"It didn't matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home."
-Lev Grossman, The Magician's Land

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Grab Your Tiara and Come Meet Babymouse

Holm, Jennifer L. and Holm, Matthew. 2005. Babymouse: Queen of the World. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0-375-83229-1

Babymouse dreams of being Queen of the World, but her life is not that glamorous.  Her whiskers are too curly, her locker is always stuck, and the real queen of the school, Felicia Furrypaws, doesn't pay her any attention.  She longs for excitement and adventure.  What she does have is a best friend, Wilson the Weasel, who has been there for her since Kindergarten, a love of reading, and an enormous imagination.

When Babymouse overhears Felicia Furrypaws talking about her big sleepover, she knows she just has to be invited.  Things aren't looking too promising for Babymouse, until the day their book reports are due.  Felicia hasn't done hers and wants to take Babymouse's to hand in as her own.  In exchange for the book report, Felicia gives Babymouse an invitation to her slumber party.  Babymouse is overcome with excitement.  However, she seems to have forgotten that she made plans for that same night to go over Wilson's house and watch a monster movie.

The evening of the slumber party arrives, and Babymouse heads over to Felicia's with high expectations of what is sure to be an epic night.  Unfortunately, the party doesn't go anything like she thought it would.  The other girls are only interested in gossiping about their classmates, putting on makeup, and watching romantic movies.  And Felicia Furrypaws isn't being especially nice to her.  When the girls start to make fun of Wilson, Babymouse decides she has had enough.  She realizes Wilson is her true friend, and "Queen Felicia" isn't worth the effort.

Babymouse leaves the party and makes it to Wilson's just in time for the start of the movie.  With good friends, exciting books, and yummy cupcakes, Babymouse understands that she is already a queen, the queen of her own world. 

Babymouse: Queen of the World is a funny and engaging graphic novel that is geared towards children ages 7-10.  Young readers will fall in love with the sassy Babymouse and will surely relate to her desire to have a more exciting and glamorous life.  Her crazy imagination, which takes her to outer space, the wild west, Frankenstein's lab, and the story of Cinderella (Babymouserella), will both delight and amuse readers everywhere. 

The Holms siblings have a unique style to their writing.  Babymouse is constantly experiencing what she perceives to be injustices, and her response is always the same; "Typical."  She has a running commentary to the action the narrator is describing, and this allows the reader to really get inside her head and understand what she is feeling.

However, I believe it is the illustrations that make this graphic novel so appealing.  The characters are drawn in a cartoon-like manner, and the color scheme is made up solely of black, white, and pink - reminiscent of Hilary Knight's illustrations in Eloise.  The scenes that show what Babymouse is imagining are full of pink, while the scenes that depict her reality are mostly black and white.  The expressions on Babymouse's face are so clear, the reader can easily recognize her emotions without help from the text.  The drawings are so enchanting that it would be easy for readers to get lost in Babymouse's world. 

This was actually the first graphic novel I've ever read; I never had the desire to pick one up before.  Babymouse: Queen of the World helped open my eyes to this wonderful genre.  When my 7 year old daughter, who has an affinity for pink, saw this book on the counter, she quickly grabbed it and insisted we read it together.  If you are looking for a fun and quick read to share with your children, I highly recommend Babymouse.  This book is actually the first of many, and, as of April 14, 2015, there are 19 books in this series.  And as I sit here writing this review, my daughter is impatiently waiting to go to the library to get more Babymouse books. 

2006 ALA Notable Children's Book (This was the first graphic novel ever to make this list.)

2006 Gryphon Award Honor Book

2006 New York Book Show Award

From BOOKLIST - "The Holms spruce up some well-trod ground with breathless pacing and clever flights of Babymouse's imagination, and their manic, pink-toned illustrations of Babymouse and her cohorts vigorously reflect the internal life of any million-ideas-a-minute middle-school student."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "Young readers will happily fall in line to follow Babymouse through ordinary pratfalls ('Typical.' is her watchword) and extraordinary flights of fancy - both of which continue in Babymouse: Our Hero."

