Friday, January 17, 2014

Keepin' it real!

I enjoy receiving and giving realistic fiction, for both children and adults, with strong characters, beautiful language, and humane visions.
If I ask a typical middle schooler to show me a book categorized as realistic fiction, they'd probably show me one about some sort of girl drama or sports...because that's how they roll.  If they asked me to show them an example of realistic fiction, I'd run, or drive, to my nearest public library and find Dorothea Benton Frank, Elin Hilderbrand, or Nora Roberts...because that's how I roll.

Wait a minute....GASP...OMG, we're on the same page.  They just want to read something they can connect to, identify with, recognize, empathize, and feel similar feelings as the characters in their books.  Just. Like. Us.

Realistic fiction is a huge umbrella that spans romance to mystery, humor to sports, and even includes a little ghostliness in there sometimes.  It can be overwhelming to anyone when they hear..."find a realistic fiction book to read".  Wait, what?  For current middle schoolers, is Hurricane Katrina considered historical fiction or realistic fiction?  What about 9/11 fiction?  These are issues I've seen lately when teachers ask students to search for this genre.  Who decides?  Teachers?  Students?  Librarians?  Does it matter?  Well it certainly shouldn't but it does put some things into perspective when we strive so hard to categorize a book by genre.  As librarians and teachers, we should do more of the discussion about a book and less of the categorization (IMHO).  Am I channeling Donalyn Miller here or what?

So let's keep it real in January.  The weather is cold (this week in SC it's 30, next week it's going to be 70...but I digress) so it's a great time to find some good realistic fiction and sit down with some hot coffee, hot chocolate, soup, well you get the hint, and READ.  As I mentioned in our #bookbootcamp wiki, some of the books on this month's reading list overlap with other genres.  Just like us, our books are certainly unique but they can't be placed into a specific niche all of the time.  

With those random thoughts about realistic fiction, go be one of your students...explore, read, think.  We'll chat about all of this and more on Monday, January 25th at 8:00 pm EST on Twitter using hashtag #bookbootcamp.  If this is your first chat, welcome!  If you're a regular, welcome back!  Talk to you soon and have fun keepin' it real with your reading.

Wordle: Realistic Fiction

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What's So Funny?

"There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt." Erma Bombeck
It is an embarrassing fact that I have a middle-schooler's sense of humor. I often struggle to keep myself from laughing when my students do something hysterically inappropriate or silly, especially when another teacher is nearby. If someone tells me that I have the sense of humor of a  middle school student, it generally isn't a compliment. Most of the time it means that I find silly, inappropriate pranks to be funny. If someone passes gas in yoga class, I am the one who won't be able to stop herself from laughing.
Some of my favorite middle level funnies.

Selecting middle school literature is like wading into the ocean. It is important to be familiar with the water to avoid wading into the deep and dangerous  "too mature for this audience" books all the while knowing that yes, there are a few eighth graders who are ready to enjoy books in this area.  Remaining in the shallows of the "safe" books is not a good idea either. This is especially true for romance, realistic fiction and comedy.  Yes, some of my sixth graders will read N.E.R.D.S, but many of them will put it down as soon as  they learn that the characters are in elementary school. I find that my students generally want to read about students who are their age or older. I serve students in grades 6-8, but my purchasing includes titles that are recommended for grades 5-9. Middle school has to be the toughest level to buy for, the books have to be like Goldilocks, just right!

Certain books and series are super popular, such as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I usually tend to read only the first book in a series like this because once a book reaches that type of mass popularity, it doesn't need me to promote it. I certainly take advantage of the hype that accompanies new books in a series and movie releases with expertly timed trivia contests and first check out drawings, however.

Sometimes, the illustrations and pictures are the funniest part of the book. And what about some of those R.L. Stine books? Many of his books are humorous. . . . And what about books like Nightlight, a parody of Twilight? There are quite a few literary elements employed in humorous books, making them excellent teaching tools.  Is humor a genre or a literary element? Why isn't there an award for it? What could we call the award? How about the Ha! Ha! ?  What's that smell?

I think someone farted.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

I Heart Romance

I admit without shame that I love reading romance.  I love to watch romantic comedies.  A good romance to me is heart warming, gut wrenching, funny and tear jerking all at once.

