no less complicated. Gianna's beloved grandmother, Nonna, is in the beginning states of what appears to be Alzheimer's. Her mom, an ultra organized type A personality is having a hard time accepting her mother's declining health. And Gianna's father runs a funeral home, and insists upon carting Gianna around town in a hearse.

I loved this book. Kate Messner's characters were terrific. Gianna, a really good girl, a terrific friend and loving granddaughter who just doesn't quite fit into the school mold. Zig, Gianna's best friend/almost boyfriend, who is ultra organized and scientific does his best to keep Gianna on track during the leaf project, I love that Messner breaks the organized girl taking care of her boyfriend stereotype. Most of all, Nonna, who is at that very painful place where she knows she is forgetting things. Nonna reminded me of my very special, much loved grandma. I loved her sweet, sweet gentle wisdom. I loved the ending of this book, how Gianna resolves her leaf project problem in her own way.

A terrific read!

Friday, May 20, 2011


A couple of years ago, I found Linda Pastan's poem, "To a Daughter Leaving Home." I loved it, and have kind of kept an eye out for her work. Here is one I stumbled across this week.

" A New Poet"

Finding a new poet
is like finding a new wildflower
out in the woods. You don't see

its name in the flower books, and
nobody you tell believes
in its odd color or the way

its leave grow in splayed rows
down the whole length of the page…

Read the rest of the poem here.

Go here and read Marks.

And here are a couple of Pastan quotes (I think they are really excerpts) I found on the same website.

Evil is simply
a grammatical error:
a failure to leap
the precipice
between "he"
and "I."''
Linda Pastan (b. 1932), U.S. poet. "Instructions to the Reader," lines 28-33 (1982).

''I made a list of things I have
to remember and a list
of things I want to forget,
but I see they are the same list.''
Linda Pastan (b. 1932), U.S. poet. "Lists," lines 1-4 (1982).

Poetry Friday is at Julio Larios' The Drift Record.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Debbie Levy's mother, Jutta, was approximately twelve years old when Hitler came to power. Jutta and her family, Polish Jews living in Germany, were one of the last families in their neighborhood allowed to leave Germany and immigrate to the United States. Jutta was allowed to bring her poesie album, (a book similar, but more elaborate, than American autograph albums), which had been signed by many of her friends and family members.

Levy used the poesie album as the basis for THE YEAR OF GOODBYES, which chronicles Jutta's last year in Germany, ending as the family arrives in the United States. Each chapter begins with a reproduction and translation of one page from the poesie album. This is followed by a story poem, told in Jutta's voice describing the events of that particular period. The poems are powerful and very real.

The book also includes a really detailed afterword, with more background information about the war, a timeline information about what happened to Jutta's friends and relatives, and also family photographs.

I loved this book. Think it would be a great way to help intermediate grade and middle school students begin to understand World War Two and the Holocaust. It would also be terrific in a basket of poetry novels.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


As a teacher, I have always had a special interest in kids that Donalyn Miller describes as "dormant readers." You know them-- those kids that for whatever reason, just don't read. I'm pretty good at matching kids with books, but this year, there are a couple of sixth grade girls with whom, well, let's just say, with whom (is that proper grammar) I have not experienced a lot of success. They just don't read. Yet.

Last week, I came across these girls in the hall. They were huddled together over a book. "Whatcha reading?" I asked, trying to keep the excitement/glee out of my voice.

They held up the cover. "BANG!" they said. BANG was a book I had never seen.

"Any good?" I said, trying again to maintain an even voice.

"Yeah," they both exclaimed simultaneously.

I looked at the front cover, "I never heard of this book," I said. "Can I read it when you are done?"

"There are more in there," M said, and went back into the classroom to fetch one for me. And so for the past week, we have had our own informal reading club on the playground. The girls ask me how much I have read. What I think. How I think the book will end. And I have loved every minute of it.

