Friday, April 27, 2012

The Humming Room by Ellen Potter

Details... Details... (Sigh...) I am so good at missing the details.

Detective Nate the Great is better with details than me. I'm more like the characters in Julius Lester's book, Sam and the Tigers.  And not Sam. I'm more like tigers that ran in a circle around Sam until they turned into butter. Or the Cat in the Hat who destroyed the house playing with the two kids. For instance, I cooked stir-fry the other night and splashed it on the ceiling and dribbled pineapple juice on the floor unbeknownst to me. My husband's shoes sounded like suction cups on the floor as he went to do the dishes. Once in a while I moan about this defect, "It would be so nice to not miss the details, but even when I slow down, I still miss them... so why bother?" I just continue to streak along like Joey Pigsa, a locomotive out-of-control.

So you shouldn't be surprised that I missed the details on this book cover that say, A BOOK INSPIRED BY THE SECRET GARDEN. I'm tooling through the pages indignantly thinking, "This book's plot is just like The Secret Garden's!" Duh. That was the author's intent. If you have read The Secret Garden four times like I have then the comparisons between characters and plot are quite striking, and yet, Ellen Potter makes this story her own with a unique beauty. I fell in love with it by the end.

Roo is a tough cookie. She has to be. Her father and stepmom were drug dealers that died in a deal gone bad. Roo is in her secret hidey-hole under the trailer-home listening to a police officer who has come to collect her, talk to a neighbor. She discovers that she has a rich uncle and is going to live with him on an island. Roo is snotty like Mary in The Secret Garden, but whereas Mary is spoiled, rich, and neglected, Roo is poor and  neglected. Both girls are unwanted by their parents except Roo had a relationship with her father and grieves his death. She talks about the stories he'd tell and missing his hugs. The mom is out of the picture and there doesn't seem to be a connection with the stepmom. Roo is a loner and survivor and it is no surprise that when she gets to the island that she is befriended by only one person, the maidservant Violet. Again, this story-line is just like Mary in The Secret Garden who becomes friends with the maidservant, Martha. Both girls are local and have a mother who is wise about children. Some of the best lines come from her. Violet, doesn't have an accent like the Yorkshire girl, Martha, so she is easy to understand. I think the strength of this book is that it is easier to read for students in grades 3-5 versus Burnett's young adult version.

The boy, Phillip, is very similar to Colin in The Secret Garden. He's sickly, has dark circles under his eyes, and is prone to temper tantrums. Roo reacts to him with anger which is like Burnett's story. There is a twist with skeletons that is interesting and true to the classic's themes of death and grief. Also, the plot lines of how the mother died are different yet similar. I love the image of the mom being like a cormorant and a wildness to her, as well as, the garden representing her culture. Potter captures the Romantic Era's focus on nature and character's reacting strongly to it such as when Roo and Phillip can "hear" the humming of the earth. She doesn't go to an extreme like in Burnett's novel where Colin recites the Doxology but you get the idea that nature elicits strong feelings in characters.

Jack is like Dickon in The Secret Garden in that animals like him but he's different in that he's considered a fairie. Potter sprinkles magic and legends through her story that adds tension and mystery. Jack is a part of a local legend about Faigne (fairie), water creatures that control the weather, who came from Guernsey an island in the British Channel. There is a shadow in the garden that they think is the dead mother, a flower that suddenly blooms at Phillip's feet, and a humming sound that comes from the earth and sounds like the song Phillip's mother used to sing to him. Jack doesn't really have a family and he lives on the river. He represents nature even more than Dickon.

Roo changes internally as she becomes friends with Jack and Phillip. She begins to bloom like a flower with joy and happiness. Potter does a nice job showing this change in a novel much shorter than the classic. I will recommend this novel to my students before the classic. It captures the magic of the original and is easier to read. I guarantee you'll walk away humming.

Reading Level 4.5

4 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, April 20, 2012

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

"Kinder than is necessary."