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "Jennifer Holm (Our Only May Amelia) and her brother Matthew Holm, a graphic designer, make an incursion on Captain Underpants territory with these comic books about a girl mouse...The Holms make humorous allusions to novels and movies, and interject sympathetic remarks from an offstage narrator.  This personable, self-conscious mouse, with her penchant for pink hearts, resembles Kevin Henkes's Lilly, with some extra years of grade-school experience."

Continue reading the Babymouse series to learn more about Babymouse's adventures.  The next three books are:
  • Holm, Jennifer L. and Holm, Matthew. Babymouse #2: Our Hero. ISBN 978-0-375-83230-7
  • Holm, Jennifer L. and Holm, Matthew. Babymouse #3: Beach Babe. ISBN 978-0-375-83231-4
  • Holm, Jennifer L. and Holm, Matthew. Babymouse #4: Rock Star. ISBN 978-0-375-83232-1

Visit the series website with your students.  There are games, activities, videos, and information about the authors. www.babymouse.com

Babymouse loves to eat cupcakes.  If you have access to a kitchen, bake cupcakes with your students.  Remember to check the ingredients to be sure they are safe for your students with food allergies to eat.

Throughout the story, Babymouse drifts off into several fantasies.  Discuss these fantasies with your students, and ask them to identify the real events that triggered them.

Have your students try to write and illustrate a cartoon, in the style of Babymouse.  Have them use only the colors they think are needed to enhance the story.  


Sunday, April 26, 2015

2015 NESCBWI Conference Rocked My World

I was fortunate enough to attend the 2015 NESCBWI Conference in Springfield, MA from April 24-26.  This was my first SCBWI conference, and what an amazing experience it was!  I just recently decided to take a risk and start writing the children's book I've been planning in my head for almost 10 years.  This conference gave me so much motivation and information.  From hearing incredible speeches by Dan Santat, Jo Knowles, Kwame Alexander, and many others, to attending a plethora of workshops, to making new friends and connections, to having my first peer critique, this conference gave me so much inspiration to follow my dream.  I've already marked the dates for next year's conference in my calendar!

Some highlights of my time at the conference...

Meeting Jane Yolen

Meeting the 2015 Caldecott Medal winner, Dan Santat

And then he took a selfie on my phone

Meeting the 2015 Newbery Medal winner, Kwame Alexander

Reading Between the Lines with Jo Knowles

My haul...I went a wee bit crazy at the bookstore

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Walk the Line Between the Living and the Dead in The Graveyard Book

Gaiman, Neil. 2008. The Graveyard Book. Ill. by Dave McKean. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 978-0-06-053092-1

This story opens, rather morbidly, with the murder of a man, woman, and their young daughter.  Their toddler son, however, climbs out of his crib and sneaks out the open door of his house.  He manages to evade the murderer by entering a nearby graveyard.  The ghostly inhabitants of the graveyard agree to care for him and keep him safe, and thus, the story of Nobody Owens begins.

Nobody, or Bod, as his new family calls him, is given the Freedom of the Graveyard.  This means he can move about as if he were a ghost, pass through headstones into the tombs, see in the dark, be unaffected by the cold, and even learn to Fade, so as not to be noticed by other living people.

As time passes, Bod has many adventures and encounters many people, some living, some dead, and some neither.  When he is five, he befriends a little girl named Scarlett who's parents allow her to play in the graveyard.  When he is six, he is taken by some ghouls through a gate to a terrifying place called  Ghulheim.  He has lessons with some of the graveyard's residents who were former teachers.  He spends an abundance of time with his guardian, Silas, and is loved dearly by his two ghost parents, Mr. and Mrs. Owens.  Bod even attends an actual school for a short while, until his presence there attracts too much attention and it becomes unsafe for him.

