It is that time of year that people in education--whether students or teachers--think back to the summer that is rapidly disappearing and take assessment of what they did. I remember the annual "What I Did Last Summer" essay from my youth. (Every fall, my junior high English teacher titled his "Painting Lines on Idaho Highways", a title that reassures me every year that my summer was pretty darn good.) In most ways this is one of those essays, but looks not so much at what I did, although it suggests that I spent a significant amount of time with my nose in a book, but what I read.
This summer I tried to pace myself by alternating my reading assignments. I would read an adult book for pleasure, then a children's or young adult novel, then a professional development book, and then another work of juvenile fiction. I mixed it up with picture books and simple non-fiction whenever the mood hit or I made a purchase for the library. As I look back at all that I read, I realized that this was not a summer of many truly great reads. For your sake, I will only include those that I am willing to suggest that others might enjoy reading.
City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems, illustrated by Jon Muth is a perfect read for the beginning or the end of summer. It talks of the passing of the seasons and of friendships that grow and change. There is no need to mention that the illustrations are perfect, but it is there is no way I omit a reference to the smile on the face of a happy dog and a joyful frog.
A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E Stead is the work of a couple who spent a part of their year in Ann Arbor, which makes the book more special to those of us who live here. However, this book has merit no matter where one lives. The story is of a zookeeper who tends to the needs and concerns of his animals above and beyond the usual call of duty. The animals are beside themselves when Amos McGee is so sick that he can not come to work. They respond just the way that true and trusted friends should.
The Church Mouse by Graham Oakley is not a new book. In fact, finding it in the bookstore took me right back to when I read and re-read it with my children. At first take this tale of mice who befriend the old cat in a church seems a bit verbose, but then the charm of each character--from the mice to the cat to the old English vicar--takes over. The humor is perfect, as is the exciting climax. The illustrations by the author are rich with color and detail.
FICTION--Grades 5 and up
My Life with the Lincolns by Gayle Brandeis was not exactly what I expected and much better than I had anticipated. The narrator, Mina Edelman, is a 12 year old girl living in the Chicago area in 1966. She is convinced that her family is the reincarnation of the Abraham Lincoln family. She has figured out how their names and interests reflect those of the Lincoln's. The connection should be clear to everyone since her father whose initials are A. B. E. advertises his furniture as "Honest Abe's" and even puts on a stovepipe hat and beard for his television advertisements. Mina sets three goals for herself--not to die at age 12 like Willie Lincoln did, keep her mother from going crazy, and keep her father from being shot. The difficulty of these goals becomes more intense when her father gets increasingly involved with the Civil Rights movement and takes Mina along with him to meetings and protests. The story rapidly shifts from hilarious to serious and back again. I admire and respect Mina Edelman for all she thought and did and I admire the author for capturing the time and the feelings of a young girl so perfectly.
Whales on Stilts by M. T. Anderson is one of those books I have been meaning to read for years. It is one strange book. A team of middle schoolers with an eye for adventure--Lily who has yearns for adventure and keeps an eye out for the unusual, Katie the heroine of a popular series of horror stories who actually lives the stories, and Jasper who is known as the Boy Technonaut--spend their summer investigating the employer of Lily's father. Lily becomes suspicious because her dad's boss wears a paperback over his head and seems to be designing stilts for whales, whales that plan to take over the world. The story is full of high tech adventure, crazy ideas careening out of control, science gone mad, and friendship.
Smile by Raina Telgemeier is a biographical novel in graphic format. Entering middle school is challenging in the best of times, but looking decidedly different just makes it worse. Raina fell hard on her front teeth just weeks before beginning sixth grade. This led to months in complicated orthodontia gear while undergoing various surgeries to correct the problem. The story does not dwell on the medical aspects of this ordeal but on the additional burden it places on her struggles to be liked in school. The resulting story is well suited to the graphic format which helps move the story along, giving evidence of how truly out of place she looks without having to describe the look.