This quote in Wonder made me think of the book, Team Of Rivals. I know... your going...huh? Kindness and politics? Civil War? Slavery? Huh? Not really an era one would mark with kindness. Strife, yes, but kindness? No way. It's not the plot that reminds me of the book, but the character, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln said that he valued kindness as a virtue in a person above all else. And he showed kindness to others. Sure he had other qualities. He was courageous. He knew that signing the Emancipation Proclamation was signing a death warrant. He was a storyteller. He had empathy. His kindness extended not only to friends, but to his enemies as well. He brought out the best in people. He chose kindness, when he could have chosen hate and power. He risked everything to do the right thing. 

Meet Auggie Pullman. He too, is kinder than necessary. He too, chooses kindness over meanness, kindness over revenge, kindness over anger. And he's courageous. He stands up for what is right. He forgives his friends when they wrong him. He's a hero. But not your typical one.

Auggie was born with a birth defect that is so horrible he won't describe what it looks like because "whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse." He is going to go to middle school for the first time. He knows it won't be easy. He knows he has to be brave. He knows the kids will be afraid of him. But as his mom says, "I really believe... there are more good people on this earth than bad people, and the good people watch out for each other and take care of each other.

Auggie doesn't meet very many good people at first. He meets a bunch of scared middle schoolers. In fact, they are so scared of him they have a game called, The Plague, where if they touch him they have 30 seconds to wash their hands. Auggie ignores most of it because he does have the two friends Jack and Summer. When Auggie overhears Jack say something mean he has to decide if he still wants him as a friend. As the students get to know him, he tries to ease their fears by joking about his looks. They find out he's a normal kid like them.

The story is told from several different viewpoints: Auggie, Via, Jack, Summer, Justin, and Miranda. For the most part this worked for me but I got pulled out of the story when Justin was speaking. The author uses him to make a minor point about Jack. This is the only time I set the book down and was able to walk away from it. When I started to read about Miranda, I thought, oh no... another Jack. But there is an interesting twist with her. I would have preferred Amos viewpoint over Justin's. Or Julian's viewpoint. Julian fizzles from the story at the end. I thought he should have gone to camp and something should have happened to give more insight into his character. He's pretty much the one-dimensional villain. If he had gone to camp the tension would have gone up a few notches.

Auggie has an amazing support system. When I first started this book I wondered if it would follow the story of John Merrick known as The Elephant Man. I remember watching this as a movie and Merrick suffered unloving parents and abuse. This story doesn't follow that path. This family is loving and struggles with Auggie's special needs. The mom and dad force Auggie to go to school and support him.  Auggie's dad is funny. I love the humor he brings to the story. Via doesn't get the attention Auggie gets from her parents, but she's pretty accepting and understanding about it. It isn't until Via starts a new school that she has a problem with Auggie's face. She doesn't want to be known as the sister with the deformed brother. She just wants to be "normal." When she asks that Auggie not go to school for a play, Auggie blows up at the dinner table.  

Some of the plot is predictable such as the confrontation at camp and Auggie winning an award. What isn't predictable is what transpires during these parts. The ending has a great message about kindness and courage. We work to build kindness in ourselves, our students, our children. But it isn't always easy. Sometimes our paths will cross with jerks. Sometimes our choices can lean toward selfishness, power, or meanness. his story is about growing to be a better person. To be a kinder person. To be a braver person. To stand up for what is right. 

Similar to Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper.
Reading Level 5.1

5 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Jazz Age Josephine by Jonah Winter; illustrated by Marjorie Priceman

Boh-doh-doh-dee-oh! Boh-doh-doh-dee-oh!

Okay, now sing those words.

And while you are at it make them sound like some musical instrument. This is called scat-singing made popular in the Jazz Age and a form that Jonah Winter doodles across the pages of his terrific picture book biography, Jazz Age Josephine. I made the mistake - or maybe not a mistake - of not reading this book beforehand and when I tried to sputter through the zee-buh-dop-zows and boh-doh-doh-dee-oh it did NOT sound like any musical instrument you'd find in any band. The kindergartners laughed so hard three grabbed their knees and rolled backwards like roly-poly eggs. And things got really interesting when we tried to do the Charleston dance. Let me tell you, I am NO Josephine. Josephine Baker to be exact.

