Category Archives: Literature

Middle Grade Books and Authors that I Highly Recommend!!!

Last year when I taught 4th and 5th graders, I began to really dig into the books in that level.  I usually like to know what the kids are currently reading, and as a 7th and 8th grade teacher, I read Percy Jackson, Hunger Games, and the Divergent series with them.  The issue though, for me, was that these YA books began to feel like cotton candy.  They were really fun to read, but after a while.. they felt overly saccharine.  I actually finally finished  The Brothers Karamazov after a long stint of YA.  I just craved something.. substantial.

Interestingly, that didn’t happen when I began reading these “children’s novels.”  And it made me remember reading an interview or article with/about Katherine Patterson (or was it Lois Lowry) where someone said that they love children’s books because they stick with you forever.  Or basically, these children’s books are written for children who will grow up to become adults who will still read and remember these books from their childhood.

I really believe that to be true. There are so many books that I read as a kid whose themes stick to my bones even now. There were so many books that helped me navigate situations… And even though I wasn’t a little white boy with a dog, I really appreciated the lessons that followed me through the years.

Anyway since last year, I’ve gotten to read old authors that I’d never experienced, new authors that are hitting the scene, and old books that I enjoyed in the past, and new books from old authors … (Did I hit every category)?

Usually, after reading a lot, I tend to get desensitized to quality so then when something really good died happen, it totally pops out!! With that said, after literally reading over 50 middle grade (NOT YA books) in 2017, these are the books and folks who definitely out to me:

 

Current Books/Authors (authors are alive and still writing):

  • TRENTON LEE STEWART!!!!!! (The Mysterious Benedict Society series is so great.  The Secret Keepers also was really well done – there was a point where I was frightened and had to speed up my reading because I couldn’t figure out how the protagonists were going to get out of their predicament)
    • Great read-aloud or independent book for kids who like puzzle and mysteries.
  • KATE DICAMILLO – how she can write on themes of loss, death, poverty… in a way that is quiet, solemn, and yet doesn’t “baby” her young readers is beyond me.  Her books are lovely and so different. Each one.
    • Think: Katherine Paterson type books
  • Rebecca Stead – impressed by her different stories, protagonists, and the real way she addresses real middle-school conflict.
    • One of her books is a throwback to A Wrinkle in Time!!! She plays a bit with some sci-fi and there’s always some mystery.
  • Jacqueline Woodson – I love books written in prose poetry.  Her books allow kids to experience books that help you feel, books that describe, books that “show”.  She also highlights experiences that are usually pushed aside.
    • Think: Sandra Cisneros (House on Mango Street).  Lots of protagonists of color!
  • Richard Peck – I think he’s still writing, and he’s been writing a LONG time about books that are set in the early 1900s in rural areas and I love them I love them I love them. [I liked his books so much that it warranted a run-on sentence].  They’re short and perfect for 3rd-5th graders, I think.  I don’t know how I’ve never read his books, but I’m making up for lost time at the age of 30.
    • many different protagonists all set in earlier times.  Kind of your precursor to Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie.. or Old Yeller.  Those kinds of books.  But a LOT easier to read.  
  • Sharon G. Flake – books may be for kids 4th grade and up.  The way she writes REALLY rings true for so many of my students of color.  Her authentic voice and situations (and not watering down facts) but still acknowledging the difficulties of childhood is really wonderful.
    • Set in urban areas – and realistic without sensationalizing anything.
  • Neil Gaiman – He writes books that ranges – from funny kids picture books to intense adult novels. This man has so much talent.
    • Coraline, The Graveyard Book .. are for kids. Other ones might be a little more adult
  • Grace Lin  – One of her series (geared towards a 2nd-4th grade audience) is a typical Ramona Quimby or Junie B. Jones type of chapter book except her main character is Taiwanese-American girl. It’s nice!  Then she has books for older readers that are beautiful and weave in folktales.  Lovely.
  • Catherynne M. Valente – Magickal with a K!  More for older readers, I think BUT a great/fun read aloud. Great for those who enjoyed Phantom Tolbooth or Alice in Wonderland – type stories.
  • Jason Reynolds – Raw, stories that are unapologetic and real.  His books really captured my male students of color.
  • Sarah Pennypacker – I haven’t actually read a lot of her books, but Pax is a story about a boy and a fox.  And … just think of Homeward Bound, or Where the Red Fern Grows, and you’ll understand the appeal of this book.  If she can write Pax, I’m sure the others are great too.

