MG at Heart Book Club’s June Pick: JUST SOUTH OF HOME, by Karen Strong

This July, the Middle Grade at Heart team is excited to feature a perfect summer read: Just South of Home by Karen Strong. Karen Strong’s middle grade debut is fun, suspenseful, spooky, and thought-provoking. It will entertain readers, and it will also give them a whole lot to think and talk about. We love the way it weaves together present and historical storylines, and lighthearted and serious moments.

Here’s a bit more about the book:

Cousins Sarah and Janie unearth a tragic event in their small Southern town’s history in this witty middle grade debut novel that’s perfect for fans of Stella by Starlight, The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, and As Brave as You.

Twelve-year-old Sarah is finally in charge. At last, she can spend her summer months reading her favorite science books and bossing around her younger brother, Ellis, instead of being worked to the bone by their overly strict grandmother, Mrs. Greene. But when their cousin, Janie arrives for a visit, Sarah’s plans are completely squashed.

Janie has a knack for getting into trouble and asks Sarah to take her to Creek Church: a landmark of their small town that she heard was haunted. It’s also off-limits. Janie’s sticky fingers lead Sarah, Ellis and his best friend, Jasper, to uncover a deep-seated part of the town’s past. With a bit of luck, this foursome will heal the place they call home and the people within it they call family.

Just South of Home received starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Booklist. It will transport you to a memorable summer in Warrenville, Georgia, and we’re sure you’ll enjoy your stay there! It’s also part of our MG@Heart summer reading BINGO game, along with many other fabulous summer reads. Let us know if you get BINGO…or if you complete the whole board!

Look out for our newsletter about Just South of Home on Monday, July 22 and join us for our Twitter chat about the book on Tuesday, July 30 at 8pm EST with the hashtag #mgbookclub!

Cover Reveal: HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, by Tanya Guerrero

Hey there, Tanya! Welcome to the MG Book Village! We’re thrilled to be hosting your cover reveal, and are grateful you chose us to host it! Before we get to all of that, though, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Hi, everyone! I’m Tanya Guerrero, an MG author based in the Philippines. In my free time, I love to bake sourdough bread, grow my own fruits and veggies, and of course read. I also volunteer for an animal welfare organization, and have my own mini-rescue at home. Don’t ask me how many cats and dogs I have—though, I’m sure my 9-year old daughter would love to tell each and every one of you!

The book whose cover you’re here to reveal – HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA – is your debut, right? Can you tell us about your journey to the printed page?

Yes, it is my debut. Though, I have shelved a couple of YA books before it. Initially, I wanted to write stories for teens, but after an editor commented that my voice seemed more suited for a younger audience, I got to thinking. Why not MG?

Growing up, books were a huge part of my childhood, particularly MG books like Bridge to Terabithia, Where the Red Fern Grows, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, A Wrinkle in Time, and pretty much anything by Judy Blume. These stories were of solace to me, something I could escape to when times were tough. I was pretty much THAT kid who read way past her bedtime with a flashlight under the covers.

Reminiscing about those anxiety-filled middle school years, and how much I relied on those books for comfort, convinced me to shift my storytelling to focus on the upper-MG market. After all, I seemed to have a younger voice, anyway. So, that’s how I came to write, HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, which thankfully, was acquired by FSG BYR/Macmillan very early into submissions.

Thank you for sharing all that. It’s great for others to hear about the road to publication — it’s almost never a quick or easy one! Now, let’s get to the book itself. What is HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA all about?

HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA is about a 12-year old boy named Pablo who finds himself moving from country to country with his single mom after his parents go through a messy divorce. With each move, his anxiety—more specifically, his aversion to dirt and germs, his obsessive behaviors, and his fear of the sea—are exacerbated.

When they move to the Philippines, where his mom is hired as a zoologist for a local wildlife refuge, things get way worse. His mom is too busy saving animals to notice that maybe Pablo needs saving, too. Then, unexpectedly, Chiqui, an orphaned Filipino girl with a cleft lip comes to live with them. At first, Pablo’s life is turned upside down. But as he gets to know Chiqui, he realizes that through being strong for her, maybe his own fears don’t seem quite as scary.

