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Have You Seen Gordon?
Author and Illustrator: Adam Jay Epstein and Ruth Chan
Published: September 28, 2021 by Simon & Schuster

Summary: Packed with vibrant and dizzying artwork, this hilarious story cleverly riffs on classic seek-and-find books and will have young ones laughing out loud as the narrator struggles to get the characters to play along.

Have you seen Gordon? Oh. There he is. Gordon isn’t very good at hiding, is he?

The narrator wants to play hide and seek with Gordon and the reader, but Gordon just wants to stand out. This madcap, fourth wall–breaking picture book is packed with humor and full, zany spreads with details kids will return to again and again.

Review: This book is very funny, and my kids loved it. It is a more humorous, more accessible Where’s Waldo? but for younger children. That said, all of my children (ages 2-8) loved it. Readers are finding Gordon (and others) across the pages, and they are also listening to a very clever tale about him. As an underling theme, Gordon doesn’t want to hide anymore. I adored this charming book and will enjoy reading it again and again.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: Students could be inspired to reimagine their own favorite picture books, and they need not be hide-and-seek texts!

Discussion Questions: 

  • Why doesn’t Gordon want to cooperate in the text?
  • What did you learn about him?
  • How is this text creatively imagined?

Flagged Passages: 

Read This If You Love: Funny stories, Hide-and-seek stories, Where’s Waldo? books, I Spy books

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**Thank you to Chantal at Simon & Schuster for providing a copy for review!**

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Mr. Watson’s Chickens
Author: Jarrett Dapier
Illustrator: Andrea Tsurumi
Published: October 5, 2021 by Chronicle Books

GoodReads Summary: Interrupting Chicken meets Click, Clack, Moo in this zany classic-in-the-making!

With rollicking rhythms, nonsensical refrains, and too many chickens to count, this modern classic will inspire unstoppable giggles and endless rereads. Bawka-bawka!

Mr. Watson has 456 chickens in the sink, on the bed, in the bread box. When his partner, Mr. Nelson, threatens to leave, Mr. Watson takes his chickens to town to sell only for them to escape! Young readers will follow Mr. Watson all around town as he gathers up his chickens. But, when they’re all rounded up, does he have the heart to sell them? Does a different fate await these chickens?

This quirky, irresistible book is full of read-aloud fun with its onomatopoeia, rollicking rhythm, and familiar refrains and ends with a touch of sweetness. It has all the makings of a classic, with a farm theme, hilarious refrains, and a familiar narrative structure that unfolds in threes. Librarians, teachers, and parents looking for a new book that feels traditional will love sharing this book with children.

A JOY TO REREAD: This is a very classic-feeling storybook. Paired with its funny farm setting and hilarious refrains, this book is sure to inspire countless rereads and endless giggles.

PERFECT READ-ALOUD: This book is full of nonsensical sounds and repetition that make it fun to read out loud and invite audience participation. It’s a perfect choice for classroom events and laptime reads.

LIKE CHICKA CHICKA BOOM BOOM, WITH CHICKENS!: With its bouncy refrains and rollicking rhythms, this book will remind readers of classic bestsellers like Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.

REALISTIC RELATIONSHIP UNUSUAL IN PICTURE BOOKS: This book features a gay couple at its center, but doesn’t call specific attention to it. It simply portrays a healthy relationship between two men (and their chickens!).

WRITTEN BY A NEW TALENT WHO REALLY UNDERSTANDS KIDS: This is Jarret Dapier’s first book! He’s a popular, award-winning teen librarian who works with kids, knows what they like, and is well-versed in the rhythms of the classic children’s book—and he has many more stories up his sleeves.

DELIGHTFUL, DETAILED DRAWINGS OF OVER 400 CHICKENS!: With hundreds of chickens to find and scenes crammed with action and detail, the pages of this book are chock-full of things to look at. Young readers will spend hours poring over each spread.

Perfect for: parents, families looking for LGBTQIA+ stories, fans of funny books.

