Rhyme Schemer

This is not your typical story about a middle school bully. K.A. Holt uses poetry to show the different sides of bullying in an authentic way that will appeal to readers in grades 5 and up.

Novel in verse, 167 pages
Interest level: grades 5 and up; high interest, lower reading level
5 out of 5 stars

The main character in Rhyme Schemer is Kevin, a 7th grader who comes from a large family with four older brothers and absentee parents who are both doctors. Kevin is the narrator, sharing his story in the form of poems that he writes in his journal and through poetry he creates by transforming pages torn from books into messages.

Rhyme Schemer is important because it shows Kevin as both a bully and a victim. Kevin is a likable character because we are allowed to know his inner thoughts through his journal entries. He openly shares his joy at bullying a classmate named Robin, but he also shares the turmoil and loneliness he feels at home. His older brother bullies him and he feels his parents don’t even know he exists.

When Kevin’s older brother throws his journal out the car window one morning, the plot shifts. Robin, the boy who was once bullied by Kevin, finds the journal and uses it to get his revenge. Robin has the upper hand now and begins to bully Kevin by threatening to reveal the poetry in his journal.

Holt has constructed the story and characters in such a way that even though Kevin was bullying kids at school, when the tables are turned, it does not feel like he is getting what he deserves. Robin’s form of bullying is much more personal and as Kevin begins to change how he acts and thinks, Robin is unrelenting. Kevin’s skills as a poet are recognized by the school librarian and she helps him find ways to use his skills in positive ways.

This book is of high interest to middle grade readers, who are looking for a less complex text that is short in length. The story can be used to begin discussions about bullying, and it would make a great text for a poetry unit. The poetry is written in the voice of a middle schooler so it will appeal. Additionally, the marking up of book pages to create poems would be a fun and engaging poetry-writing activity.

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


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

Mighty Jack by @BenHatke; 5 out of 5 stars #bookaday

This is an extremely well-done graphic novel that will appeal to a wide variety of readers.

Mighty Jack
by Ben Hatke
First Second, 2016
ISBN 978-1-62672-265-1
203 pages : chiefly color illustrations ; 23 cm
Graphic novel, fairy tale adaptation
Interest level: grades 3-8; reading level: 2.8
Lexile measure: 200
5 out of 5 stars

Jack and his sister Maddy are beginning summer vacation by going with their mom to the flea market. Through illustrations of past due bills, and mom talking about working two jobs, readers will understand that Jack’s family is facing some economic hardships. We also learn that Maddy doesn’t speak. Hatke combines visual clues with the right level of language to handle these sensitive issues in a realistic and heartfelt way.

While at the flea market, Jack and Maddy encounter a mysterious man who wants to trade some seeds for their mom’s car. Maddy speaks for the first time, telling Jack to do it, and this modern retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” starts to take shape for readers.

Maddy and Jack are joined by Lilly, an adventurous girl who lives nearby, and together these three form a bond as they work on the mysterious and strange garden that begins to take over. The mysterious plants that grow, and the evil changes that the garden takes on, will engage readers. While the story is based on the fairytale, Hatke has given it a fresh, evil take that will keep older readers enthralled.

This is an extremely well-done graphic novel that will appeal to a wide variety of readers. Younger readers who like spooky stories, will enjoy this, as will older readers who might read below grade level. Word of warning! The book ends on a cliffhanger that will make you antsy for the next book. The second book should be out around September 2017.

For people who had read Hatke’s Little Robot, there is a fun cameo in this story to keep your eye out for.

Human Body Theater: a non-fiction revue; 5 out of 5 stars #bookaday

by Maris Wicks
First Second, 2015
ISBN 978-1-62672-277-4
Graphic novel, nonfiction, informational
Interest level: 6-8
Reading level: 5.7
5 out of 5 stars

I absolutely loved reading Human Body Theater: a nonfiction revue by Maris Wicks. The text and illustrations are engaging and fun, while at the same time packing a huge amount of facts and interesting information into a very accessible graphic novel. Formatted as if the reader is watching a stage production, the skeleton emcee tackles 10 systems of the body, as well as the 5 senses. The descriptions and illustrations provide just enough detail to inform, yet are simple enough to be grasped by middle school readers without being offensive or disturbing. I especially love the positive message that Wicks conveys when she repeatedly assures the reader that body functions that we consider embarrassing are actually perfectly natural and that everyone does or has them, such as farts. She also provides related information, such as a sign language alphabet when discussing hearing impairment, or ways to relieve a headache when discussing the brain.

I definitely feel this book should be a part of every middle school and high school library collection. While primarily targeting middle school, this book is great for high school hi/lo reading needs, as well as providing a straightforward explanation that is understandable in ways that textbooks sometimes are not.

I was reading the book with an eye for its inclusion in an elementary school library. There is so much in this book that I can see being a benefit to readers in an elementary school. Our fifth grade does a study on the human body and I believe a text like this would make a great supplemental reading to help students understand the different systems. My only concern is Act 8: the reproductive system.

Wicks provides information on male and female reproductive organs and does an amazing job walking the line between detailing the parts of both organs while also keeping the illustrations abstract enough that they might not have meaning for younger children. Human Body Theater is definitely a book intended for a middle school audience, but I saw discussions on Twitter that indicated reviewers of the book had children as young as six and seven who love the book.

The following journals have reviewed the book and recommend it for different audience levels:

Booklist: grades 5-8
Kirkus Reviews: ages 12-14
Publisher Weekly: ages 10-14
School Library Journal: grades 4-8

I have often recommended books for elementary library collections when reviewers recommend them for grades 5-8. The fact that School Library Journal even lowers the grade to 4th is another factor that would make me feel this book would be appropriate in elementary school.

However, I also searched my school district, as well as two neighboring school districts and found that no elementary schools have Human Body Theater in their collections. Until I can do further research and talk to some teachers in my school, I would have to say that I would highly recommend this book for middle and high school libraries.