Oldies and Goodies 

  • Katherine Paterson (so. many.)
  • Lois Lowry (The Giver, Number the Stars…)
  • Jerry Spinelli (so many…)
  • Sandra Cisneros (poetic prose. Lovely)
  • Roald Dahl (everything!)
  • Beverly Cleary (Ramona Quimby!!)
  • Judy Blume (her Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing, Fudge, etc.. are hilario)
  • Oh and of course: Harry Potter, A Wrinkle in Time series, Chronicles of Narnia, Percy Jackson, Dear America, Encyclopedia Brown, Ender’s Game, and Pony Pals. 🙂 🙂 🙂

I’m sure there’s many more…  I try to review almost everything I read on Goodreads but if I’m missing something, definitely drop a comment.

PS:  There is something to be said for comics and graphic novels. I think authors are doing amazing things with that cartoon medium, and kids can learn a lot about rhetorical devices from those genres as well.  I’d always encourage diverse reading with kids (and if it takes reading books out loud to a kid to sell it to them, why not? Or get an audio-book for them to read along to!) … but I am totally not opposed to comics even if that means that’s all a kid reads for a season.

Some graphic novels and comics (or authors of them) that I recommend:

  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan (no words at all — lots to ponder though)
  • Persepolis (definitely for older audiences — talks about life in Iran before and during the Islamic revolution)
  • Raina Telgemeier has books that were super popular with my 4th/5th graders.
  • Amelia’s Notebooks, Dork Diaries and Big Nate are both popular series for students who are reluctant readers.
  • Brian Selznick has interesting gray illustrations that are a big part of the plot.  (He wrote Hugo)
  • Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese is wonderful)
  • Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Comic Book
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words

“Stop!” said the old man.
Douglas pulled up and turned.
Mr. Sanderson leaned forward. “How do they feel?”
The boy looked down at his feet deep in the rivers, in the fields of wheat, in the wind that already was rushing him out of the town. He looked up at the old man, his eyes burning, his mouth moving, but no sound came out.

“Antelopes?” said the old man, looking from the boy’s face to his shoes. “Gazelles?”

The boy thought about it, hesitated, and nodded a quick nod. Almost immediately he vanished. He just spun about with a whisper and went off. The door stood empty. The sound of the tennis shoes faded in the jungle heat.

Mr. Sanderson stood in the sun-blazed door, listening. From a long time ago, when he dreamed as a boy, he remembered the sound. Beautiful creatures leaping under the sky, gone through brush, under trees, away, and only the soft echo their running left behind. 

Thyme Ms. Stick King | Three Random Vignettes

Do any of you guys play Mad Gab?  I love Mad Gab.

TIME IS TICKING!

The Charles, right before it starts to bloom.

Anyway, this semester, I spent a good four hours consolidating all my syllabi into one master syllabus.  It took a loooong time since only one prof gave me a MS Word documents and the rest used PDFs.  But it was so worth it.  I’ve been relatively on top of my projects and readings!  It’s come to a point though, where all I’m realizing is that it is week 10, I have projects and papers due in the last week of April and the first week of May, and then it’s o v e .

Second semester was so much better in figuring out how to end, but it could always be better.  I sort of gave up some areas of my life to prioritize for others and of course, leaving a lot of time for play.  I’m a sentimental type of person, and sometimes, I see people in the library or walking down the street and I feel this urgency to meet up for “one last time,” study together for “one last time,” and then I feel very very weepy.