Ricki’s Review: This book is hysterical. The chickens cracked me up. Teachers will love reading this book aloud. Mr. Watson’s partner Mr. Nelson is threatening to leave because they have TOO MANY CHICKENS (456, actually). So they take their chickens into town to give them away to chicken homes, but all does not go as planned. There is so much care and thought in this book–from the writing to the illustrations of all of the chickens. Kids will love it.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This book takes a twist on typical counting books and adds a delightful story. Kids might consider the numbers used in this book and how this may be intentional and create their own counting books.

Discussion Questions: 

  • What are some of the reasons that Mr. Nelson got frustrated with the chickens? Do you think he had a valid reason to be frustrated? How does Mr. Watson respond?
  • Where was Aunt Agnes? How does this enhance your reading of the story?
  • How does the story end? What do you think a sequel might look like?

Read This If You Love: Funny stories; counting stories; animal stories

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RickiSig

**Thank you to Eva at Chronicle for providing copies for review!**

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Violets are Blue
Author: Barbara Dee
Published: September 28, 2020 by Aladdin

Summary: From the author of the acclaimed My Life in the Fish Tank and Maybe He Just Likes You comes a moving and relatable middle grade novel about secrets, family, and the power of forgiveness.

Twelve-year-old Wren loves makeup—special effect makeup, to be exact. When she is experimenting with new looks, Wren can create a different version of herself. A girl who isn’t in a sort-of-best friendship with someone who seems like she hates her. A girl whose parents aren’t divorced and doesn’t have to learn to like her new stepmom.

So, when Wren and her mom move to a new town for a fresh start, she is cautiously optimistic. And things seem to fall into place when Wren meets potential friends and gets selected as the makeup artist for her school’s upcoming production of Wicked.

Only, Wren’s mom isn’t doing so well. She’s taking a lot of naps, starts snapping at Wren for no reason, and always seems to be sick. And what’s worse, Wren keeps getting hints that things aren’t going well at her new job at the hospital, where her mom is a nurse. And after an opening night disaster leads to a heartbreaking discovery, Wren realizes that her mother has a serious problem—a problem that can’t be wiped away or covered up.

After all the progress she’s made, can Wren start over again with her devastating new normal? And will she ever be able to heal the broken trust with her mom?

Ricki’s Review: This book ripped me apart and put me back together. It is unflinchingly honest, and it is a book that so many middle grade kids need. The characterization is beautiful, and the book would make for a great study on the relationships between humans and a general study on humanity. No character in this book is perfect—all are flawed, and this reflects who we are as people. I stayed up late at night reading this book (when I should have been sleeping), and I cannot recommend it highly enough. We all deserve to reinvent ourselves, and this book gives us permission to do so.

Kellee’s Review: Barbara Dee is so wonderful at writing such relatable middle school books with characters that deal with the real issues that middle schoolers are dealing with today. This book is no different as we get to watch Wren deal with her own identity, dealing with divorce & remarriage, moving, finding new friends, and just learning how to be happy. All of this in addition to what Wren ends up needing to work through when it comes to her mom. Dee does a great job balancing all of these plot points while also building such full characters. All characters in the main characters in the book are well developed and are truly themselves–flaws and all!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This book works beautiful to teach about characterization. Students might select a character to study in a group and then work individually to study a person in their own lives (personal or famous). This offers opportunities for rich discussions about imperfection and the flaws in all of us.

Discussion Questions:

  • How does Wren’s hobby with makeup reflect her life? How does it connect with the story?
  • How does Wren’s mother evolve in the story, and why do you think she makes specific decisions in the text?
  • Why do we keep secrets? How does secret-keeping impact others?
  • What did you learn from this story? What will you take with you?
  • How does Wren and her mom moving change the trajectory of the story?
  • Were there clues about Wren’s mom earlier in the book?
  • Why is it that people have such a hard time with girls and boys just being friends with each other?

Flagged Passage:

Chapter 2: Changes: “The day Dad left us, just a little over nine months ago, it all happened so fast. One gray Saturday morning in February, when we were still living in the house in Abingodon, I woke up to the sound of loud arguing in the kitchen. Yelling, actually, which happened a lot those days, followed by a car zooming out of our driveaway.”

