Posted by: Ms. Matson | February 5, 2012

Origami Yoda & Darth Paper

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda
Tom Angleberger
Genre: middle grade realistic fiction
AR Level: 4.7
Age Level: 8+

Darth Paper Strikes Back: An Origami Yoda Book

AR Level: 4.6

I read The Strange Case of Origami Yoda about a year and a half ago and liked it enough to buy a copy for my classroom library (fourth grade). A few of the boys read it, but there wasn’t a lot of hubbub about it. Contrast that with this school year. A couple of my boys had previously read and loved the book so much that they donated copies of it, as well as Darth Paper, to our class library. Now everyone wanted to read them and a waiting list became necessary.

I finally got around to reading Darth Paper Strikes Back this weekend and thought I’d post a review of both of the books. I’m not going to bother with summaries; they’re easily available.

There are two features which make these books stand out. First of all, they’re written from multiple points of view. The case study format means that a variety of students are contributing, so we hear a variety of voices. I think this helps to present a more authentic middle school experience to the reader, especially because other students write in comments on each other’s entries. We get to know the characters better by seeing their different writing styles.

Second, there are abundant illustrations throughout. The books are set up like notebooks, complete with crinkled paper background effects. The students in the story doodle on the pages and mark key points of the text. I like this because it’s fun and different. It’s not like Diary of a Wimpy Kid where the story is partly told through illustration in a sort of comic format. The illustrations are supplementary, but they make the text and the story more real.

I enjoyed Origami Yoda more than Darth Paper. The story is more interesting and compelling, and because it’s the first book, the style is more surprising and fresh. But Darth Paper is worth a read as well. I wouldn’t rank these as books of high literary quality. However, I think the stories are engaging and unique enough to capture the reluctant reader, especially ten year old boys who think reading is just not worth the effort. These books will change their minds. Plus they’re just fun to read.

Bonus: Each book includes instructions on how to make Origami Yoda or Darth Paper.

Posted by: Ms. Matson | November 18, 2011

The Lost World

The Lost World
Michael Crichton
Genre: Science Fiction, Techno-Thriller

The Lost World is a sequel to Jurassic Park and was also made into a movie. Apparently the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were manufactured on a separate island that was abandoned after the failure of the park. The dinosaurs survived. Some ten years after JP, scientist Richard Levine investigates the island and Ian Malcolm and a team of field researchers (along with two stowaway kids) go to rescue him. Throw in a few greedy entrepreneurs and the place gets messy. The dinosaurs attack, and the humans try to escape.  It’s a pretty simple plot, but the execution is smart and suspenseful.

Michael Crichton’s books were some of the first “adult” fiction I read as a teenager; I loved them and often said Crichton was my favorite author. So last Friday night when I was tired of searching Netflix for a movie, I decided to reread The Lost World. It’s funny how quickly the memories of certain scenes come back, and how easy it is to resurrect the same images I had originally created in my head when I read the book some fourteen years ago. There’s something very familiar and comforting in that. I suppose this is why I like rereading books so much; it’s like visiting with an old friend.

I had forgotten how much detail Crichton used, especially in the discussions of the various evolutionary and extinction theories. I admit I skimmed over most of them this time around as I wasn’t really looking for something that made me think too hard.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the AR level of The Lost World and was shocked to see that it’s only a 5. That’s really low considering the sophisticated vocabulary and background knowledge necessary to understand the text (which is just simply basic junior high and high school science).  However, the plot itself is not difficult to follow. Sometimes I have serious doubts about the accuracy of the AR leveling system, but that’s another topic altogether.

I recommend The Lost World to anyone who enjoys a good thriller with a little science on the side.

