Friday, October 29, 2010

Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever

Niagara Falls, or Does it?

What's great about Niagara Falls, or Does It? is that it's not just a funny story. Yes, main character Hank Zipzer is plenty funny. It seems that Hank is one of those "if I'm not laughing I'm crying" kind of kids. He's bad at all subjects in school and worse yet, trouble seems to follow him everywhere. He even has to visit the principal on the first day of school!

When Mrs. Adolf assigns Hank the dreaded "what I did over summer vacation" essay, also on the first day of school, Hank feels doomed as he cannot make himself sit still long enough to read or write anything any teacher would want to read. Hank is sure his year will be a failure until he's saved by a brilliant idea. Instead of writing his essay, he will bring his essay about a family trip to Niagara Falls to life for his entire class. After much creative work to construct a portable running waterfall, trouble sloshes downstream and right onto Hank's head as Ms. Adolf is drenched by the assignment and the principal calls Hank to the office as a trouble maker, again.

By the end of the book, a special and understanding teacher together with Hank's parents figure out that Hank has learning differences that need to be taken care of to help Hank be the best student that he can be. It's a hopeful ending and readers will certainly want to read the rest of the series to see what happens to Hank next. Readers just can't help caring about and liking Hank.

What's best about Niagara Falls, or Does It? is that it's written by Henry Winkler who played 'The Fonz' on the 70's TV show Happy Days. In real life, Mr. Winkler learned that he is dyslexic when he was helping create a documentary about the condition in which makes reading, spelling, handwriting and arithmetic very difficult for students. Instead of allowing his challenging school days ruin his life, the talented Winkler became an acclaimed actor and now author. With the help of Lin Oliver, Winkler gives credibility to the character of Zipzer who struggles with learning differences.

The Hank Zipzer: The World's Greatest Underachiever series contains at least 17 books and Winkler continues to write new ones. He's an inspiration to students who learn differently as well as parents and teachers. These books are super for boys in grades 3-8.

Winker, Henry and Lin Oliver. Niagara Fall, or Does It? New York: Grosset & Dunlap. 2003. Print.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

American Revolution

Times were different in the days before America was an independent nation. America was a group of thirteen colonies that belonged to Great Britain. Some colonies tried to pass laws prohibiting baths—and this was in the days before showers! Can you guess which colonies? A common kitchen utensil familiar to all was a "mush stick"—what would that be used for? And, any school students were given hornbooks to learn from? Can you guess what a hornbook was?

By the time the colonies were ready to break free from England new Americans were involved in many rebellious events…you may have heard of The Boston Tea Party and Boston Massacre. By 1774, a Continental Congress was formed to debate and vote on what the colonies should do about their troubles with England. Virginia's Thomas Jefferson was drafted to write a Declaration of Independence with help from other colonial leaders. It took Jefferson seventeen days to write the famous Declaration of Independence…..and, he did something every day before he sat down at his desk to write. Do you know what it is?

American Revolution by Mary Pope Osborn and Natalie Pope Boyce is a non-fiction companion to the book Revolution on Wednesday by Mary's Magic Tree House series. It's a book that anyone can read for information about Revolutionary War times. And, you can find out the answers to some of the more interesting questions about life in the America before it was the United States of America such as the ones posed above.

American Revolution is a great book for readers in third grade or above….or, for parents needing to brush up on American Revolutionary War history before helping kids with homework.

Osborne, Mary Pope and Natalie Pop Boyce. American Revolution. New York: Random House. 2004. Print.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Mailbox by Audrey Shafer

In the pages of The Mailbox, you'll meet Gabe. That's Gabe for Gable not Gabriel. Gabe has spent all but two years of his life surrounded by more unknowns than anything known….including information about his mother, father and entire life history. After living in a string of foster homes, Gabe is finally placed with long lost Uncle Vernon, a veteran of the Viet Nam War. However, Vernon himself is a mess of unknowns. Forced to own a telephone to become Gabe's guardian, he won't connect it because he doesn't like to talk to people. Fortunately for Gabe, despite Vernon's oddities and gruffness, Gabe has found a stable place to live put down roots until he arrives home from his first day of 6th grade to discover the unthinkable.