He might even find the courage to face his biggest fear of all…and learn how to make friends with the sea.

Is there anything about your own childhood that inspired HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA?

Definitely! In many ways, what Pablo goes through reflects a lot of the emotions I had as a child. When my parents separated, my sister and me moved to Spain to live with our grandparents. Although I’d been to Spain before on family vacations, it was a completely different story living and going to school there. I barely knew any Spanish, and had to learn quickly. And then there was all the anxiety related to missing my parents and my extended family and friends. After a few years in Spain, it was decided that we’d move to New York City. We had to start all over again. New place, new schools, new friends. Although I knew how to speak English, the American culture was quite new to me, other than what I’d already seen on TV. Even after I managed to assimilate, that feeling of being an outsider—an immigrant—never really disappeared. Then, several years later, when I was twelve going on thirteen, I moved back to the Philippines. A new start. Again. It was a strange time for me. I had been away for so long that I felt completely removed from my own culture—like a foreigner even though I’m half-Filipino.

All these experiences inspired what Pablo goes through. I made his character half-Spanish and half-American to reflect my mom’s side of the family and the many years I lived in the US. The fact that he feels disconnected to his life in the Philippines mirrors the same feelings I had when I moved back. Through his character, I show what it was like to learn, to discover, to appreciate the Filipino culture, especially the Filipino people.

I felt it necessary to write about the experience of being an immigrant, and a third culture kid, because I’d never really seen any children’s books that reflected my own experience. And although not all kids will see themselves in Pablo’s story, I’m quite sure that there are many who will.

Though some of my childhood experiences were difficult, at the end, I think all the moving around definitely made me into a better person. That’s the kind of ending I want for Pablo, too. And I think, ultimately, readers will feel a lot of hope for Pablo’s future after they finish the book.

Were there any challenges associated with writing a story set in another country for a book primarily aimed at American readers?

Sure, there were some challenges, namely making sure that the foreign words and phrases (Tagalog and Spanish) would somehow not get lost in translation (or rather in non-translation). There were several instances where I didn’t want to offer many hints as to what was being said, because that’s a big part of being a foreigner in a foreign land. Not understanding the language can create a lot of anxiety and barriers for a child trying to fit in. Although, as an educational reference, we did decide to include a glossary of Tagalog words and phrases at the back of the book.

The other challenge was making sure that the place—the Philippines—would also be a character of its own. I felt it was important to describe everything as vividly as possible, to infuse as much of the culture as I could, through a variety of settings, food references, and especially Filipino humor, which is such an important part of everyday life in the Philippines.

Besides those challenges, I found it relatively easy to make my characters and story appealing to American readers. Having lived in the US for a large chunk of my childhood and adult years, I knew how to make certain aspects more relatable. I found the key was really in presenting universal themes that anyone could understand no matter where they came from.

What do you hope your readers—particularly the young ones—will take away from HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA?

For me what’s most important is that children, especially American children, open up their eyes to the world outside of their own country. I think now, more than ever, is the time for us, as humans, to try and connect, to find those universal themes of love, family, friendship, and home in one another, despite the borders and seas that separate us. It’s only then that we’ll realize that perhaps our similarities outweigh our differences.

Beautifully put. Now, let’s get to what you’re here to do – reveal your cover! Were you involved in the process at all?

Yay! To be honest, I wasn’t too involved in creating the artwork. I have a lot of faith in my editors Joy Peskin and Trisha de Guzman, especially since Trisha was born in the Philippines and only moved to the US when she was seven—so culturally, we had that connection. When they hired a talented artist, Christine Almeda, who is also Filipino-American, I knew that I had nothing to worry about. So I just let the professionals do their jobs and did my best to trust the process!

What did you think when you first saw the art?

What struck me the most at first glance were the colors! It was so spot on, because so much of the scenery in the Philippines is full of color, from the verdant foliage, to the bright tropical flowers, to the blues of the sea and the sky. I also loved how Christine made the plants so lush and distinctly tropical. It’s really obvious that it’s not a beach scene in the US.

