30 September 2013

Dragonborn by Toby Forward

Dragonborn
Bloomsbury
2011

In my time as an elementary librarian, I've learned that dragons are awesome*.  Kids LOVE dragons.  Heck, adults love dragons.  At my local library, there are over 277 books about dragons.  And that's just at one branch of the library.  When I search all branches of the library for the entire county, we're talking thousands of books (okay, so just a thousand, but still).  So when I'm shopping for books, any books that are about dragons get put in the cart and read as soon as they come in.

I was pretty excited when Dragonborn finally came in.  It looked perfect for elementary - cool cover, not too thick, but not too thin, etc.  Turns out, looks can be decieving.  I think.  I'm not certain yet.  Lemme 'splain.

First, a summary:  Sam is a wizard apprentice to the great wizard Flaxfield.  At the beginning of the book, Flaxfield dies and Sam must oversee his "finishing".  All the wizards who completed their apprenticeship under Flaxfield begin to return, and they doubt Sam's abilities and they even begin to doubt whether or not he really was an apprentice.  Sam, who has really only ever known life with Flaxfield, fears that these adult wizards plan to send him off to the coal mines to work and decides to run away with his pet dragon Starback. His adventures lead him to a wizard college and to the mines that he is so afraid of.  All the while, an evil...person? being? someone of indeterminate species... named Ash is after Sam...I think.  It seems that Flaxfield trapped her, and her creepy unexplained companion named Bakkmann in a tower somewhere and if they can get Sam, they can get out.  There are also roffles (they seem like dwarfs, but I'm not certain) and memmonts (no idea really - maybe they're cats?) and all kinds of other magical things that inhabit Sam's world that are explained only through excerpts from Sam's apprentice notebook.  Oh yeah, and dragons.  I almost forgot the dragons.

Was that summary odd?  Well, it makes sense because the book is rather odd.  The excerpts from Sam's apprentice notebook are meant to connect things together and to give background information, but often end up confusing the reader.  I went back and re-read the excerpts often, trying to make sense of the story line through the excerpts.  But usually, that didn't help.  The chapters and sections that relate to Ash and Bakkmann are just as confusing, but end up making sense at the end of the novel, even if they don't answer all the questions they raise at the beginning.  The book is clearly written to be part of a series, I'm just not certain its written well enough to encourage readers to read the rest of the series.

However, I'm an adult, and I read books very differently than my students.  There have been books in the past that are similar to Dragonborn that I didn't enjoy and my students LOVE.  Since the book is written for young readers, I think I should reserve my judgement about the book until I can get an expert opinion or two about it.  So I'm going to book talk it this week, hope someone checks it out and then ask their opinion.  I promise I'll report back if I can.

In the meantime, I would recommend this book to any young reader interested in fantasy, mystery and dragons.  The reading level places it at a 4th grade level (at least), and I think students up to 7th grade would enjoy it.

*I couldn't help myself.  That video is so unbelievably random and weird, it's awesome.  Also, I bet that guy is single.

05 September 2013

Chomp

Chomp
by Carl Hiaasen
Alfred A. Knopf
2012

I've loved Carl Hiaasen since I read the very first page of Skinny Dip (read it, you'll agree).  I love his sarcastic wit and well-woven plot lines.  When I became a teacher librarian and found out he also writes books for young readers, I was excited and nervous.  Not many writers can write well for multiple ages (case in point: LOVE James Patterson books for young readers, can't stomach his adult novels).  However, Hiaasen nails it.

Chop stars two fantastic young people: Wahoo and and Tuna.  The only two kids on the planet named for fish (granted, Wahoo isn't named for the fish - he's named for a professional wrestler).  Wahoo's dad is a wild animal wrangler.  Tuna's dad is...not so great.  When Wahoo's dad is hired to help out with a survival show Expedition Survival, Tuna decides to tag along, especially since the host of the show - the famous Derek Badger - is her personal hero.  Tuna quickly finds out that Derek Badger (who is referred to not-so-affectionately by Wahoo's dad as "Mr. Beaver") is not the survivalist he claims to be on the show.  And when Badger goes a little crazy and wants to start doing all his own stunts, things get messy quick.  Wahoo and his dad can't back out of the job - they need the money, and Tuna doesn't want to go home, so they're stuck trying to make the best of a difficult situation.