The years pass, but his family's murderer, Jack, is still out there, and he is still looking for Bod.  The interlude reveals that this man, Jack, is part of a larger organization that wants Bod dead.

As Bod nears his fifteenth birthday, his old friend Scarlett returns.  This triggers a series of events that lead to Jack and his associates locating Bod and attempting to finish what was started all those years ago.  The tension is high as the reader wonders whether Bod and Scarlett will make it out alive.  Fortunately, Bod is able to use his intimate knowledge of the graveyard to outsmart the men and ensure they will no longer be a threat to him.

The story concludes with fifteen year old Bod leaving the graveyard to head out into the world of the living, so he can finally begin his life. 

Gaiman has written a story unlike any I've ever read.  He has created this fantastical character who lives in a graveyard with the dead and shares their magical abilities.  But despite the unusual circumstances of his life, Bod is really just a regular boy.  He wants to make friends like any other child.  He is eager to learn about the world around him.  He doesn't want to eat the healthy food Miss Lupescu makes for him.  He even wants to go watch a football game.  Gaiman has made Bod a character that young readers will relate to and care about what happens to him.  

Amid the many grotesque topics in this book, such as death, murder, witch hunts, and flesh-eating ghouls, Gaiman's tone is light and, at times, quite humorous.  Some of his ghouls include the Lord Mayor of London and the 33rd President of the United States.  Gaiman often times introduces new ghosts by sharing the epitaph from their tombstones.  For example, "Miss Letitia Borrows, Spinster of this Parish (Who Did No Harm to No Man all the Dais of Her Life.  Reader, Can You Say Lykewise?)."  He names his league of villains the Jacks of All Trades - can you guess what each murderer's first name is?  His unique writing style helps to make this book stand out.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  At times, it reminded me of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.  Gaiman even gave thanks to this classic in his acknowledgements.  Just as Mowgli was not raised by people, neither was Bod.  The two characters each grew up among bizarre circumstances, surrounded by others who were vastly different than they were.  While this was the first novel by Gaiman that I've read, it certainly won't be the last.

2009 Newbery Medal

2010 Carnegie Medal

2009 Hugo Award for Best Novel

2008 Cybils Award for Fantasy & Science Fiction - Middle Grade Fiction

2009 Locus Award for Best Young-Adult Book

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "Wistful, witty, wise - and creepy.  Gaiman's riff on Kipling's Mowgli stories never falters, from the truly spine-tingling opening, in which a toddler accidentally escapes his family's murderer, to the melancholy, life-affirming ending...this needs to be read by anyone who is or has ever been a child."

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "Gaiman has a rich, surprising, and sometimes disturbing tale of dreams, ghouls, murderers, trickery, and family."

From BOOKLIST - "This is an utterly captivating tale that is cleverly told through an entertaining cast of ghostly characters.  There is plenty of darkness, but the novel's ultimate message is strong and life affirming.  Although marketed to the younger YA set, this is a rich story with broad appeal and is highly recommended for teens of all ages."

If your students enjoyed Neil Gaiman's writing, have them read some of his other novels.
  • Gaiman, Neil. Coraline. ISBN 978-0380807345
  • Gaiman, Neil. M is for Magic. ISBN 978-0061186479

Have your students read The Jungle Book.  Discuss similarities and differences.
  • Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Book. ISBN 978-1503332546

Have your students imagine what Bod's life is like after he leaves the graveyard.  Have them write an epilogue to the story, detailing where Bod goes and what he does.

Bod receives his name because he looks like Nobody but himself.  Have your students think about what they've learned about his character.  How else is his name significant?  How is it a fitting name for him?

The bulk of this novel takes place in a cemetery.  Show your students some pictures of a cemetery, or find an appropriate video of one on Youtube.  Ask your students to write about what it might be like to walk through a cemetery during the day?  What would it be like at night?