I also thought that the body language was just right. Pablo holding his knees against his chest, his face without a smile, looking off into the distance, shows his fear and anxiety perfectly. His back is facing Chiqui, which says a lot about how he first feels when she enters his life.

I think the cover will really appeal to both girls and boys—a definite plus in my opinion, since I’m a huge advocate of gender neutral media for children.

I couldn’t be happier with the artwork and stellar book design by Aram Kim.

Okay – let’s see it!

Tanya! It’s FANTASTIC! Not that I’m surprised, with Christine and Aram behind it — but WOW. I can’t imagine anyone walking by this book and not picking it up to learn more.

Speaking of which — when can readers get their hands on HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, and where can they learn more about you and your work?

HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA is available for pre-order now on Amazon, Book Depository and other outlets, but will release on March 31st, 2020.

https://www.amazon.com/How-Make-Friends-Tanya-Guerrero/dp/0374311994

https://www.bookdepository.com/How-Make-Friends-with-Sea-Tanya-Guerrero/9780374311995

Please make sure to add it up on Goodreads here:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38724629-how-to-make-friends-with-the-sea

I can also be reached through my website:

https://www.tanyaguerrero.com/

Tanya Guerrero is Filipino and Spanish by birth, but spent her childhood living in three continents—Asia, Europe and North America. Upon graduating from high school, she moved to Boston and attended Boston University, where she studied screenwriting. Over the course of eleven years, she’s worked as photo editor in children’s educational publishing, operated her own photo studio and freelanced as a writer.​

HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, her debut middle-grade novel will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers/Macmillan on March 31st, 2020. Currently, she lives in a shipping container home in the suburbs of Manila with her husband, her daughter, and a menagerie of rescued cats and dogs. In her free time, she grows her own food, bakes sourdough bread and reads lots of books.

THE MIRACULOUS Teacher’s Guide — Plus A How-To For Authors

I’m so excited to be here at the Middle Grade Book Village to tell you about the teaching guide that I developed for my middle-grade debut, THE MIRACULOUS (learn more about the novel at the bottom of the post).

The first part of this post is for educators who may be interested in using the guide with readers. The second part is for authors who might want to make guides for their own books.

The guide can be found here: https://www.jessredman.com/resources.

FOR EDUCATORS:

I decided to create this teaching guide because it’s a dream of mine for students to read and discuss THE MIRACULOUS together. I know how much work teachers put into prepping and running classes, so I wanted to provide materials that would make bringing THE MIRACULOUS into the classroom that much easier.

THE MIRACULOUS is a story about facing grief, seeking community support, and finding light even when the world seems dark. Big questions and big feelings are explored with a message of hope and wonder at the end. With in-text journal entries, a unique seven-part structure, and mysteries that will keep readers turning pages, THE MIRACULOUS would make a great choice (in my totally unbiased opinion) for a classroom read-aloud, whole-class/school text, book club, summer reading list, or independent read.

The guide that I created is aligned with Common Core Standards for 5th grade, but it can be applied for grades 3-8. I broke the guide into four sections:

  • Before You Read—Pre-reading questions that deal with the themes of the story, as well as the epigraphs.
  • As You Read—Questions for each of the seven parts of the story. These questions can be used as reflection questions, written or discussed aloud, and as jumping off points for other prompts and activities.
  • After You Read—Ten big-picture discussion questions to use after the story has been read. For book clubs or reports, this is the part of the guide I recommend.
  • Readings Activities—Extension activities, including an exploration of names used in the story, research projects related to the archetype of the World Tree and the meaning of miracles, an art project for cover design, and prompts related to the ending of the story and perspective.

I loved creating this guide because it gave me an opportunity to pull out and share some of the many strands that I wove into this story. I love that readers will get to explore not just the surface of the text, but some of its depths. Being a therapist, some of my questions focus on readers’ feelings and reactions to the story, and I hope that this produces some positive and connecting conversations.