As always, Hiaasen's dry humor and plot twists turn the book from just another book to an absolute page turner.  And I appreciate the fact that the relationship between Wahoo and Tuna never turns romantic - it would have been too cliche.  Wahoo's love for his family and his animals, and his desire to help Tuna are genuine and completely age appropriate.  And Hiaasen's portrayal of adults is also age appropriate: they are flawed but not to the point of being disrespectful.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who thinks Bear Gryls is a bit much.  Ok, seriously, I would recommend this book to any one who likes survival stories (both wilderness survival and tough-life-situation survival), any middle-grade student looking for a fun read, and any parent who wants a great book through which they can connect with their child.

30 August 2013

Spy School

Spy School
by Stuart Gibbs
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
 2012

I picked up Spy School for two reasons.  First, it is  a Colorado Children's Book Award Nominee this year, and second, a student checked it out last week and came in two days later saying "Ohmygosh, Mrs.Covington this book is AMAZING howhaveyounotreadityet?!?!"

I didn't have an answer, and I didn't have a book to read that night, so I took it home. And I'm glad I did!  It's a great read - just enough suspense to keep me reading, along with some truly humorous moments.

Ben Ripley is a 12-year-old dork.  There's no two ways about it.  When he comes home from school one day to find out he's being recruited for the undercover CIA spy school, he's overjoyed.  Finally, he'll be able to do something cool.  Unfortunately, it's all top secret - he can't even tell his best friend.  However during his first day at spy school, after being shot at a few times and fighting off an attacker in his dorm room with a tennis racket, he finds out that he actually didn't qualify for spy school - they brought him in to use as a decoy to flush out a mole within the school.  Luckily for the CIA, Ben is actually smarter than he seems and he turns out to be a pretty good agent-in-training, especially since his life is on the line.

While the plot is extremely fantastic, and I was a little annoyed with how absolutely inept every single adult in the book was portrayed, Spy School is a fun read.  And though I'll admit I figured out who the mole was before the book actually revealed it, I will say it took some re-reading and deep thinking for me to actually figure it out.  I would say this book is a great read for anyone between 4th and 7th grade - depending on their reading level, and it's a great read for any kid who likes spy novels.

08 August 2013

One Big Thing

At the beginning of last year, my library was visited by one of the district big-wigs, a man named Matt Corimer, who, it turns out, is not only brilliant, but kind, funny and awesome to work with.  When he visited a year ago, we had a discussion about transitions and how difficult it can be to take over a library that has been run by someone else for years.
Earlier this summer, I talked a little about weeding and how difficult (and entertaining) it can be.  Taking over a library can also be difficult - there are processes and practices in place that may or may not fit who you are as a librarian.  In my conversation with Matt last September, I started to get a little riled up and overwhelmed at all the things I needed to change and do and fix.  Matt - being the calm dude he is - simply said "My best piece of advice for you is just choose one big thing."  He went on to explain that there's only so much we can do in any give time period, and if we try to do everything, we'll sink.  So he suggested choosing one big thing each year.  The idea resonated with me, so I decided to try it.

Last year my OBT (yep, I just went there) was implementing weekly lessons when classes came in to the library.  As much as I love my job, I miss actually teaching.  So I decided to combine my love of teaching with our school's (and really most school's) very real need of teaching kids the how of finding.  How to find books, information, resources, facts, etc.  The results were fantastic.  For one, I was able to get my "fix" of teaching. While I didn't limit my teaching to these mini-lessons (I always made myself available to teach more   in-depth, curriculum centered lessons, usually in the afternoons), through this system, I was able to stretch myself professionally by trying different lessons, and I now have a rough skeleton of a "library curriculum" that outlines which skills to teach at each level, and those skills spiral throughout the grades.  Secondly, the teacher's loved it.  And I mean, they loooooved it.  I heard several times that the lessons made library time more enjoyable for them and their students, and they felt that their students were actually utilizing more of the library independently (can you hear my heart singing? That's one of the best compliments a librarian can get). Speaking of which, I really think the kids got quite a bit out of it.  Yes, there were classes and grades that moaned and groaned about it - mostly because I'd taken away their precious "computer searching" time.  But for the most part, the kids were engaged in the lessons - especially if I was doing book talks.  I am amazing at book talks.  And that is the fourth benefit I saw from my weekly lessons: I got to do regular book talks.  I love doing book talks! My library is full of amazing books, but it's impossible to assume that students will know which books to read, so giving quick book talks is always a great way to encourage them to try something new, or to show them a book they didn't know existed in the library.