Chapter 9: Nebula “[CatFX’s YouTube Channel] Here’s my secret message to you guys: fantasy is not the opposite of truth.”

Read This Book If You Loved: My Life in a Fish Tank by Barbara Dee; The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner; Sunny Side Up by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm; Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

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  RickiSigand
**Thank you to Casey at Media Masters Publicity for providing a copy for review!
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Long Distance
Author: Whitney Gardner
Published June 29th 2021 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

GoodReads Summary: From the creator of Fake Blood comes another exceptionally charming middle grade graphic novel about friendships both near and far, far away.

Vega’s summer vacation is not going well.

When her parents decide it’s time to pack up and leave her hometown of Portland, Oregon, behind for boring Seattle, Washington, Vega is more than upset—she’s downright miserable. Forced to leave her one and only best friend, Halley, behind, Vega is convinced she’ll never make another friend again.

To help her settle into her new life in Seattle, her parents send Vega off to summer camp to make new friends. Except Vega is determined to get her old life back. But when her cellphone unexpectedly calls it quits and things at camp start getting stranger and stranger, Vega has no choice but to team up with her bunkmates to figure out what’s going on!

Ricki’s Review: I read this book with my 7-year-old (he is not the target audience), and we really enjoyed it. The book has a very drastic twist towards the end of the book that will shock readers. The illustrations are wonderful, and the characters are quirky and fun, and I am glad that I read the book. It teaches about the layers of friendship, and the different ways in which we judge (and don’t judge) humans. Long Distance will offer teachers and students rich opportunities to discuss and consider how we think about others, and how we engage and participate in friendships.

Kellee’s Review: What a fun new graphic novel to add to my library! This book is going to have no trouble finding readers because it has a great mix of realistic (moving, friendship), information (all the science), and sci fi (you’ll see!). Because of these three factors, it is going to have a wide range of readers. The diversity of characters will help with the reach also: Vega is a girl of color, she has two fathers who are both people of color, and the twins at camp are characters of color also. Additionally to the diverse representation of identities, the characters area all quite different personality-wise, so every reader is going to find someone that they are rooting for or connect with. 

You’ll see below in the “Flagged Passages” that the illustrations are super colorful and eye catching, but not so busy that you lose focus. This is a huge benefit, specifically in middle school, because students love a color-filled graphic novel. 

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: As described above, the twist in this book drastically shifts the storyline. Teachers might ask students to rewrite the twist to shift the story’s ending in a different direction.

The book also has a great SEL opportunity to look at how to make friends, using George as a great example of how not to. 

The text could also be used for prediction as the reader is as ignorant about the facts of the camp as Vega is but there are clues to something odd going on. As you read, students can look at the clues and try to make guesses about what the truth about the camp is. 

Also, the book has many cross overs with science! If you look at the “Flagged Passages” below, you’ll see that Vega is gifted a star chart by her friend and the author uses the opportunity to talk about what a star chart is. This happens a handful of times within the book with topics including astronomy, geology, and electrical engineering. In addition to the sidebars with info, there is science strewn throughout the narrative! 

Finally, Simon & Schuster has created “Drawn to Reading: A S&S Guide to Using Graphic Novels in the Classroom” which might assist you in utilizing this book with students. 

Discussion Questions: 

  • What does Vega learn about friendship?
  • Which camper was most interesting for you? What did you find interesting about them?
  • Many of the characters have different hobbies. What are your hobbies, and how do they compare with those of the characters in the book?
  • How did the author tie science into this science fiction graphic novel? 
  • How does Vega’s interest in stars and space help her discover the truth about the camp? 
  • If you had been in Vega’s position, would you have stayed with George? 
  • How did Halley figure out where Vega was? 
  • What scientific information that was shared in the book would you like to learn more about? 
  • Do you think we are alone in this universe? 