So please check out the guide, and see if it’s something you would like to introduce to your students! I will be offering some free Skype visits to classes and groups who read the book as well, and you can find out more about that, plus book trailers, a chapter one read aloud, and more on my website: www.jessredman.com.

FOR WRITERS:

My experience in the education system is teaching psychology classes as an adjunct professor and being a humungous school nerd. I was the kid who got 110% on projects because I just did WAY TOO MUCH (perhaps some of you can relate!). I tried to bring that school nerd energy to this teaching guide.

Whenever I’m doing an author-ly project, the first step is always researching what other authors have done, and there are some wonderful teaching guides out there. Laurie Morrison and Cordelia Jensen, for example, created a detailed and gorgeous teaching guide for EVERY SHINY THING (https://lauriemorrisonwrites.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Teaching-Guide-for-Every-Shiny-Thing.pdf) , and www.MacKidsEducators.com has some fantastic guides as well for stories like WISHTREE and HOW TO STEAL A DOG.

I chose to go the more involved route of creating pre-reading questions, questions to answer while reading, post-reading questions, and extension activities. I would say, however, that a discussion guide of 10 big picture questions is also an excellent and much faster route.

I am new to the world of designing, but I used Canva to create this teaching guide. I started with a letterhead template for the first page because I wanted a header featuring my book cover and a footer with relevant links and publisher info. I chose fonts and a color scheme to carry throughout the document to add cohesion. You can find their website here: https://www.canva.com/

When I started this project, I didn’t know very much about Common Core State Standards, and they sounded intimidating to figure out. They are, in fact, very straight forward. Some states do not follow Common Core and some are doing away with them, but it’s still widely-used and probably signals to teachers that you have done your research.

The first thing I did was read the English Language Arts standards, which can be found here: http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/. I focused on the standards for Reading: Literature, Writing, and Language, as well as one from Speaking & Listening for an extension activity that asked readers to give a presentation/speech.

I found that the standards acted as prompts for my questions, which gave me some direction and clarity. For example, standard RL.5.4 states, “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative language such as metaphors and similes.” In my guide, I have a question that quotes a figurative language-filled line from THE MIRACULOUS, and then asks the reader to explain the quote’s meaning.

I also added quite a few standard-less questions that I came up with on my own.

Some guides specify which standards apply to individual questions. I did not do this, but you certainly can. Instead, I specified which standards were used in each section of the guide (pre-reading questions, extension activities, etc.). This was less time-consuming for me, but, hopefully, will still be useful for educators.

I used the standards for grade 5, because my story can be used for upper elementary and middle-school. If you write upper middle grade, you may want to use grade 6 or 7 standards; lower middle-grade might go down to grade 3 or 4. There is a lot of overlap between the grades’ standards, however, so they are easily adaptable.

My best advice is to try to approach the story as a brand-new reader—what questions would you have? What would you want to know more about? What would you be surprised by? What did you leave out that your readers might be interested to know? Creating a guide allows you to provide readers with more insight into the world of your story, further engaging them and sparking their imaginations. It can be time-consuming, but it’s also fun and, hopefully, worthwhile!

Jess Redman has wanted to be an author since age six, when her poem “I Read and Read and Read All Day” appeared in a local anthology. It took a little while though. First, she did things like survive middle school, travel around the world, become a therapist, and have two kids.

But then finally, her childhood dream came true! Her middle-grade debut, THE MIRACULOUS, will be published by FSG/Macmillan on July 30, 2019. Her second middle-grade novel, QUINTESSENCE, will be out on July 28, 2020. You can find her at www.JessRedman.com.

THE MIRACULOUS: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374309749

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Jess__Red

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Jess.Redman.Writes/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/40864855

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jess__red/

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3he1B_ldE3JKb1Qvzx7wQg/

In the tradition of heartwrenching and hopeful middle grade novels such as Bridge to Terabithia comes Jess Redman’s stunning debut about a young boy who must regain his faith in miracles after a tragedy changes his world.