Posted by: Ms. Matson | November 8, 2011

Leap of Faith

Leap of Faith
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Genre: realistic fiction
Interest level: Age 10+
AR Level: 4.2

This is the story of a young girl’s journey into the Catholic faith.  Having been expelled from public middle school for stabbing a boy, 12 year old Abigail is forced to attend St. Catherine’s, a private Catholic school.  She first tries to be invisible, not wanting any attention from other students or teachers, but eventually finds her niche in the drama department, and a close friend to confide in.  Her non-religious (and non-attentive) parents are wary about the religious aspect of Abby’s education, and she picks up on this.  Seeking to anger and upset her parents, Abby announces that she wants to become Catholic and begins attending Mass and initiation classes.  She gets the reaction she wanted, because her parents are upset, and at first they forbid it and demonstrate how uncomfortable it makes them.  What Abby doesn’t tell them is that she doesn’t really believe.  The story culminates with her baptism, confirmation, and first communion at the Easter Vigil, with her parents there taking pictures, and Abby taking a leap of faith, deciding that she is willing to believe.

Leap of Faith is a well-written narrative of a topic that is often ignored, or explored in the reverse, in young adult literature – coming to faith.  Bradley’s characters are likeable and easy to relate to.  She discusses the nature of faith and religion in a very delicate way, addressing difficult questions like why are there evil people.  However, this is not a preachy book at all.  While she presents Christianity accurately, there is never the sense that Bradley wants her readers to convert.  I couldn’t say whether she is Catholic herself.  The story is about Abby, not religion.

I have to be honest. Although I doubt the purpose of this book is to encourage readers to become Catholic, it did influence me in that direction. I had already been considering the Catholic Church for several years and Leap of Faith gave me a fresh perspective on the Church and her beauty. Three years after reading this book, I converted. Of course, the book was one of many, many influences in making that decision. Someone not already thinking about it would not likely be as influenced.

Posted by: Ms. Matson | November 4, 2011

Ivy and Bean

Ivy and Bean
Annie Barrows
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Genre: Realistic fiction, early chapter books
AR Level: 3.2
Age Level: 6+

I’ve been trying to recommend good books to my students, only to find that most of what I’m familiar with are upper middle grade novels. I don’t know enough early chapter books. In a quest to remedy that, I’ve checked out several from the library. Ivy and Bean is one of them.

Bean is reluctant to make friends with the girl who lives across the street because she’s “a nice girl”, but when she finally meets Ivy, Bean learns that appearances can be deceiving. Rather than a prissy and proper young lady, Ivy is an aspiring witch. Together, the two girls concoct a plan to put a dancing spell on Bean’s older sister Nancy.  But first they must get some worms.

Ivy and Bean is a cute little book about the beginning of friendship. Much of this book reminded me of my own childhood, especially the freedom to roam the neighborhood. Ivy and Bean’s adventure sounds like something I would have done. Barrows captures the best parts of childhood well. Her writing is simple enough for younger readers to understand, but still full of craft and imagery. The worm-digging scene is particularly vivid.

“The worms oozed and curled through the mud. Bean liked the way they were fat one second and stretched out skinny the next. She and Ivy dug deeper and deeper, until they had made a big muddy pit in the ground. It was almost two feet across, and water dribbled down the sides. Worms were squirming at the bottom of the pit, trying to get away.”

The illustrations by Sophie Blackall do a nice job enhancing the story and providing detail without overshadowing it.

This is a great book for readers who are ready for chapter books, but not necessarily ready for the content or themes of many middle grade novels. The series continues with more adventures of the two girls, but I think the stories are self-contained. The eighth book is due out this month.

I first learned of these from a post at From the Mixed-Up Files about early chapter books (a great resource!).

Posted by: Ms. Matson | October 10, 2011


Scott Westerfeld
Genre: Young adult fantasy/steampunk
AR Level: 5.3
Age Level: 10+

“Wouldn’t it be cool if the First World War had been fought with genetically engineered mutant animals, against steam-powered walking machines? And the answer is, Yes, it would.”
—The New York Times

If that intrigues you, read on. While Leviathan presents an alternate history of World War I, it’s not so much the focus of the story as the backdrop. Longing to serve in the British Air Service, Deryn Sharp is constrained by her gender. She does what many heroines have done before her – disguise herself as a boy. Quite by accident she ends up on the famed airship Leviathan, which is a living, breathing beast. Her path crosses with Prince Aleksander, who has fled his homeland after the assassination of his parents. The problem is, these two are on the opposite sides of the conflict brewing between the Darwinists, who use fabricated beasts, and the Clankers, who rely on steam-powered machines.

