Save Me a Seat

Told in alternating points of view, this book offers several unique teaching points.

Chapter book, fiction, diversity
Interest Level: grades 4-6; Reading Level: 4.8
3 out of 5 stars

This book is told in alternating points of view between two fifth-grade boys: Ravi and Joe. Ravi and his family have just moved to America from Bangalore, India. Joe struggles in school and has Auditory Processing Disorder (ADP) which means he has “trouble listening” and attends therapy “to help my ears and my brain agree about what to listen to and what to tune out.” (p. 54)

At first the boys don’t seem to have much in common, but as they each tell their own stories, the readers are able to glimpse many connections they have before the boys in the story realize it themselves. For example, both boys love the whole class novel, Bud Not Buddy, they have doting mothers who take great pride in preparing their favorite foods, they are both outsiders in their class who struggle to communicate with others, and they are both being picked on by the class bully.

Teachers could read this story as a class read-aloud and find many unique topics that would be good for whole-class discussions:

*Both Ravi and Joe have trouble expressing themselves and communicating with peers. Joe because of his ADP is seen as different, and Ravi is misunderstood because of his accent and differences in culture.

*At first, Ravi’s teacher and classmates viewed him as unintelligent because he speaks with an accent.

*Joe’s ADP means he reacts different than his peers in loud situations.

*The format of the novel is each chapter is told in an alternating point of view.

The unique type of characters and alternating point of view are the strong points of Save My Seat. My one disappointment with the story are the stereotypical way the characters are portrayed. None of the characters display any depth outside of the typical role they were set up to play. Ravi is the smart Indian character who excels in math but is physical weak and unathletic. Joe is large and loves to eat. He is a pushover who never stands up for himself. Ravi’s grandparents live with their family and the grandmother constantly criticizes her daughter-in-law’s cooking.

The bully in the story is not original and every moment he is in the story he is doing nothing but tormenting Joe and Ravi. His character has no depth and exists only to antagonize the main characters. Teachers are oblivious to his constant bullying, such as when he hits Ravi with a fastball to the head when they were playing a game that was supposed to be underhand slow-pitch.

While I was personally turned off by the stereotyped character portrayals, their predictability could be something that young readers find relatable. Having a bully with no redeeming qualities provides a clear good guy/bad guy scenario and gives the reader a sense of justice at the end of the book.

Overall, there are good qualities to Save Me a Seat. I was hoping that the story would provide more of a glimpse into the intricate lives of a recent immigrant or a person with ADP, providing more depth and understanding about different cultures and conditions.

Save Me a Seat
by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
Scholastic Press, 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-84660-8

The Princess and the Warrior

Duncan Tonatiuh crafts his own version of the origin story of the two volcanoes that are located just outside of Mexico City.

Picture book, folktale
Interest level: K-5; Reading level: 2.9
Pura Belpre Illustrator Honor, 2017
5 out of 5 stars

Outside of Mexico City there are two majestic volcanoes, Iztaccihautl and Popcatepetl. Duncan Tonatiuh tells the legend of their origin in a well-crafted picture book that pays tribute to the images found in the ancient Mixtec codices. In the Author’s Note in the back of the book, Tonatiuh outlines the research behind the creation of the book, and a bibliography is included.

The story focuses on the love between a beautiful and kind princess named Izta and a brave soldier named Popoca. Many suitors traveled from far away trying to woo Izta with expensive and rare gifts, but she was not interested in them. Even though she was a princess, she preferred to spend her time with people in the field, teaching them poetry.

Popoca comes to see her and promises to love her for who she is and to always stay by her side no matter what. They fall in love, but the king wants Popoca to prove himself worthy to marry his daughter. So Popoca goes off to battle an enemy tribe. As the enemy is about to be defeated, they hatch a plan to defeat Popoca’s spirit and send word to Izta that he has died in battle. Believing this lie, she drinks a potion and falls into a sleep that she cannot be awoken from.

When Popoca returns victorious, he is distraught to find his love could not wake up, so he carries her to the top of a mountain believing that the cool air will revive her. As he laid her on the mountaintop, he knelt beside her and refused to move, even when the snows came and covered them both.

In time, where once there was a princess with her true love by her side, two volcanoes emerged. One is known as Iztaccihuatl, or sleeping woman. The other one is known as Popocatepetl, or smoky mountain. Iztaccihuatl continues to sleep. But Popocateptl spews ashes and smoke from time to time, as if attempting to wake his sleeping princess.

Throughout the story, Tonatiuh has included some foreign words in the Nahuatl language, since that is the language that Popoca and Izta would have spoken. A glossary is in the back to provide translations.

This is a well-done origin story that should be included with any lesson on stories in the oral tradition. Tonatiuh’s attention to detail with regard to the illustrations and language make this book stand above others.

The Princess and the Warrior
by Duncan Tonatiuh
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2016
ISBN 978-1-4197-2130-4


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

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

Snow White: a graphic novel

Matt Phelan has created a beautiful and intriguing graphic novel retelling of the classic fairy tale of Snow White.

Snow White: a graphic novel
by Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press, 2016
ISBN 978-0-7636-7233-1
235 pages : chiefly illustrations (some color) ; 21 cm
Graphic novel
Dewey: 741.5; Int Lvl: 4-8; Rd Lvl: 4.0
5 out of 5 stars

The story of Snow White is well-known, so most readers will approach this story with a feeling of familiarity. Matt Phelan has given Snow White a truly brilliant twist by setting it in 1928 New York City.