Flagged Passage: 

Read This If You Loved: Star Scouts by Mike Lawrence, HiLo series by Judd Winick, Katie the Catsitter by Colleen A.F. Venable, Real Friends series by Shannon Hale, Sisters by Raina Telgemeier, Drama by Raina Telgemeier, Fake Blood by Whitney Gardner

Recommended For:
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RickiSigand

**Thank you, Audrey, at Simon & Schuster, for providing copies for review!**

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Kingdom of Secrets
Author: Christyne Morrell
Expected Publication August 3rd, 2021 by Delacorte Press

Summary: Prismena’s father is the hot air balloonist in the peaceful kingdom of Oren. She assists him by mending torn balloons, but she yearns to build and fly the complicated machines herself. One day, a waif named Abi steals Prissy’s only remaining memento of her deceased mother – a silk scarf – and promises to return it only if Prissy smuggles a mysterious box onto one of her father’s flights. Since balloon travel is strictly regulated in Oren, that single act of rebellion results in her father’s arrest and kicks off a spiraling series of events that will yank Prissy out of her predictable life.

Along the way to free her father from jail, she’ll get caught up in a bar fight, nabbed by a sadistic schoolmistress, tossed into a home for unwanted children, schooled in the art of stealing, and thrust into the center of a brewing rebellion. On her journey through Oren – with its glitzy neighborhoods and its seedy underbelly – Prismena will uncover secrets that change the way she views her family, her kingdom, herself, and even her beloved hot air balloons. She’ll have to break a few rules – and even forge metal – to save the people she loves, but she may also get a chance to soar.

About the Author: Christyne Morrell is a children’s book author and attorney. She lives in Decatur, Georgia with her husband, daughter, and hyperactive beagle. Christyne has been writing poems and stories since she could hold a pencil, but KINGDOM OF SECRETS (Delacorte 2021) is her debut middle-grade novel. 

Christyne is also the author of the picture book Abra, Cadabra & Bob (Clear Fork Publishing 2019), and her work has appeared in Highlights, Spider, and The School Magazine. She can be found online at christynewrites.com and on Twitter and Instagram at @ChristyneWrites. Christyne is represented by Danielle Chiotti at Upstart Crow Literary.

Review: When I started reading this book, it caught me right away because Abi comes out of nowhere, blackmails Prissy, then her dad gets arrested, and really I truly had no idea what was going on! Since the book is in Prissy’s point of view it gives the reader the suspense and disbelief that Prismena has as the story begins. This makes you want to just keep reading to figure everything out.

Then, add in a second story about a mysterious young lady named Wren from the past that will crash land into the main story in a very unexpected way–it just sucks the reader in more!

In addition to the plot, I found the characters intriguing and very well crafted. The development of Prismena is definitely the highlight as she learns how to be on her own and have her own thoughts, but even the secondary characters had stories that Morrell found time to tell in the book. I do wish I knew more about Abi’s life, but maybe that will come in another book!

I also think the book is timely as it looks at government corruption and propaganda based in fear of others and loss of power. Because of Prismena’s ignorance, we get to experience the realizations as she does, so this allows for good discussions about these topics without bringing up current events.

I am pretty picky about high fantasy, but this one is one of my recent favorites, and I cannot wait to share it with my students!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: The author’s website has a plethora of extra information to bring great discussions about this book to your classroom or book club!

First, there is an interview with balloonists which goes more into the science of the balloons, how Prissy’s valves would work, and other fun balloon anecdotes.

Second, she has Kingdom of Secret themed activities that are engineering, robotics, and science focused! These include making their own Dress Fit for a Queen, Rubber Band Flying Machine, Hot Air Balloon, and Mini-Catapult.

Finally, she has a section on “Fun Facts and Further Research” that looks at balloon history and fashion.

(And side note: I love a good map of a high fantasy setting, and the author gives us a very detailed and beautiful map of Oren.)