I had heard bits and pieces about Leviathan but didn’t really know much about it. I bought it on whim and ended up reading it in a day, and went back to the store the next to get the sequel (and subsequently had to wait two months for the final book). Westerfeld did a fantastic job world-building and I wasn’t ready to leave the Darwinists and Clankers behind.

The writing is interesting. Chapters shift between protagonists Deryn and Alek. I love the way their differences can be seen in the way the author uses voice – though told in third person, there is a distinct difference in the way chapters are written for Deryn or Alek.  Not just the vocabulary used in dialogue, but also descriptions, etc. It really supports characterization and develops setting, as well as establishes the different ways of thinking for each nation.  I like that this continues even after the characters meet.

Be warned – this book has a non-ending. Even though you know this is the first book in a series, you’ll think there’s another chapter to wrap up the first part.  But nope.  Those other pages are the afterward.

Speaking of which, I appreciated the explanations of truth and fiction in the story that Westerfeld gave at the end.  It’s enough background information for kids who know nothing of WWI to place the events in history.

Although labeled as “young adult,” a mature 10 or 11 year old could enjoy this. There is no material/content I find objectionable for that age group.

Leviathan is a good read, and very much worth the purchase.

Posted by: Ms. Matson | February 5, 2011

The Time Travelers

The Time Travelers (Book 1 in the Gideon Trilogy)
Linda Buckley-Archer
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007
Genre: middle grade fantasy/sci-fi
AR Level: 6.3
Interest level: age 10+

On a forced visit to the English countryside, Peter Schock meets Kate Dyer, and the two find themselves thrown 200 years into the past by a freak accident at her dad’s lab.   Now in 1763, Kate and Peter must find the antigravity machine if they hope to return home.  Along the way they have a nasty encounter with some highwaymen, get taken in by a kindly family, and have a whole lot of  adventures in 18th century England.

The premise of The Time Travelers is very intriguing, and I was drawn in by the rich language.  Buckley–Archer does a good job incorporating appropriate period language into the text.  She cleverly works the definitions of odd words like “bottom” into the narrative.

The over-all story is well-executed, I think, but it does get bogged down in the middle with too many details and one disastrous encounter after another.  Some of the dialogue and descriptions of people and places were superfluous and did nothing to propel the story.  Kids looking for an adventure story (which this is, in many respects) may give up in the middle because the story starts to stagnate.

However, when the group of travelers finally reach London, the pace picks up significantly.  I was once again interested in the characters and how the various issues would be resolved.  The ending was satisfactory in that enough of the loose ends were tied up, and the cliffhanger interesting enough for me to seek out the second book.

There are some mild content issues which might be worth discussing with a young reader.  There is a pervasive use of alcohol (not by the two protagonists) that corresponds with the time period as well as the nature of some of the characters.  It’s an appropriate characterization device, though.  The story also deals with things like hangings, murder, and cruel people.

I do recommend The Time Travelers and will place a copy in my 4th grade classroom, and I’m anxious to read the next book, The Time Thief.

Posted by: Ms. Matson | June 26, 2010

The Education of Bet

The Education of Bet
Lauren Baratz-Logsted
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
Genre: young adult historical fiction
Interest level: Age 12+
AR Level: 6.0

Sixteen year old Will and Bet bear a striking resemblance to each other.  They have grown up like siblings in 19th century England under the care of Will’s wealthy great uncle.  Will has all the privileges afforded a boy of his station, including high-class education, but he wants something else.  Bet lives as someone between family and servant, and she wants what Will has.  When Will’s behavior necessitates yet another school transfer he doesn’t want, Bet offers him a solution—she’ll take his place.  While Bet prepares to walk, talk, dress, and write like a boy, she has no idea was really goes on in a boys’ boarding school and is in for a shock.