The Cardturner by Louis Sachar caused more than one head to turn when it was published earlier this year. Sachar is well-liked for his many successful books like Holes and Wayside School is Falling Down, but who can pull off a young adult novel about playing bridge? Sachar can. There is a strong story with adventure and magical reality here that will keep the reader ready to go to the next bridge tournament. The author teaches bridge, too, while thoughtfully marking those parts that are detailed strategy both so they can be skipped when reading for the story and re-read when the interest is on the game. Our school's resident bridge expert gave it his stamp of approval.
London Calling by Edward Bloor takes the protagonist through an old Philco radio back to the time of the London Blitz to experience war first hand. There is a lot of history here and a lot of heart. This a tough book because it takes a close-up look at life for the average working family in London in 1940. Equally important is its consideration of the accuracy of history and what makes someone a hero.
I have to confess that I did not find much that really excited me in this section. Here are some titles that I am confident will be enjoyed by many, even if they did inspire me enough that I want to write about them.
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger
Justin Case: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters by Rachel Vail
Whittington by Alan Armstrong
Amelia Rules by Jimmy Gownley (a graphic work)
The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen of the Future by Dav Pilkey (a graphic work)
The Secret Zoo by Bryan Chick
Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot by Sy Montgomery with photos by Nic Bishop is worth looking at just for the pictures taken on an island of the coast of New Zealand where scientists are struggling to keep this strange, beautiful, and friendly bird from extinction. Once you see the pictures, however, you will want to read the text to find out more about this amazing bird and the scientists who work with it. As is always the case, Sy Montgomery tells her story well.
Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum by Meghan McCarthy greets you with a bright cover that, yes, truly pops. Who could resist the life story of bubble gum with any cover but the cartoonish illustrations in this simple, picture book style history capture the joy of the subject from the very first bite.
Biblioburro: A True Story from Colombia by Jeanette Winter is another picture book style non-fiction that will capture readers of all ages. Deep in the wilds of Colombia lives a teacher named Luis who has more books than his small home can hold. In an act of good will that warms the hearts of librarians everywhere, he loads his books on the back of his burro and sets out to share them with the children of neighboring villages. The illustrations capture the feel of South America and the story will captivate young readers and listeners. The author includes more information about Luis and his work to share the joys of a good book.
ADULT PLEASURE READING
The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen appealed to me on many levels. First, the format of the book is wider than the usual novel, allowing for copious footnotes and illustrations in the sidebar. These are the notes of the young narrator who has an eye for detail. Secondly, the narrator is a young man coming of age in an unusual age. Who wouldn't like that?
Thirdly, he lives in a small town in my home state and is fairly eager to leave. Finally, it is primarily a long (rail)road trip. It is almost impossible to describe the story so I will leave it to you to discover it for yourself just as T. S. Spivet discovers his world.
The Horse Boy: A Memoir of Healing by Rupert Isaacson is part travelogue with beautiful descriptions of the trip between Ulaan Baatar and the forest of Siberia on the edge of Mongolia where the reindeer people live, part spiritual journey as the author's family learns about the beliefs of the area and explores their own thoughts, and part a study of autism. Somehow this books melds those diverse aspects into a usually cohesive story. If treating an autistic child with shamans in remote corners of the world works for them, who am I to argue? I saw the movie of this book earlier in the year and would recommend it along with the book.
Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lodato is yet another book written in the voice of a twelve year old. (This must have been my summer of remembering adolescence.) Here is a girl trying to understand the death of her older sister and why her parents have totally shut down. That is pretty heavy stuff but throw in the concerns about terrorism that are everywhere around her and you will be doubly surprised by the humor that abounds throughout the book.
Unless you ask I will spare you the details of the books I read that were supposed to make me a better teacher, librarian, and person. I will put only the title information so you can decide if you want to pursue them further.
Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms by Gloria Ladson-Billings
The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School by Linda F. Nathan
Brain Rules by John Medina
Race Matters by Cornel West
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink
I read over 70 books this summer from picture books to the heavy stuff and these are the only ones that really spoke to me. Go figure.