Fuzzy Mud

There’s a lot packed into this short intermediate/middle grade novel from Louis Sachar. In 181 pages, Sachar creates a plausible biohazard mystery that is focused on a well-developed central character, tackles tough topics such as divorce, bullying, environmental issues, and Hobson’s Choice, having to choose between two bad options.

Chapter book, fiction, suspense, mystery, environment
Interest level: grades 4-7; Reading level: 5.0
4 out of 5 stars

Tamaya is a fifth grader at a private school in Pennsylvania. She is dealing with her parents’ divorce, and with the hard parts of moving from childhood into preadolescence. Tamaya isn’t allowed to walk home from school alone, but her older friend Marshall isn’t thrilled with her tagging along with him.

One day, Marshall takes a shortcut through the woods behind the school. He is trying to avoid a fight with the school bully, Chad. Tamaya is worried because they are not supposed to go into the woods, but she follows along. This detour sets into play a series of events that puts Tamaya, Marshall, and Chad in serious danger.

The kids stumble across fuzzy mud puddles in the woods. Strangely, even though it is getting colder and the trees are shedding their leaves, no leaves lie on top of the fuzzy mud. After Tamaya gets home that evening, she realizes that where some of the strange mud got on her hand, she has a tingling sensation and rash. When Chad is missing from school the next day, the story picks up tempo and pulls the reader into the intrigue and suspense that seems to surround the strange mud.

Fuzzy Mud features short chapters that alternate between Tamaya’s story and testimony from a U.S. Senate inquiry into a form of alternative energy called Biolene. The testimony portion of the novel may be slightly confusing to some young readers, but they should get the gist. Scientists, looking for a clean form of energy to power the planet, developed man-made microorganisms that can be burned as clean fuel. But is it safe?

What I really liked about Fuzzy Mud was that Sachar didn’t hold back in providing difficult topics or positions for his young readers to tackle. He presents the idea that science, even sometimes with the best intentions, can sometimes be bad for people or the environment, and lawmakers need to determine if some bad is okay for the greater good of society. Hobson’s Choice.

He also crafts multi-dimensional characters that are very real. Chad, the bully in the story, is
not a sympathetic character in the beginning, yet Sachar thrusts him into a role that shows his vulnerabilities. His victims have to decide whether they will help him at a time when he is showing his ugliest side. Again, Sachar puts his characters in difficult positions that require young readers to think about how they might react.

This book would be good for students who like suspense or mysteries, or who are interested in environmental issues. Its shorter length makes it appealing to a wide audience. The length and tough questions that readers encounter make this an optimal class read-aloud for 5th grade and up.

Fuzzy Mud
by Louis Sachar
Delacorte Press, 2015
ISBN 978-0-385-74378-5

The Best Man

Richard Peck is a master storyteller who delivers laughs, tears, and a full cast of well-developed characters who can all teach us about becoming the best people we can be.

Chapter book, fiction
Interest Level: 4-7; Reading Level: 4.1
Boston Globe Horn Book Honor Winner 2017: Fiction & Poetry
5 out of 5 stars

Richard Peck is truly an amazing creator of stories. His characters are well-developed and he doesn’t require huge actions or majestic scenarios to create a storyline that compels you to keep reading. The Best Man is the story of Archer Magill. Most of the story takes place during his 5th and 6th-grade years at school, where we see Archer start to really notice the world around him.

Archer has three very important men in his life — his grandfather, father, and Uncle Paul. Each of these men, in different ways, contributes to Archer’s understanding of life and development of who he is as a person. Most of the story takes place in school, but school and home life intersect throughout the story.

I love the tone of Richard Peck’s writing. I imagine in real life that he has a very sarcastic sense of humor and his dry wit makes for many laugh out loud moments in this story. Like life though, the laughter is balanced by moments of insight as well as sadness. One of the best ways to describe it is to say this book feels very real.

Archer confronts bullying and homophobia during the story. Peck has his main character navigate these harmful scenes with openness and an insightful manner that encourages readers to not slap labels or definitions on people, but to celebrate everyone’s right to happiness and acceptance.

At 232 pages, the book is a nice length for a full-class read-aloud, and the humor and cast or characters will engage students. I highly recommend this book for the wonderful story, strength of characters, humor, inclusion of diversity, and willingness to address homosexuality.