I willingly volunteered to read and put together resources for our #bookbootcamp for middle grades because I never consciously thought about 'romance' for middle school.  After reading lots of different romance books this summer and reading some of the resources I listed on our #bookbootcamp wiki, I realize that romance for middle grades is all about relationships- from crushes to first kiss.

Here are some of my favorite middle grade romances:
Guitar Notes by Mary Amato, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith,
The Juliet Club by Suzanne Harper, I'd Tell You I Love You, but then I'd have to Kill You by Ally Carter,
Curveball: The Year I Lost my Grip by Jordan Sonnenblick, Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman, Spy School
by Stuart Gibbs and Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities by Mike Jung
Here is a link to my romance shelf in Goodreads to see more middle grade romances titles that I've read and marked 'to-read.'

I hope you will join me and the other librarians and teachers of #bookbootcamp for our Romance chat, on Monday, October 28, 2013 at 8:00pm.  What romance titles are popular in your middle school library? Check out my suggested reading list of romance titles.  

Friday, September 6, 2013

Hero On a Bicycle Book Review

This month I've enjoyed reading historical fiction, a genre I don't read often. I read Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larson and plan to read Victoria's Rebels by Carolyn Meyer, but I felt a connection to Hero On a Bicycle by Shirley Hughes and wanted to write about it.

Hero On a Bicycle is about a family living near Nazi-occupied Florence, Italy during World War II. Thirteen year old Paolo is bored with the strict military rules that govern the citizens of Florence so he sneaks out at night and rides his bike through the deserted streets. One night he is approached by men from the anti-Nazi resistance. He and his family are asked to aid the effort by hiding Allied soldiers in their home. Suddenly the realities of war are dangerously close for this family.

I appreciated reading a World War II novel that gave a different perspective on the conflict. Most novels about this time focus on the Holocaust. It is not common to find a book that addresses Italy's role in the war. I believe the students that are drawn to war novels will enjoy this story because it is from a young boy's point of view and includes the elements of fear and tension that living near the front lines bring to a home. My only complaint about the book is that the end seemed to wrap up too nicely. I will not spoil it here though. Be sure to check out the author's website for this book.

A read alike for this book is War Games by Audrey Couloumbis.

This book really stuck with me because it relates to my own family's history. The story is about this handsome man, my grandpa, Roy (Bud) Easler.

My grandfather was a prisoner of war during World War II. He was captured in North Africa in 1943 and taken to O-Flag 64 in Poland. There is a website that archives the prison records. My grandfather's record can be found here. In the history section it describes how the prisoners were marched out of the camp because Soviet troops were drawing near. During the snowy march about 400 men escaped, including my grandfather. He never told me the details of the escape, but I've been told that he and a few friends hid under piles of hay in a barn to elude their captors. Somehow he made his way to Naples, Italy where he boarded a US Navy ship and returned home. There are many nameless people that assisted him on the journey from Poland to Naples, maybe even families like the one described in this book.

While reading the book I often wondered if my grandfather experienced something similar to the soldiers in the story. My grandfather survived because of the bravery of people like this fictional family, those brave enough to risk their own lives to help soldiers to safety. I will never know the people that helped my grandfather, but thanks to stories like this one, they will not be forgotten.

Grandpa passed away last year at the age of 92. He came home from war, married my grandma, had two children, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He worked in the mill and then in the school book depository for Spartanburg County. (Maybe this is where my library skills come from) He was funny, patient, smart and had a green thumb. All around, just a great man.

I thank Shirley Hughes for telling this story and I hope that you find historical fiction novels that you can connect with as we read together this month.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Graphic Novel Twitter Chat Archive

We are well into August and I hope you are enjoying reading mysteries and thrillers. I know that I have enjoyed reading them!

I want to send a special thank you to all of those book boot campers that were able to join our first Twitter chat on graphic novels.
You can read the archive of the chat here if you missed it.
We had a fun hour of sharing titles and promotion ideas for graphic novels. I look forward to chatting with you all again in a few weeks. Hope to "see" you on Twitter on August 26th at 8 pm EDT.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Awards for Great Mysteries

When gathering a reading list of novels for our mystery genre #bookbootcamp chat, I started with two awards that recognize the best in mystery literature for the year.  Both include juvenile and or young adult titles, and both have consistently included titles that are among my favorites, and that appeal to my students.

