Sunday, July 5, 2015

Hereville: How Girls Can Be Inspired

2011 Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner, Older Readers
2011 Nebula Award Nominee
2011 ALA Great Graphic Novels for Teens, Fiction
Kirkus Reviews 2010 Best Children’s Books
Children's Book Committee Bank Street College of Education Children's Choices--Best Books of 2011, Fantasy, ages 9-12
Children's and Young Adult's Cybil Winner
Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor AJL Winner
Oregon Book Awards Winner
Oregon Council of Teachers of English Oregon Spirit Award Winner

Mirka is no ordinary Orthodox Jewish girl. She is stuck at home with knitting needles listening to advice about getting a husband, but she longs to wield a sword and do battle with dragons. Haunted by the loss of her mother and annoyed with her sharp-tongued step-mother, Mirka finds that she must defend herself and her brother against bullies, do battle with a talking pig, and accept a challenge from a local witch.

Part fantasy tale, part cultural documentary, part story of preteen angst, part family drama, Orthodox culture comes alive in the pages of this fresh, unique graphic novel about a brave girl. The universal truths will inspire all girls to make their dreams come true.

Classroom Connections:
The author’s website has useful information about creating graphic novel panels. Click here for more information.

Because Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword is accessible for almost all readers, it is model text for teaching RL.6.3 (Describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution). The text contains a series of episodes that are readily recognizable, and classroom discussions about how Mirka changes as the plot moves toward the resolution will be rich and interesting.

Book Information:
Title: Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword
Author: Barry Deutsch
Age Range: 8-12 years
Grade Level: 3-7
Lexile Measure: 380L
Paperback: 144 pages
Published: 2010
ISBN-13: 978-1419706196
Dewey Decimal: FIC or 741.5973

Friday, June 26, 2015

Counting by 7s Should be Savored

A New York Times Bestseller 
An Amazon Best Book of the Year 2013 
A Kids’ Indie Next List Top Ten Book BEA Buzz Book 2013 
A Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee 2014–2015 Master List 
A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year 
An E.B. White Read Aloud Honor Book 
A Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee 
A National Public Radio Best Book of the Year

This is not a book that is easy to describe. It’s about Willow Chance, a 12-year old who is intellectually gifted, loves to count by 7s, diagnose diseases, and loves plants and nature. She has trouble making friends and talking to anyone other than her parents. She’s adopted and she’s a little different. When her parents are suddenly killed in a terrible car crash, Willow finds herself in need of a home.

This book seems like it might be sad and full of tragedy, and it is, but it isn’t really. It’s about unlikely friendships, surrogate families, and helping one another.
This is a book “about finding families and finding yourself” says author Holly Goldberg Sloan. It’s a book about belonging. It is heartbreaking, and it is beautiful.

Here’s a link to the author talking about the book:  Click here

Classroom Connections
Teachers should include this book in a classroom collection for students to read independently or to be read aloud to the class. The book includes a character who most likely has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) although it is never named, and by exposing students to characters who are likeable, intelligent, and interesting who also have conditions like OCD, it helps to make those conditions seem ordinary.
Discussion Question:
Willow states, “In my opinion it’s not really a great idea to see people as one thing. Every person has lots of ingredients to make them into what is always a one-of-a kind creation.”
**Correlates to Common Core Standard Reading Literature: Key Ideas and Details C.C.S.S.E.L.A. Literacy. R. L. 4.1, 4.2, 4.3; R. L. 5.1, 5.2, 5.4; R.L. 6.1, 6.2; R.L. 7.1, 7.2.
Link to 6-week unit plan from Penguin Books: Click here

Book Information
Age Range: 10 and up
Grade Level: 5 and up
Lexile Measure: 770
Paperback: 400 pages
Published: 2013
ISBN-13: 978-0142422861
Dewey Decimal: FIC or 813.6

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Secret Lives of Hens

I’ve been raising four hens since October, and so when I came upon The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, touted as the Korean Charlotte’s Web by many critics, I jumped in.

Sprout is a plucky hen who has stopped laying eggs.  She lives on a farm and has never left her cage. When she is culled from the coop, she flees into the barnyard and narrowly escapes the clutches of the one-eyed weasel, but none of the farm animals will help her except for Straggler, an odd mallard duck. Sprout then finds an abandoned egg and begins brooding, and she doesn’t realize that the egg is not what it seems to be.

The book, like many good fables, seems simple on the surface, but it’s about freedom, individuality, the dream of making one’s life meaningful, the meaning of friendship, parenthood, and the cycle of life and death. It’s part fable, part philosophy, part animal story, part self-help, and it is as wonderful as Charlotte’s Web.

