One very exciting thing about teaching 5th grade Language Arts is getting to dive deeper into books with kids. I’m kind of obsessed with reading. For “currently reading,” my goodreads.com account has 8 books, at all times. If I finish one, it will be quickly replaced by another. I have books for every occasion. I must have a book on my kindle app on my phone for reading before bed or avoiding awkward social situations (waiting rooms, lines at the DMV). I have another on Overdrive to listen to in the car or while doing dishes. I have another one that I’m reading aloud to my husband. I usually have 2-3 going on subjects involving spiritual nourishment or self-reflection. And there are still probably a few I’m forgetting. Anyway, the point is that I read a lot. So my new 5th graders better get ready!
One thing I did this summer that made me feel like I was being productive and “working,” while still having fun, was read books that I thought might be good for my new class. So, I’m going to use this blog to share my thoughts and recommendations from those books with my readers.
Books that Made Me Laugh
- Rainbow Valley (Anne of Green Gables #7) by L.M. Montgomery
**** (4 out of 5 stars)
I am a big fan of Anne of Green Gables and have read the first book in the series multiple times, but this was my first time to read Rainbow Valley. It doesn’t feature Anne very much, and when it does, she seems to share the role of an audience member with the reader. Mostly, it focuses on her children and another group of children in the village where they live. I didn’t think I would be that interested in it, but I found the various characters to be really charming and humorous. The sincerity and earnestness of the children makes you cry both from heartache and laughter.
- Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
****(4 out of 5 stars)
I am a big fan of Kate DiCamillo and would recommend any of her books. I sobbed through the last chapter of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Flora & Ulysses was a fun and quirky book, though. It is almost written in the style of a graphic novel with carton panels featured on most of the pages. The chapters are short but poignant. The reader is carried along effortlessly on this adventure of a young girl, who rescues a squirrel and becomes convinced he is fated to become a superhero. I love all the characters she meets along the way, who are all working through their own personal griefs and journeys but find themselves connected to each other. Many great lessons to be learned, but in a lighthearted way.
- Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
*****(5 out of 5 stars)
I was afraid I’d have to put this book in the “makes me cry” category, that it would be too heavy and sad. And there are certainly some heavy themes. The main character is a young African-American boy, orphaned through the death of his mother and unaware of the whereabouts of his father. The time period is the Great Depression (and I read The Grapes of Wrath, so I know where that could go). This book was a pure joy to read, though. While dealing delicately with some important and difficult themes and historical events, it focused more on the characters and gave each of them a heart and soul. The main character, Bud, reminded me of a Tom Sawyer or Maniac Magee. I laughed at all of “Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things to Have a Funner Life and Make a Better Liar Out of Yourself “ and his innocent reactions and misunderstandings of the adults around him. This may have been my favorite book of the summer.
Books with Heart (aka “books that may make you cry”)
- Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
****½ (4 ½ out of 5 stars)
One fabulous discovery to come out of this summer was Sharon Creech. I knew nothing of her books until I read this one (and another called Bloomability), and now I’ll probably become one of those people who says things like “You don’t know about Sharon Creech’s books? You haven’t read her? Are you sure you have a soul?” (Some people might accuse me of already being like this with another author’s works…last name rhymes with “bowling”). The first thing I loved about this book was the different accents the reader used for all the characters. She used a lot of great southern drawls, and one thing I look for in a good book is the opportunities it affords me to read-aloud in different accents. Already sold there! The story is also such a great mix of humor and sadness. Salamanca goes back and forth between the story of her friend Phoebe Winterbottom (and gives up trying to correct her grandparents’ pronunciation of “Peebee”) and her journey to see her mother in a way that will have you laughing one minute and crying the next. A beautifully told story.
- The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
**** (4 out of 5 stars)
I really enjoyed this book stylistically. The chapters are like small vignettes that are weaved together as the story unfolds. It’s about animals living in a mall as part of a local circus, and it focuses the story on the gorilla, Ivan. I did feel like this story had an agenda, which I don’t always appreciate, but it was done in a well-rounded and honest way. So, you were left feeling sorry for the animals but also sorry for the hurt people who kept them in cages. It’s a good illustration of “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” And interestingly, it’s all based on a true story.
Books I Just Don’t Get (aka “life is too short”)
- The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians #1) by Rick Riordan
** (2 out of 5 stars, if I’m feeling generous)
~audiobook~ But I honestly couldn’t finish it.
If this is your favorite book…if you found it to be riveting and adventurous and compelling (as I’m sure many of my students did), please skip this review and feel free to hold on to your own opinions. My intention is not to spoil anyone’s fun. As for myself, however, if I had read this book in paperback form and not listened to it through an app on my phone, I would have been tempted to throw it across the room. I just couldn’t believe how unoriginal and poorly executed it was. Just a brief synopsis: Percy Jackson goes to a boarding school and starts noticing weird things keep happening. He finds out later that he is “special” and is sent to a special camp for “half-bloods,” where campers are separated into “bunks” and compete in various games. The winners of these games get to decorate the camp with their banners. His best friends at this camp are a know-it-all girl and a bumbling boy. REALLY!?! This doesn’t sound maybe a little bit familiar? Okay, let me paint a picture. Let’s change “Camp Halfblood” into a school for people with special abilities. And just for the sake of argument, instead of calling them “half-bloods,” we’ll call them…I don’t know…wizards. But if they’re not at camp, then we can’t really call their divisions “bunks.” So, we’ll call them “houses.” And now let’s name some of these aforementioned characters and places. We’ll call the know-it-all girl “Hermione,” and while we’re at it, we might as well call the bumbling boy “Ron” and the school “Hogwarts.” If you haven’t followed any of that, then please follow my earlier advice and skip this review. On top of all the similarities between this book and one of my very favorites, I just didn’t think the book was very well written. It was told in the first person past tense, which is an awkward way to tell an adventure, when the main character is still discovering things about themselves and their story but also telling it as if they’ve already come through it. All in all, I can’t recommend it.
- 11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass
* (1 out of 5 stars)
In this story, the main character relives her 11th birthday 11 times. It’s like “Groundhog Day” but not funny. That was one of the frustrating things about this book. The characters would start laughing when nothing funny had happened. It’s like the author expects the reader to just go along with it. Like she said, “You’ll just have to take my word for it. It was pretty funny.” Sorry. Didn’t work for me. I also cannot tell you how frustrating it was to read in excruciating detail about the character’s day, and then read about her making the same obvious mistakes over and over again. I really wish the book had been called “3 birthdays.” I think if most people were living the character’s life, it could have been resolved in that time.
Honorable Mentions (aka “books I don’t have time to review”)
- Odd & the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
**** (4 out of 5 stars)
A great alternative to Percy Jackson, involving Norse mythology!
- Bloomability by Sharon Creech
**** (4 out of 5 stars)
This made me nostalgic for my time of studying abroad.
- The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo
**** (4 out of 5 stars)
Such a magical & poetic story!
- The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
*** (3 out of 5 stars)
Interesting but also kind of dark for a children’s book. I didn’t find it compelling enough to really want to read the next book in the series, but we’ll see.
- Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
***** (5 out of 5 stars)
~audiobook~ (A wonderful reading performance by John Ritter)
I am in love with this book!
- When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
*** ½ (3 ½ out of 5 stars)
Such an original plot and maturely told story.
I am very excited to introduce and recommend these books to my new class and learn about the books they are already passionate about. Who knows? Maybe someone will be able to convince me to give Percy Jackson another try.