Discussion Questions: The Kingdom of Secrets Book Club Discussion Guide is available now and includes discussion questions such as:

  • At the beginning of A Blood Red Smile, a little girl treats Prissy like a celebrity because she’s the “balloonist’s daughter.” Later, Marybeth does the same. Why do you think that is?
  • Mr. Dudley is arrested for having “contraband,” including rubber. It may seem silly to you that something as common as rubber would be considered dangerous. Why do you think King Michael feels that rubber and other simple inventions are threatening?
  • When they first meet, Prissy and Abi don’t get along. Why not? What are some of their differences? What do they have in common? What changes over the course of the book that leads to them becoming friends?

Note: Some of the discussion questions in the complete guide are spoilers!!

Book Trailer:

Flagged Passages: Chapter 1. The Stranger and the Scarf

Abigail Smeade arrived like a black eye: sudden, fierce, and blossoming under my skin. When I met her, I was sitting in the shade of an old oak tree, minding my own business. I’d just removed a burlap sack from a hollow in the tree’s trunk and poured its contents out in the grass–scraps of metal, twisted brackets, and a few strips of a stretchy material called rubber. Most people would’ve described those things as junk fit for the bin, but I knew better. Pieced together just right, that “junk” would become more than the sum of its parts. And figuring out which way was just right happened to be one of my favorite pastimes.

But Father didn’t like me tinkering with the odds and ends I gathered (and sometimes even pinched from his workshop). It wasn’t proper, he said, and making something nobody had ever seen before might get a person looked at twice, which was the last thing we wanted. That’s why I kept my collection stashed inside an oak tree in the middle of Fletcher’s field. Nobody but Mr. Fletcher and me ever wandered into that field anymore, if you didn’t count the sheep.

At the bottom of the bundle, rolled up tight, was a scarf, a single piece of fabric more precious than all the rest of it put together. I unfurled it across my knees, and the silk shone and rippled like running water. It was cool to the touch, but the pattern–in shades of blue and yellow and purple–made me think of places drenched in sun. The kind of faraway places Mother liked to visit when she was flying hot-air balloons. In fact, the scarf had been a souvenir from one of her trips. She’d had a weakness for beautiful, unnecessary things. She’d filled the house with them once.

“Peanut brittle?”

Startled, I crumpled the scarf and crammed it back into the sack. Then I whipped my head left and right, hunting for the owner of that voice. It wasn’t until I looked up that I spotted her, sitting on a branch of the tree and kicking her legs like she was lounging on a swing. She peered down at me with shrewd, glittering brown eyes. Without prompting, she extended a half-eaten shard of candy through the leaves. It glistened with a semicircle of saliva where she’d taken the last bite.

“No, thanks,” I said.

“Your loss.” She wedged the peanut brittle into the far reaches of her mouth and cracked off a piece. It rattled against her teeth as she spoke. “What’s that?” She pointed down at one of my projects, something I was still trying to get just right. A small flying machine I’d made using those strips of rubber Mr. Dudley had given me.

“Excuse me . . . who are you?” I asked. She looked about my age–long-limbed and gangly, with light brown skin. Her hair had been pulled into a ponytail that erupted at the back of her head in a burst of copper corkscrews. She wore several layers of clothes–an apple-green vest, a striped jacket two sizes too small, and two gauzy skirts that looked like petticoats that had been dyed pink and cut short. Her scuffed boots kicked at the air over my head.

“Abigail Smeade, at your service,” she said. “You can call me Abi.” She smiled with a mouth full of crowded, crooked teeth, each one shoving its way to the front. She stretched her arm down to me again, this time offering her long, tapered fingers for a handshake. As though it were completely normal to meet someone while perched in a tree. I unpretzeled my legs and stood on tiptoes to give her hand a single uninspired shake.

“I’m Prismena,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“Same as you,” she said. “Trespassing.”

(Read more of this excerpt at https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/652736/kingdom-of-secrets-by-christyne-morrell/)

Read This If You Love: The Land of Stories books by Chris Colfer, The Trouble with Shooting Stars by Meg Cannistra, A Tear in the Ocean by H.M. Bouwman, and other middle grade fantasy books

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**Thank you to the author and publisher for providing a copy for review!**

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The Rock from the Sky
Author & Illustrator: Jon Klassen
Published: April 13, 2021 by Candlewick Press

Summary: Look up!