The book has sold more than 2 million copies and has been made into the highest-grossing animated film in Korean history.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly: A Novel
originally published in Korea in 2000, published in U.S. in 2013
written by Sun-mi Hwang
illustrated by Nomoco
translated by Chi-Young Kim
ISBN: 978-0143123200
Grades: 5+
Dewey Decimal: FIC or 895.735

Classroom Connections
Discussion Questions to ask students that address CCSS [RL.7.3 Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact (e.g., how setting shapes the characters or plot]:
  1. How do names affect who we are? And how others see us? Consider some of the other characters’ names in the novel, such as Straggler.
  2. Sun-mi Hwang’s novel has been described as a modern fable. But what is a fable and how does this story conform to your understanding of the genre?
  3. Sprout is amazed to discover that the weasel is female – and a mother. Many readers also make the assumption that she is male. Why is this?
  4. Consider the relevance of the novel’s title. Perhaps start by considering both the literal and metaphorical meanings of the word ‘flight’.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Tween Roller Derby starring Astrid, the Rosedud

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson (2015). 
ISBN: 978-0803740167. Reading levels grades 4-7, ages 9-12. 
Dewey Decimal: 741.5

Twelve-year old Astrid has always done everything with her best friend Nicole, but this summer is different. While Astrid goes to Roller Derby camp, Nicole goes to ballet camp with Astrid's mortal enemy, Rachel. Astrid struggles through the weeks of the camp as the newest skater by tripping, crashing, getting hit, and falling, but she learns that hard work pays off. The book is about more than roller derby: it’s about friendship, growing up, and identity.

Author Victoria Jamieson is a roller derby jammer from Portland, Oregon, and her characterization of the excitement and challenges of skating will make you want to see a roller derby match!

I recommend the author’s website as a resource for this book. Her website is located at and includes links to her two Web comics. One is about her true roller derby experiences as an adult. The other is an illustrated version of her diary from 1989. Both help the reader of Roller Girl understand how the book is part memoir and would be useful for identifying genre with students.

Roller Girl is an excellent text to work with for addressing CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.5--Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot. Students can examine the scene in which Astrid dyes her hair and how it contributes to the development of her characterization, identity, and independence.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Super Creeped out by Creeptastic Jake Gyllenhall (“Creepy McCreepyson”) in “Nightcrawler”

I wanted to see a movie, but the choices were slim today. When I saw that “Nightcrawler” earned 95% approval rating on Flixster, I was pretty encouraged. That Stephen Hawking movie got a 91%, so I figured this movie was going to be better. And it was. And it has creeped me out forever.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a petty thief who has found his life calling in documenting the crime and accidents of Los Angeles as a nighttime freelance cameraman. But he is a psychopath who is driven to advance in the field, and his amorality is the perfect conduit to make that happen. Gyllenhaal is so believable as a psychopath that I don’t think I can watch his movies any more.  

Jake "Gaunt"enhaal

For the role, Jake Gyllenhaal lost some weight, and while I was thinking about gaunt Christian Bale in The Machinist, Gyllenhaal's skeletor-effect transforms him into a perpetually hungry, sunken-eyed madman who reminds us that we validate his actions and we participate in his crimes as we watch him. I found myself looking all around the theater during every single scene, trying to avoid looking directly at Gyllenhaal and his unsettling character. If an actor can win an Oscar for evoking the heebie jeebies and cucuys in his viewers, it’s Gyllenhaal in this movie.

Serious Social Critique
More important than the quality of the acting is the storyline, which clearly serves as a social critique of the sensationalistic and unethical nature of news reporting. Rene Russo’s character Nina, as the producer of the morning news, tells Bloom that to be successful, he needs to film urban crime seeping into the suburbs, particularly if the perps are people of color and the victims are white. (!) The film reminds us as viewers again and again how the news is distorted and transformed into entertainment to earn higher ratings, a fine reminder in the wake of the news coverage of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and even Ebola.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Great Graphic Novels for Girls (and boys, too)

It all started when I had to take my daughter to the emergency room and she was reading Smile by Raina Telgemeier in the waiting room. I read along with her to pass the time, and I was expecting something fluffy and vapid, but the book was a memoir with verve and I loved it. It's the story of a tween's loss of two front teeth, headgear, fake teeth, and braces. She faces boy trouble, petty friends, and gives hope to the lonely tweens who feel out of place in the world.

It was then that I began to wonder if there were more female protagonists in graphic novels, and the answer is a resounding YES! and they are delightful.

