Tuesday, January 31, 2017

2017 Reading Goals

In my fifth grade class, I encourage my students to set goals for themselves as readers. These goals can focus on types or genres of books read, or quantity or amount of books read, or even reading skills and strategies. We check in on our goals frequently and adjust as needed or just simply, reflect. 

I model this by setting my own goals as a reader. I share these goals with my students and reflect on them frequently. For 2017, I have established the following goals:

1. Read 50 books.
2. Read 25 new books (published in 2017).
3. Read 5 nonfiction books.
4. Read 5 former Newbery Medal winners.

I have a mix of quantity and genre and have left some room in my total goal for other interests. I am currently reading 3 books that were published in 2016 and will count them in my goal for 2017 but they don't really fit in goals 2, 3, or 4. A current interest of mine is nonfiction but I don't know if it's a faze yet and a secret ambition of mine has always been to read every Newbery Medal winner so I'd like goal 4 to realistically be more than 5 by the end of the year. I'm sure when Fall comes around and the Newbery Medal is on everyone's mind, new books will dominate my reading so I hope to have some fun this summer stepping outside my comfort zone.

Next up... I close the door on 2016 and share my favorite 10 books from the past year.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Newbery Congratulations

For a number of years in a row now, I have watched the ALA Youth Media Awards live online. In the last few years, when that final screen has been displayed with the cover of the committee's choice for the Newbery Medal, a feeling of "meh" usually comes over me. It's either been the cover of a book I had never even heard of (MOON OVER MANIFEST), or the cover of a book I had read and didn't think much of (THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN), or the cover of a book that I almost read but didn't quite get to (THE CROSSOVER), or the cover of a book that made me scratch my head because a book of its type rarely, if ever, wins the Newbery (LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET). This morning, finally finally finally, a cover flashed across the screen that I had not only read, but loved and fully supported...


First, I was shocked. I was stunned. This book is straight up epic, magical fantasy, with a swamp (bog) monster and a mini dragon and witches and babies left for dead in a dark and mysterious forest. Fantasy is a genre that does not typically fair well in the Newbery but a genre that is a favorite of mine. Second, I was ecstatic because I had actually read it and loved it! Recently, where the Newbery Medal was concerned, this had not always been the case. And finally, I was elated. For Kelly Barnhill, who seems like a genuinely great person and is from Minnesota (my neighbor to the North). 

In fact, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I had read, and could fully endorse all of the books the Newbery Committee awarded. Along with Barnhill's novel, the committee gave Honors to FREEDOM OVER ME by Ashley Bryan, THE INQUISITOR'S TALE by Adam Gidwitz, and WOLF HOLLOW by Lauren Wolk. All three are fantastic!

What a morning!

A few other personal highlights from this morning were all the great Sibert picks (as I've recently taken an interest in nonfiction books for children), THEY ALL SAW A CAT by Brendan Wenzel winning a Caldecott Honor, and WE ARE GROWING winning the Geisel Award (one of my daughter Charly's current favorite read aloud titles)!

But back to the showstopper... I have read two of Barnhill's other titles, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK and THE WITCH'S BOY. She's been an author I've kept my eye on and been interested in. While reading THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, I couldn't help but smile at random times throughout because I just had this feeling that I was reading something special. A work by an author who was coming into her own. A work by an author who had found her voice and knew she was creating something magical and rare. THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON was different from Barnhill's previous novels. It truly felt like this was the story she was meant to write. It felt as if all of her previous work was her playing around and tinkering with ideas, leading to the moment she would create her masterpiece. 

A little dramatic of me, maybe. But THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON is a dramatic book! Congrats to Kelly Barnhill and all the other authors receiving accolades this morning. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


It's been Jason Reynolds' year. I'm not sure there is a more popular name right now in children's literature. Reynolds came onto the scene a few years ago with a few killer YA titles (WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST, THE BOY IN THE BLACK SUIT, ALL AMERICAN BOYS) and garnered a lot of attention winning numerous literary awards. This year he released two middle grade fiction titles, AS BRAVE AS YOU and GHOST, and you will find both of them on most "Best of 2016" lists. AS BRAVE AS YOU is drawing comparisons to Christopher Paul Curtis's work (WATSON'S GO TO BIRMINGHAM primarily) and Reynolds' voice in GHOST is certainly similar, if not more edgy, electric, and raw. GHOST is the first title in a series Reynolds has planned, about a cast of characters on a middle school track team.

Castle Cranshaw cannot quite seem to get out of his own way. Ever since he and his mom left his father three years ago, it has been altercation after altercation in school. But after stumbling upon a group of kids his age practicing track, and impressing their coach, he is offered a spot on the team. Can Castle make the most of this opportunity and stay altercation-free in and out of school? 