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Scorpio Races - Not for the Faint of Heart

Stiefvater, Maggie. 2011. The Scorpio Races. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN 978-0-545-22490-1

The Scorpio Races take place every November on Thisby Island.  Men train to ride the capall uisce, Celtic Water Horses, in a race down the beach.  This is not your average horse race.  The capall uisce are dangerous and deadly and should not be confused with regular horses.  They come from the sea and are called to return to it and will tear apart anything, or anyone, who gets in their way.  Many enter this race to prove their bravery or to earn respect.  The large monetary prize for the winner is what appeals to others.  Unfortunately, not everyone will make it out alive.

Amidst the drama and excitement of the race, this story centers on two fascinating and complex characters.  19 year old Sean Kendrick is the four time returning champion.  Racing is in his blood.  When Sean was 10 years old, his father was killed during the race.  He has since been working for Benjamin Malvern, the wealthy owner of a large stable and thoroughbred breeder.  Sean loves horses, but he especially loves Corr, Malvern's capall uisce that he has been training and riding for years.  Sean would love nothing more than to buy Corr from Malvern.  That is his main motivation for racing this year; if he wins, Malvern will finally agree to sell him Corr.

Kate "Puck" Connolly and her two brothers are struggling to make ends meet.  After the unfortunate death of their parents a year ago, the three siblings have been working hard just to get by.  But it is not enough.  They are unable to make payments on their house, and it is about to be taken from them.  Gabe, the eldest, has had enough and is planning on leaving their small island to go live on the mainland.  As a last ditch effort to save her home and keep her family together, Puck decides to enter the Scorpio Races.  This is unprecedented.  There has never been a female rider in the race before.  Many of the island's residents do not want her to race.  And as if the odds weren't already stacked against her, Puck announces she is going to race on her beloved horse Dove, and not on a capall uisce.     

Sean and Puck forge a tentative friendship, and he begins to help her train.  While they are both young and inexperienced with love, their feelings for each other grow.  As the training intensifies, so do the tensions on the island.  There are injuries and deaths and a jealous hatred of Sean on the part of Malvern's son, Mutt.  

The story comes to a climax on race day.  There is a thrilling victory and a gut-wrenching injury that leaves both Sean and Puck devastated.  Ultimately, the two characters find peace and some measure of happiness and plan to move forward in life together. 

This young adult novel will grab you from the opening pages and not let go until long after you've finished the last page.  Stiefvater has created two characters who are flawed, tragic, and utterly believable.  The story alternates between their points of view.  While the Scorpio Races may be fantasy, Sean and Puck's desire to better their circumstances and find happiness is something many readers can relate to.  From the moment Puck decides to enter the races, she begins a transformation that will change her from a somewhat naive girl who is dependent on her brothers to a mature young woman who isn't afraid to take risks.  She doesn't back down despite the fact that so many are against her decision to race, and she develops enough confidence to bargain with the intimidating Malvern.

The fictional setting, Thisby Island, plays such an important role in the plot of this story, that it feels like an actual character.  Each fall, the residents are controlled by the ocean.  As Thisby Island is the only place in the world where the capall uisce exist, the races draw huge numbers of tourists every year.  The landscape of the island and the presence of the capall uisce dictate the way the locals live.  Stiefvater has said she deliberately left the specific location of the island vague, but she was "going for quasi-Irish or Scottish."  However, she provides more than enough detail to make Thisby Island a real place in the minds of her readers.

I was initially drawn to this book because of the horses.  My daughter rides competitively, and I have since grown to love these animals.  Sean's loving relationship with Corr was so beautiful and pure, and I'm sure I'm not the only horse lover who can relate to it.  However, this is so much more than the story of a horse race.  I was completely taken by the island and all of its residents.  I was thrilled by the tentative love that began to grow between Sean and Puck.  Even the characters I didn't care for, such as the villainous Mutt Malvern and the absent brother Gabe, were written in a way that made the motivations behind their actions clear and understandable.  Stiefvater is a master of her craft, and this is one novel you don't want to miss.

