Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ms. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson


     I was lucky enough to receive an advanced reader copy, often referred to as an ARC, from Deborah Kovacs, @deborahkovacs, & Walden Pond Press, @WaldenPondPress.  It didn’t arrive at the best of times however . . . it was that time of finishing up - finishing up the school year, finishing up teaching a writing class at the local university, finishing up my Literacy and finally, finishing up requirements for a curriculum coordinator’s license. But even with all this going on, Ms. Bixby’s Last Day was a book I couldn’t put down.

     Anderson doesn’t disappoint in his development of each and every character in this book. Ms. Bixby is an elementary school teacher, but not just any elementary school teacher. She belongs in that very small group of people who were just born to teach - those teachers that are the change-makers in children’s lives. 

I was gripped with each of the three boys’ stories. Topher, Brand and Steve are best friends but each come from different homes and experiences. Although each feels he is the only one with the special relationship with Ms. Bixby, as we read, we discover that all three are correct.

     If you are lucky, you have had a teacher or two like Ms. Bixby in your life. She was that teacher that never had to raise her voice, ever; the one that made each and every student in her class feel like they were special; the one that made learning so interesting and fun.  My first such experience was in third grade. I knew a bit about Mrs. Taylor because my sister, Ann, had Mrs. Taylor when she was in third grade. When my sister was in Mrs. Taylor’s class she learned to knit from her in an after school-knitting club. This was 1962 and just not done! When I had Mrs. Taylor some high school students brought in the frogs they had dissected and let us look at them and poke around at them  . . .unbelievable . . . I remember when our reading group had a real treasure hunt around the classroom after reading a story about the topic. Mrs. Taylor was the first teacher I had ever met that was so creative, so fun yet so challenging, all at the same time. We all hope to be that type of teacher – like Mrs. Taylor, like Ms. Bixby.

     Perhaps that is why three of her students, Topher, Steve and Brand, decide to ditch school for the first time in their lives and risk the wrath of their parents, in order to visit their teacher in the hospital. The trip isn’t as easy as anticipated, as they make some stops and purchases they need in order to give Ms. Bixby a perfect day.  With the book told from the point of views of each of the boys, we learn more about each of them. We learn about their lives and why they need Ms. Bixby in them.

     This is a book that you need to read and then you need to put into the hands of readers. It is powerful, sincere, funny and tender. Anderson’s storytelling pulls you into the lives of these characters and makes you root for them. There are moments of sadness, fear and anger too – genuine emotions that our kids might not always share. Ms. Bixby’s Last Day would be a great read aloud and one that you must have on your classroom and library shelves.

     The first 45 pages of the book are available to read here and a youtube video by Walden Press here. There are two ways to win an autographed copy of this book. Please leave a comment and/or join my blog. Don’t miss out on this one!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Fabulous Fantasy Books

Dear Readers,

I have created a book trailer highlighting some new books I have read and loved and think you will too!

If you like fantasy you'll love these new titles by four memorable authors.

They are:

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu  

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

The Iron Trial & The Copper Gauntlet by Cassandra Clare & Holly Black 


 Click on the book titles and you will be taken to Amazon to read more . . .

Click on the link below to view my book trailer created on my free educator's account

at Animoto!


Fabulous Fantasy Books

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Fantasy Book Reviews - The Ones Kids Will Shiver Over

Witherwood Reform School by Obert Skye  Illustrated by Keith Thompson

     This is a wonderfully scary, creepy, dark fantasy that kids will love. A brother and sister have carried their pranks just a little too far this time and no governess will remain to look after this motherless pair. The father is at his wits' end and decides to try one last thing to get them to behave – the trick that worked for him when he was a wayward child.
“Get in the car!” he yells at his terrible twosome, as the rain pours down outside and the dark descends for a scene that you know is going to end up badly. When they drive up to the top of the mesa that has been foreshadowed at the very beginning of the book, Tobias and Charlotte Eggers are uncertain what to expect. They have never seen their father in such a state.
     As he orders them out of the car and into the pounding rain, leaving them alone, they can’t believe he will truly do this to them and he really doesn’t intend to, but fate has a funny way of interfering and as the children look around, realizing that he is not coming back, they head toward the only light they see – that of Witherwood Reform School. Making the mistake that they are expected, they are welcomed in and Tobias and Charlotte soon learn that things are very wrong at this “school” with dangerous mutant animals guarding the gates at night, older children disappearing and mind-control stopping their plans of escape.
Children will delight and shiver with fright as they quickly turn the pages of this book, wondering why the father hasn’t come for them, where is he and what the outcome will be. Will the children get out . . . before it’s too late?

