MG at Heart Book Club Book Review: THE HOUSE THAT LOU BUILT, by Mae Respicio

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Our September book club pick was the fun and heart-warming THE HOUSE THAT LOU BUILT by Mae Respicio.

Twelve—almost thirteen—year-old Lou Bulosan-Nelson has the ultimate summer DIY project. She’s going to build her own “tiny house,” 100 square feet all her own. She shares a room with her mom in her grandmother’s house, and longs for a place when she can escape her crazy but lovable extended Filipino family. Lou enjoys her woodshop class and creating projects, and she plans to build the house on land she inherited from her dad, who died before she was born. But then, she finds out that the land may not be hers for much longer.

Lou discovers it’s not easy to save her land, or to build a house. But she won’t give up; with the help of friends and relatives, her dream begins to take shape, and she learns the deeper meaning of home and family.

In the opening chapters of the book, we are introduced to Lou’s boisterous and lovable family, all who manage to squeeze into her lola’s house. And we’re also introduced to what Lou really wants for her thirteenth birthday: a tiny house.

“There’s only one thing I want—my own house. I just have to build it first.”

We learn she’s prepared herself for the work. She’s watched how-to videos, saved up scraps from her volunteer job, and applied herself in her woodshop class at school.

The neat thing about what happens with building the tiny house, is that Lou is not able to build it alone, like she imagined. It takes a team effort with her relatives, her friends, even her friendly teacher. She discovers that a house isn’t always a home.

“Home isn’t necessarily a place; it’s more of a feeling—of comfort and trust, of people who are a part of you.”

This community story will immerse you in family, friends, and love. And it will leave you with a warm heart, a look into Filipino culture, and a yearning for the delicious food!

To learn more about Mae, or for printable drawing pages, activities, recipes, and discussion questions, check out our Middle Grade at Heart newsletter devoted to THE HOUSE THAT LOU BUILT here.

Book Review: ORPHAN ISLAND, by Laurel Snyder

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Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder is one of the greatest books I have ever read. It is a good book for people who like mystery. The main character in the book is Jinny, and she lives with eight other orphans isolated from all other humans on a beautiful island. Every year a new orphan comes to the island and the oldest orphan leaves. For some reason, it has to be that way. As I read this book, there was a thought that went through my head: Will Jinny and the orphans survive or is the island doomed?

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My name is Siyona and I live in NJ. I love to play basketball and tennis. Reading is my favorite thing to do during my free time.


Book Review: THE RIGHT HOOK OF DEVIN VELMA, by Jake Burt

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The Right Hook of Devin Velma is an unforgettable and heartfelt story that shows the real meaning of friendship. Devin wants to pull a stunt that he thinks will go viral on the internet, and he needs Addison’s help, and Addison can’t turn him down. But whenever Addison is in the center of attention, he freezes up, so how could he possibly face being a viral sensation?

Jake Burt’s second novel is funny, exciting, and yet shows that everyone needs a good friend by their side.



My name is Heather, I’m in 5th grade, and I am 11 years old. When I’m not at home reading, I like to ice skate and draw. I love books that are either fantasy or realistic fiction. Writing book reviews is a great way to share an author’s amazing book with other people!

Interview: Anne O’Brien Carelli

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It’s my sincere pleasure to welcome Anne O’Brien Carelli to the MG Book Village today. I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of Anne’s debut, Skylark and Wallcreeper, and I just loved it. It’s a historical novel that reads like a thriller, and that left me hungry to learn more. With high-stakes action, espionage, codes, and interesting, well-drawn characters, the book (which hits shelves next week!) is sure to both fascinate and excite TONS of young readers.

Check out my interview with Anne below, and get your hands on Skylark and Wallcreeper next week!

~ Jarrett

. . .

Before we get to the book, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Hi readers! I’m originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, but have landed in a beautiful spot outside of Albany, New York. I majored in History in college and started out as a sixth-grade teacher. After serving as the Executive Director of the New York State Equity Center I completed a doctorate in psychology of the gifted and have a leadership training business. For many years I’ve been involved in supporting refugee children, and I wrote a picture book used around the world called Amina’s New Friends. It’s about a Somalian refugee child’s first day in an American school.

