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Brave in the Woods
Author: Tracy Holczer
Published January 5th, 2021 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

Summary: Critically acclaimed Tracy Holczer returns with a heartrending tale about a girl descended from the Grimm brothers who sets out to break what she thinks is a family curse.

Twelve-year-old Juni is convinced her family is cursed. Long ago, her ancestors, the Grimm Brothers, offended a witch who cursed them and their descendants to suffer through their beloved fairy tales over and over again—to be at the mercy of extreme luck, both good and bad. Juni fears any good luck allotted to her family she used up just by being born, so when she wakes up in the middle of the night with the horrible feeling like antlers are growing from her head, she knows something is wrong. The next day she learns her older brother Connor has gone missing during his tour in Afghanistan.

Her family begins grieving his loss in their own ways but Juni can’t help but believe that his disappearance means the family curse has struck again. Juni is convinced the only way to bring her brother home is to break the family curse and so she sets out on a quest to do just that.

From Charlotte Huck honoree Tracy Holczer comes a stunning new novel about the power of stories, the enormity of grief, and the brilliancy of hope.

About the Author: Tracy Holczer lives in Southern California with her husband, three daughters, and two rather fluffy dogs named Buster and Molly. She has a deep love for the mountains where she grew up, the lakes and rivers that crisscrossed her childhood, so she writes them into her stories. The Secret Hum of a Daisy was written in praise of both nature and family, and all that can be found there if you’re willing to hunt for treasure. Following her debut, Everything Else in the Universe was published, and  Brave in the Woods is her third novel.

Praise: 

★ “This is a beautiful tale of love and grief, friendship and family, and of hope. . . Give this to readers who loved Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish and Kate Allen’s The Line Tender. . . Holczer’s use of humor, thoughtful imagery, and magical realism elements makes this a wholly unique blend of modern fairy tale, hero’s quest, and coming-of-age story. A suggested purchase for all middle grade collections.” —School Library Journalstarred review

“Holczer’s clear, gentle prose allows the emotional and descriptive elements of the text to shine in this multilayered road-trip story . . . A thoughtful exploration of grief, family lore, and human connection.” —Kirkus Reviews

“By turns heartbreaking and humorous, this is a story that hints at the possibility of magic while remaining rooted in real-world problems and relationships. There is love and hope amid the grief and confusion, just as the Grimm tales contain both wonders and horrors in their own right. A heartfelt lesson on the power of love and the tales we tell ourselves.” —Booklist

Review: Brave in the Woods is the story of grief, hope, true friendship, love, and truth. With Holczer’s brilliance of story telling, just about every emotion is felt while reading this novel as Juni goes through all of the emotions alongside us. And with just a dash of magical realism, the story has a magical feeling weaved throughout it from beginning to end.

Add to these emotions a road trip, fun and unique characters, a dog (and a ornery cat), and a quirky family history, and you have a must read middle grade novel for so many readers who need this story.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: Juni’s family legend says that they are related to the Grimm Brothers, so there are allusions to the Grimm fairy tales throughout the book. Use these to introduce and discuss allusions.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Why do you think the author chose a stag throughout the novel?
  • Why was it so important to Juni to get Elsie?
  • Which of the characters who helped Juni along the way do you like the best? Why?
  • How are Juni and Anya alike?
  • How are each of the characters grieving differently?
  • How does the author compare bees and asthma?
  • How does the author use the setting like a character to drive the plot?

Flagged Passages: “Chapter 1: Velvet Bones

Juniper felt it when her brother disappeared.

She was certain of this.

Oddly, her lungs didn’t go all wonky the way they sometimes did when bad things happened. Like a hive of bees inside her chest, using up every bit of her breath with their buzzing and swarming.

That feeling would come later.”

Read This If You Love: The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart, Ikenga by Nnedi Okorafor, Clean Getaway by Nic Stone, Other Tracy Holczer novels

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Eat the Cake
Author: M. H. Clark
Illustrator: Jana Glatt
Published February 1, 2020 by Compendium

Summary:It’s your day to be wild and fearless and free. It’s your day for becoming the next thing you’ll be. Though today is your party, it doesn’t stop here–it should keep right on going and last you all year.