One of my hopes for this blog was to explain the name and the title.  I thought it was a clever way of incorporating this “search for the elusive  snark” and little witticisms.  Recently, as I’m trying to figure out where to go after graduate school, how to plan my ideas for The Mind Garden or whether to jump head first into different nonprofit start-ups, this chunk of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark resonates more deeply.

” ‘But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!’

I have goals and I have dreams that I am hunting.  But if it’s the wrong Snark, if it’s a Boojum, “you will softly and suddenly vanish away, / And never be met with again!”  I feel that although I’m surrounded by much passion, sometimes, I feel sad at the meaninglessness of being only full of passion, even if it is properly guided or stems from well-meaning thoughts.  I wonder a lot for myself, what does it matter if I gain my whole world, but then lose that which put meaning into it in the first place?  (Mt. 16:26, Mk. 8:36, Lk 9:25).

“A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary” – Thomas Carruthers

(I have no idea who Thomas Carruthers is except for the fact that he’s credited with a pretty great quote.  I’ve been meaning to write on “The Hunting of the Snark” for a while and how it relates to me (and this blog), but it turned out to be longer than I anticipated.  So, I’m releasing it in chunks!  Meaty chunks.)

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

I can’t remember the first time I read “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll nor can I say that I particularly enjoyed Carroll’s works when I was young.  In fact, it wasn’t until I was a teacher myself, at a small international school in Taipei, that I began to appreciate Carroll’s tiny gem.  With this poem, I could teach my students (many of whom came from non-English-speaking backgrounds) poetry terms (verse, quatrain, rhyme scheme, rhythm, consonance),  I could review the plot diagram (exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement), I could emphasize the importance of grammar (despite not knowing the words, you can figure out the story based on its preservation of grammatical sentence structure, and also, by interpreting a “fake” word as a predicate nominative or a predicate adjective change the whole picture), I could insert creative options (illustrating, dramatizing, singing), and finally, I could remind my students that even Carroll himself snubbed the dogma of a rigid education.

The more I studied “Jabberwocky”, the more enchanted I became, and later I began to read Carroll’s other famous poem (or should I say An Agony in Eight Fits), “The Hunting of the Snark.”  The above portion is excerpted from the poem’s main refrain (and if you haven’t noticed, is also the inspiration behind my blog title).  I like this idea of an adventure quest.  And this hunting of a Snark has all the elements of an epic quest sprinkled with Carrollian twists and turns.

I bring this in partly because I love the poem, but also because it reflects a lot of what I’m doing right now – pursuing something magical, perhaps nonexistent, with a box of tools that appear rather bare.  [Thimbles, care, forks, hope, railway-share (whatever that is), smiles, and soap?]   And the rhymes are just so whimsical and perfect.

To be continued…

Weak-End Wisdom #2: Memorize sentences not definitions!

While teaching in Taiwan, I was perplexed by how adept students were at memorizing vocabulary and and spitting them right back out at me.  And yet, in their written compositions, they continued to use “good”, “nice”, and “bad” and n o t h i n g else!  It was frustrating.

During that time I also was trying to expand my mandarin vocabulary and as I was chatting with my pastor in Taipei (who was also learning), he shared with me the idea he learned of memorizing sentences rather than simply memorizing words.

This way, not only do you know the definition, but you get a flavor for how it’s used and a brief glimpse of its connotation!  Furthermore, by doing this, you should (ideally) be able to actually use the word in your papers!

As a result, most of my vocabulary instruction consists of “use X in a sentence in a way that demonstrates that you know the definition.” Or, if I want to be especially difficult (and want them to recall concepts from other readings we covered), I have students “use X in a sentence to explain Romeo’s feelings about Juliet.”  You get the gist right?

Although for some people, grading may be more tedious, I actually enjoy skimming through each sentence, putting a check or an ex on the underlined word depending on if it’s used properly or not (or occasionally an “ok…”).  From the following examples, you can probably see why.