When I read a review of The Education of Bet over at Galleysmith, I was immediately interested in the story. I like “gender-bender” stories because I think they give an interesting perspective on gender roles and behaviors, and they’re usually fun.  Of course I would want to read about Bet.

Overall The Education of Bet was enjoyable and engaging—I read it in one go—but I felt it wasn’t long enough for me to develop empathy for the characters. I wanted to know what happened to Bet and Will, but my heart was not particularly concerned about the outcome.  Most of the events at school center around the bullying and the negative aspects of Bet’s experience.  We don’t get to read much about her thoughts and experiences with the actually lessons, which were the entire reason she became a boy in the first place.

It’s not that I didn’t like the book; it just wasn’t what I was expecting.  Most of the gender-bending stories I’ve read or watched have a great deal of humor and comedy tied to the hidden identity.  The Education of Bet has a more serious tone with just a touch of comedy thrown in.  I missed the comedy, and I found myself comparing the book to some of my favorite gender-benders (the Korean drama Coffee Prince and the Japanese manga Hana-Kimi).

However, I think this is a great book to get girls (and boys, too) to start thinking about the roles society presents to them today, and how things have changed over times.  It’s certainly not a weighty social commentary on gender issues, but for teenagers it’s a good snapshot.

Final thoughts on The Education of Bet: It’s library-worthy, something I would check out from the library, but not buy.

Posted by: Ms. Matson | June 25, 2010

The Thief

The Thief
Megan Whalen Turner
New York: HarperCollins, 1996
Genre: Middle grade adventure fantasy
Interest level: Age 10+
AR level: 6.0
Awards: Newbery Honor book in 1997

After seeing this book and its sequels praised on many blogs I finally got around to reading it.  I absolutely loved it!  The praise and the Newbery Honor medal are well-deserved.  I couldn’t put The Thief down.

Here’s the brief summary from the back of the book:

“’I can steal anything.’ After Gen’s bragging lands him in the king’s prison, the chances of escape look slim.  Then the king’s scholar, the magus, needs the thief’s skill for a seemingly impossible task—to steal a hidden treasure from another land. To the magus, Gen is just a tool.  But Gen is a trickster and a survivor with a plan of his own.”

Megan Whalen Turner has done a superb job creating a fantasy world mixed with Greek and invented mythology.  The story is well-written and well-paced with a strong vocabulary, excellent character development, and vivid descriptions.  When Gen is inside the temple, it is easy to imagine the cool feel of the marble walls, the sound of water trickling over stone, and the creak of the heavy doors as Gen pushed back.  Turner writes in a way that makes you feel like a participant, not an observer

However, the best part of The Thief is the twist at the end – when the pieces of the adventure fall together and you learn the real story.  It makes you want to read it all over again to look for all the little clues.  And I think I will.  Then I’ll read the rest of the series (The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, and the most recent book, A Conspiracy of Kings).

The Thief is definitely a book I want to have in my classroom.

Mark another book off for the TwentyTen reading challenge.  I’m counting The Thief in the Bad Blogger’s category.  I first heard of it from Book Aunt, though I can’t find the exact post at the moment.

Posted by: Ms. Matson | June 25, 2010

This World We Live In

This World We Live In
Susan Beth Pfeffer
Boston: Hartcourt, 2010
Genre: Post-apocalyptic young adult fiction
Interest level: Age 12+
AR level: 4.2

This World We Live In is the sequel to Life As We Knew It and The Dead and the Gone, companion novels in which the moon is hit by an asteroid, changing its orbit and wreaking havoc on Earth’s climate and weather. The first novel describes how the disaster affects Miranda and her family in small-town Pennsylvania, and the second focuses on Alex and his family in New York City.
Summary from Amazon:

“It’s been a year since a meteor collided with the moon, catastrophically altering the earth’s climate. For Miranda Evans, life as she knew it no longer exists. Her friends and neighbors are dead, the landscape is frozen, and food is increasingly scarce.
The struggle to survive intensifies when Miranda’s father and stepmother arrive with a baby and three strangers in tow. One of the newcomers is Alex Morales, and as Miranda’s complicated feelings for him turn to love, his plans for his future thwart their relationship. Then a devastating tornado hits the town of Howell, and Miranda makes a decision that will change their lives forever.”