The Thickety: A Path Begins
The Thickety: The Whispering Trees
By J. A. White   Illustrated by Andrea Offerman

     I adored these two books and can’t wait for the next installment. I believe this is going to be a four-book set.
     Book One starts out quickly when our main character, Kara Westfall, is dragged out of bed to see her mother hanged as a witch. The island she lives on will abide no witchcraft and fights daily to keep the “thickety”, the dense growth of forest, cut back from their village. Kara’s father falls into a depression and we next meet her as a 12 year old taking care of, not only her father, but also younger brother, who is in poor health. Practically ostracized from the village, she gradually learns that she, too, has magical powers, but keeps them secret. Believing she can use her grimoire reasonably and for good she soon learns that it has taken control of her. The story rolls towards a terrible show down when we learn that Kara is not the only one in town with magic. Who will come out on top, what will it take from each of them and who will be collateral damage?
     If you think Book One is entrancing, engaging and wickedly spellbinding, then wait until you open the pages of Book Two: The Whispering Trees! Once I started this book, I couldn’t put it down. The action starts and never stops! Kara and her brother Taff are forced to escape into the forest. We got a taste of Sordyr, the evil forest demon, in the first book, but we are really going to know his wrath in book two. Can Kara and Taff survive the untold dangers in the Thickety as well as this evil demon? And what about Mary Kettle, the infamous witch all the village children heard terrible tales of
 . . . and the things she had done?


The Iron Trial (Book One of Magisterium)
By Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

     I picked this book up because I liked the scary looking cover and it didn’t fail my anticipation. Many say this book reminded them a bit of the Harry Potter books, but since I didn’t read them, I can’t compare the two - (no, don’t gasp, I didn’t read them because I didn’t need to – kids were doing that on their own, no book pushing needed!). The evil looking ghostly figure on the front pulled me in and didn’t disappoint. This is high fantasy and will definitely entrance those readers who love magic, contests, a training school and treachery.
     We meet our main character, Callum Hunt, at a typical high school, doing typical things. But we soon learn he isn’t typical. He doesn’t have a typical father and he actually has been told to fail at magic. Yes fail. He is dragged away to perform at an entrance exam for the Magisterium and his father warns him to do his worst – do everything wrong, do anything he can to fail, he should NOT get admitted. But try as he might, not even knowing he is gifted with magical powers, he finds that he can do things he never knew he could do . . . and certain people take notice. With his father grabbing him, trying to keep him from going, he is dragged from his father’s grasp and taken to the Magisterium. There he learns that not only is he quite good but also quite out of control. He must master this even if he doesn’t want to  . . .
     Not only does he learn to control his magic, he learns about his past, a past he didn’t realize he had, a past he didn’t know his father had, and a future he might not want to have.
     One caveat I do offer to our young readers is I found the prologue a bit wordy and difficult to understand. When I handed out this book to my 4th and 5th graders, I told them to read it but to then realize that the rest of the book didn’t “read like these pages” and when they finished reading the book, they should go back and read these first pages again and it would make a lot more sense. I think it might be off-putting to readers that aren’t as astute because it is more difficult to read then the rest of the book.
     With that being said, the rest of the book is fast-paced, exciting, and with a twist at the end that no one, I mean no one, will see coming and makes you very excited and longing for Book Two: The Copper Gauntlet, which comes out September 1st and which I have had on pre-order ever since!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Two Great K Literacy Apps!