Ah the jumble of emotions, the bodily paradox of a cringe-smile reflecting the simultaneous experience of of entertainment and failure.   To be fair, this student didn’t study and recently moved to the USA….

  • I profess that Junia is mean.
  • As a right of propensity, get out of here.
  • I got elucidate by drug.
  • I garble to wash my mouth.

Final aside: It’s also interesting how so many words sound like they ought to mean one thing, but they actually mean something else.  (Like the word “restive” or “embarasado”).

Girls rule, boys drool?

The meaning behind that old playground adage/taunt (which I first came across in the movie Homeward Bound when Sassy the cat says “Cats rule, dogs drool) seems to be a semi-hot topic in contemporary news.

I remember last year reading Nick Kristof’s blunt assessment, “The Boys Have Fallen Behind” where he appears to promote the “do whatever it takes to get them to read” approach.  I flinched at that.  Do we really need to meet teenage boys where they are (in that mucky adolescent mind) and provide them with low-brow humor?  Can’t we encourage them to be men?  Admittedly, I was a bit disappointed in one of my favorite journalists in the world.

Then this year, the Wall Street Journal posted an opinion article, “How to Raise Boys Who Read” which sort of took a different approach but felt unrealistic.   The idea that in this day and age you could “keep electronic media, especially video games and recreational Internet, under control (that is to say, almost completely absent). Then fill your shelves with good books” is what I’d love to do (and probably could do since I’m stubborn), but isn’t feasible for many families (especially those where both parents work).

So, what do we do?

Today while I was working at College Track, my awesome boss/supervisor challenged “I” to read Isabel Allende’s “Two Words.”  Now, “I” is a smart kid.  He’s cute, cool, confident, etc., etc.  What bugs me is if I ever showed him this article, “How to Raise Boys That Read”, he (and others like him) would vehemently defend his right to not read.  He would somehow find holes in the article’s argument (admittedly, I found many), and in the end, joke around the whole deal.  Since he’s a pretty charismatic character, all the surrounding boys (and girls) would be swayed over to his side and loudly put in their two cents arguing the virtues of video games and technology over books and how their English teachers suck and yadda yadda yadda.

This will probably ruin my argument but... Team Jacob!

How do you get around this?  There’s the smart kids who won’t read, and the not-so-smart kids who follow the influence of the smart kids.  I really doubt putting up pictures of celebrities posing with books will get them to change this mentality.  But honestly, without reading, how do you expand minds?  Honestly!

To be fair, I was that weird kid who sometimes sat out during recess reading books (until I realized pretty late in the game how uncool that was).  But I think it worked.   And I think family intervention has a lot to do with it.  Perhaps ridding the home of video games might be overkill, but I hope that when I become a teacher, I can effectively work with the family to address this issue (without of course, neglecting my own).

Gah, it makes me mad.  Smart boys who won’t grow their brains because they’re too smart to care.  Does that make sense?

Why reading the ending of A Lesson Before Dying while listening to Muse is not a good idea.

I’m teaching A Lesson Before Dying for a MS book club.  I remember reading this before in high school.  It was a book that someone had read for their “OutSideReading book” (OSR).  For some reason, a bunch of us then read it on our own.  I remember liking it, but not remembering why.

This second time around, I think I care more.  Not that I didn’t care when I was younger, but when you’re in the position to figure out what you’re going to focus on and what you’re going to pinpoint, the care is different.  There are some massive passages here that I want them to understand.  By “them” I mean those little Asian kids, smart, probably over-privileged, snarky, but sweet.

As I read the ending, I’m listening to Muse’s Absolution album.  Talk of giving your life a hefty soundtrack!  The emotions poured in through my ears and out my eyes and nose.  I’m done. I feel cathartic.  I guess.

Mr. Grant Wiggins, my dear autodiegetic narrator, through your performative utterances, “I was crying” (256) too.