African American Josephine Baker was singing the blues in St. Louis during the 1920s. She lived in a house with no heat, little food, and rats a-nibblin' at her feet. As a teenager she snuck into the dance tent and made people laugh with her funny faces and terrific dancing where she made some money entertaining people. One night in St. Louis, some white people burned down the homes of many black people and Josephine decided it was time to leave. She went to New York City where she got a job on the stage. She was in the chorus and played the Minstrel. While audiences loved her, she was disgusted with the degradation of her race in the Minstrel role. She left for France where she found different stage roles and became famous.

The writing style combines riffs and rhythms to reflect jazz songs. If you are wondering what is a riff, like I was, it is a sentence that is repeated usually at the same part and in the same pitch.  The first part of the book trumpets rhyming couplets and riffs, People, listen to my story, 'bout a girl named Josephine. / People, listen to this story, 'bout a poor girl name of Josephine. / She was the saddest little sweetheart this side of New Orleans, while the second part of the book shimmy and shakes the riffs with scat-sentences such as, Boodle-am Boodle-am Boodle-am SHAKE! Boodle-am Boodle-am Boodle-am SHAKE! When Josephine goes to Paris, not only does the tone of writing change as it picks up a new beat to reflect the excitement of the stage, but the illustrator signals a change in the story direction by forcing the reader to tip the page up and down and illustrating Josephine at the Eiffel Tower. The setting now only shows Josephine in or besides the Paris theater house.

Can you tell the students favorite part of the book? That's right... the last page where Josephine is sticking out her tongue. Josephine is funny. Not only does she stick out her tongue, she crosses her eyes and bugs them out making audiences laugh. The author's note on the last page says that Josephine was so good at clowning in the show that she got a job on the New York stage at the age of 15.  Kindergartners are not going to understand the complexity of this story but they do get the humor and enjoy the repetitive language patterns. Although  one boy clearly understood when the black folks homes were being destroyed by white people because he shouted "meanies!"  The kids also liked it when we danced the Charleston and they liked singing, Boodle-am Boodle-am Boodle-am SHAKE! 

Priceman's use of ink pen and gouache illustrations move Josephine across the pages like a gymnast on a springboard. Josephine is energetic, fun, and flexible with the flapper costumes and hairstyles so reflective of the roaring 1920s. Priceman adds some tidbits to the story such as the illustration of Josephine in her most famous banana peel skirt costume. The colorful Josephine also had a cheetah as a pet and would bring it on stage. If you want students to hear some Jazz music, listen to Louis Armstrong's Heebee Jeebies (the third audio clip) which made scat-singing famous. Make sure you read this book out loud or sing it.

Good luck!

Reading Level 2.4
5 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Goofballs: The Crazy Case of Missing Thunder by Tony Abbott

A boy who shoves french fries up his nose. Another boy parading in underwear outside wearing his pants on his head like bunny ears. Girls twisting off the top of cheese crackers and poke-a-dotting their faces with the gooey middle. Hmmm. I'm thinking... is this another Captain Underpants? Nope, it's the one and only goofballs. Jeff, Brian, Mara, and Kelly are detectives who have one thing in common - goofiness. When rich boy Randall Crandall loses his beloved pony, the four set-out to solve the mystery.

This series is similar to Nate the Great, Jigsaw Jones, or Cam Jansen. Jeff uses a notebook and words are repeated that help the beginning reader. There are silly puns such as "leaf" me alone or "water" you doing, wordplays such as "keep your plants on" or "The Magic School Bug", and sayings such as "You're a poet and you know it"  or "the butler did it". The language is simple and some of the more difficult words defined.

Early readers are hard to find and good ones are even harder. It is tricky and challenging not to bore the reader when writing with a limited vocabulary and using repetition as a reading aid. Abbott tries something a little different here with all the puns and wordplays that is refreshing. Kids will like the jokes and silliness. What I think is lacking in this book is character depth. I can't really picture Jeff, the narrator, in my head. I don't know how old he is or what he's like. I do know he tries to pay attention to details, because he writes clues in his notebook. But this seems more like a writing technique to help the reader understand the language than get to know Jeff. He only writes facts. Abbott starts out by having Jeff tell us what makes a good private eye: A private eye has to notice everything... A private eye has to ask questions, but this gets dropped by the last third of the book. I think he should have sprinkled more of this throughout the story, such as a private eye has a sense of humor or a private eye must not show what they are thinking. Something to give us more of a feel for the character, Jeff. Or maybe that is too much like Nate the Great who uses the phrase, "I, Nate the Great..."