As of today, we're in a new school year, which means I need a new OBT. I've decided that this year, my focus will be on technology and building a staff and group of students who are independent technology users. Last year we had nine computer carts that I was expected to manage. NINE.  That's 135 computers.  It was an impossible task.  Carts would go missing, classes would keep them longer than they'd sign up for them, not to mention the everyday maintenance.  Last year, I brought the issue to the technology committee and they came up with the idea of breaking the carts up and distributing them throughout the classrooms.  The PTA agreed to purchase newer computers, which gave us the numbers to be able to put three laptops in each classroom, and have 60 computers that can be on carts and used as class sets.
There are always challenges when you change a system.  I know it will be a difficult adjustment for many some of the staff because now they will be responsible for the three laptops in their classrooms.  But that's where my OBT becomes an OBT.  I hope to provide them with the access to the necessary resources to be self-solvers and solution finders.  I will, obviously, support them in any way that I can, but I can imagine that there is going to be some push-back as I encourage them to be independent.  And it truly is my goal to lead them to being independent users of technology, and for those who view themselves as "non techies", or un-techno-savvy, it is my hope that by the end of the year, they will believe that they are smarter than the computers in their classrooms.  If I can instill confidence in them, I will have done my job.

Wish me luck!
S

What We Found in the Sofa and How it Saved the World

What we Found in the Sofa and How it Saved the World
by Henry Clark
Little Brown & Company
2013

I know, you're probably starring wide-eyed at your computer in utter shock that I'm actually writing a book review.  It's shocking to me as well.  Let's see if my old brain* can remember how to compose a thoughtful, coherent book review...here goes!


cover art courtesy of Follett Titlewave.com
Three friends, River, Freak and Fiona, wait together for the bus every morning.  One day they find a sofa at their bus stop.  They can't figure out where it came from, but they're curious.  They decided to search the couch for lost change and they find a few interesting items: a double-six domino, a double headed coin, and a rare zucchini colored crayon.  They discover that the crayon is actually worth quite a bit of money and decided to auction it off online.  And thus begins their adventure, where they discover that their seemingly dying town of Cheshire and the now "dead"area of Hellsboro are actually the center of an evil genius' plot to  take over the world. Along the way they learn about each other - until now their friendship has been somewhat superficial - and themselves and how living on the edge of Hellsboro has shaped their lives and brought them to this exact moment.
The story line is creative, and Clark embeds so much learning in the book - everything from chemistry to history - and he does it seamlessly.  Young readers will learn so much from this book without knowing they're learning.  I can see students wanting to learn more about various subjects because of this book.

I truly enjoyed this book. I stumbled across it thanks to Amazon.  During my first year working in an elementary library, I realized that my library is focused on books for beginning readers (k-2) and intermediate readers (5th & 6th grade).  My poor 3rd & 4th graders have very little they can read in the library.  So this summer I concentrated on trying to find books that fit their needs.  What We Found is almost one of those books.  I'd say this book is about perfect for 4th grade or an advanced 3rd grade reader.  It covers all the difficult topics: being bullied, feeling left out, trying to fit in, and doing the right thing. And it covers all these topics with equal parts of humor and brevity.  I would recommend this book for just about any student 4th through 6th grade, and for their parents - it would be a great dinner conversation piece.

Happy Reading!
S

*Totally typed "brian" there.  Yep, my brian (brain) is officially old.