Having loved the first two books, I was looking forward to reading This World We Live In. However, I found it much less compelling. Miranda and Alex, as well as the other characters, both experienced tremendous growth as people in their individual stories, and their characters were fleshed out and well-rounded. I found them rather stagnant in This World. While it seemed to focus more on the character’s relationships rather than survival or events, This World We Live In had less character development. Miranda comes across as whiny and Alex is stubborn and cold.

The romance between the two felt completely contrived and misplaced. The initial development from their meeting was fine, but without really seeing any strong signs of interest, they’re suddenly kissing passionately and frequently and declaring their love for each other. I never really saw a compelling reason for them to be together, other than they were close in age, and, as Miranda put it, Alex was the “Last Living Boy in America.”

The new characters felt extraneous and unnecessary for the story.

I was not happy with the ending. [Spoilers ahead…..] Only one character from The Dead and the Gone survives, and none of the Pennsylvania family dies. This is a bit unbalanced. I know the author has said she enjoys writing about the trials and tribulations and only giving some hope at the end, but I really wanted some kind of resolution to the global problem. Is this a functional world? Because canned food only lasts for so long.

I highly recommend Life As We Knew It and The Dead and the Gone, but This World We Live In is skippable.

I’m counting this book toward the TwentyTen reading challenge under newly published in 2010.

Posted by: Ms. Matson | June 11, 2010


Sara Zarr
New York: Little, Brown & Co, 2008
Genre: Realistic young adult fiction
Interest level: Age 12+
AR Level: 4.4

From the front flap:

“As children, Jennifer Harris and Cameron Quick were both social outcasts. They are also each other’s only friend. So when Cameron disappeared without warning, Jennifer thought she’d lost the one person who would ever understand her. Now in high school, Jennifer has been transformed. Known as Jenna, she is popular, happy, and dating—everything “Jennifer” couldn’t be. But she still can’t shake the memory of her long-lost friend.”

When Cameron suddenly reappears, they are both confronted with memories of their shared past and the drastically different paths their lives have taken.”

I don’t remember what first compelled me to add Sweethearts to my list, but when I picked it up from the library I was anticipating a nice, light, weekend read.  So wrong was I.  Sara Zarr’s Sweethearts packs a strong emotional punch.  It’s not as emotionally raw and intense as Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, but it has plenty of heartache. I’ll leave to you to discover what that heartache is, but I will say that I loved the way Zarr slowly unfolded Jenna’s past with flashbacks throughout the book.  It’s not all told in the beginning.

The flashbacks to Jenna’s past, to her experiences in elementary school, make me think about my elementary students.  We had a handful of girls in first grade this last year that just didn’t seem to have any (or many) friends.  And we had some girls that were downright mean. As a teacher, I wonder if I could have done more to prevent bullying and encourage inclusive play.  I don’t know, but next year I definitely want to be more perceptive, especially during recess duty, of the different groups of children.

Sweethearts is an excellent piece of storytelling.  I haven’t read a book in a while that I so readily connected with, that made me more mindful of my own actions and past, and that made me want to start writing about it before I’ve even finished the book.  The narrative progresses at a natural pace and I thought the end was tied up nicely but not too neatly.  The characters also became very real to me.  I don’t know that a sequel would fit, but I would like to know how Jenna and Cameron are doing twenty years down the road.  Have they gotten past their childhoods and built and strong adult life?

Sweethearts is a good read and I plan to check out Zarr’s other works.

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