I love rip-roaring unforgettable characters. Who doesn't? Junie B. Jones is mouthy, self-centered, and mean. Marty Mcguire is a don't-mess-with-me tomboy who has no problem kissing a frog and is NOT gonna wear a dress, not matter what her mom says. The Cat-in-the-Hat is a flamboyant, fun, troublemaker. Ling & Ting are forgetful and hyper. So while this story is fun and silly I didn't find Jeff memorable.  I did find Brian however. Anyone who runs around with underwear on their head is pretty unforgettable. Maybe the problem lies in the first person point of view of Jeff. I am not sure. I will definitely be buying this series for our library.

No Reading Level

3 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett

This is one of those books I think English teachers and adults will love, but I'm not so sure about younger kids. It won the 2011 Children's Book Council of Australia award and while it has a reading level for students at the end of 5th grade, most young readers won't be able to comprehend all that is going on. Shoot, I had problems figuring out all that was going on. The story unfolds with bits and pieces scattered like breadcrumbs so that you need to have some background knowledge to guess where the story takes place... and I guarantee... you won't know where the story is going or how it will end. By the time I figured out the setting, I was well into the chapters. That aside, this is a beautifully told story with rich metaphors and lyrical text. Sonya Hartnett is an amazing writer.

Night is personified as a black-clad horseman who uses the moon as a lantern casting its light on a village that has been decimated by war. Night is surprised to see two young boys walking in the rubble. The tone of this fable is set with Night as the narrator introducing a theatrical play against a grim background, shining a spotlight on the two major characters, Andrej and Tomas.

The boys meander through the destroyed village with Hartnett's text creating haunting images that assault the senses: "A flotilla of clouds as dense as battleships was unmoored by the gale, and, when the clouds coasted across the moon, the light of Night's lantern was quenched. Darkness was thrown over the village like a sorcerer's cloak: Andrej heard Tomas whimper, and felt him catch at his sleeve." The two scavenge for food in the village and find an abandoned zoo where the animals can talk. The boys not only have to feed themselves, but their baby sister whom they carry in a backpack and needs tending to as well. The boys read the words in the zoo sprawled over the animals cages that are in Czech. The author doesn't tell you the language is Czech... I just googled the words. This is your first clue to the setting. Several chapters later the wolf calls the boys, "Rom" and gypsy children, so now I know that the story is taking place in World War II when the Nazi's tried to exterminate the gypsies along with the Jews. Again, this isn't explained and you have to come with a certain amount of background knowledge. The Holocaust isn't taught until middle school so most 5th graders are not going to connect the dots.

The boys have animal characteristics and the animals have human characteristics. I thought the story slowed down in the parts where the animals were preaching about the evils of humans and zoos and war. This book doesn't build the story in a subtle way like The One and Only Ivan. No, it is more in-your-face and for the most part, one-sided. The strength of the story is in the style, tone, and symbolism; more-so than the narrative and heavy-handed themes delivered by the animals.

The violence involves Nazi's shooting children and adults, a train being blown up, animals being mistreated, and three siblings losing their parents. Andrej has to think like an adult in order to survive and while there are moments that show him as a kid, such as when the two pretend to be airplanes careening through the village, most of the time he is worrying about his two siblings. The story is propped against the harsh backdrop of war and the themes of freedom and war are filtered throughout with an abundance of symbolism and parallels between humans and animals. It is well-known that gypsies highly value freedom and choosing the main characters with that ethnicity makes the loss of freedom more poignant; plus, their nomadic existence is similar to the animals in the zoo who don't live in one place but cover territories when in the wild. Both the animals and the gypsies in this story have lost their freedom and while the animals physically enclosed behind bars, the gypsies are caged by prejudices and are enclosed by invisible iron bars. There is so much symbolism that I cannot cover it in a review. There is a good teacher's guide if you want to go more in-depth with Hartnett's writing.