Now, onto the book itself – can you tell us a bit about it?

Skylark and Wallcreeper is a story about twelve-year-old Lily who discovers when evacuating her grandmother during Hurricane Sandy that her Granny Collette was in the French Resistance as a child. The book alternates between New York City in 2012 and southern France in 1944 during World War II. The book is not only about missions and spies and bravery, but about friendship and the relationship between a grandchild and her grandmother.

Skylark and Wallcreeper is your debut novel. Can you tell us about your journey to writing this book?

I was talking to a nurse who had to evacuate her residents from a nursing home in Queens, New York, during Superstorm Sandy. She and other nurses stayed with their patients, even though their own homes were flooded and their families had to evacuate. I was so inspired by their story that I started researching and interviewing and typing, all at once. I had no idea where the story was going to go—but soon my lifelong interest in the French Resistance started to emerge. The publishing road was long and bumpy, but, luckily, I had been warned and hung in there.

Is there a connection between the work of the French Resistance and the Hurricane Sandy relief efforts? What is it?

This is such a good question! In both situations, there are volunteers who step up to fight an enemy. The big difference is that a natural disaster is frightening and life-threatening, but actions can be visible. But with the French Resistance, actions were underground and secretive. Resisters had to establish covert networks, and relied on codes, signals, hidden messages, disguises, and subterfuge. If caught, resisters not only risked their own lives, but the survival of entire villages.

Why do you believe it’s important for kids to learn about these two historical periods, and what are the benefits to exploring them through fiction?

For the French Resistance, it’s obviously important for kids to know about a war that has changed our world, but also to know how ordinary people can step up and fight back. I’ve read a ton of primary sources written by French resisters (diaries, first-hand accounts, etc.) and it always amazes me how the writers could easily be your neighbors, relatives, and friends. I wanted to create historical fiction that informed kids about different roles in history while keeping readers engaged in a story.

For Hurricane Sandy, experiencing a disaster is all too familiar to so many kids. They may have been through hurricanes, forest fires, school evacuations, tornadoes, resettlement, even mudslides. Many MG readers know first-hand how crises can impact lives and may be able to identify with the emotions and actions of characters. Reading stories about traumatic events develops sensitivity and empathy, as well.

Codes, cyphers, puzzles are becoming increasingly popular features of, and plot elements within, Middle Grade fiction. Are the ones you discussed in Skylark and Wallcreeper real, or are they your own inventions?

Oh no—I was very meticulous about sticking to the facts about both Hurricane Sandy and the French Resistance. I did extensive research, including visiting museums and historical sites and interviewing people. I love reading primary sources. I found the code system that was used in Skylark and Wallcreeper in a journal written by the leader of a resistance group. Later on in the war the codes got more sophisticated, and now there are more books coming out that explore cyphers used in World War II, such as Code Girls, by Liza Mundy. Love that book! 

At one point in the book, one of your characters says, “Every pen…has a story.” You devote many pages to discussing and displaying the power and importance of pens, as well as the power and importance of the stories they can be used to record. Would you care to elaborate on this here, perhaps more directly than is typically allowed in a work of fiction?   

That’s so funny because I created a classroom discussion guide for the book, and one of the discussion questions is related to this exact quote. I love symbolism in literature and like to encourage kids to think about the meaning behind an object, scene, or character in a book. I love it when they are able to think flexibly and, in this case, look at what a pen might have witnessed! Where has it been? Who used it? Why? The owner of the pen store obviously enjoyed the fact that his pens have been everywhere, and even rock stars use fountain pens!

Many of our readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – especially those planning to add Skylark and Wallcreeper to their classroom libraries? 

This book is about danger, risk-taking, secrets, and missions. I deliberately made girls and women the protagonists because I believe it’s important for MG girls to have strong role models. But I am hoping that teachers and librarians will also present it to boys as a book they might enjoy. (Boys, too, need to see strong, brave girls as main characters.)  

Where can readers find more information about you and your work?