BANG is the story of an urban teen named Mann, whose younger brother had been the victim of a gun battle while he was playing on their front porch two years earlier. Mann's parents have retreated into their canyons of grief and Mann is pretty much left to try to process things on his own. He turns to his best friend Kee-lee, the oldest son of a single parent. Mann and Kee-lee, both very talented artists, paint pictures, smoke marijuana, and keep track of the number of people who have been shot in their neighborhood. Mann's father, desperately afraid of losing his remaining son, decides he will help his son and Kee-lee become men. Drawing on African tribal customs, he sends the two on a journey that quickly becomes fatal.

BANG made me incredibly sad. I was saddened by the way grief shredded Mann's family, and especially how it impacted Mann's father. Second, I was saddened by Mann and Kee-lee, two super artistic kids who could make something of their lives; they remind me of way too many kids I teach and know. They have so, so, so much talent and so, so, so much promise, and they have to overcome so, so, so many barriers stand to grow into the shining stars they could be. I was also sad that it was a book where so many of my kids could see themselves.

At the same time, I think it's a book that might be incredibly appealing to urban adolescents. I'm going to try to get my boys to read it this summer.

WARNING: This is definitely YA-- probably not appropriate much below sixth grade.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


A month or so ago, I received an email asking if I would be willing to review Pam Allyn's BEST BOOKS FOR BOYS on my blog. As the mom of two aliterate high school athletes, I was more than happy to oblige. My boys have spent their high school years reading the classics that I read in high school: CATCHER IN THE RYE (not to be confused with CATCHER OF THE RYE BREAD, as it has come to be known at our house), TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD ("We have to go buy some old book about a bird tonight, but I can't remember the title"), and GRAPES OF WRATH (Have you ever heard of this guy named John Steinberg?). We have also read other titles bound to capture the attention of every normal adolescent: SNOW IN AUGUST and ROOTS, for example. While I know that all of these books are important, all I want for my boys is that that read; that they know the power of a good book (or poem, or article, etc) -- to entertain, or inform, or escape, or transform. And that simply isn't happening in their lives…

I was delighted, then, to read PAM ALLYN'S BOOKS FOR BOYS. The book is divided into three parts. The first section is an introduction and overview. The second section is a question and answer format (e.g. What if boys are highly active and don't want to sit still to read? What about online reading? How can I build boys' confidence as readers? How can I get boys interested in girl books?). Lots of these would be terrific discussions for professional development.

The third section is a phenomenal list of books divided by topic (e.g. Action and Adventure, Art and Music, Mystery and Horror, Expeditions, Humor, Math and Numbers, Biographies, Technology ) and then further divided by reading/emotional stage (Emerging, Developing, Maturing). Many of the titles are accompanied by sublists (if you liked this book, you will also like…) or topics for conversation. I was super impressed by the booklists- I think I'm pretty conversant in this area and there were LOTS of titles that I had never heard of.

Allyn's book has been featured on several different blogs this moth. You can read reviews at SNAPSHOTS OF MRS. V , THE LITERACY TOOLBOX and READING REWARDS. My friend Kyle interviewed Pam at THE BOY READER earlier this week.

I decided that rather than review the book, I would simply pull out a few quotes I loved, and leave you to swish them around in your mind:

In the great picture book and true story by Mordecai Gerstein, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, the performance artist Philippe Petit practices for years to walk on a tightrope wire between the two World Trade Towers. “He looked not at the towers but at the space between them and thought, what a wonderful place to stretch a rope.”

Reading can feel as risky as walking a tightrope even if it doesn’t look nearly as daring. It can be so public in the classroom that a boy who wants to hide his vulnerability might prefer resistance to falling in front of his peers. This book is about fortifying our teaching so that our boys see the space between and say “What a wonderful place to stretch a rope.” 7

My mission is to help all children achieve not only functional literacy but transformational literacy. The kind of literacy that will allow them to learn something new every day, connect to all people everywhere, and to invent new ideas that could change the world.—And in this process, to learn, through reading, how to be the kind of person they want to become. 9

Absorption is the one key quality I believe is missing from our instruction. We jump from skill to skill, activity to activity. Let’s create a sanctuary around the independent reading time so that boys can dig in, discover, wander and explore. 21

The problem is not that boys are “too active,” the problem is that our classrooms do not allow them to be themselves. 23

The best way to promote reading for pleasure is to LET KIDS READ.