     I don't profess to be a great technology person or be "in the know" about the best apps, but I do let my kindergarten intervention groups occasionally use the IPads on Fridays for a special treat. The apps they use MUST be educational and linked to literacy. Since so many of them are still learning their letters and sounds, I want them to be using apps that are helping them with this skill. I have found apps in the past that match capital letters to lowercase or apps that tell students which letters to touch or drag. My students will appear to like them  . . .for about five minutes and then ask, "Can I play something else?"
    I have recently found a couple they will play over and over again however, never getting bored. The all time favorite this year is, without a doubt - AVOKIDDO ABC RIDE !! This is an app that teaches students letter recognition and is extremely engaging and very well done. When my students are given a choice of four or five apps, they choose this one again and again.  They begin by choosing either a boy or a girl to put on a bicycle,which they can then ride down a path to each letter. At each stop, they must complete an activity to get the letter to appear. For instance, at "A", they must move their avatar boy or girl to catch the apricots in a basket as they fall from the tree. When all of them have been caught the word "apricot" appears at the top of the screen. The colored letters of the word "apricot" will drop to the bottom of the screen, out of order, leaving behind the shadow of the word, spelled correctly. The student will then drag the letters back up to the top to spell the word correctly again. What I really like is that as the student touches the letters, the letter names are spoken aloud for reinforcement.You are also able to adjust the settings for upper or lowercase letters as well as letter names or letter sounds. Each letter presents the student with a different activity for them to complete and they are all so much fun and funny! For example, for the letter "i" they must use a hair dryer (complete with sound effects!) to blow dry an igloo until it melts enough to reveal the letter Ii! They must use a sponge to clean a dirty pig and a hose to wash the bubbles off! How cool is that? Each letter is just as much fun as the next but is also always followed up with the word to hear and spell. 
Cost: $2.99
The next app that my students really love is LETTER SCHOOL. This app helps students with letter recognition as well as proper letter formation - again in a wonderfully fun and engaging way. First a picture that begins with the letter selected appears and is spoken, along with its sound as well. Then the letter, either capital or lowercase (you can make this determination) appears with three "buttons" at the bottom of the screen. When you tap on the first button - dots appear that the student taps, which will show them the correct formation - but with really fun things, like beads, a rocket ship or a chain, complete with motion. The second button also has dots but the student must draw with his/her fingers to get the actions to happen, which are different from the first ones. The kids love the one that has grass which is then mowed! Finally the student gets only the dots and must try to trace the letter from memory. However if they fail to do it after several tries, a yellow dotted line appears to help them. Again, this is an app that they will play over and over again, fascinated by the motion and movement of the letter formations. It can also switch to numerals. 
Cost: $4.99
I hope your students enjoy these as much as mine do!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Dot Day was Dynamic in Maine

 So, Dot Day didn't start off very well for me. You see I lost a very important dot this morning - my contact! Yes, losing the dot that covers my eye and helps me see is a very important dot. I have "hard" contacts and the left contact is for seeing things far away and the right contact is for seeing things up close and believe it or not they work in conjunction. When I went to find an old one to replace it, I saw that I only had ONE left - would it be the "up close" contact that I needed? YES! So maybe DOT DAY was on my side after all. I had the "dot" I needed. 

     As a literacy specialist, I work with small intervention groups and today I was going to be working with kindergarten students. What would they think of Dot Day and the book by Peter Reynolds? Would they "get it"? I had only worked with them for a very short time and only on the letters in their names. This was quite a sharp detour from that work.

     But you've got to love kinders. Five year olds are just so exuberant about life. I had worn a shirt covered in small circles or  . . . dots! I wore matching "dot" earrings. As I took my first group of four students from their classroom to my office, I looked at them with great excitement and said, "Do you know what day it is? "DOT DAY! Look at my shirt, it has dots on it! Look at my earrings, they are dots. It's DOT DAY!! Yea!!!" Well, they rose to the occasion, even though they had absolutely NO IDEA what I was talking about. They said, "YEA!" As we walked down the hallway, I told them that I had a book I was going to read to them called, The Dot, and that they were going to get a magic dot to draw with and they couldn't have been more excited. I went into six different classes of kindergarten and took out small groups from each, greeted them in the same way and they all were just as excited.

     In addition, as I read the story of Vashti, they totally understood about not being able to draw, and really loved how not only did Vashti draw different dots, but tried different ways of drawing the dots. They knew what she was doing when she encountered the little boy at the end of the story as well.

     I think my most favorite part of the day was visiting a class of boys that have some real challenges and so are in their own classroom most of the time. It was the first time I had been able to get up and see them this year and we were all very happy to see each other. These boys are in 4th and 5th grade. So I did something a little different for them. They are used to me reading great picture books to them and they love it. So today, I went up and told them the same thing, that it was DOT DAY! Then I wrote three words on the board, bravery, self-expression and creativity. I showed them the book and told them it was about a little girl who was very unhappy because she couldn't draw but many people said that the book showed the themes of those three words. When I finished the book, I wanted them to give me evidence from the book that proved it. At the end of the story, each of the three boys gave me very explicit evidence from the text - i.e. "close reading" - that very clearly showed us that they understood these themes. They truly understood how this book displayed these themes and it was so cool to hear them get excited about telling all of us!

What a great day for me and them!