2012 Michael L. Printz Honor Book

2012 ALA Notable Children's Book

2011 Kirkus' Best Teen Books of the Year

Publishers Weekly Best Children's Books of 2011

YALSA Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2012

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "Stiefvater's narration is as much about atmospherics as it is about event, and the water horses are the environment in which Sean and Puck move, allies and rivals to the end.  It's not a feel-good story - dread, loss, and hard choices are the islanders' lot.  As a study of courage and loyalty tested, however, it is an utterly compelling read."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "First-person narration alternates seamlessly between Sean and Puck.  The large cast of supporting characters springs to life, particularly Puck's brothers, Finn and Gabe, and Thisby feels like a place you can see and smell.  The water horses are breathtakingly well-imagined, glorious, and untamably violent.  The final race, with Sean and Puck each protecting each other but both determined to win, comes to a pitch-perfect conclusion.  Masterful.  Like nothing else out there now."

From THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW - "Stiefvater not only steps out of the young adult fantasy box with The Scorpio Races but crushes it with pounding hooves...If The Scorpio Races sounds like nothing you've ever read, that's because it is."

If your students enjoyed Maggie Stiefvater's writing, have them read some of her other books.

  • Stiefvater, Maggie. The Raven Boys. ISBN 0545465931
  • Stiefvater, Maggie. Shiver. ISBN 0545227259
  • Stiefvater, Maggie. Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception. ISBN 978-0738713700

If your students enjoyed reading about the capall uisce, have them read Misty of Chincoteague.  While this book is geared towards younger readers, they may enjoy the similarities between the two novels.
  • Henry, Marguerite. Misty of Chincoteague. ISBN 0027436225

Puck and her brothers enjoy eating November Cakes.  Stiefvater actually invented this food for the book.  Have your students click on the link below to find the recipe she created for November Cakes and encourage them to try baking them.  Or, bake them yourself and bring them in for your students to try. Maggie Stiefvater's November Cakes

Sean and Puck each have valid reasons for competing in the Scorpio Races.  Have your students choose who they believe deserves to win more.  Hold a debate where students present their rationale for choosing Puck or Sean.

Teach your students how to use iMovie.  Have them use this application to create a book trailer for The Scorpio Races, including music, narration, images, and/or video clips.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Prepare to be Captivated by One Crazy Summer

Williams-Garcia, Rita. 2010. One Crazy Summer. New York: Amistad. ISBN 978-0-06-076088-5

This is the story of eleven year old Delphine and her two sisters, Vonetta and Fern.  It is the summer of 1968, and the three girls have been sent to Oakland, California to spend a month with the mother who walked out on them years ago.  Coming from Brooklyn and their loving Papa and Big Ma, this is a significant shift in their reality.  Their mother, Cecile, is cold and unwelcoming and makes her displeasure at having these house guests readily apparent.

Cecile, who has rechristened herself "Nzila," wants nothing but to be left in peace and quiet so she can work on her poetry and printing.  As it is at home, Delphine is tasked with watching over her sisters and keeping them well fed.  Cecile sends the girls to a summer day camp run by the Black Panthers at the nearby People's Center.  There, the girls slowly make friends and learn about Huey Newton, Bobby Hutton, and how to protect their civic rights when dealing with the police. 

When the girls return to Cecile's from an exciting day trip to San Francisco, they see their mother being taken away by the police in handcuffs.  A family from the camp takes the girls in, but Delphine is concerned and unsure of how long her mother will be in jail for.  The girls have a shining moment when they recite one of Cecile's poems at a rally, with Cecile in the audience, having just been released.  She actually seems proud of them and even gives out a few compliments.

While the girls did not find a loving, welcoming mother in Cecile, they did build a relationship with her, little by little, during their month long stay.  As they prepare to board their plane back to NYC, all three girls envelope Cecile in a hug that she actually returns.