Roll out the streamers, blow up the balloons, and celebrate all the great things that are coming your way! With its colorful cast of characters, delightfully detailed illustrations, and playful rhymes, this festive book will ignite good feelings for birthdays and any occasion where cake is appropriate. (And cake is always appropriate!) A fun and joyfilled gift for anyone ages 5 to 105. Features a hardcover with embossing.

Review: We all need to celebrate ourselves! This book gives readers the perfect excuse to do so! This is a very motivational text that reminds readers all of the reasons that they should be proud and happy to be themselves. Readers will come away from this book wanting to try new things and go to new places. This book would make a WONDERFUL gift to readers of all ages. Folks tend to buy the Oh, the Places You’ll Go book, but Eat the Cake offers something new and fresh (and something that another relative might not buy!). 

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: If I was still teaching K-12 and had the means to do so, I would buy this book for every single one of my students at graduation. It would make a wonderful read aloud for the last day. I don’t think I could read this to my exiting students without crying! I will be purchasing this treasure for my graduate assistants. 🙂

Book Spreads! Book Spreads!:

Read This If You Loved: Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss, Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast by Josh Funk, Inspirational Books

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

And we conclude with a PARTY!:

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Bob Ross and Peapod the Squirrel
Author: Robb Pearlman
Illustrator: Bob Ross with Jason Kayser
Published October 8th, 2019 by Running Press Kids

Summary: Bob Ross paints a stunning home for his squirrel friend, Peapod, in this delightful nod to a painter icon.

This is the sweet story of a painter (Bob Ross) who helps his squirrel friend, Peapod, find the perfect home to live in. Bob paints an actual Ross painting, “Meadow Lake,” in this charming tale about helping friends and embracing the serenity of life. Bob, along with Peapod, go through the various steps and processes to painting, including praising those “happy little accidents” that happen along the way.

About the Creators: Robb Pearlman is the author of many books, including Groundhog’s Day Off, Raggedy Ann and Andy: Leaf Dance, and Passover is Here! Today, his favorite color is blue, but it may be purple tomorrow! He grew up in New York City and now lives in a white and green house in New Jersey with his husband and Oscar, the butterscotch-colored best puppy in the world.

Bob Ross — artist, painting instructor, and television personality — has for decades charmed and inspired the world with his matchless look, signature style, and words of wisdom and encouragement.

Review: This picture book definitely captures the whimsy and gentleness of Bob Ross. Anyone who has ever watched his show knows that Bob just loves creating things and making something beautiful. He always continues even through (happy little) mistakes and other obstacles, and his work is always something that takes the viewers’ breath away. I think it was very smart of the publishers to use an actual Bob Ross painting in the text because it is like the cherry on top. That, with the addition of his fun pet Peapod, really brings Bob’s personality to the book.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This text would be a wonderful book to use to compare a written work with a televised work. Students could look at what ways the book captures Bob Ross’s personality, style, speech, etc.

Additionally, the book ends with instructions on paint and supplies for readers to recreate the painting made in the book.

Discussion Questions: 

  • What Bob Ross phrases did the author include?
  • How did the inclusion of Peapod change what the story would have been without him?
  • What type of person do you think Bob Ross is based on how he instructs?
  • What do you think Bob Ross would tell you about accidents or mistakes?
  • How did Bob Ross create the image with only white, brown, green, blue, yellow, and crimson?
  • What words would you use to describe Peapod’s personality? Bob Ross’s?