The dream-like unfinished ending is different and has gotten mixed reviews. The author explains “Yes, I like leaving lots of frayed ends in my books. I write for people who like to think about what they’re reading, so I litter the books with falsehoods and unanswered questions and minor suggestions of major events. I really hate the idea that I must tell the reader everything in clunking detail. The reader is part of the experience that is a book, and I like the reader to have some input into the creation of the work – to decide what happens in the end, if need be. It’s why I never write sequels – the notion of hammering something out to utter flatness is ghastly to me. I will never tell a reader that the way they’ve read a book is wrong. Every thoughtful reading is a correct reading, as far as I can see”. See what I mean about her writing? Even her interview has terrific word choices and descriptions.

If you want to read this book, the middle school library has it. I won't be purchasing it for the lower school library. It is currently on the 1012 Carnegie Medal Shortlist.

Reading level: 5.7

4 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Cinder by Marissa Meyer [audiobook]

Cinderella as a cyborg? What a great premise. This unique retelling of a classic has Cinder as a mechanic - the best in the kingdom of New Beijing. When Prince Kai seeks her help to repair his android, Cinder isn't up front about being part robot. Not exactly something you want to share with a handsome prince. One third of her body is machine, the rest is flesh. The problem is cyborgs are the dredge of society and the "human" citizens of New Beijing are prejudiced and afraid of them.  Cinder's stepmother treats her like a machine with no feelings or worth while older stepsister follows in mommy dearest's footsteps. But the younger sister loves Cinder like a sister and shows kindness in small ways. Cinder doesn't know how she became this way. All she knows is that when she was 11 years old she was in an accident that killed her parents and destroyed most of her body.

Not is all well in the kingdom of New Beijing. Earth has been destroyed through nuclear wars and a plague is killing off humans. Prince Kai's father has fallen ill from the plague and is in the middle of negotiations with the aliens from Lunar. The wicked Queen wants to marry Kai and he has to bargain with her in order to keep his country from going to war. In the meantime, Cinder becomes embroiled in a government-run program that inflicts cyborgs with the plague in hopes to find a cure. But Cinder discovers that she can help her country in more than just finding a cure for the plague.

The story has great pacing and does an excellent job creating a futuristic, dysfunctional world. I love the irony of Cinderella and her cyborg foot that is too small for her. Cinder grieves for the loss of people she loves in the story and tries to do the right thing. She is brave and feisty and must learn to find her identity. There is quite a bit of violence in the book from the mind-controlling lunar queen who has people kill themselves by their own hands when they displease her to the plague being purposefully injected into subjects in order to find a cure.

I really liked this book but found it predictable listening to the audio. It is a different experience listening to a book versus reading a book and I don't notice the writing as much as when I read a story.  I wished I could have read a hard copy of the book because I don't think I would have guessed so well what would happen in the plot. The layout of the plot was similar to the Cinderella movie, Ever. In both creations Cinderella gets along with the young sister and not the older, Cinderella doesn't tell the prince the truth about herself, the older sister is jealous of Cinderella and attacks her when she finds that the prince has given Cinderella attention, a stepmother sells her so the family can have money, Cinderella rescues herself, a mentor helps Cinderella, there is a maligned group (gypsies in the movie...cyborgs in the book), a stepmother that accosts Cinderella at the ball, and a prince that rejects Cinderella. The two settings are nothing alike with the movie adaptation being historical and the book set in a futuristic world where humans have destroyed their natural resources. You have to understand that my daughter watched Ever dozens of times. If I wasn't watching it with her I was hearing it in the background. Most would think me odd for seeing similarities between the two. That aside, the uniqueness of this story kept me from putting it down - I just wished I had read the book first instead of listening to the audiotape. The ending suggests a sequel... so there is really no ending. Grrrr........

A sure-fire winner with the young adult crowd.

Reading level: young adult

4 out of 5 Smileys

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus by Barbara Park

Most kids LOVE her.

As an adult, you'll either LOVE her or HATE her.

Junie B. is mouthy, mean, self-centered, imaginative, and funny. She is always getting in trouble. She blurts out whatever is on her mind. She says stupid things. She does stupid things. As a grade 3 student said, "She doesn't even know she's being rude and that makes it funny." Another adds, "She's so dumb it's funny and she doesn't speak right." Another girl laughs hard agreeing, "Uh-huh, she always says run-ned instead of run."