The Best Man
by Richard Peck
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2016

The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give is a book about racial inequality and injustices, but it is also a complex story about love, family, and survival. This is a must-read book for anyone over the age of 14. Bring Kleenex.

Chapter book, realistic fiction
Interest level: Young adult, ages 14 and up
5 out of 5 stars

Angie Thomas is a debut author who has crafted a well-written novel that takes a look at racial issues in America. Thomas has given a voice and a story to the Black Lives Matter movement that has the ability to reach people of different races, no matter the cultural space you occupy.

Starr is the 16-year-old main character of the story. She exists in two different cultures. The location of her home is in the ghetto where she is known as “Big Mav’s daughter who works in the store.” The other part of her life exists in her mostly-white private school, where she tries to fit in by making sure she doesn’t sound “ghetto.” Rarely do her two different worlds intersect.

One night a childhood friend is giving her a ride home from a party. The scene in the car is warm and sweet as these two people who have drifted away reconnect over childhood memories. Khalil is concerned about getting her home and away from the trouble of the party. As the lights of a police car flash through the back window, the entire tone of the scene changes. Starr begins reciting the protocol that her parents drilled into her from the age of 12…what to do if you encounter the police. “Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.”

As a parent with two white children, I have never had that talk with my children. Never even occurred to me that anyone had to have that talk with their children until about six years ago when I read about it. That would be the blessing of white privilege: not assuming that if my child is pulled over for a traffic violation that there is even the remote possibility he or she will end up dead.

Khalil and Starr are treated like criminals from the minute the officer stops the car. As a reader, you watch the scene escalate, unable to halt the horror you know is coming, until Khalil is shot dead as he tries to make sure that Starr is doing okay.

This part of Starr’s story we see constantly in the news. In fact, just yesterday, a story emerged from Georgia that shows video of a man with his hands up being punched and, when handcuffed, stomped on by police officers: http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/14/us/georgia-gwinnett-county-officers-fired-video-trnd/index.html. Or you can watch this video of an unarmed black man who was shot while lying down with his hands in the air http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/florida-cop-charged-manslaughter-shooting-autistic-man-s-unarmed-therapist-n745716.

What Thomas has done is take the reader into the lives of Starr and Khalil. To the reader, they are not two unknown people that the police and media can portray as problems that were going to die one way or another. We, the reader, are in the car with them. We know how Khalil is being protective and helping Starr. We know how terrified she is. We watch Khalil as he is shot and realize that Starr can’t save him. And then we sit with her as the blood leaves his body and the officer points the gun at her.

I truly believe that you cannot read this book and come out unchanged. I believe that Black Lives Matter; I did before I read The Hate U Give. My understanding of the world was even further enlightened by reading Angie Thomas’ book.

I never noticed before how the media will dig into the past of the black victims of white violence, even if it is irrelevant to the incident, and broadcast any negative they can find. Take Timothy Caughman, killed on the street in Manhattan by a sword-wielding white supremacist. The killer admitted to killing Caughman for no other reason than he was black. Yet the media, reporting on Caughman’s death, included the information that 15 years ago he had been arrested. You can read more thoughts on this case here: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/king-no-place-attacks-character-timothy-caughman-article-1.3007995. Caughman’s arrest 15 years ago played no part in his death. So why report it? Would it have been reported if Caughman was white?

Angie Thomas sheds light on so many issues of racial inequality and systemic racism: police brutality, victim blaming, poverty, gangs, code-switching, bias, stereotypes — and she does it all within a story that has characters that are deep and complicated and so very human. Readers will relate to the characters in the story.

The Hate U Give is a story that celebrates family and the strength of communities. It shows that human beings are more than their past mistakes. And The Hate U Give is a celebration that an author of color was able to speak out in her #ownvoice. An authentic voice of someone who is opening up her community to the world with the hope of making this a better place.

In an interview in New York magazine, Thomas was asked why she thinks there has been an increase in the publication of books that deal with racial issues, and this is her response:

These are the issues that teenagers are vocal about. They’re finding their voices. We’d be doing them an injustice if we weren’t giving them the mirror to see themselves in. These kids will be the ones to run this country. In one year, two years, four years, they’re going to be voters. If we start building empathy in them, maybe some of the things we have to fight for now, we won’t have to in the future.