I have an author website and it has the Discussion Guide and some pictures of clues in the book. Also www.aminasnewfriends and Twitter (@aobc). Come visit me at book signings! The calendar is on the website and there will be more signing events in 2019.

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Anne O’Brien Carelli is the author of adult nonfiction and the picture book Amina’s New Friends. She has always been fascinated by the French Resistance, and studied history at Case Western Reserve University. For her PhD, Anne researched psychology of the gifted. Originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Anne lives in the Hudson River Valley in upstate New York. This is her debut middle grade novel.

A Review of Understanding Texts & Readers + A Giveaway!

Click the image to visit Heinemann Publishing and download a free sample chapter.

I’ve been reading and following the teachings of Jennifer Serravallo for over ten years. She is one of those professional leaders in the literacy world who seems always to have her finger on the pulse of what teachers truly need next in their toolkit when facing the faces in our classrooms. How does she do it? If you’ve ever read any of her books or listened to her speak, it is her “feet on the ground” attitude and desire to get into the hearts and minds of kids. She has once again put something within the grasp of passionate teachers hungry for answers on how to take the teaching of reading to the next level.

Understanding Texts and Readers, Responsive Comprehension Instruction with Leveled Texts is designed for teachers working with students in first-eighth grade. It seeks to engage with teachers who have faced mixed messages about text levels, those who have a desire to authentically confer with readers using all text types, as well as what to expect when progressing as teachers of readers and the comprehension shifts students experience.

UTR_image1The book is comprised of four main parts. Part one lays the groundwork for what we are about to take on when reading the book. It takes us through the components most important for supporting comprehension in our classrooms reminding educators about the significance of texts, levels, and most importantly the reader. What I love about the next two parts is how Jen takes us on a journey toward understanding and recognizing comprehension and different levels of text complexity. Part two is focused on fiction text while part three takes on nonfiction text. As teachers, we already know that fiction and nonfiction have many different qualities. When attempting to match readers to texts that they can enjoy–as well as read, synthesize, and manage across time, it can get complicated. Jen has somehow made this simpler and more streamlined, reminding us along the way that it is never simple. I liken it to the anatomy of the human body. We all know a lot about how a body functions, what it’s like to live in one, and how to operate it. However, many of us don’t understand the complexities of all those functions and operations! Parallel to this, as teachers and readers we all probably have an affinity for books, we understand what it’s like to get wrapped up in a story or fascinating information within the pages, and we are all pretty good at making book choices for ourselves. Understanding how all these pieces have fallen into place is complex and different for each and every one of us! This is what makes teaching readers to build upon their skill sets so challenging.

Jen begins taking apart this complex anatomy of texts and readers by giving us a “crash course” in the goals appropriate for both fiction and nonfiction. She takes each of these areas and breaks them down into text characteristics within these appropriate goals.


The image above shows how she has taken four overarching goals that readers work to improve and describes what these will look like, in this case, within a book that matches the traits of a fiction level L. From there, in the margins, Jen shares glimpses of what students will be doing as readers within these characteristics.

I want to re-iterate that Jen is clear in her message. Reading levels are a teacher’s tool (p. 178). The multiple leveling systems that are prevalent throughout education are a usable tool when we understand what the levels really mean for our readers. We all know how tools can be used without intention and purpose. Jen has created a resource that is the perfect scaffold for teachers learning to incorporate reading levels in their instructional decisions. She has empowered teachers to be their own best resource while supporting us every step of the way.

After she has walked us through reading levels J to W, their characteristics, student “look fors,” and a list of text examples she shares a set of tables that reveal the progression of these text characteristics across what I would liken to a timeline. The changes a reader will exhibit as they become more responsive to text with increased complexities across time. There are student work examples here to give us a real sense of what this progression of a reader will look like for both fiction (plot and setting, character, vocabulary and figurative language, themes and ideas) as well as nonfiction (main idea, key details, vocabulary, text features).