Eleven-year-old Wunder Ellis is a miracle-collector. In a journal he calls The Miraculous, he records stories of the inexplicable and the extraordinary. And he believes every single one. But then his newborn sister dies, at only eight days old. If that can happen, then miracles can’t exist. So Wunder gets rid of The Miraculous. He stops believing.​

Then he meets Faye―a cape-wearing, outspoken girl with losses of her own. Together, they find an abandoned house by the cemetery and a mysterious old woman who just might be a witch. The old woman asks them for their help. She asks them to believe. And they go on a journey that leads to friendship, to adventure, to healing―and to miracles.​

The Miraculous is Jess Redman’s sparkling debut novel about facing grief, trusting the unknown, and finding brightness in the darkest moments.

Praise for THE MIRACULOUS:

“Redman explores faith, the intertwined nature of sorrow and joy, and the transformative process of grief through Wunder’s eyes in a part-fantasy, part-realistic adventure with genuinely humorous moments…Layered, engaging, and emotionally true.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Redman’s gorgeous debut uses a cozy world of bright characters to tackle themes of death, grief, and doubt with gentle compassion and a light touch…a moving lesson for young people learning to cope with both the good and the bad that life has to offer.” —Booklist

“Filled with longing, love, hope, and wisdom, THE MIRACULOUS is a small miracle of a book.” —Alison McGhee, author of SHADOW BABY and the NYT Bestseller SOMEDAY

“Exquisitely crafted, serious, yet woven through with wry humor, this story’s miracles are its fierce and tender characters. I loved this extraordinary debut.” —Leslie Connor, author of the National Book Award Finalist THE TRUTH AS TOLD BY MASON BUTTLE

“A stunning story expressing the complexities and mysteries of love and death in all of its light and darkness. A beautifully rendered and meaningful read for young readers asking deep questions.” —Veera Hiranandani, author of Newbery Honor-winning THE NIGHT DIARY

Top 20 Student Favorites & A Conversation with Rajani LaRocca: Books Between, Episode 74

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!

Intro

Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast for educators, librarians, parents, and everyone who loves middle grade books!  My goal is to help you connect kids between 8-12 with fantastic reads because I believe that a book can change the trajectory of a child’s life.  And I want to help you introduce kids to those amazing, life-shaping books and bring you inspiring (and fun!) conversations with the authors and educators who make that magic happen.

I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a mom of two tween girls, a 5th grade teacher, and finally beginning my summer vacation!! Before we begin, I have a few quick announcements!

First – a reminder that Monday nights are the #MGBookChat Twitter chats with some really amazing topics coming up this summer like STEM in Middle Grade, Inspiring Kids to Write, Grief in Middle Grade, and several Open Chats where you can bring your own topic to discuss. So if you are like me and have a tendency to forget those sort of things, set a reminder on your phone for Mondays at 9pm EST and check out #MGBookChat on Twitter.

Second – I will be at NerdCampMI this July 8th & 9th – so if you are headed that way this summer, please please do say hi.

And finally – I am really excited to tell you that I will be rejoining the All the Wonders team as their Podcast Network Developer to produce a new array of shows cultivating a wider variety of perspectives and stories in the world of children’s literature. First up is All the Wonders This Week –  a brief, topical show released every Tuesday where a guest and I will chat about all things wondrous and new in the world of children’s literature. So stay tuned for that this summer!

But – no worries – Books Between isn’t going anywhere!This is episode #74 and today’s show features the top 20 books that my students loved this year, a reflection on what went right and what went wrong for me this last school year, and then I’ll share with you a conversation with Rajani LaRocca – author of Midsummer’s Mayhem.

This is episode #74 and today’s show features the top 20 books that my students loved this year, a reflection on what went right and what went wrong for me this last school year, and then I’ll share with you a conversation with Rajani LaRocca – author of Midsummer’s Mayhem.

Top 20 Student Favorites

Let’s start with the top 20 books that my 5th grade students loved and recommended this school year. Because it’s one thing for an adult to enjoy a book, but for it to really make an impact, it has to connect with its intended audience. There have been plenty of books that I loved, but for some reason didn’t seem to resonate with middle grade readers.  Honestly, I think THIS list is way more valuable than ANY list that any adult puts out.