Flagged Passages: 

But don’t worry–Bob Ross always embraces happy little accidents! And it turns out beautifully:

Read This If You Love: Bob Ross, Art, The Masterpiece by Jay Miletsky, Henri’s Scissors by Jeanette Winter, Paint Me a Picture by Emily Bannister

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**Thank you to the publisher for providing a copy for review**

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The Trouble with Shooting Stars
Author: Meg Cannistra
Published: August 20th, 2019 by Simon & Schuster for Young Readers

Summary: Twelve-year-old Luna loves the nighttime more than anything else. It’s when no one gives her “that look” about the half mask she has to wear while healing from a disfiguring car accident. It’s also the perfect time to sit outside and draw what she sees. Like the boy and girl from the new family next door…zipping out of the window in a zeppelin and up to the stars.

At first she thinks she’s dreaming. But one night the siblings catch her watching. Now Luna spends her nights on adventures with them, as they clean full moons, arrange constellations, and catch jars of stardust. She even gets to make a wish on a shooting star they catch.

But Luna learns that no wish is strong enough to erase the past — as much as she may hope to.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation and Discussion Questions: 

Please view and enjoy the teachers’ guide I created for The Trouble with Shooting Stars:

You can also access the teaching guide here.

You can learn more about The Trouble with Shooting Stars on Meg Cannistra’s Cake Literary page.

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Feral Youth
Authors: Shaun David Hutchinson, Brandy Colbert, Suzanne Young, Tim Floreen, Justina Ireland, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Stephanie Kuehn, E.C. Myers, Marieke Nijkamp, Robin Talley
Published: September 5, 2017 by Simon Pulse

Guest Review by Natalia Sperry

Summary: At Zeppelin Bend, an outdoor education program designed to teach troubled youth the value of hard work, cooperation, and compassion, ten teens are left alone in the wild. The teens are a diverse group who come from all walks of life, and they were all sent to Zeppelin Bend as a last chance to get them to turn their lives around. They’ve just spent nearly two weeks learning to survive in the wilderness, and now their instructors have dropped them off eighteen miles from camp with no food, no water, and only their packs, and they’ll have to struggle to overcome their vast differences if they hope to survive.

Inspired by The Canterbury Tales, Feral Youth features characters, each complex and damaged in their own ways, who are enticed to tell a story (or two) with the promise of a cash prize. The stories range from noir-inspired revenge tales to mythological stories of fierce heroines and angry gods. And while few of the stories are claimed to be based in truth, they ultimately reveal more about the teller than the truth ever could.

Review: This is a complex anthology of traditionally ignored teenaged voices that demand to be heard; I couldn’t put it down! Feral Youth is compelling from the front flap to the final page. The distinct voices of all 10 characters shone through in every part, from their individual stories to the transitional narration, creating an established sense of the full cast that is difficult to attain when juggling so many stories.

In this day and age, it feels more important than ever read book that remind us that all people, even those “troubled kids” traditionally written off by society, have a unique story to tell. Though I initially felt a bit overwhelmed by the number of characters (especially those with similar sounding names!) having such a diverse cast of characters share their stories was really rewarding. Those stories, both those intended to be “factual” and those grounded in fantasy, refuse to go quietly from my mind. In a story centered around teens whose voices have been all but silenced by society, I think that’s a victory.

Teacher’s Tool For Navigation: As the book was inspired by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, teachers could have students read the two (or passages from both) and compare and contrast. In particular, looking for thematic parallels could lend itself to discussions about the nature of storytelling and whose voices get told. In that regard, the book could also fit into a unit about “objective truth” in storytelling, perhaps in discussing other narratives or nonfiction.

Even in including the text as a free-reading option, I think it is essential to build empathy through reading diverse stories. Including this text could be not only a way to build empathy, but could provide a starting point for further future reading of a diversity voices as well.

Discussion Questions: What parallels do you find to the Canterbury Tales? Which stories surprised you? Were there any characters you related to that you wouldn’t have anticipated connecting with?  

Flagged: “’They think we’re probably nothing but a bunch of animals, but we showed them who we really are. We showed them that they can’t ignore us’” (287).

Read This If You Loved: The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, other YA anthologies

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The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik
Author: David Arnold
Published: May 22, 2018 by Viking

Guest Review by Natalia Sperry

Summary: This is Noah Oakman → sixteen, Bowie believer, concise historian, disillusioned swimmer, son, brother, friend.

