Monthly Archives: June 2020

Three books that will hook intermediate readers, and won’t make you cringe!

Sometimes, as an intermediate teacher, it feels as though my biggest challenge is getting kids to read, not because I tell them to, but because they want to. Somehow, in an age of YouTube and XBox, kids are spending less time curled up on their beds reading and more time curled up on the couch with a device.

Besides the obvious academic benefits of reading, books fill a basic human need for stories. Think of the lessons you learned from reading Little Women or Tom Sawyer. Think of the times you felt sad or angry, and a book made you laugh and forget your troubles for awhile. Think of the connections you feel when you discover another reader who enjoyed the same story. Stories are an essential part of our humanity.

So, how to get them to put down the device and pick up a book? Here are three titles that I’ve found hook reluctant fourth and fifth graders. Not only do they get pulled into these stories, but each of these stories leads on to another story. Like following bread crumbs in the forest, pretty soon they’ll arrive in I-Love-To-Read-Land!

The links take you to Amazon, not because I get a kick-back, just because that’s where I normally shop. Feel free to buy anywhere you want, or better yet, get them from the public library!

Jacky Ha-Ha

by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Jacky Ha-Ha will hook readers because it is both funny and poignant. The book is set in the past, during Desert Storm, and Jacky’s mother is fighting in Iraq. Her father is left to raise seven girls, yep, seven! Jacky is in the middle of the pack. She has a stutter, so when she was asked her name in kindergarten, instead of Jacky Hart, she said, “Jacky Ha-ha-ha-ha.” A nickname was born. She decided to embrace it, and became the class clown. That’s where the funny comes into the book. Kids will love the crazy pranks she pulls – climbing to the top of a Ferris Wheel, making strange Slushies for her friends (mustard, anyone?), skipping school to go to Atlantic City and be a street performer for a day…. There are just enough crazy antics to keep a kid hooked.

Despite her best attempts to keep everyone at a distance, two adults step in and help turn her around. The drama teacher, Ms. O’Mara, and the assistant principal, Mrs. Turner. They decide that Jacky can work off 20 detentions by performing in the school play. And then they enter her in the American Legion Speech Contest! With her stutter, Jacky is sure that she will fail. And that’s where the poignant comes in. Without spoiling the ending, let me just say that kids will laugh a lot, cry a little, and be asking you for more!

To my surprise, this was a top shelf book for me because I really fell in love with this character. Jackie is complex and relatable at the same time, and many intermediate readers move on from this book to devour other James Patterson books.

Next Reads:

Ghosts

by Raina Telgemeier

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Full disclosure, I didn’t love this book. It is a graphic novel, and I don’t love that genre. But many of my students do. This book appeals to many kids, and especially to girls who are struggling to read fourth and fifth grade level texts. At this age, saving face is important, and this book looks like an appropriate level for intermediate readers, so that is a big draw for some kids. The story is appealing because the main character has typical kid problems, sort of. The story begins when when the family has to move to because the main character’s little sister is sick, and they need to be in a better climate. That means, the main character, Catrina, has to leave her friends behind and start over. That is a problem that resonates with many students. Another draw is the secondary story of Catrina and her family reconnecting with their Hispanic roots. That story-line adds complexity to the book, and helps elevate it in my opinion. That’s where the Ghosts come into the story. These are friendly ghosts for the Dia de los Muertos celebration. Finally, the author does a really good job of building tension and suspense because it seems as though the book will end with the younger sister’s death. No spoilers here, you’ll have to read the book to find out!

I find that this book, and others by Raina Telgemeier are often confidence boosters. After reading these books, students are often ready for a classic fourth grade level text like Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great. This book doesn’t quite make the top shelf for me, but still, it’s a great read for many intermediate readers. I’d pair this book with a girl who struggles to read, but wants to keep up appearances. Raina Telgemeier has written several books, all of which will be quick reads, even for struggling readers, and build credibility with other readers.