Williams-Garcia has created some vibrant and memorable characters, especially her young heroine.   The strong and stoic Delphine cares deeply for her sisters and is fiercely protective of them.  Readers who are also the oldest siblings in their families will easily be able to relate to her.  She cherishes the quiet moments she spends in the kitchen with her mother and wants to make all of the adults in her life proud.  Quite often, Delphine is thinking about Big Ma and what she might have to say about her current situation.  Mostly, she doesn't want anyone to know how scared she sometimes feels.  Delphine espouses many characteristics that children can relate to.    

Williams-Garcia does a fine job of recreating the cultural and political climate of 1968.  The Black Panthers did institute a variety of community social programs and offered free breakfast for children, so a camp like the one the girls attended may have very well existed.  She uses the term "Negro" the way it was used 50 years ago to add authenticity to her story.  There are various references to popular TV shows of the time, such as Flipper, and people, such as Muhammed Ali.  

Personally, I found this to be quite a compelling tale.  Each time Cecile exuded resentment or indifference towards her daughters, my heart would break a little.  I wanted them to find happiness in California and was thankful for the kind figures who came into their lives, such as Sister Mukumbu and Hirohito and his mother.  When Cecile finally told Delphine her own history, she became a little more human for me.  And the hug at the very end was literary gold - the moment I had been hoping for since the girls landed in California 200 pages ago.  One Crazy Summer is a book that will stay with me long after reading the final page.

2011 Coretta Scott King Award

2011 Scott O'Dell Award

2011 Newbery Honor Book

National Book Award Finalist

ALA Notable Children's Book

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "Emotionally challenging and beautifully written, this book immerses readers in a time and place and raises difficult questions of cultural and ethnic identity and personal responsibility.  With memorable characters (all three girls have engaging, strong voices) and a powerful story, this is a book well worth reading and rereading."

From BOOKLIST - "Regimented, responsible, strong-willed Delphine narrates in an unforgettable voice, but each of the sisters emerges as a distinct, memorable character, whose hard-won, tenuous connections with their mother build to an aching, triumphant conclusion.  Set during a pivotal moment in African American history, this vibrant novel shows the subtle ways that political movements affect personal lives; but just as memorable is the finely drawn, universal story of children reclaiming a reluctant parent's love."

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "Delphine's growing awareness of injustice on a personal and universal level is smoothly woven into the story in poetic language that will stimulate and move readers."

Read the sequel to One Crazy Summer to find out what happens next to Delphine and her sisters.
  • Williams-Garcia, Rita. P.S. Be Eleven. ISBN 978-0061938641

Have students read more about the Civil Rights Movement in 1968.  Then, have them interview someone who is old enough to remember what was going on in 1968 to get a first-hand account.

Have students write their own poems about a topic that is important to them.

Have students write a journal entry from the perspective of Delphine as she reflects on her summer in Oakland.  What were the most memorable moments of the trip for her and why?

Have the following discussion with your students: Williams-Garcia places a lot of importance on names in this story.  Think of examples and explain what message you think she is trying to convey.

Take a Journey to Medieval England with The Midwife's Apprentice

Cushman, Karen. 1995. The Midwife's Apprentice. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 0-395-69929-6

This is the story of the transformation of a little girl in fourteenth century England.  When we first meet her, she thinks she might be twelve or thirteen, but she's not sure.  She has no name, no home, and no one who loves her.   One day, a midwife finds her asleep in a dung heap.  She consequently takes her in and calls her Beetle.  The midwife gives Beetle food to eat and a place to sleep, and in return, Beetle does whatever work is required of her.  However, the woman is not particularly kind.  She berates Beetle every chance she gets and thinks nothing of putting her down in front of the other villagers.  Thus, the entire village treats her in the same manner, and her only true friend is her orange cat, Purr.  This doesn't bother Beetle too much because she believes that she is nothing.