There was a lot about GHOST that I liked. I liked that Reynolds has chosen to shine a spotlight on track. So often writers of children's sports literature choose to write stories about baseball, basketball, or football, to appeal to a wide range of kids. It was refreshing to see this sport featured in such a popular book. It should definitely fill a particular niche on library and classroom shelves.

I also enjoyed Castle's relationships with the various adults in the story. Castle loves his mother and understands her so well. He's realistically sympathetic to the hard work she puts into managing their life. He wants to protect her from his bad choices at school but is too impulsive to stop making bad choices. I liked his relationship with Mr. Charles, a grocery store owner too. Mr. Charles provided Castle and his mother with a place to hide from his father three years prior and Castle's obsession with sunflower seeds brings him back to Mr. Charles each day. But it's not really the sunflower seeds he's after. It's Mr. Charles's grandfatherly wisdom and friendship. Castle's relationship with Coach is the most powerful one in the story. For the first time in his life, someone besides his mother has taken an interest in making Castle's life meaningful. This resonates with Castle and he strives to impress Coach at every turn. 

Finally, I liked that Reynolds kept his story under 200 pages. That seems to be a rarity anymore in children's literature. Heck, Reynolds' other middle grade novel this year, AS BRAVE AS YOU is a whopper, coming in at 432 pages (hardcover edition). The plotting of GHOST is tightly structured and Castle narrates at a quick pace. Like the track topic, this was refreshing.

There are some things that frustrated me, however. Castle became a character I had a difficult time rooting for. There are moments where Castle is too smug and arrogant for his own good. I believe this was intentional on Reynolds' part, to show his insecurities, but I held back my empathy for him because of the voice. I also was a bit frustrated that things work out perfectly for Castle by the end of the story, given the mistakes he's made. I don't like the message this sends child readers. There is a moment near the story's climax where I applauded Coach's tough love. But a few flips of the page and it was all for nothing. All is forgiven, and even paid for! 

I was also bothered that Coach doesn't outfit Castle with the proper track gear after recruiting him. Having coached before, this seemed highly unlikely to me. After a few practices of Castle wearing jeans and worn out tennis shoes, it felt contrived (especially given Castle's horrendous decision later on) that Coach not offer Castle some proper practice gear. A man like Coach should be able to scrounge up a few t-shirts, or pairs of shorts, or old shoes. 

While Reynolds' talent is undeniable, personally, for me, GHOST didn't quite live up to the hype it has generated. It's still a good book and it should appeal to kids though. It's short and readable. It has a hopeful plot. Castle sounds like a real, contemporary kid and his first person narrative is definitely something fresh. And it's about track, a sport they don't read about every day. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

100 Word Reviews

In an effort to be less wordy (windy), I challenged myself to write about a few books I had recently read in 100 words or less. It took a little bit of effort and tinkering, but I was able to contain each to exactly 100 words!

Each of these three novels were fantastic, by the way!

By: John David Anderson

MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY follows 3 boys, Topher, Steve, and Brand as they skip school on a mission to find their sick teacher and make her day as memorable as possible. Their teacher Ms. Bixby, is "one of the good ones" and has cancer. She is meaningful to each of the boys in ways that are revealed throughout the story. The first person point of view alternates between the boys each chapter and each is given their own distinctly genuine voice. The chapters tend to read long, but the boys' narratives are engaging. An epic story of friendship and loss. (100 words)

By: Ann E. Burg

UNBOUND is a powerful novel told in verse poetry. Because of her lighter skin and blue eyes, Grace is chosen to work in "The Big House" for her Master, leaving behind her slave family who work in the fields. Grace's tongue gets the best of her and the Missus puts forth a plan to split up Grace's family, selling them at auction. Grace and her family run for freedom in the Great Dismal Swamp. Grace's voice is beautiful while feeling raw and authentic. The unknown future of some supporting characters are my only selfish frustration. A sad, but uplifting story. (100 words)

By: Kate Beasley

GERTIE'S LEAP TO GREATNESS follows 5th grader Gertie Foy, who is on a mission to prove her importance to the mother who walked out on her father and her. She is determined to become the best 5th grader in her class but new girl Mary Sue Spivey keeps getting in her way, ruining her mission. Debut author Kate Beasley does a great job of taking a pretty tried and true coming-of-age story and injecting it with some wit and spunk. The unique third person narrative reads as if being told by a slightly more mature Junie B. Jones. (100 words)

Monday, January 2, 2017

2017 Newbery Predictions

The ALA awards will be handed out at the end of this month and the most popular among them, the Newbery and Caldecott Medals. I love making predictions!