Turtle really likes standing in his favorite spot. He likes it so much that he asks his friend Armadillo to come over and stand in it, too. But now that Armadillo is standing in that spot, he has a bad feeling about it . . .

Here comes The Rock from the Sky, a meditation on the workings of friendship, fate, shared futuristic visions, and that funny feeling you get that there’s something off somewhere, but you just can’t put your finger on it.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation and Discussion Questions: 

Please view and enjoy the teachers’ guide I created for Candlewick Press for The Rock from the Sky:

You can also access the teaching guide here.

You can learn more about The Rock in the Sky on Candlewick’s page.

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Aven Green, Sleuthing Machine
Author: Dusti Bowling
Illustrator: Gina Perry
Published April 13th, 2021 by Sterling Children’s Books

Summary: Third-grader Aven Green has been solving mysteries for a whole month—cracking such cases as The Mystery of the Cranky Mom. But can this perceptive detective solve two cases at the same time? First her teacher’s lunch bag disappears. Then Aven’s great-grandma’s dog goes missing. Fortunately, since Aven was born without arms, all the “arm” cells went to her super-powered brain instead. (That’s her theory.) This hilarious chapter book showcases a new side to Dusti Bowling’s unforgettable protagonist.

About the Creators:

DUSTI BOWLING is the award-winning, bestselling author of Insignificant Events in the Life of a CactusMomentous Events in the Life of a Cactus24 Hours in NowhereThe Canyon’s Edge, and the forthcoming Across the Desert and Aven Green chapter book series. Dusti currently lives in New River, Arizona with her husband, three daughters, a dozen tarantulas, a gopher snake named Burrito, a king snake name Death Noodle, and a cockatiel named Gandalf the Grey.

Gina Perry graduated from Syracuse University, worked as a compositor in animation, then an art director for a stationery manufacturer, before discovering her true passion—writing and illustrating children’s books. She lives with her family in NH.

Praise:

“[Bowling] infuses her writing with humor and empathy.” —School Library Journal (starred) 

“A fun series opener with a feisty protagonist who’ll keep readers on their toes.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Unapologetically smart and refreshingly confident in her abilities, this super-sleuth extraordinaire is a joy to tag along with.” —Booklist

“Aven’s candid voice ensures that this chapter book series starter will draw a young audience.” —Publishers Weekly

Review: I am so happy that Aven is now starring in chapter books. Her voice is one of my favorites in middle grade literature because it is full of truth and humor. Her voice is just as strong in this chapter book as it was in Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus and Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus, just a bit younger.

In addition to Aven’s voice, the story is a compelling one! I’m a fan of mysteries, and this is a fun kid lit mystery. Also, the cast of characters are wonderful! I am a huge fan of Aven’s friends.

And I cannot wait until August when Aven Green, Baking Machine comes out!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: I would love to see Aven Green read in classrooms! It would be such a fun book to read together as a class! The class could even keep track of all of the clues and see if they can figure out the mystery!

There are also opportunities in the book to talk about acronyms and word play!

Discussion Questions: 

  • How did Aven keep track of her clues?
  • What type of materials does Aven need to be a good detective?
  • How did Aven help Sujata with acclimating with the new school?
  • What are your slumber party traditions?
  • What is a time you have heard a word incorrectly like Emily heard hen droids?
  • Have you ever lost something? How did you work to find it?
  • If you were going to do a report on a country

Flagged Passages: 

Read This If You Love: The Magnificent Makers series by Theanne Griffith; King and Kayla series by Dori Hillestad Butler; The Misadventures of Toni Macaroni in The Mad Scientists by Cetonia Weston-Roy; The Misadventures of Salem Hyde series by Frank Cammuso; Meena series by Karla Manternach; Questioneers series by Andrea Beaty; Weird Little Robots by Carolyn Crimi; A Boy Called Bat series by Elana K. Arnold

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**Thank you to Sterling for providing a copy for review!**

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