Forced into action, Gabe must save himself in a way that no one could have predicted. Gabe finds much needed help in unexpected places: stories from English class; Of Mice and Men, Tarzan, and even The Call of the Wild. Overnights at the home of his best friend hold Gabe together better than anyone guesses and then there is the help of a big furry dog named Guppy. Gabe's biggest help, however, arrives randomly on unsigned notes in the mailbox at the end of Uncle Vernon's driveway which fill him with fear, hope and aid.

Like Gabe, The Mailbox is a difficult book to label. It's simultaneously a mystery, story of relationships and a Viet Nam War story. Will Gabe find out who is writing the notes left in the mailbox that help him survive? Can Gabe trust his best friend, favorite teacher or other adults with his scary secret? How does Uncle Vernon's experience from the Viet Nam War guide him from his most difficult days into a safe and secure future? Read The Mailbox by Audrey Shafer to learn the answers to these questions and so much more.

This book comes with a "tissue alert" for those moments in the book so full of emotion a reader's eyes just well up and leak a little.

This book was a contender for the 2009-2010 Virginia Reader's Choice Award. It didn't win...but is a winner of a book!

Shafer, A. The Mailbox. New York: Delacort Press. 2006.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had

Meet Dit Sims. Dit is thirteen years old, one of ten children, and lives in Moundville, Alabama……in 1917. During the dry, hot days of summer vacation Dit's best friends are away from home and he holds out hope that the new postmaster's children will be the friends he needs for a full and happy summer. When the new postmaster arrives, his one child is the exact opposite of everything he ever imagined a new friend would be, starting with the fact that the family's one child is not a boy but a girl named Emma! It seems as if Dit has hit a patch of bad luck for sure.

There are many more differences between Dit and Emma that make it impossible for them to become even over the-fence-friends. Slowly but surely, Dit and Emma do become friends, even best friends just as Doc, Moundville's only barber is accused of an unthinkable violence. Moreover, Dit and Emma were at the scene of the crime and know that Doc, who is black, did not commit the crime he was accused of committing against a white man in the thorny culture of Jim Crow South--the bedrock of ugly racism and segregation. Together, Dit and Emma combine clever thinking and the strength of their friendship into a plan to save Doc from certain execution. Will they succeed in saving Doc and remaining friends for life? Read, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had by Kristen Levine to find out where their friendship leads them, Doc and the whole town of Moundville.

The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had is a contender for a Virginia Choice Award in 2011 in the Middle School category.

Levine, Kristen. The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had. New York. G. Putnam and Son. (2009) Print.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Breathe: A Ghost Story

Jack is used to danger. His asthma has nearly killed him more than once. Jack is used to tragedy. His father has recently died from a sudden heart attack. Jack is not afraid of death. Whenever he touches objects owned by dead people, memories of the person tingle into his fingers and brain so that he understands past lives. Jack's mother has moved them into a new home for a fresh start to life after his father's death…away from Jack's unusual closeness to death. But, Jack's new home has a danger he's never known before—spirits of the dead. The spirits can't breathe….but in his house they can chase and hide and scream. Only Jack can hear and talk to them as he does on pages 226-227:

"Jack's inhaler was in his bedroom. The biggest (asthma) attack of his life was coming…..'Don't hurt her anymore,' Jack managed to whisper. 'I'll do anything you want.
I'll……..anything you want.'
'You'll never love me.'
'Please….I will….'
'No. I am done with you now, Jack, done with you.'

The Ghost Mother rubbed her lips dry to improve the contact, then clamped herself to Gwyneth again. Jack couldn't do anything to stop her. He gasped, trying to get more air into his lungs. I'm going to black out, he realized. If I do, the Ghost Mother will be able to do whatever she wants. I can't let her…."

Can Jack persevere through crippling asthma attacks to learn secrets of the ghosts in time to save himself and his mother from what even spirits are scared to death of? Read Breathe: A Ghost Story to find out who survives in this world and the next.

McNish, C. Breathe: A Ghost Story. Minneapolis. Carolrhoda Books Inc, 2006. Print.