Monday, September 5, 2011

Hi Ho! Hi Ho! It's Back to School We Go

Whether it is just coincidence on my part or a theme of authors and publishers this year, I discovered many new (at least new to me) books about going to school during my summer reading. I would like to share some of my favorites with you.

Young Adult Novels about school are often filled with teen angst and carry messages that adults think young teens need to hear from wiser minds. Of course, sometimes these messages are so heavy that no self-respective teen is going to pay it much heed. The novels that I enjoyed this summer were able to either ignore the need of a message or convey that message in a moving and memorable manner.

The Accidental Genius of Weasel High by Rick Detoria (grades 6 -9) features a boy with plenty of typical high school issues. This novel is plausible and enjoyable through the generous use of humor, interesting plot twists, and friendly, cartoon illustrations. Larkin has a quirky girl for a friend but is suddenly wishing for more in the relationship and he has a believably spoiled sister to add to his problems with adjusting to school and his quest to get himself a quality camcorder.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (gr. 8 and up) manages to deal with a very heavy topic in a believable and moving way while injecting much needed humor to break the tension. The protagonist was raped at a party just before the start of ninth grade. Frightened and confused, she called the police but never told a soul about the rape itself. For this act, her peers she her as a snitch and effectively shun her. The story shows the painful steps that help her regain her voice both literally and figuratively. This story has become a classic in the ten years since it was first published and is worthy of being read by every student embarking on the high school adventure. I found it much more moving, believable, and readable than the currently popular Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.

Scrawl by Mark Shulman (gr. 6-9) appeals to my bias for novel in journal form. This journal is assigned by a teacher as something of a last chance to escape expulsion from school. The teacher is to be admired for being strict and fair with her assessments as the writer moves from anger to inklings of understanding.

The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now by Gardy Schmidt are two novels about connected characters but they are certainly stand alone books. The Wednesday Wars takes place in New York City in the late 1960s with a trouble-making student forced to stay after school to work with a teacher. He learns to appreciate Shakespeare and education in surprising ways. Less enjoyable to me was Okay for Now which follows a secondary character of the first book when his family moves to rural New York in search of work. It has many issues with family problems, crime, and even Vietnam War veterans. Both books feature good storytelling and generous dashes of humor.

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea (Gr. 5-8), like too many books for readers of this age, tries to address too many issues in one story so that none is given the attention it deserves. That said, it is worth reading this book for the stellar writing and intriguing concept. Mr. Terupt is the new teacher for a group of angry and troubled students. Through the use of controversial and interesting teaching methods, Mr. Terupt gets the students to bond . When tragedy strikes, they deal with it individually and as a group. The book is told in multiple voices.

Writers for students in second through fifth grade tend to tread more lightly when dealing with school issues. These books are more apt to be humorous (think Louis Sachar's Sideways Stories from Wayside School) or historical (like Belle Teal by Ann M. Martin). That does not mean that there are not some good and clever books about school experiences, but you are more apt to laugh than cry while reading them.

Dragonbreath by Ursula Vernon (gr. 2-4) does a great job of dealing with being the different kid in the class by making the hero the only dragon in a school of more prosaic reptiles. There are plenty of cartoon illustrations, often with speech bubbles, so the reading is fun and appealing. The story has a lot that is familiar like unwanted homework, a bully, a nerdy but true friend, and struggling to meet parental standards, but mostly it has lots of humor. I predict that the series of which this is the first will be a big hit.

School! Adventures at the Harvey N. Trouble Elementary School by Kate McMullan (gr. 2-4) advertises itself as a "Very Punny Book" and that it is. The puns are what kept me reading as I discovered interesting names and clever turns of phrase. The stories themselves are light and short in a way that is reminiscent of Wayside School.

The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School by Candace Fleming (gr. 3-5) is another Wayside School look-alike that will appeal to young readers who want a laugh in a school setting.

It is the First Day of School...Forever by R. L. Stine (gr. 4-6) surprised me because I actually liked most of it. My students know that I am not wild about Stine's Goosebumps series because the stories seem more inclined toward gore and adrenalin rushes than actual plot. This story is not short on gore and excitement but it also has a solid plot, thus making me and the hoards of devoted R. L. Stine readers happy. The story may be every kid's worst nightmare--the first day at a new school keeps happening over and over and over, with each day a little more horrible than the last. It is the surprise ending that made it all worth the read for me.

Picture books generally are eager to make sure that the youngest readers and listeners are eager to go to school. They acknowledge that it is scary to leave the familiar and go off to a new school and thus strive to make school look fun and appealing. Much to my joy, more and more picture books about school are adding surprises and humor.

Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School by David Mackintosh (gr. 1-4) offers a great twist on the new kid in school issue. The narrator is a student who thinks that this new kid, Marshall Armstrong, is just plain weird and wants nothing to do with him. The illustrations highlight Marshall's quirkiness that may at first be off-putting, but turns out to be truly awesome.

Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes by Eric Litwin (gr. K-2) shows all the great things to be discovered at school as Pete takes his cool school shoes on a tour of school life. There is little plot but lots of energy, rhythm, and vibrant illustrations.

How Rocket Learned to Read by Tad Hills (gr. K-2) is about an unconventional school, to say the least. Rocket is a dog doesn't know he wants to read until a friendly bird shows him how much fun it can be. The bird follows the same steps that teachers follow in every school as Rocket is introduced to the basic principles of the sounds of letters and how they go together to make words and sentences and stories.

I Am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child (gr. K-2) is not new but it is too absolutely my favorite back-to-school book to miss mentioning it. (Many children now know Charlie and Lola from their television show. The TV success and a decline in the appeal of these books seem to have a direct correlation. This is one of the first of the Charlie and Lola books, perhaps even before the TV program.) When Charlie tells Lola that she will soon start school, she can think of many reasons why she does not need school and will not like school. Of course, it all ends well, but not before lots of questions about school have been humorously answered.

Head back to school knowing that you are not the first to have worries. As you read the books for older students, you can be glad that you don't have all of their issues and that the first day only happens once a year.

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