As time passes, Beetle learns what it means to be a midwife.  She acquires the skills of her mentor, Jane Sharp, and even successfully delivers a baby on her own.  Her newfound knowledge and confidence inspire her to choose a real name for herself, Alyce.  Alyce slowly becomes accepted into the English village.  Unfortunately, when an expecting mother specifically asks Alyce to be her midwife, she is unable to deliver the baby.  This failure takes a huge toll on Alyce, and she runs from the village with the intention of never returning.

Eventually, Alyce finds work at an inn in exchange for room and board.  She becomes competent at this new job and meets many new people.  After earning the respect of these people, she realizes that for the first time in her life, she has options.  Ultimately, she decides her place in the world is back with Jane, training to be a midwife, and the story concludes with Alyce's confident return. 

Medieval England takes center stage in this novel.  From the way the characters speak to the way they dress, Cushman is clear about when in time this story takes place.  Buildings are described in vivid detail, as are all the different herbs and "potions" midwives used on expectant mothers during childbirth.  In addition, the villagers' understanding of the Devil adds much needed humor, but also demonstrates the thinking of the people during that time.  Cushman does an excellent job of painting an authentic picture of fourteenth century England in the mind of the reader.  An author's note at the end of the book gives the reader more information on the history of midwives.

The theme of transformation and finding one's place in the world is relevant to children today.  They can relate to Alyce struggling to fit in and her fear of failure.  She has no self-confidence when we first meet her, but by the end of the book, she is able to confidently articulate what she wants and what she believes she is capable of to Jane.  Her connection with young Edward shows her need for love and family, another timeless theme.  Making mistakes and learning from them is part of growing up, and even though Alyce lives in a place in time unlike their own, her story will still resonate with today's youth.

While this novel is 20 years old, I had never read it before.  I truly enjoyed all of Cushman's characters, especially the cantankerous Jane Sharp and the ever present Purr.  I found myself rooting for Alyce and hoping she would start believing in herself.  This is a must-read for middle school students everywhere.

1996 Newbery Medal

ALA Best Book for Young Adults

ALA Notable Children's Book

School Library Journal, Best Books of the Year

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "With simplicity, wit, and humor, Cushman presents another tale of medieval England.  Here readers follow the satisfying, literal and figurative journey of a homeless, nameless child called Brat...Earthy humor, the foibles of humans both high and low, and a fascinating mix of superstition and genuinely helpful herbal remedies attached to childbirth make this a truly delightful introduction to a world seldom seen in children's literature."

From BOOKLIST - "This novel is about a strong, young woman in medieval England who finds her own way home...Kids will be caught up in this short, fast-paced narrative about a hero who discovers that she's not ugly or stupid or alone."

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "Cushman has an almost unrivaled ability to build atmosphere, and her evocation of a medieval village, if not scholarly in its authenticity, is supremely colorful and pungent...The force of ambience produces more than enough momentum to propel the reader from start to finish in a single happy sitting."

Have students rewrite the end of The Midwife's Apprentice so that it concludes differently, explaining what would have happened if Alyce had made a different choice.  Or, have students write an epilogue to further explain what happens to Alyce, Jane, and the other characters.

Have a discussion with students about how they feel when someone tells them they're stupid or not good enough.

Have students act out important scenes from the novel.  For example, have two students take on the roles of Jane and Alyce and reenact the scene where Jane first finds Alyce in the dung heap.

Have students research what life was like in fourteenth century England.  See how their research compares with Cushman's descriptions.

Read Cushman's debut novel, Catherine, Called Birdy, which is also set in medieval England.  Discuss similarities and differences.

  • Cushman, Karen. Catherine, Called Birdy. ISBN 9780547722184

Friday, April 10, 2015

Travel Back to 1935 with Turtle in Paradise

Holm, Jennifer L. 2010. Turtle in Paradise. New York: Random House Children's Books. ISBN 978-0-375-83688-6

This is the story of Turtle, an 11 year old girl living in New Jersey with her mother in 1935.  When Turtle's mother gets a job cleaning a lady's house who doesn't like children, Turtle is consequently sent to the Florida Keys to live with her aunt, uncle, and cousins.  Turtle has never met this part of her family and has no idea what to expect.

