Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Middle Grade Review: Guys Read True Stories by Jon Scieszka (ARC)

Guys Read True Stories
Edited by Jon Scieszka
2014. Walden Pond Press.
ISBN: 9780062316523
In the latest anthology from Jon Scieszka's Guys Read series, the focus shifts away from short stories and onto short pieces of non-fiction. Contained in this collection are essays and articles on history, nature, the arts, science, survival, danger, and adversity from a host of expert authors. Each piece is completely different from the next, but all focus on high interest topics likely to appeal to middle grade boys.

There are so many wonderful selections in this book that would make great read-alouds and that would easily support lessons based on the common core standards. Douglas Florian's simple poems defining scientific principles would make wonderful posters for a science classroom and great memorization exercises for kids who are learning about time, gravity, etc. Thanhha Lai's descriptions of her childhood in Vietnam help contextualize the Vietnam War and provide concrete glimpses into Vietnamese culture. A biography of Muddy Waters easily connects to lessons about civil rights, sharecroppers, and jazz music, while the story of Jumbo the elephant's close relationship with his keeper highlights the remarkable sensitivities and behaviors of animals.

All educational possibilities aside, however, this book is also just plain fun to read. Boys and girls alike will enjoy each author's unique voice and the heartfelt, gross, funny, and surprising details each one uses to relay his or her story. Readers who believe that non-fiction is flat, boring, or difficult to read will find their outlooks dramatically changed after reading this book. An absolute must-buy for all libraries serving middle schoolers.

I received a digital ARC of Guys Read True Stories from Walden Pond Press via Edelweiss.

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

8 Funny Middle School Series for Boys

Today's list is a collection of series books for middle school boys which are guaranteed to make them laugh. All of these titles are recommended for grades 5 to 9.

Kevin Spencer

by Gary Paulsen

Kevin Spencer is determined to win the affections of his classmate, Tina, even if he has to lie, steal, and run for office to accomplish his goal. Highlights of this series include a spot-on narrative voice, a hilarious four-year-old supporting character, and Kevin's relationship to his older brother and sister, and his aunt.

To date, there are five books in the Kevin Spencer series (links are to my reviews): 

Middle School 

by James Patterson

James Patterson is a prolific writer, and not all of his books are of high quality, but his Middle School series is a notable exception. This series follows Rafe Katchadorian (and in one volume, his sister) through some trying times as he struggles to acclimate to middle school and runs into some discipline problems. These books are great for visual learners, as much of each story is told in illustrations. Patterson seems to be publishing two of these a year, and there are six so far:

I Funny  

by James Patterson & Chris Grabenstein

The I Funny books are not  related to the Middle School series, but they share the same fast-paced, straightforward style of storytelling and the same theme of overcoming hardship through laughter. Jamie is confined to a wheelchair, but dreams of becoming a stand-up comic. In order to realize his dream, he must face his fear of bullies and perform on stage. There are only two books in this series:
  • I Funny (2012)
  • I Even Funnier (2013)

Origami Yoda 

 by Tom Angleberger

Dwight, who is probably the strangest kid in his class, claims that his origami version of Yoda can tell the future. Is it true? These case studies done by Dwight's classmates try to find out. Each book in this series introduces a different origami creation based on a Star Wars character, and instructions for folding each of these can be found on Tom Angleberger's website. These books are a great blend of day-to-day middle school social drama and imagination. There are currently seven titles in all.
  • The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (2010)
  • Darth Paper Strikes Back (2011)
  • The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee (2012)
  • Art2-D2′s Guide to Folding and Doodling (2013)
  • The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett (2013)
  • Princess Labelmaker to the Rescue! (2014)
  • Emperor Pickletine Rides the Bus (2014) 

Star Wars: Jedi Academy

by Jeffrey Brown

Jeffrey Brown has also latched onto the tween Star Wars craze with his new series about Roan, who wishes to become a pilot but is sent to jedi school instead. Unlike most readers, Roan is unfamiliar with the Star Wars universe, and he is constantly bewildered by everything from the force to Yoda to his Wookiee gym teacher. Since these books are told in diary format, they will appeal to Diary of a Wimpy Kid fans as well as Star Wars enthusiasts. There are two titles so far:


The Fourth Stall

by Chris Rylander

The Godfather meets middle school in this trilogy about two boys who run a mafia-like business out of the fourth stall in their school's bathroom. Mac and Vince have always been able to solve any problem brought their way, until a high school kid named Staples starts making more trouble than they know what to do with. Realizing that adolescence comes with a whole new set of problems, the two friends struggle to decide whether to keep their business going any longer. This series is complete, and three titles are as follows:

Odd Squad

by Michael Fry

Cartoonist Michael Fry brings together three outsiders to form an unlikely friendship in this set of illustrated novels. Nick, Molly, and Karl become allies when they are assigned to safety patrol together, and they eventually figure out how to overthrow the school's worst bully. These books poke fun at the everyday trials of middle school life while also providing hope for students who feel ostracized or powerless. There are three books in the series so far: 

The Classroom

by Robin Mellom

In this documentary-style series told in interview transcripts, Trevor finds himself completely unprepared for the transition to middle school, and things get worse when his best friend, Libby, unexpectedly stops speaking to him. These books are very much tween soap operas, with a large cast of characters and many unlikely events, which make them both easy and fun to read. The series so far consists of the following:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Old School Sunday: The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) by Ellen Raskin (1971)

The Mysterious Disappearance
of Leon (I Mean Noel)

by Ellen Raskin
1971. Dutton Juvenile.
The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) is a bizarre 1971 middle grade mystery by The Westing Game author Ellen Raskin. Main character Mrs. Carillon is married off to a young man named Leon Carillon when she is just a child. When the couple are finally of age to live as husband and wife, they are out in a boat together when a storm hits. As he struggles to keep his head above water, Leon makes just one parting remark, before he mysteriously disappears. Mrs. Carillon only hears part of what he has to say; the rest is lost to the "glub blub" of the sea. Years and years pass by, but Mrs. Carillon - with the help of an old friend and an adopted set of twins - persists in her pursuit of Leon and the meaning of the "glub blubs."

I distinctly remember buying this book in paperback at Barnes and Noble on a family shopping trip to New Jersey sometime in the early 1990s. I was drawn to the cover, but perplexed by the content, and even after I purchased the book and brought it home, I could never get into it enough to sit down and finish it. I believe my problem was probably related to the fact that this book invites its audience to help solve the mystery. I found this intimidating as a kid, and too gimmicky. I just wanted to be told a story. (This is why I also hadn't read The Westing Game until last year.) 

As an adult, though, I found this book to be charmingly quirky, clever, and funny. I still didn't have any interest in solving the puzzle, but I no longer felt pressured to do so, and I appreciated the details that are included for the kids who do like complicated word games. I also loved the cast of characters, which is smaller than in The Westing Game, but still every bit as interesting and carefully crafted.

Another nice thing about Raskin's books is that they are so strange, they  manage to transcend time. There is nothing in this book that I would consider "dated" because nothing in this book is really normal enough to recognize as part of real life at any time. For the right reader, this book will be as great a fit now as it would have been 40 years ago, which is probably part of the reason it was reprinted in 2011.

Highly recommended for Roald Dahl fans and middle school readers (and another great alternative to the very disappointing Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library.)  

I borrowed The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel)from my local public library.

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.