Jen has now prepared us for authentic assessment and instruction when it comes to what we do next in our classrooms. In Part four, she shares five pieces to this process for getting started. Jen also explains that these five elements don’t necessarily have a particular order but her arrangement in the book takes us from:

  • Getting to know our students
  • Assessing and evaluating a reader’s comprehension
  • Matching readers to books
  • Engaging in goal-setting conferences
  • Using a variety of teaching supports and strategies

She gives us permission to read through these five sections within part four understanding that we likely won’t wait for one to be accomplished before beginning another. Many of these happen simultaneously and overlap each other throughout a school year.

Reading the last section of Jen’s book, I felt an immense sense of relief. As a teacher, I have longed for a resource that would support my understandings and help me have conversations with fellow educators on the way we talk to readers about their reading choices. I can’t fully summarize part four of Jen’s book; you really have to see it for yourself. I will say this; if you need alternative language when conferring with readers still learning to make book choices, it’s there. If you are tired of reading level abuse, want to create your own whole book assessments, long for a classroom library representing all of your readers, and if you want to really mix up the way you understand and teach comprehension to your students you will be inspired and find the “how” in Part Four.

Jen closes the book with this message:


I hope all teachers of readers will get together with this book and have conversations that help us re-imagine the uses of leveled text, re-ignite a passion for teaching readers, and most of all re-engage in our understandings of what all the parts of a reading life entail. It is so many things. So many beautiful twists and turns. It is meant to be a journey with infinite destinations, and we are so lucky to be a part of it all.

betsy hubbard profile

Betsy Hubbard is a reader, writer, and teacher. She can be found blogging at Two Writing Teachers, a blog for teachers of writers as well as on Twitter @Betsy_writes. She is humbled and grateful to have been able to read and share this wonderful resource with the MG Book Village community.


Would you love to win your own copy of Jennifer Serravallo’s, Understanding Texts and Readers? Read the giveaway information below to enter to win!


  • This giveaway is for a copy of Understanding Texts and Readers, by Jennifer Serravallo. Heinemann Publishers has graciously offered to donate one copy to one lucky reader.
  • If you would like to win a copy, please leave a comment below this post by September 30th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator with the help of the co-authors here at MG Book Village to pick a winner.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid email address when you post your comment, so we can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, Betsy’s contact at Heinemann Publishers will ship your book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)

Book Review: AMAL UNBOUND, by Aisha Saeed


Wow. That was my reaction after I read Aisha Saeed’s amazing book, Amal Unbound. It’s a book, just screaming for all to read. Should you be able to follow your dreams? Should girls be permitted to be educated? Amal is a character maintaining helpful, caring, and daring qualities. She worked her way into everyone’s heart. Problems arise, and Amal will do anything for her family. Read a compelling, beautiful, and uplifting book where a girl can get her hands untied, with a little help from some friends and family along the way.

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I’m Ariana, an 11 year-old fifth grader, who loves to read. I really like mystery and fictional books. My favorite books of all time are part of the series The School For Good and Evil by Soman Chainani. I love to draw, and my favorite animal is a cat. I really like to give other kids good book recommendations!

Book Review: SPY SCHOOL, by Stuart Gibbs

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A CIA undercover school, Jr. agents, a math wiz, crushes, evil agencies, new friends, teamwork, and a boy with more talent than he knows—where would it even be possible to have all of this content?
Spy School, of course! But SHHH, that’s classified!

This book is action-packed from the point of view of a soon to be a CIA agent, Ben. But before he can be the agent of his dreams, he must go through spy school. But all of this information is highly classified. So where does all of his friends and family think he’s going? A science school with high security, so for all we know, he’s a nerd. But when a mole is at spy school targeting Ben, can he, with the help of friends, find out who it is, WITHOUT getting killed?

Ben is a rookie who looks up to a girl with extreme skills. One thing that is not classified, Ben has a huge crush on her from the start. And the BEST part is that this is book one in a series with still more books coming! So you don’t have to be upset to finish a book, you can just get the next one. Will Ben be able to save his friends and spy school? Or will he die in the process of doing it?

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My name is Allegra and I am in fifth grade. I love books and am happy when I am hooked on a good series. Some of my favorites are Harry Potter, The Land of Stories and Spy School. When I am not enjoying a good book, I play lacrosse or act. I also love to travel. I hope I can share the joy of reading with others so that they, too, can find a good book.