To inform my predictions, I've studied the last seven years worth of Goodreads Mock Newbery lists, dating back to 2010. The Mock Newbery lists on Goodreads really informs my reading list each year because many of the contributors to the list are some of the most intelligent, voracious children's literature readers out there.

There was really no other reason to choose Goodreads to dive into, then because it's where I go often to get titles. To see what others are reading and suggesting. There is no correlation between the Goodreads lists and the actually Newbery committee within a given year. Every committee is different.

Having said that, I have noticed a few consistencies between the lists and the corresponding year's actual winners (Medal and Honors). For instance...

  • The top vote getter in a Goodreads mock list, has NEVER won the Newbery Medal. Ever.
  • In fact, in just two years (of the last seven), in 2016 and 2015, has the top vote getter in Goodreads even Honored (ECHO and BROWN GIRL DREAMING).  
  • This is misleading because of popular books like CATCHING FIRE and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, but never has the top rated book in the list won a Newbery Medal or Honor.
  • 2012 was the only year I studied where at least 2 Top 10 books from Goodreads wasn't a winner or Honor book. In 3 of the 7 years, at least 3 Top 10 books were recognized.
  • 6 times, a book just outside the Top 10 on Goodreads (11-16) has been recognized. 
  • Last year's LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET was ranked 66 on Goodreads Mock Newbery poll. As a picture book, I was impressed it was even on the list. Arguably, that wasn't the biggest upset. BREAKING STALIN'S NOSE in 2012 was 90th on the Goodreads list! And it received an Honor!
  • 29 books have been awarded in the last 7 years. 12 of them have come from the Top 5 of their year. 17 of 29 have come from the Top 10. 22 of 29 have come from the Top 15. 24 of 29 have come from the Top 20. Only 4 times out of 29 books, have outliers been rewarded. 
  • The numbers 2, 3, 5, and 11 are magic. That is, the books that are ranked those numbers on the Goodreads mock lists have medaled or honored three times! This year, that would be WOLF HOLLOW, RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE, GHOST, and SOME KIND OF COURAGE (Yay!)

If it looks like I'm stretching to find some correlation here, it's because I am! At least, it feels like I am. Some years, like 2015, were spot on. Three books (THE CROSSOVER, BROWN GIRL DREAMING, and EL DEAFO) were all in or near the top 5 in their Goodreads mock. 2014 saw the 3rd, 5th, and 6th ranked books recognized. 2010, in which WHEN YOU REACH ME was NOT the top vote getter in the Goodreads poll (CATCHING FIRE was), rewarded the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 11th Goodreads books. 

So I think it's pretty safe that 2-3 books sitting in the current Top 10 of the 2017 Mock Newbery list right now, will probably receive some Newbery recognition and if recent history has anything to say about it, my odds aren't on PAX (sadly, because I still love it). The current Top 10 on Goodreads are:
  1. PAX
  5. GHOST

I think it's pretty safe to assume that 3-5 books will be recognized. I'm going to go in the middle and pick one winner and 3 runner-ups. Of those 4 books, I think 3 of them will come from the current Top 10 on Goodreads and one wild card will come from outside the Top 10.

Here we go. My predictions. Not my favorites. Not the books I would necessarily choose, but the books I'm predicting will win. Drumroll.

Honor Book #1

By: Julie Fogliano

Currently sitting at #9 in Goodreads.

My reason for picking: Consensus building is often the key. I think this book will easily build consensus.

Honor Book #2:

By: Sara Pennypacker

Currently sitting at #1 in Goodreads.

My reason for picking: Beautiful writing.

Two years in a row, the #1 voted for book in Goodreads has received an Honor. Before that, zilch. I think PAX keeps up the trend but sadly, I find it being too divisive around the Newbery discussion table to win. The writing is too good to ignore though.

Honor Book #3:

By: Jason Reynolds

Currently sitting at #36 in Goodreads.

My reason for picking: Surprise! There's always some surprise in the picks. Sometimes it's in the winner. Sometimes it's in the Honors. Jason Reynolds has had a big year with TWO novels getting lots of buzz. GHOST seems to be getting most of the attention but I think AS BRAVE AS YOU will hold up better when being discussed.

And the Newbery Medal will go to...

By: Kate DiCamillo

Currently sitting at #3 in Goodreads.

My reason for picking: DiCamillo. Everyone loves DiCamillo. I wasn't the biggest fan of the novel, but her writing is as good as it's ever been and lots of others seem to love this. I think it could build consensus. This could be her third Medal, making history!