Twirl background by Patrick Hoesly via Flickr
The Edgars are awarded by the Mystery Writers of America association. Some of the nominees for the juvenile category were already in our school library, but I was missing the winner, The Quick Fix by Jack D. Ferraiolo.  These are the five nominees for 2013.

The Young Adult winner for the 2013 Edgar was my favorite novel of the last year, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.  Of the other four nominees, I've read Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things by Kathryn Burak and The Edge of Nowhere by Elizabeth George, and found them to be middle school appropriate.  I have not read the other two nominees.  Maybe you have and would like to comment?

One cool thing about the Edgar site is the Edgars database.  You can search it for nominees in any category during a range of years, thus generating a possible reading list or consideration file.

The Agatha Awards are given to novels written in the "spirit" of Agatha Christie, the first lady of mystery writers. The award is given by Malice Domestic, a fan club convention of devotees of "traditional mysteries," mysteries with no explicit sex or excessive violence.  The convention is held in May and recognizes books published the previous calendar year.  The award categories include Best Children/Young Adult Novel.  The 2012 Agatha winner is the second in a series I was unfamiliar with, The Code Busters Club by Penny Warner, The Haunted Lighthouse. I've added it to my TBR list!  It will have to be great because Seconds Away by Harlan Coben and Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead were already on my favorites list, and those would be hard to beat.  Code Name Verity shows up on this list as well as The Edge of Nowhere.
We are more than halfway through 2013.  The Edgar and Agatha awards committees are bound to be reading now for next year's awards.  What novels do you hope to see on the 2014 lists?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Plot Thickens!

Our August genres for middle grade book boot camp are mysteries and thrillers.  You can find the list of recommended reading for this month as well as some resources here at the Book Boot Camp wiki.  

Growing up, my favorite genre was mystery – especially a good “who done it?” As we get ready for our #bookbootcamp Twitter chat, I spent some time reviewing the OLD stuff I grew up on.  Having done that, I have a better idea of what I am looking for when I decide a middle grade mystery is either good or not so good.  

The earliest mysteries I remember reading were Donald Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books, the first of which was published in 1963.  I loved the short story format, and the fact that if you were really paying attention, you could solve the mystery with Encyclopedia. When I was reading The Three Investigator series, it had just started, 1968.  The series ran through 1987 with 44 titles.  

If you are my age and grew up reading mystery series in school, you have reason to thank a literary syndicate, Stratemeyer Syndicate.  Originally founded in 1909 by Edward Stratemeyer, the syndicate was noted for formulaic, ghost-written, and wildly popular mystery and adventure series including Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, The Bobbsey Twins, and The Hardy Boys.  Like most kids, I grew up not knowing that the authors Carolyn Keene, Laura Lee Hope, and F. W. Dixon were pseudonyms.  

This week, I re-read the first Nancy Drew mystery, The Secret of the Old Clock.  Anachronisms that I did not notice in the 1960’s grabbed my attention. For example, Nancy wears gloves when she drives in her convertible, many of the homes she visits don’t have phones, and why wouldn’t a girl as smart as she is be heading for college?  The author refers to Nancy over and over as "the young sleuth."  Of course, none of these details were noticed when I read the book in elementary school. 

In high school, I read classic mysteries such as Sherlock Holmes and added several “Golden Age”of mystery writing authors to my favorites list, including Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.  The creepiest murder mystery I ever read was nonfiction, In Cold Blood (1965) by Truman Capote.  It terrified me with the randomness of the murders. 

I have a few criteria that I look for in a good mystery:
  1. I want a crime – murder, theft, kidnapping, poison pen letters, I don’t care, but at the end of the book I want to be able to state the conflict as a crime that was committed, and the resolution as the solution to the crime.
  2. I want enough clues that I can make a reasonable guess at the solution, but don’t give it away too early.
  3. I am OK with last minute revelations, “Yes!  It is true that I was the nanny of the murdered child and that makes me an obvious suspect had you only known that small fact from the beginning!”
  4. I want the mystery solved at the end.  Don’t leave me guessing.
Now I'm on a quest for the best mysteries I can find for my middle school students.  I hope you will join me and the other librarians and teachers of #bookbootcamp for our Mystery chat, Monday, August 26, 2013 at 8:00 p.m.  What are you looking for in a good mystery?  Check out my suggested reading list of new mysteries and series.  What should I add to it?

Stratemeyer Syndicate. (2001). In The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English. Retrieved from