In Phelan’s update, the Wicked Witch is the star of Ziegfeld’s Follies. After Snow’s mother dies, her wealthy father becomes enchanted by the Queen of the Follies and marries her. Snow is sent to away to boarding school. Instead of an enchanted mirror, a stock market ticker shows what motivates the evil Queen. She is obsessed with money, wealth, and beauty. With her insecurities fed by the words on the ticker tape, the Queen kills the father and attempts to kill Snow when she returns for the funeral.

The seven dwarfs are seven homeless boys who have banded together to survive the cold streets. The boys save Snow from muggers, and take her in, where she becomes a mother-type figure to them. Snow’s relationship to the boys is truly a highlight of the story. The boys at first do not trust adults and refuse to reveal their names to Snow. The moment where she finds out their names is a real tear-jerker.

Prince Charming is Detective Prince, who is called to the scene when Snow’s poisoned body is discovered in the window of Macy’s department store. She was placed there by the seven boys after
she took them to see the magic that can be found in the beautiful holiday window scenes. It is easy for the reader to believe the magic of those windows can save Snow White.

As well as an unique setting and time period, Phelan’s art work adds intrigue to the traditional story. Mostly done in detailed black and white, color is used to add mood and intensity. Splashes of red really pop and are effective in highlighting evil and blood/death. Shades of cool blue are used on the Macy’s window scenes, and finally, the happily-ever-after ending is done in color.

Phelan has managed to craft a unique Snow White story that will stick in your mind. He has done this by sticking to the traditionally known plot, but incredible visuals combined with the new setting and time frame make the story feel new and updated. Middle grade and older readers will enjoy this fresh version.

The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles

This is one of those “wow” books, where both the illustrations and the text are perfectly matched and tell a beautiful, and quietly moving story.

The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles
by Michelle Cuevas; illustrated by Erin E. Stead
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2016
Picture book, fiction
Description: 1 volume (unpaged) : color illustrations ; 26 x 28 cm
Interest Level: K-5; Read Level: 4.9
Lexile measure: 760
5 out of 5 stars

This is a very original, and creative story about a lonely man who works to deliver messages that people have cast into the ocean in bottles, but what makes this book stand above others are the absolutely incredible illustrations by Erin Stead.

Stead’s illustrations capture the melancholy and isolation that the man feels as he goes about his lonely job. The woodblock prints, oil pastels, and pencil illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to the text that reads like poetry:

Sometimes the messages were very old, crunchy like leaves in the fall.
Sometimes the messages were written by a quill dipped in sadness.
But most of the time they made people quite happy, for a letter can hold the treasure of a clam-hugged pearl.

There is a mystery in the story, when the Uncorker receives a letter that isn’t addressed to a specific person. He searches for the intended recipient, but to no avail. What happens next is beautiful and magical.

Adults will read a lot into the meaning of the story, but I think children are able to appreciate it for its beauty and distinctiveness. This would make a wonderful read-aloud. Children could answer the question, “What message would you send in a bottle and to whom?”

Bad News for Outlaws: the remarkable life of Bass Reeves, deputy U.S. marshal

This is an extremely well-written biography about a little known hero of the west. Bad News for Outlaws makes for an excellent read-aloud for older elementary classrooms, and is a great companion text for units on slavery, the Old West, or life after the Civil War.

Bad News for Outlaws: the remarkable life of Bass Reeves, deputy U.S. marshall
by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Carolrhoda Books, Minneapolis, 2009
ISBN 978-0-8225-6764-6
Picture book, biography, nonfiction, narrative
Coretta Scott King Author Award, 2010; YHBA intermediate book nominee, 2011-2012
Description: 41 p. : ill. (chiefly col.) ; 31 cm.
Dewey: 363.28
Interest Level: 3-6; Reading Level: 5.5
Lexile measure: 860
5 out of 5 stars

The story starts out with an exciting showdown which completely grabs the reader’s attention and draws them into the story of Bass Reeves — “Bass ducked his head, dove off his horse, and rolled to his feet just as a fourth bullet clipped his hat brim.”

Much of Bass Reeve’s story reads like a tall tale. From his imposing size to his impressive record capturing outlaws, Vaunda Nelson shares remarkable stories that bring this former slave and lawman to life. The tone of the text sounds like an old fashioned western, so the glossary in the back is helpful to young readers who are probably not familiar with phrases such as “didn’t cotton to,” which means didn’t like.

Christie’s illustrations are bold paintings that capture the vast and untamed land, as well as show Bass as a proud and impressive figure, in his signature black coat, hat, and badge.

The back of the book includes a glossary, timeline, suggestions for further reading, and a detailed bibliography. Nelson has done a thorough job researching Bass Reeves and has carefully documented as much dialogue and information as she can. This is important so that readers are not misled and know they are learning facts. There is also a very moving Author’s Note that talks about the importance of learning about a black hero of the Old West.

While the stories about chasing down outlaws is intriguing, this story also provides an introduction into the history of Indian Territory, as well as what life was like for slaves after the Civil War. This information is not glossed over, but is presented in a sensitive manner that is appropriate for young readers.

Additional Resources

Lesson Plan from Coretta Scott King Book Awards:

Lesson Plan from Illinois School Library Media Association:

Lesson Plan from Social Studies Research and Practice:

Bass Reeves video (contains vintage photographs and reading of his obituary):