Then Noah → gets hypnotized.

Now Noah → sees changes—inexplicable scars, odd behaviors, rewritten histories—in all those around him. All except his Strange Fascinations . . .

Review: The longer I sit with this book, the more I feel like I’m still it; every time I sit down to think about it, I find new things to consider. If that’s not the sign of a good book,I don’t know what else is. The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hipnotik is a surreal exploration of identity, friendship, and family on the brink of the many changes protagonist Noah Oakman faces (both before and after his hypnotic episode) as he looks to the future beyond high school.

Above all else, I loved the nerdom in this book, both in its literary and historical detail as well as the variety of pop-culture references. In particular, much of the book (including its title) is drawn from musical icon David Bowie, so I’ll admit,  it’s hard to go wrong. The humor also brings some lightness to the moral questions and philosophical questions of self and reality, which helps keep the largely internal narrative afloat.

Through it all, this book captures an important to capture the emotional gamut of someone’s life, especially when it feels like everything is ch-ch-ch-changing around you. Whether you’re looking for fun or serious contemplation of reality, this book will let you escape for a while (and even for a while longer after you’re done!)

Teacher’s Tool For Navigation: Though grounded in humor and pop culture references, this book would make for a really interesting companion to classics like James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. In asking students to compare the latter with Strange Fascinations, there are some really interesting parallels to be made both in the coming of age story and in the respective protagonists’ relationships with their sisters.

Discussion Questions: Do you agree, like Circuit, that genuine conversations are rare in the contemporary world? What do you think of Noah’s “strange fascinations?” Do you have any “fascinations” of your own, in this sense?

Flagged: “Some books are songs like that, the ones you go back to, make playlists of, put on repeat” (page 108).

Read This If You Loved: Mosquitoland by David Arnold, Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

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The Forest Queen
Author: Betsy Cornwell
Published: August 7, 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Guest Review by Rachel Krieger

Summary: When sixteen-year-old Sylvie’s brother takes over management of their family’s vast estates, Sylvie feels powerless to stop his abuse of the local commoners. Her dearest friend asks her to run away to the woods with him, and soon a host of other villagers join them. Together, they form their own community and fight to right the wrongs perpetrated by the king and his noblemen.

Review: Anyone familiar with the tale of Robin Hood likes the idea of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Betsy Cornwell’s twist on this idea changes it just enough to give the story some flavor and novelty. The characters were compelling and the relationships were truly touching, but everything felt a little too convenient to me. There were several times when characters all but died and ended up making it out without a scrape. In a world where all of the favorable characters are on the lamb, there was a fair amount of luck and inaction that saved nearly every one of them. As a gender bent twist on a fairytale and a lively retelling of an old story, this novel had merit, but there wasn’t quite enough to it to call it a masterpiece.

However, as far as representation goes, Betsy Cornwell hit it on the head. The Forest Queen, as the title lets on, has a female leading things. The role of Robin Hood was usurped by a woman and amplified by the fact that the woman is stealing from her own family to give to the poor. The other females in the novel show strength in the face of things like rape and a shocking lack of agency. There are even LGBTQ characters that add to the sense that women in this world are the epitome of overcoming their circumstances.

Teacher’s Tool For Navigation:This novel is a great outlet in which to discuss rape culture. Although it is not the most prominent part of the story, it plays a part and is represented in an ideal way in relation to discussion. Because this subject is extremely difficult to discuss in general, let alone in a classroom, talking about it within the realm of this fantastical society may make it a bit easier. It would be interesting to reflect upon the similarities between the culture in the novel and our own culture in this society. It is so incredibly important to discuss difficult subjects in the classroom, but when it is in reference to a novel like The Forest Queen, it can be looked at in a more academic way.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Did Sylvie have a right to encourage the village people to rebel against her brother?
  • What do the ties to the story of Robin Hood do for this novel?
  • How do women take power in this story and how does that differ from classic fantasy?

Read This If You Loved: Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

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