I couple notes before we begin. My students have pretty much free choice to read what they want in class and for homework at night, but we did have two book clubs this year – one in the fall featuring immigrant and refugee experiences and then we just wrapped up our fantasy book clubs. So that context likely influenced what books they had most exposure to. Also – our four main read alouds this year were Home of the Brave, a non-fiction title called When Lunch Fights Back, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and The Thief of Always.  Only two of those made it into this Top 20.

And there are only six graphic novels on this list, which might surprise some adults who like to complain to me that “all kids read these days are those graphic novels”. (Can you hear my eyes rolling?)

I also want to be transparent about how I calculated this “Top 20”. So, at the end of the year, we did various wrap-up and reflection activities. In mid-June, I send out a quick survey one morning asking them for their top reads of the year. They also worked on an end-of-the-year reflection celebration slideshow and one slide was devoted to sharing their favorite books. Also, each student worked on a “Top 10 List” (or” Top 5 List” or whatever – an idea I got from Colby Sharp) listing their most highly recommended books of the year – recommended for their current class and to be shared with the incoming 5th graders. So… I tallied up each time a title was mentioned in any of those places. And here are the top 20 titles my 5th graders loved and recommended.

20. Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi

This graphic novel is still a strong favorite with my fifth graders. Maybe slightly less so this year, but I think that’s because a LOT of them already read it in 4th grade.

19. Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Still going strong! Admittedly, not every mention was book one, but the series is a perennial favorite among my students and one that they love to reread in between other books.

18. Ghost by Jason Reynolds

The Track Series has gained a lot of momentum this year – and mainly through word of mouth. It was one of our school’s ProjectLIT selections so there was some buzz around that, but only one of my students was able to make it to those meetings so the popularity of this title is due strictly to kids recommending it to other kids.

17. Escape from Aleppo by N. H. Senzai

This title was one of the immigrant /refugee themed book club selections from the fall and even though just four kids read it in that club, it was quickly passed around after that. If you know children who enjoyed books like Refugee or Amal Unbound, Escape from Aleppo is a great next book to introduce them to next.

16. Ghost Boys  by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Every child that picked this book up and read it, ended up calling it a favorite.

15. The Books of Elsewhere by Jacqueline West

This title was one of our Fantasy Book Club options and it really lends itself to fabulous discussions if you’re looking to round out that genre.

14. Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

I will admit – I was totally surprised this made the top 20. Not because I don’t like it – I LOVE this book, but I didn’t really witness it being read or talked about a lot past September or October. But clearly it made a lasting impact on those that did read it.

13. Dog Man by Dav Pilkey

In the same vein as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, this series of books are the go-to rereads when a student isn’t sure what they want to read next. It’s one of those comfort reads that always winds up back in their book boxes.

12. Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

This graphic novel was passed from kid to kid this year with so many of them reading it multiple times.

11. Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

Which was a second shocker to me because this novel is a class read-aloud in 3rd grade. So all the love for this one came from students who remembered it fondly and reread it. Maybe because I happened to have a few copies in our room? Which reminds me to make sure to have those previous year’s titles available in our classroom library.

10. Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Another one of our hot fantasy book club picks – this series is a winner. Year and after kids fall in love with the characters! And it will make you fall in love with a cockroach. That’s some powerful writing!

9. Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Still…. after all these years. This book has that special spark.

8. Crush by Svetlana Chmakova 

When this graphic novel came out in this past October, I bought one copy and immediately the kids grabbed a pen and paper and started their own waiting list.

7. The Strangers by Margaret Peterson Haddix 

The credit for this book’s popularity falls squarely to a book trailer that our school librarian showed our class. It got us all sooo hooked that I splurged a bit and bought three copies for our classroom. And it just took off from there. In fact, I haven’t even read the darn thing yet because I could never get my hands on a copy. And actually, I think it’s the only title on this list that I haven’t read.

6. Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

Because…. of course!  And actually, our classroom copy of this book didn’t even make it past March. The spine cracked and then the pages started falling apart, so I’ve got to get another copy for the fall. It was clearly well-loved.