I am hoping that Thomas’ successful novel will inspire more people to write diverse books that share their #ownvoice. I hope that enough young adults read books like The Hate U Give so that we can change the future of the country with empathy.

The Hate U Give is a book about racial inequality and injustices, but it is also a deep story about love, family, and survival. I am so thankful that Angie Thomas wrote this book. May she get all the love at awards time!

The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas
Balzer + Bray, a imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
ISBN 978-0-06-249853-3


This is a delightful story that plays with words and scores a nutmeg goal with the message that the best way to engage children with books is to let them select for themselves.

Chapter book, novel in verse
Interest Level: 5-8; Reading Level: 3.9
5 out of 5 stars

Kwame Alexander writes books that kids want to read. He adds sports and a true understanding of the struggles of tweens and teenagers to poetry and captures readers that would normally never look at a novel in verse. The primary and secondary characters in Booked are rich and well-developed.

Nick, the main character and voice of the story, is an eighth grader who loves soccer. He plays on a travel soccer team and has a friendly rivalry with his best friend, Coby, who plays on another team. Nick also struggles to deal with two bullies in his school, and he is trying to figure out how to talk to the girl he has a crush on.

Family is a big part of Nick’s story as well. He has a close relationship with his mother, but struggles to connect with his dad. His father is a linguistic professor who wrote a dictionary…a dictionary that he makes Nick read every night:

You’re the only kid
on your block
at school
who lives in a prison
of words.
He calls it the pursuit of excellence.
You call it Shawshank.

The changing relationship between Nick and his parents is another strength of the story. Nick’s parents announce they are getting separated and his mom is moving out. Alexander handles the confusion and mixed feelings that Nick goes through in a sensitive and honest way.

Throughout the book, Nick uses many of the fancy words found in his father’s dictionary. Alexander highlights these words by defining them in footnotes, just as they appear in the dictionary that Nick’s father created. This contrast between the hate that Nick shows for reading the dictionary and the extent that it has become part of his identity is interesting to observe.

In addition to celebrating words, Alexander celebrates books in the story. Nick ends up in the hospital and his parents make him read in order to earn time to watch TV. Forced into it, he luckily has an awesome librarian to help connect him with books that are interesting to a 12-year-old boy. Katrina Hedeen wrote in a review for Horn Book Magazine, “Alexander understands reluctant readers deeply, and here hands them a protagonist who is himself a smart, reading-averse kid who just wants to enjoy the words that interest him on his own terms.”

For students who are reluctant to read a book full of poetry, tell them that the pages have lots of white space, so it’s a pretty quick read! Then read them some of the poems:

Does it sink
like a wrecked ship in the sea?

Or wade in the water
like a boy overboard?

Maybe it just floats around and around…

or does it drown?

In Booked Alexander has crafted a book that will engage all types of readers, even many of those who say they don’t like to read. And you’ll never believe how this book ends…

by Kwame Alexander
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
ISBN 9780544570986

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Fans of Harry Potter will enjoy getting to know beloved characters in a new way in this exciting adventure.

Chapter book, fiction, screenplay
Interest Level: 5-8; Reading Level: 3.9
4 out of 5 stars

Fans of Harry Potter will enjoy getting to know the characters again, 19 years after the original set of stories ended. Harry and his friends are all grown with children of their own.

Young readers who have read the Harry Potter books will enjoy these stories, but Cursed Child is very different from the original novels. Part of the magic of Harry Potter lied in the settings and the rich environment that J.K. Rowling created. Cursed child is written as a screenplay, so descriptions are minimal. Readers must rely on memories to fill in the settings and images of the characters.

One of my favorite moments is between Harry and Dumbledore:

Harry, there is never a perfect answer in this messy, emotional world. Perfection is beyond the read of humankind, beyond the read of magic. In every shining moment of happiness is that drop of poison: the knowledge that pain will come again. Be honest to those you love, show your pain. To suffer is as human as to breathe…Those that we love never truly leave us, Harry. There are things that death cannot touch. Paint…and memory…and love.