Junie B. meets her teacher for the first time and hollers at her when she forgets to say the B. on her name. Junie B. sticks her tongue out at kids, stamps her foot when she doesn't get her way, and doesn't share. The adults mostly ignore her and don't correct her behavior often. The other kindergartners are not nice to each other as well. On the bus when Junie B. tries to sit down a girl tells her she's saving it for a friend. Junie B.'s feelings are hurt and she responds like a lot of youngsters do - she makes a face at the girl. Junie B. is frightened of riding the bus and while she gets to school, she's terrified of taking the bus home, especially after a girl tells her boys will dump milk on her head if she's on the bus. Terrified, she crawls in the closet at the end of the day and hides until the school is empty. Not a bit scared, the feisty Junie B. has an adventure using her imagination and exploring the school.

Some parents and teachers vehemently hate these books because of the bad grammar, bad choices,and  lack of adult intervention teaching good behavior. Others are fine with it. One grade 1 teacher said that when he reads it out loud to the class the students like to pick out the bad words, laugh at her outrageous behavior, and he uses it as a way to discuss kindness (as opposed to the unkind Junie B.). He also asks the students if Junie B. is a real person or a fiction person to remind them she's not real. I do like how Junie B. uses her imagination by playing teacher or nurse. She also makes up words such as how she felt squeezy about riding the bus instead of queasy.

In general, kindergartners are learning to socialize. They push each other in line. They follow the rules. They call each other names. They play tug-of-war with library books. Sometimes they share, sometimes they don't. I like kindergartners. They love stories. They are eager to please. They blurt their thoughts out. They say outrageous things. They give lots of hugs and hum with energy. They also yell, push, cry, and budge in line. Junie B. Jones reflects more of the negative than positive side of being a kindergartner. Whether kids relate to her inappropriate behavior, enjoy being "bad" vicariously through her, feel superior because they know they would never be that stupid, or are just plain entertained by her antics... I don't know. I do know that she is an extreme character and I did find it pretty funny when she licked her shoes to make them shiny. You'll have to judge for yourself. Just don't lick the book cover clean. Ew.

Reading level 3.3

4 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lunch-Box Dream by Tony Abbott

There's no arguing that Tony Abbott has beautiful writing. He can take a moment and stretch it into a melodramatic and moving sequence of images. His love of trains is obvious from The Haunting of Derek Stone series to his latest novel, Lunch-Box Dream: 

"'There they are! The tracks. I see them. Drive across.' And she drove the car forward on the flat road, nearly stopping where the dark rails sliced it, then rolled over them without power, until horns started honking behind them and they had to speed up again."

That's Ricky, Bobby's older brother who is a train-loving, history buff. Bobby narrates most of this story and from the get-go the author makes the reader uncomfortable with Bobby's derogatory comment about the African American garbage men as being "chocolate men." Bobby and his brother, Ricky, are afraid of the men and run into the house. Their grandma is visiting from Florida and has a Hungarian accent that also makes the boys uncomfortable. Ricky, Bobby and their mom are going to drive their grandma home stopping off at battlefields from Ohio to the deep south during 1959. The alternate story is from several different African American characters and follows the story of a boy named Jacob who is visiting his aunt in the south and like Bobby is not cautious about his speech. And in the south if an African American whistles at a white girl or says something derogatory, he or she can get brutally murdered and there are no laws that will ensure justice. The Jim Crow laws are in effect and while Lincoln might have passed the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery has taken on a different form in the mandated segregation laws.

Abbott does such a good job at showing rather than telling that I was confused at times as to where he was going with the story. It comes together at the end but I found all the different points of view kept me from engaging with the characters. Plus, Bobby is not a likable kid. He is mean to his brother, thinks ill of people different than him, and thinks it's okay to steal. While he changes at the end, it is not until the last chapter. Make sure you read and reference the Cast of Characters listed after the copyright page. There are 16 in total to keep tabs on.  You'll need it to keep straight all the different characters speaking in each chapter. I also don't think the Jim Crow Laws and Emancipation Proclamation are explained enough for younger readers to understand the author's message. The violence is told second hand and some of the characters are physically abused by their fathers. While the book has short chapters and looks like it is for young reader's, don't be fooled, I would recommend this for grades 5 and up.