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Meadering Midcoast Maine's Indie Bookstores

Part One - Camden

     This weekend, after seeing STEELY DAN at Darling's Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor, ME my boyfriend and I made our way down midcoast Maine through the towns of Belfast, Camden and Rockland. It was a beautiful Labor Day weekend and we strolled through the towns' streets enjoying the wonderful weather. But a walk in any town for me always means sniffing out the independent bookstores to try and find books I have never seen before or those wonderful 2014 hardcover books that I must have. 
     Now, I must take a minute here to acknowledge what a saint my boyfriend is! He knows that bookstores and book shopping are my passion and never complains as I spend most of the time in these stores. He will wait patiently inside or outside and he isn't even a reader! Oh, I can get him to occasionally read a picture book or two if it's about a cat (we own three) but that's about it. But you will never, ever hear him ask me to hurry up or even a heavy sign come out of his mouth. How did I get so lucky?   

The Owl and Turtle Bookshop has been located in Camden for 44 years and refers to itself as "fiercely indie" and "truly local". It is a lovely bookstore with a great little cafe tucked in the back where I sampled a scrumptious piece of wild blueberry cake and a latte. I loved the addition of a display of what "your barista is reading" propped up at the counter. Now onto the books!

                Zeek Meeks vs. the Stinkin' Science Fair by D.L. Green

 This is a new series I found that looks great for the 2nd - 4th grade set. It is about a boy named Zeek who is afraid of bugs - all bugs! Normally he wouldn't care about winning the science fair but he needs the money to pay off Grace Chang! It has some great illustrations as well as bullets and voice bubbles that kids will love. In addition, it has directions for a science experiment for making "quicksand" in the back as well as "Big Words according to Zeke". These are more difficult words that are defined such as cashmere, compliment and concentrate.  I love how this book ties in science in a fun way with literacy. I always buy one in a series new to me, to see how kids like them, but I have a feeling I might be getting more of these . . . :-) 
                  Benny and Penny in The Big No-No by Geoffrey Hayes
This book was the 2010 winner of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award but new to me. Graphic novels are appealing to all age levels but the ones that are popular now such as Amulet and Sidekicks are for the older students. Finally this is a really great series for the very young students. This story could be read by first and second graders and in addition teaches a life lesson along with it. Each of the voice bubbles has only a sentence or two so makes it very easy to access. The brother and sister, Benny and Penny, are very cute and believable. I also bought the second story, Benny and Penny in The Toy Breaker. I have a feeling they will be very popular! These two stories are at the "Level 2" range but there are also several at an easier level and some at a higher level. 

Teacher Discount: YES!

                                  Sherman's Books & Stationery 
                                   14 Main St. 236-2223 

The first thing I noticed when I walked into Sherman's was a long table with discounted children's books. Yippee! These were not old, unknown children's books either but great hardcover children's books! All of the books ranged from $16.00 - $18.00 but were marked down to $4.99. I purchased Go Away, Mr. Wolf! by Mathew Price & Atsuko Morozumi, Hurry Down to Derry Fair by Dori Chaconas & Gillian Tyler - a great one for our rural students, many of whom attend or participate in the local county fairs, and one of my favorite young children's authors, Nancy Tafuri's Five Little Chicks! 
Leroy Ninker Saddles Up by Kate DiCamillo & Chris Van Dusen
 It may not be another Mercy Watson book, but Mercy is in it! Leroy Ninker was a character from one of the Mercy Watson books, and now he has a book of his own and is inviting back some of the favorite characters from Kate DiCamillo's popular pig series! Mercy is back, Mrs. Watson is back, Frank is back along with a cast of new characters in another pairing up of the DiCamillio and Van Dusen extravaganza. Kids will be lining up to read this book or make it your first read aloud. Kids and teachers alike will be hoping for more in this series, I'm sure! 
Kate  is also the the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature for 2014 - 2015! I can't think of a better person to represent!

Teacher Discount: YES!


What's as much fun as a bookstore? A used bookstore! I found Stone Soup in Camden - remember the story of Stone Soup? It was up a steep set of stairs and as I arrived at the top, there was an older gentleman playing music on a record player - gotta love it. I plopped myself down on the floor in front of his stack of children's books and made myself at home. I was delighted to find several volumes of L. Frank Baum's books that were NOT The Wizard of Oz. I found Ozma of Oz and a large size volume of The Emerald City of Oz. With the movie version of Oz out and a renewed interest in Oz, I'm excited to show students that there are many more works by Baum then just The Wizard of Oz. 
And even though these books were already discounted due to being second hand, the owner was nice enough to take a little bit more off when he found out I was a teacher! How sweet!!

     As you can see, I had a great time and found a good many books in Camden. Stay tune for Part two when I tell you all about my great finds in Camden's sister city - ROCKLAND!