5. Blended by Sharon Draper

Whoa did this novel take my class by storm!  And it wasn’t part of a book club, it wasn’t a read aloud, it didn’t have a snazzy book trailer – it just really resonated with kids. And they just kept recommending it to each other.

4. Front Desk by Kelly Yang

This was THE hot title this fall!  It was one of the choices for our immigrant/refugee book clubs but unlike some of the other titles, this one had a huge resurgence after the clubs ended with kids rereading and passing it along to their friends all through the year. It was constantly in someone’s book box.

3. The Unicorn Rescue Society by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

This was another fantasy book club option. And I think, the popularity of this book is really due to the fact that it had a phenomenal book trailer that hooked kids with it’s humor. It was also a shorter book with lots of great illustrations so kids quickly finished it, passed it along and were on to the next in the series. 

Okay – we are down to the top two. And not surprisingly, they are both class read alouds. It makes sense that the books every child read or listened to would be high on a list of class favorites. But as I said before, two of our read alouds didn’t make the cut so these two truly did connect with the class.

2. The Thief of Always by Clive Barker

Oh my word is this book amazing!  And for many students – it’s their first foray into horror. The chapter illustrations are gruesome and disturbing and wonderful…. If you know kids that like scary books with that paranormal twist… who like something a little weird – this book is perfect!  And it makes a really great read aloud.

1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

I added this one as a read aloud this year since it was the 20th anniversary, and I honestly wasn’t sure if the kids were going to like it.  That first book does have a slow start, but it was by far their top rated read aloud and the title most frequently found on their favorites lists and their recommended lists.  Harry’s still got the magic.

Reflection

One of the most important aspects of our last few weeks together at school is time for student reflection and feedback for me and my own reflection on what went well this past year and… what did not. 

First, let me share with you 5 things that stood out in my students’ final feedback survey. And yes, this is information from a particular class, but I think you’ll find something useful to take away from their responses as well.

  1. When asked what they liked most about class, the top responses were Flash-light Fridays (where we turned off all the lights and they got to read with flashlights anywhere in the room), the read alouds, all the Harry Potter activities (house sorting, trying Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, I sent them acceptance letters to Hogawarts, etc.), and doing the one-pagers.
  2. When asked what changes I should make for next year, they suggested more book clubs, students getting to vote on our read alouds, and… many of them said they don’t like sitting in groups. That they wanted to be spread out more and have their own space. (Which is interesting – because a couple years ago I came REALLY close to doing away with individual desks and switching to tables and mainly flexible seating options that have been very popular and whenever I have brought that up, my students have consistently told me – they like their own desk and their own space.)
  3. When asked “Did you read more or less than last year?”, 33% said a little more and 50% said a lot more. And only one child said that they read less this year. 
  4. When asked how I could be a better teacher, the most common responses were to give more reading time, read more books aloud, and a suggestion to ask kids to read even more each night.
  5. When asked what books we should have more of in our classroom library, they wanted more scary books, more books with magic, more books in a series, more poetry, and of course, more graphic novels.

So those were some big takeaways from the feedback from my students. And of course, as I reflect and revise and look for professional development opportunities over the summer, I pair their feedback with the things I saw going well and also things that did not. Here are some “wins” and some “fails” from this past year.