Initially, Turtle feels like an outsider.  She doesn't understand why all the people in her new town have silly nicknames, never wear shoes, and say crazy things like, "bungy" and "alligator pear."  But the more time she spends with her cousins Beans, Kermit, and Buddy and their Diaper Gang, the more she comes out of her shell and feels like she belongs.  For once in her life she finally has friends.  

The novel reaches its climax when Turtle and the boys set sail for one of the smaller keys, looking for Black Caesar's buried treasure.  While they triumphantly find the treasure, their dream quickly turns into a nightmare when they realize their boat is gone, and they are trapped on the island during a terrible hurricane.  They are, of course, rescued eventually, and the sale of their newfound treasure leaves them each with an enormous sum of money.

Turtle realizes the true treasure, however, is the loving family she is now a part of.  As Turtle would say, the story doesn't have a Hollywood ending, but it is a satisfying one that lets the readers know she is going to be alright.

 Jennifer Holm was inspired to write this story by her great-grandmother, who emigrated with her family from the Bahamas to Key West in the late 1800s.  Many of the people and places in the book are based on people who actually lived there at the time.  Stories her relatives shared helped Holm to create a truly authentic setting, right down to the Diaper Gang's secret diaper rash formula, to the ice cream man and the nickel in the bottom of the can trick.  In addition, Holm conducted a plethora of research to help her story gain authenticity.  She includes a detailed author's note at the back of the book, complete with actual photographs.  There is also a reference page where she cites her outside sources.

In addition to being historically accurate, Holm's novel is an exceptional piece of literature.  The characters she created, while being grounded in 1935, will certainly resonate with children today.    Children will relate to Turtle when she feels like an outsider trying to fit in.  The sense of adventure and mischief that was inherent in all of the little boys and in Turtle to some extent, is something kids growing up in the 21st century can relate to.

The possibility of buried treasure is something all children fantasize about.  Both my 7 year old and my 5 year old have gone searching for buried treasure on several occasions.  I think it was a brilliant idea on Holm's part to include this in her story.  As she mentions in her author's note, "searching for pirate loot has always been a popular pastime in the Keys."  She created a fictional adventure that was  grounded in historical actions.

I was truly impressed with Holm's work.  Geared towards children ages 9 - 13, Turtle in Paradise is a true gem.  I look forward to reading more of Holm's books!

2011 Newbery Honor Book

2011 Golden Kite Award

2011 ALA Notable Children's Book

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "Turtle's discovery of the charms of family is as valuable as the pirate treasure the children weather a hurricane to find.  Holm's voice for Turtle is winning and authentic - that of a practical, clear-eyed observer - and her nimble way with dialogue creates laugh-out-loud moments.  Sweet, funny and superb."

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "Infused with period pop culture references, a strong sense of place, and the unique traditions and culture of Key West natives (aka "Conchs"), this humorous adventure effectively portrays Turtle as caught between her mother's Hollywood-inspired dreams and the very real family and geography that offer a different kind of paradise."

From BOOKLIST - "Turtle is just the right mixture of knowingness and hope; the plot is a hilarious blend of family dramas seasoned with a dollop of adventure."

Incorporate this novel in a social studies unit on the Great Depression.  After reading it, have students do research on the Great Depression.

Go to the author's website and click on the link for a tour in pictures of Turtle's Key West.  Her web address is jenniferholm.com

Have your class make their own "Cut-Up."  Have each student bring in some fruit or vegetables.  Mix them together and enjoy.

Show your class this Youtube clip of Shirley Temple On the Good Ship Lollipop

Create a Treasure Hunt for your students.  Questions to assess student understanding of the novel can be the basis for the clues.  The actual treasure can be anything you deem appropriate for your students.