Make sure your number one priority is EYES ON TEXT. Make sure each and every day you are giving your boy readers ample opportunity to read and that minutes spent reading is really minutes spent reading and not mostly you talking about the reading.

Friday, May 6, 2011


William Ross Wallace

They say that man is mighty
He governs land and sea
He wields a mighty spectre,
O'er lesser powers that be,
But a mightier power and stronger
Man from his throne has hurled,
For the hand that rocks the cradle,
Is the hand that rocks the world.

I spent a good chunk of yesterday in first grade, helping children prepare gift poems for Mother's Day. Not sure we have any future Mary Olivers, but I think some moms are going to be really happy on Sunday.

My Mom

My mom looks beautiful

My mom feels like smooth skin

My mom smells like perfume

My mom sounds like music

My mom dances like crazy!


My Mom

My mom looks like candy.

She smells like mint.

She feels like gummy bears.

She likes cherries.


My Mom

My mom

Looks like an angel

Sounds like a kitten

Feels like a marshmallow

And smells like green beans.

My mom is a cook.

My mom is an artist.

My mom is nice.

I love my mom.



I know she looks beautiful

I know she smiles all the time

I know she sounds fun

I know she feels soft like a bed

And she smells like chicken soup

I know my mom.


“My Mom”

My mom looks like a sweet teddy bear to me;

My mom feels like a soft bird when she hugs me.

My mom smells like a purple rose.

My mom has a voice like music.

I feel like I have more company

when I’m with her.

I love my mom.


My Mom

She has dark hair like chocolate,

Her hugs make me feel happy and surprised,

Her hugs protect me.

She is sometimes soft

And sometimes loud

And sometimes funny.

My mom loves me

and I love my mom.


My Mom

My mom looks like a cupcake

because she is pretty.

My mom feels soft like marshmallows.

My mom smells like strawberry jam.

My mom sounds like singing birds.

My mom makes me feel good.

I love my mom.


My Mom

My mom is skinny and soft.

My mom’s voice sounds like a flute.

She loves me.

She is my mom.


Poetry Friday is at THE FAMILY BOOKSHELF (formerly Scrub-A-Dub Tub)

Monday, May 2, 2011

OPERATION YES- Sara Lewis Holmes

OK, so this probably falls into the "everyone else in the world has already read and reviewed this book but I hadn't and I just did, and loved it, so I'm going to review it anyway category."

Bo (short for Bogart) Whaley is a sixth grader at the dilapidated Young Oaks Elementary School on a military base in Reform, North Carolina. Bo reminds me of so many of the boys I have taught (not to mention the two I live with)- he is irrepressible, energetic, and funny, all great characteristics when one gets out into the world, but also characteristics that don't always work in the school setting. Unfortunately, Bo's father is the base commander, which means the spot light is often on Bo. Bo's dad wants his son to behave himself and stay out of trouble.

At the beginning of the book, Bo's 12-year-old cousin, Gari, comes across the country to live with Bo and his family, because her mother has been deployed to Iraq. Gari misses her mother and her old life desperately. She is not in North Carolina long before she comes up with a plan so that her mother will have to return.

The school and military base are strait-laced and conventional, but the new sixth grade teacher, Ms. Loupe, is neither. Ms. Loupe is an actress who uses improvisational theater to engage her students. Her creative, high energy style is perfect for Bo, and he is soon in the midst of his best year ever. Then the unthinkable happens. Ms. Loupe's brother, serving in the military in Afghanistan, is injured, and the sixth grade class bands together in a campaign to raise funds for injured soldiers.

I loved the gritty reality of this book. A school that is falling down. A librarian who curses by shouting out book titles (I am so going to try this!). Kids who are less than perfect. Cousins who fight as much as they get along. A girl that tries to solve a problem in a way that could end very badly but doesn't. And mostly, kids who band together to do something good in their world…

A great read!