Book Reviews: What are you reading this fall?

A new edition to my blog will be a post of book reviews twice a month. Look for reviews on the 15th and 30th – everything from picture books and novels to professional books. Happy reading!

Booked by Kwame Alexander is a great read for fifth through ninth grade students. Nick Hall, the main character, is a bright eighth grader who loves soccer and spends tiBookedme dreaming about upcoming soccer tournaments in school as well as a girl he likes. His best friend Coby shares his passion for soccer. This perfectly crafted story is told in verse and deals with the stress of separation and the eventual divorce of Nick’s parents. When Nick ends up in the hospital to have his appendix removed, he turns to books he has avoided with his soccer dreams temporarily on hold. He is surprised to find more than he expected there – a good message for middle school readers! A reflective narrative with a likable protagonist, Booked brings to life very solid teen and adult characters. It includes vivid soccer scenes, great wordplay, and a clear picture of some of the challenges (including bullying) that young people face. A satisfying, winning read!


The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner is a riff on “The Fisherman and His Wife.”  The main character, Charlie, catches a magical fish that says she will grant Charlie’s wish in return for her freedom.  Charlie wants some control over her life. Her wishes are not exactly accurate. She gets the wrong boy to fall in love with her, and wishing that her mother would get a new job causes her to miss an Irish dance competition. Then it is discovered that her sister has developed a heroin addiction during her first semester in college. Charlie’s parents get Abby into a program, and Charlie has to spend her Saturdays Seventh Wishvisiting her older sister at the facility and lying to her friends about it.  It’s hard to be supportive when she discovers her sister has lied about many things. Will the fish be able to make things right? Or are some things in life beyond even magical help?  In this story about an ordinary family – solid and loving parents, sisters that get along with each other, a great family dog – a problem arises that rocks their world. How could heroin addiction happen to a family such as this? I particularly liked the way Messner handled this situation. It is believable, honest, appropriate, and respectful.  Her brilliance was the way she helped the reader understand how the family, including Abby but specially Charlie, suffers because of this addiction. I felt hopeful when it was over.  Kudos to Kate Messner for tackling this difficult topic.

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Seeing Your Writing Through the Eyes of Your Readers

Teachers recognize the importance of revision. They want their students to value the process as much if not more than the final product. Sometimes, however, it is hard to get students to view their writing as a continual work in progress, even after their work has been published.  We all lament the “once and done” attitude, so how can we change it?

We know that writing is hard work, but in the end, writing is extremely rewarding. Giving our students choice and opportunities to write for myriad audiences (not just the teacher and classmates) can be very motivating. We want our writers to write like readers and think about how their pieces are being received by an audience. It would be great if our students recognized the need for revision without our gentle nudges.

Conferences are most helpful here. Every writer needs feedback to fuel his fire. Praise, questions, and suggestions for revision and editing are so important. Perhaps, we need to concentrate on teaching students how to be keen listeners and question-makers so they can help their fellow writers make changes that will help their message get across to their readers.

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Writing About Weather

One of my favorite lists to return to in any writer’s notebook I own is my list of weather words. From here, I am often inspired to write a poem or short story. Sometimes, I copy weather descriptions from mentor texts to help me explore new possibilities. Toad Weather by Sandra Markle, Out of the Dust and Come On, Rain! by Karen Hesse, and The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx are great examples.  The first is a picture book, and the last one is a novel I chose to read for pleasure. There are so many poems about weather. One of my favorites is “October’s Bright Blue Weather”  by Helen Hunt Jackson. Find your favorite weather poems and copy them into your notebook. They will always be a great source to spark more writing. I find that many of my poems are about rain.

Rain Song

Rain falls from the sky like musical notes,

Quenching the world with its sweet song.

Soft purple morning pitter-patter pitter patters,

Bathing petals in fragile droplets.

On drizzly-sizzly August afternoons, umbrellas

Open and rain boots delight in pooling puddles.

Rain builds in strength and fury, a rhythm

Drum-drum-drumming on window panes and rooftops.

Wet, cool, loud, angry, remarkable.

Thunder and lightning join in,

Providing the evening’s entertainment.

Using Dialogue: What We Need to Teach Our Students First

Most of the time, good monologue and dialogue is all about show not tell.  Occasionally, they can be used to offer directions or an explanation. Often, monologue and dialogue can be used to help the writer reveal her characters to the reader. They sometimes reveal characters by what other characters say about them; or sometimes, character reveals his true colors just by what the character says (or doesn’t say!).

Often, teachers begin by trying to teach students how to use writing conventions to properly punctuate conversations. Students learn about quotation marks, the use of commas and other end punctuation, how to place explanatory words before or after the words that are directly spoken, and to begin on a brand new line every time the speaker changes. Of course, it is helpful to learn this since it makes it easier for a reader to follow along. But is it the best place to start?

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