Reading Level 5.7

3 out of 5 Smileys

Monday, April 9, 2012

Fourth Grade Rats by Jerry Spinelli

Rats! Ages...9.

Sometimes human. Sometimes not.

Preferred speech: dude, Number One, real men don't cry, no, N-O, nope, and ain't.

Grade 4 teachers clamber to read this book aloud to their classes. I can see why. For starters it's short - only 86 pages. It is brimming with funny dialogue.  It deals with parents, siblings, friends, bullies, classmates, and boy-girl relationships. It also has a cheeky main character, Sudsie, who changes from an innocent angelic 3rd grader to a beastly 4th grader.

The story launches with Sudsie's best friend, Joey, teasing him about his lunchbox from first grade with flying elephants on it. Joey laughs at the baby lunchbox and instructs Sudsie to get rid of it. It just ain't cool. Joey has entered the 4th grade rat-hole of being tough. He's wearing a headband, he's not afraid of anything - heck - he'll even let a bee sting him at school to show his classmates he's a macho man. In fact, he is such a man, he tells Sudsie that he has switched from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to baloney because real men eat MEAT. Joey is quite the dud... I mean dude. Anyway, Sudsie is not quite ready for all this manly business. He squeals from pain, quakes around bugs or insects, and panics if his feet are off the ground. He wants to please his parents and doesn't want to be a 4th grade rat. The problem is he really, REALLY, likes Judy Billing and when she takes an interest in the now cool Joey, Sudsie decides to become a real man.

Joey begins Sudsie's transformation with get-tough lessons such as watching the sad part of the movie, E.T., 22 times. And holding 9 spiders without squealing. And crawling out on the roof. What starts out as innocent pranks becomes extreme as the two boys do not realize they have crossed the line of being pranksters to bullies. The also do not get it that Judy is just manipulating them so she can say they did something for her making her the center of attention and feeling popular and important. The unhealthy attention-seeking ploys turns them into rats. Big nasty ones. When Sudsie starts to see some ugly consequences from his choices he has to decide, how much of a rat does he want to be?

The pacing is fast and the writing well-done. Suds voice changes from an innocent 3rd grader at the beginning to a dippy cool kid at the end. At the end of the book Suds is putting Joey in a headlock and calling him "brotha rat" and using slang as in "yo," "man," "dude," and "N-O baby." Suds goes to such an extreme he alienates friends and family becoming a bully. I am not so sure a third grader would transform into that much of a twit-head, but maybe. Suds does learn a lesson and makes a choice at the end on how he wants to be as a person.

I really liked this book and found it entertaining, but I didn't find the ending completely satisfying and too didactic. Suds confesses to his mom what a jerk he has been and she, in turn, explains how his confession shows he is growing up and becoming a mature person (or man), but then Suds frantically looks for his teddy bear that he has thrown away and hugs it at the end like a long lost pal. I realize the author was using the teddy bear as a symbol of Suds going back to being a child but that's the part that I thought was out of character. It was too cutesy and didn't seem to fit with what mean stuff Suds was doing to other students and his siblings. Suds going back to the teddy bear didn't ring true because he had changed over the course of the novel in a way where he lost some of his innocence about being a kind child. Suds is growing up and becoming responsible for his actions and making a choice of what his attitude will be each day toward others. While the author does a great job pointing this out, I didn't buy it that Suds was going to go all the way back to the bear-hugging boy seen at the beginning of the novel. You could argue that adolescence is a see-saw of emotions from mature to immature, but I would have preferred Suds contemplating the bear and putting it on shelf. I am probably nitpicking too much but it crossed my mind.

This book reminded me of Skinnybones by Barbara Park, except that character is the class clown who doesn't realize when he is being funny versus being a smart-aleck. That book is a great read aloud for grade 5 students.

So... reader, say "Y-E-S" to Spinelli's terrific book.

Reading level 4.3

4 out of 5 Smileys