We searched through the shelves at Barnes and Nobel, which does not have a graphic novel section for school age readers. El Deafo was nestled in the books, as if it were just any old book. Cece Bell's graphic memoir captures the anguish and frustration of a young girl's maturation through her struggles in school as a result of hearing loss. Hearing or deaf, all readers will enjoy the protagonist and her Phonic Ear and can identify with the universal themes: her desire for a bosom friend, her need to fit in, her hope for the attention of the boy she likes.
Well-written, thoughtful, and inspiring, Bell makes every reader more sensitive to the hardships of disability while turning them into superpowers.

I think the best graphic novel featuring girls is Tomboy by Liz Prince, which every student who has checked it out has devoured. Not only does the book speak to girls about their struggles as a non-girly girls in a male-dominated world, but it also helps them to understand the dangers of gender norming in American society. It isn't often that we read books that change us forever, that leave book hangovers that last for weeks, but this is one of those books. If every young person read this book, I think the world would be a better place. Prince models for all girls that anyone can be a comic book artist.

While Tomboy inspires young women to pursue their dreams and passions, Relish by Lucy Kinsey does the same. Kinsey's book catalogues her childhood through food as the daughter of a gourmet and chef, and explains her own journey to become a chef. In the process, she reminds us that food is connection, food is home, food is family, and food is art. The recipes are great, and the huevos rancheros are easy to make and delicious. Like Tomboy, Kinsey delves into a career dominated by males and shows her readers that she can do anything. 

Both Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol and Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch feature ghosts who torment the protagonists and require them to find their strength to fight back and make the world right again. Hereville features an Orthodox Jewish girl who fights a pig and delves into the realm of fantasy much like a fairytale. Students will learn about Orthodox culture and a little Yiddish as they read, and also that girls are just as tough as anyone.

Two other graphic novels for more mature students are Lost At Sea by Bryan O'Malley (famed author of the Scott Pilgrim series) and This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki (authors of Skim, the graphic novel that artfully explores suicide, depression, and crushes). Both of these books explore the loneliness and despair teenagers experience as they grapple with the demands of the world around them, and these books are particularly poignant and must be finished for the powerful endings they both provide.

I also recommend Persepolis by Mariana Satrapi, a book my 12-year old daughter consumed with passion. Persepolis is a heart-wrenching historical memoir of a 10-year old's experience during the revolution in Iran in the 1980s. I Remember Beirut by Zeina Abirached captures the same nostalgia for homeland and horror for the war that ravaged it, but it is written as poetry, and the ending is perfectly evocative. Religion plays a role in the lives of these girls, and is essential in these stories.

Honestly, I had no idea there were so many graphic novels that would appeal to female readers, nor did I know they would be so profoundly well-written that they expand the genre and represent what is possible with the power of good storytelling.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

John Wick Kills Everyone for his Puppy

My husband wanted to take me on a romantic date, so, of course, we saw John Wick. If you haven’t heard about it, here is the plot: a mourning and scraggly Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, a widower whose wife has left him a post-mortem gift to help him grieve: the cutest beagle puppy since Snoopy. Even worse, a couple of days later, Russian gangsters beat him up, steal his ‘69 Mustang, and kill the puppy. Little did the Russians know, John Wick is worse than the Boogeyman, and thus begins his revenge killing spree.

Better Than the Eighties
Unlike the ultra-masculine proto-males of the eighties, John Wick is vulnerable and sensitive.  He cries, he lets the puppy sleep in his bed with him, he looks longingly at his dead wife’s jewelry, and he watches videos of her throughout the film. This is what every woman wants: a man who will mourn her death eternally. Even more, we want a man who loves little dogs. And this is why every American can justify the collateral damage of at least 95 Russian thugs for the puppy. This is something we can get behind. Without a doubt, Americans care more about homeless dogs and abused cats than we do our human brothers and sisters.

As a child of the 80s, I saw dozens of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude Van Damme, and Dolph Lundgren movies. They were fun movies that glorified murder on a grand scale and included graceful jumps from motorcycles where the hero literally lands on his feet. Most of those 80s films demonized Russians, but John Wick is different: these Russians used to be his friends and he doesn’t waste time with silly iconic lines (“I’ll be back”) or outrageous physical feats; his silence and his relentlessness are his secret weapons. He never hesitates; he just pulls the trigger with graceful purpose. His focus and determination are inspirational lessons for the viewer: If we just focus enough, we can overcome anything in our way.

There are so many people killed in this movie, I thought it might have exceeded Rambo IV (236), but the murder of the puppy is so heinous that it distorts the kill-count as something significantly higher. Keanu is no stranger to fight sequences, but he has proven in John Wick that fighting and killing are the right things to do. The final sequence of the film (I don’t want to give it away) brilliantly restores order to the chaotic world we live in and reminds us of what is important: we need to rescue puppies, Russians can’t be trusted, and you never know who is secretly an assassin, so be nice to everyone.