Next Reads:

One Dead Spy

by Nathan Hale

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Hazardous Tales series by Nathan Hale is a tongue-in-cheek examination of history. This is the first story in the series. The premise is that the author, Nathan Hale, is the first American spy, and he is going to be hung by the British for treason. In this title, Hale tells his own tale – of his unlucky days at Yale, his unlucky days as an officer in the American army, and his unlucky career as a spy, leading to the gallows. And then, Hale is swallowed by a US History book! When he is spit out, he knows all there is to know about US History, and the tales begin. To stall his execution, he starts to tell true stories from history. The hang man and the British officer keep putting off his execution as long as he tells them another story.

The set up is pretty simple, but the text is not. Full of smart, funny, and accurate depictions of history, the text will draw the reader in, and the pictures (it is a graphic novel) actually add to the interest. The meaning is carried by the text, but the illustrations add nuance and information. One great example of that comes in a book later in the series, Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood. This tale focuses on World War I, and to help kids keep track of the countries on either side of the conflict, Hale draws them as different animals. It’s subtle and helpful all at the same time!

Kids who read this series end up laughing so much they hardly realize that they are learning history at the same time! This is a top shelf book for me. I’ve known so many reluctant readers, especially boys, who got hooked on this series and then went on to read other history books with greater understanding and enjoyment. Plus, “Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood” was the first graphic novel I read that I actually enjoyed! Give it a try – you may find yourself enjoying it too!

Next Reads:

A Girl Like Me by Kiri Davis

Like most people, I have found these last few months to have their ups and downs. A world-wide pandemic, civil unrest, police brutality…. As teachers, even when we are reeling from difficulties in our world, we have an additional burden – helping our students make sense of the times in ways that don’t indoctrinate, but educate. I am going to spend some time in this blog highlighting some of the really great resources I’ve been finding to help you do that. If you didn’t catch it, check out my blog post from a few days ago about Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow ( a perfect book for intermediate classroom libraries!)

Everyone probably learned about Brown v. Board of Education in college. In case that’s many years ago for you (as it is for me!), Brown was the landmark Supreme Court case that reversed over 50 years of segregation in our schools. What you may not have learned was that a key turning point in the case was the data presented by two psychologists, Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark. They had spent years studying the effects of segregation using dolls to judge children’s perceptions.

In 2006, a seventeen-year-old named Kiri Davis decided to recreate their study to find out how children’s views have changed in the last 80 years. Just as the Clarks had done, Davis got two dolls, identical but for the color of their skin. Then she asked students which doll they would like to play with… which doll was the nice doll… which doll was the bad doll. The questions mirrored those asked in the 1940’s by the Clarks, and so did the results. 15 out of 21 children preferred the white doll and thought that the black doll was bad.

Davis then made a film, weaving her experiment into testimony by several lovely black girls. A Girl Like Me is a quiet reminder that nothing has really changed. These beautiful black girls calmly cut through the shouting and slogans you see on the news today, and tell about their experience.

I think the film, which is only 7 minutes long, is a great option to show in upper intermediate and middle school classrooms. It does not point fingers or lay blame, it merely presents facts, and would be a great conversation starter. Most importantly, it places discrimination and racial struggle squarely in the present, not in the comfortable past.

Here are some possible teaching points for using the film in class:

  1. Theme – the film lays out a clear and easy trail to follow, leading to the theme of identity. This is a key theme in lots of middle grade literature.
  2. Scientific Process – Because Kiri Davis recreates the study of the 1940’s, there are lessons about setting up valid studies, communicating your process clearly so that the study can be verified by others, controls and variables.
  3. And of course, there are so many ways to tie this into the ongoing struggle for civil rights that African Americans have been engaged in for over 400 years. For a free resource that gives an overview of the civil rights movement from 1619 to the 1960’s, check out these BOOM Cards on The Civil Rights Movement.
  4. Powerful language – There is one use of the n-word in the film. That moment will likely shock many viewers but is a great opportunity to discuss the power that words have and how we should choose our words carefully.

I highly encourage you to show this film, A Girl Like Me (not to be confused with the Lifetime movie of the same name!) to your students and pause for some meaningful conversation. It may take some courage. But it may be one of those moments that changes minds and hearts. And that is worth 7 minutes of your time.