Cursed Child will not appeal to all young readers because of the script format, but most readers will enjoy this opportunity to revisit beloved characters and friendships. The script is written for all ages, so there are a few scenes that deal with adults fighting that could concern younger readers. Overall though, the book is for everyone.

Harry Potter and the cursed child: Parts one and two
Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2016
ISBN 978-1-33809-913-3

Ghost: Track, Book 1

This is a truly incredible book that features a young man who is trying to figure out who he is meant to be. The story is short and fast-paced, and would make an excellent whole-class read-aloud for grades 4 through 7.

Chapter book, fiction
Interest Level: grades 5-8; Reading Level: 4.6
5 out of 5 stars

Castle Crenshaw goes by the nickname of Ghost. It’s a nickname he gave to himself on the night he learned how to run. That was the night his father pointed a gun at him and his mother:

He was shooting at us! My dad! My dad was actually shooting…at…US! His wife and his boy! I didn’t look to see what he hit, mainly because I was scared it was gonna be me. Or Ma. The sound was big, and sharp enough to make me feel like my brain was gonna pop in my head, enough to make my heart hiccup. But the craziest thing was, I felt like the shot–loudest sound I ever heard–made my legs move even faster.

Years after that horrible evening, Ghost’s father is in prison and the young man is still trying to come to terms with how that night changed him. Ghost comes across a track team practicing for the Junior Olympics. As he watches the kids race, he is especially interested in a boy who is wearing the latest racing clothes and shoes. Ghost believes he can beat this fancy kid in a race, so he challenges him while wearing jeans and high tops. The race is so close that the track coach takes notice of Ghost and offers him a chance to join the team.

Trouble seems to find Ghost, so whether he will screw up this one shot at being part of the team keeps the reader spellbound. That’s one aspect that makes Reynolds’ story telling so captivating. The story is told by Ghost, letting us in on his thoughts and how they shape his actions. Ghost is not a perfect character who is simply misunderstood. He makes some poor choices, but readers are privy to his thoughts and the choices he makes seem real and understandable. This book shows that sometimes good people make bad decisions.

While the story is about running, it’s also about growing and having people believe in you. It’s about getting second chances and making friends. It’s about the idea that “you can’t run away from who you are, but what you can do is run toward who you want to be.”

This book features many different topics that teachers can use for classroom conversations. It is the first in a series of track books by Reynolds.

Ghost: Track: Book 1
Atheneum Books For Young Readers, 2016
ISBN 978-1-48145-015-7

Weekends with Max and His Dad; 4 out of 5 stars #bookaday

Weekends with Max and His Dad book coverby Linda Urban; illustrated by Katie Kath
Chapter book
Interest level: Grades 2-4
Reading level: 3.7
4 out of 5 stars

At 150 pages, Weekends with Max and His Dad is a good transitional chapter book for those readers who are moving beyond a beginning reader. The book is divided into three chapters that focus on three consecutive weekends of Max visiting his father’s new apartment after his parents’ divorce.

The first weekend they are spies, canvassing the new neighborhood and learning about this new environment. The second weekend is titled “The Blues” and we learn that Max’s dad is learning to play the ukulele. We also learn that he is only playing the blues, and it is through these melancholy songs that Max and his dad work through some of the sadness together. The story ends with Max and a friend having a sleepover and working on a class project. When Max’s father comes down with a cold, Max must rely on some new neighbors to help him find the supplies he needs.

Linda Urban does a masterful job of conveying the story by showing the reader scenes and letting us figure out the deeper meaning. At no point does Max, as narrator, tell the reader details. A great example is the first scene of the book.

Max’s father shows him around the apartment for the first time and Max notices that all the rooms are plain white with almost no furniture. His father sleeps on a mattress on the floor. Except for Max’s room. Max’s room has been painted blue, he has football curtains and a helmet lamp sitting on a dresser, and a new bed with a silver comforter. Without being told, the reader can recognize that Max’s father wants him to feel welcome and that he has a special place in this new home.

Max’s story is about a newly divorced father and son transitioning into a new type of relationship. Urban portrays a very real situation, that doesn’t hide the anxiety or awkwardness that both characters feel. The growth that they experience is a great message for young children who may be going through a divorce. It portrays the situation honestly, but also with a hopeful message, making this an important book for library collections.

This would make a good real-aloud in 2nd or 3rd grade.