  • A win – the book clubs centered around immigrant and refugee stories. Students learned a lot, had a new perspective on events they may see in the news, and bottom line – just really enjoyed those books.  Since many students requested more book clubs, I am considering adding another round or two – perhaps centered around neurodiversity and understanding ourselves and others. 
  • A fail – not reading nearly enough poetry and nonfiction. So if I think about expanding book clubs, perhaps shifting a little to a poetry reading club or clubs that want to explore a particular nonfiction topic might be a way to go. 
  • A win – read alouds kicked butt this year.  After three times reading aloud Thief of Always, I had the voices down, and I finally felt like I knew that story inside and out and could take them places this year that I never would have even realized the first time we read it together. That just reinforces to me how much can be gained be rereading a text multiple times.   
  • A fail – not reading enough shorter texts – picture books and short stories. And also, every single one of our read alouds this year featured a male protagonist. And I am NOT letting that happen again next year. Or ANY year! Nooo way!
  • A win – when a student told me she wanted to read books with gay, trans, and queer characters, within 3 minutes I was able to gather a huge stack from our classroom library to plop on her desk so she could find something that might appeal to her. 
  • A fail – she didn’t know we had that many titles! I had book-talked many of them, but next year – maybe I’ll have a “Read with Pride” bin to rotate some of those titles in and out.  I want to be careful to not “other” those stories and separate all of them, but I do want students to be able to find them easily. 
  • A win – students read far more diversely this year than any prior year. And I had many, many boys who without much reservation read Baby Sitter’s Club books, and books about girls getting their periods, and other novels with female protagonists that in year’s past might be met with push-back and laughter.  I am maybe seeing a possible cultural shift there. Maybe. I’m hoping. 
  • A fail – not taking enough time to explicitly explore bias and structural racism, the impact of social norms and honestly – all the things that are tricky to talk about but that NEED to be talked about.  And that was better this year, but still not enough.

And I know this is not the work of a summer but the work of a whole career, a whole lifetime. And as always, we are learning together so I’d really love to hear from you about any feedback you received from the children you work with, what your successes and misses were this past year, and what books your kids loved. You can connect with me on Twitter or Instagram – our handle is @books_between or email me at booksbetween@gmail.com and I’d love to share your ideas.

Rajani LaRocca – Interview Outline

Joining me this week is debut author Rajani LaRocca! We chat about baking, Shakespeare, the novels that influenced her as a child, writing ideas for kids, her unparalleled skill at finding the perfect GIF, and  of course – her debut novel Midsummer’s Mayhem!

Take a listen…

Midsummer’s Mayhem

For our listeners who have not yet read Midsummer’s Mayhem – what is this story about?

You novel has so many elements that I love – a bit of mystery, a dash of earthy magic,  – it’s like The Great British Baking Show meets Shakespeare! And the recipes are so mouth-watering, so unique! Did you actually make all of the recipes in the book?

Can we talk about Vik?!  I had no idea until the very end which way he was going to go. I love how you created this mystery surrounding him that was multi-sensory – not just visual, but musical, and the earthy scents of the forest….

Mimi is very inspired by Puffy Fay – her celebrity chef idol. Who is your celebrity writing idol?

A very important question – do you say “JIF” or “GIF”?   However you say it, you are the QUEEN of the Gif!!

Your Writing Life

You said recently, “Often when I sit down to write a chapter, something surprising happens, and things go in a completely different direction than I’d planned.”  What was one of those moments in Midsummer’s Mayhem?

My students and kids are always eager to hear writing advice from authors.  What’s a tip or trick that you’ve picked up along the way that has helped your writing? 

What are you working on now?

Your Reading Life

You’ve mentioned before that the books you read as a child helped shape who you are today. What were some of those books?

What are some books that you’ve read lately that you’d recommend to our listeners?

Thank You!

LINKS

Rajani’s website – https://www.rajanilarocca.com

Rajani on Twitter – @rajanilarocca

Rajani on Instagram – @rajanilarocca

Books and topics we chatted about:

A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle)

Meet the Austins (Madeleine L’Engle)

The Arm of the Starfish (Madeleine L’Engle)

The Westing Game (Ellen Raskin)

The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis)

Amar Chitra Katha graphic novels

The Simple Art of Flying (Cory Leonardo)

Seventh Grade vs the Galaxy (Joshua Levy)

Caterpillar Summer (Gillian McDunn)

Planet Earth Is Blue (Nicole Panteleakos

Super Jake and the King of Chaos (Naomi Milliner)

All of Me (Chris Baron)

Closing

Alright – that’s it for our show this week. If you have a question about how to connect middle grade readers to books they will love or an idea about a guest we should have or a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at booksbetween@gmail.com or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can find an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at MGBookVillage.org.  And, if you are liking the show, please help others find us too by telling a friend, sharing on social media, or leaving a rating on iTunes or Stitcher.

Talk with you soon!  Bye!

CorrinaAllen

Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

 

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