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin

“The making of the atomic bomb is one of history’s most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure. But it’s also the story of how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet. It’s a story with no end in sight.”

“And like it or not, you’re in it.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

With those words, Steve Sheinkin closes his gripping account of the making of the atomic bomb and the Soviet Union’s attempts to steal the bomb, which eventually led to the Cold War. There’s a reason this book was a National Book Award Finalist and a Newberry Honor Book. Sheinkin’s spare yet descriptive prose introduces readers to the real people, real problems and real solutions that led to the end of World War II and launched the world into the Atomic Age.

As a student of history, I had no idea how far ranging the process of building the bomb was. From saboteurs in Norway to scientists and spies from all parts of the world, this really was a team effort. Led by Robert Oppenheimer, who features prominently in the book, scientists overcame one dramatic obstacle after another. Meanwhile, spies raced around the world preventing the Germans from completing their bomb, but unaware of the Soviet plans to steal it. At its heart, this book has many elements of a good old-fashioned spy novel, mixed with a fair bit of science and a lot of history. All of those elements combined to make this a top shelf book for me – my highest rating!

Because its not a topic that is typically studied in school, I think many intermediate grade readers will struggle to understand this book because they lack background knowledge. Another qualitative consideration is the number of characters. Although Sheinkin provides lots of supports to students, often reminding readers of pertinent details about the characters, for example, there are many players in this complex story. At times, it is difficult to track the minor characters. The Lexile level of the text is about 1000 which puts this text at the high end of 5th grade, and firmly in the grades 6-8 text complexity band.

I have had a few advanced 5th grade readers with a strong interest in this topic read and love this book. I think more typically it will fit in a middle school classroom library because of the qualitative demands of the text. Keep this book on hand for any reader who loves a good spy novel, is interested in World War II, or has a strong interest in science. All three topics weave together in this text to make it a great read guaranteed to capture the interest of even the most jaded middle school reader!

I couldn’t put this book down, and devoured it in two days! I can’t close this review without encouraging all my teacher friends to read this book too. I suggest putting on your running shoes, grabbing this book and hopping on the treadmill. You won’t know if your heart is racing because of the exercise or the book! I guarantee that you will work out a little faster than usual – so that’s a win win!

http://stevesheinkin.com/books/bomb/

Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It is no secret that I don’t always appreciate graphic novels. So it may surprise you to learn that “Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow” is a top shelf book for me – my highest rating. This graphic novel really delivers. Like one of Satchel Paige’s fastballs, it’s by you before you know it, and you think about it long after he’s retired from the mound.

The illustrations use only three colors, and immediately evoke a feeling of scarcity and suppression that help the reader connect with what it must have felt like to live under Jim Crow. The story is compelling. Told from the point of view of a sharecropper, Emmet Wilson, the story opens with a baseball game where Emmet plays against Satchel Paige, one of the greatest pitchers of all time. The authors do a beautiful job of building the suspense in the game, only to end the scene with Emmet getting a hit off Paige, but also sustaining a career-ending injury.

As the story continues, Emmet ekes out a living for his family under the restrictions of Jim Crow. Baseball weaves in and out of the story, a not-so-subtle reminder of Emmet’s glory days and of the system built to ensure that African Americans see little glory. Even Satchel Paige, the most highly paid athlete in the world at the time, lives in a system where a white man won’t shake his hand after a good hit.

This book is a perfect fit for the reader who devoured the Nathan Hale history graphic novels and is looking for their next read. Like the Nathan Hale series, this is history told through smart text and engaging graphics. As I read the book I couldn’t help thinking about one fifth grade boy in particular. I think this will get him out of his Nathan Hale rut and hopefully lead him into biographies.

It’s also a great read for any baseball fan, so grab a copy for fans of Mike Lupica and Matt Christopher books. The baseball scenes in “Satchel Paige” are essential to the story, so this is a great bridge from sports books into non-fiction. I can see this being one of the books that travels through a classroom, igniting conversation and anticipation as the kids wait their turn to read it.

Put this on the top shelf and watch it fly off. Perfect for 4th and 5th grade fans of the Nathan Hale books and for baseball fans of all ages!