Greetings from Nowhere

Barbara O’Connor has quickly become one of my favorite authors. After reading How to Steal a Dog, I began pulling all of her books together in a stack to read. I just finished Greetings from Nowhere and absolutely loved it.

It takes place in a rundown motel in North Carolina. One of the owners has passed away and it is up to an old woman named Aggie to keep the place running. However, with no new people coming to stay at the motel, she has trouble and needs to sell the place. As fate would have it, multiple families are being drawn to the motel for one reason or another. All of these characters lives weave together to tell a story that celebrates life and life’s challenges.

This book connected with my life because as a child, my family went to Cherokee North Carolina on a weekly basis. As I read, I could just picture the sleepy little motel, the places the characters visited, and the lifestyles that each character lived. I love books that celebrate everyday life. I love stories of everyday people who look at life as a journey and don’t worry about the challenges of money.

I thought I would never find an author that speaks to me in a similar way as Kate DiCamillo, but I’ve found one. Barbara O’Connor is a master storyteller and she has a connection with characters that are true to life. She holds nothing back.

Reviewed by Mr. Plemmons

How to Steal a Dog

How to Steal a Dog

By Barbara O’Connor

Published by Scholastic

I must now add Barbara O’Connor to my list of favorite authors.  I had read The Small Adventures of Popeye and Elvis and I had passed by How to Steal a Dog Many Times.  I must admit that I wasn’t drawn to the book because of its cover.  However, when someone told me about the plot, I knew I had to read it!

How to Steal a Dog is about Georgina, Toby, and their mother, a family who lives in their car.  Georgina wants more than anything to live in a real home so that she doesn’t have to wash up in gas stations and create a bedroom with a beach towel hanging from the car roof.  One day, she devises a plan to steal a dog and then bring the dog back to its owner once a reward is offered.  She thinks the reward will be just the amount of money her family needs to move out of the car and into an apartment.  Toby and Georgina seek out the perfect person to steal a dog from, but their plan doesn’t really going like they thought it was going to.

This book is filled with twists and turns, and just like always, Barbara O’Connor challenges us to think about economically disadvantaged people in our society.  She masterfully shines a light on them that breaks through stereotypes.  Each time I read Barbara O’Connor’s books, I connect in some way with the characters and my own life growing up in a trailer in the North Georgia mountains.

This book is a must read!

Reviewed by Mr. Plemmons

Countdown

On March 17th 2009, author Deborah Wiles visited our school.  Her visit supported our narrative writing that every student works on, and she encouraged students to tell their stories.  This school year, her visit has been referenced numerous times in my own lessons, and teachers and students still talk about how much they loved her.  Since her visit, I (and many other teachers) have continued to follow her blog (here and here and here)  about the development of her upcoming novel, Countdown, which will be published in May 2010.  This novel is a part of a trilogy that takes place in the sixties during the Cuban Missle Crisis.  A few weeks ago, I received an email from Deborah Wiles announcing that her novel was now in the “galley” phase, which is an uncorrected proof of the book.  She also said in the email that her publisher, Scholastic, was granting her several copies of the book to send out to readers and that I was one of the lucky few who would get to read the book before it was officially published in May.  I was ecstatic!

I eagerly checked the mail each day hoping that the book had arrived, and during Spring Break it came.  What perfect timing!  I was able to sit each day and savor each page of this brilliant novel.  Are you ready to hear about it?

Countdown follows the main character, Franny, as she faces life in 1962 during a turbulent time in US history.  Franny’s life is filled with interesting characters.  Uncle Otts is still living a war in his mind and keeps the family a bit on edge with his antics.  Franny’s sister is going off to college and seems to have completely disappeared from the family.  Franny’s dad is currently in the military and is always off on various missions, which keeps her mom a bit tense.  Then, there’s Franny’s school friends, who provide her with lots of adventure, but also the feuding that comes with growing up with friends.  While Franny is trying to discover how to make her way through her own life, she’s also having to cope with the inherent fear that has developed in the world due to President Kennedy’s announcement that Russia is sending nuclear missiles to Cuba. The threat of a bomb is always on Franny’s mind, and her school doesn’t help to relieve this fear with their constant reminders of duck and cover drills.  How will Franny learn to heal the conflicts that she has with her friends?  How will she and her family come together during this turbulent time?  Will the United States ever be filled with peace instead of the constant thoughts and fears of war?

In Countdown, Deborah Wiles masterfully weaves a documentary novel that both takes us into the lives of one American family but also helps us to see the fearful history that took place during this time.  As I read, I felt as if I had boarded a time machine and traveled back to the sixties.  I felt the constant fear because as I read I was presented with music, news reports, presidential announcements, and advertisements that brought the thoughts of nuclear attack back to the front of my mind.  Just as I was living Franny’s life with her and enjoying her moments and adventures with her friends and family, an announcement or a duck and cover drill would take place.  I was never able to escape the fear of attack, and this made the novel so much more real.  At the same time, I was also reminded through these same photographs and music of how the rest of the United States was trying to move on with their day-to-day lives and how there were other major events taking place at the exact same time.  This is a must-read novel.  It brings back a time in history that has much relevance to the fears and issues we face today.  What might you learn from this novel?  What might you experience as you take this journey with Franny?

Countdown will be available in bookstores in May.  It will be available in our media center at the beginning of the next school year.  I hope you’ll read it and see how it speaks to you.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Reviewed by Mr. Plemmons

Claudette Colvin

When you think of important figures in black history, who do you think of? Martin Luther King, Jr? Harriet Tubman? Rosa Parks? What about Claudette Colvin? Never heard of her?

Well, I hadn’t either until I read Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose. Long before Rosa Parks took her famous stand on an Alabama bus, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white woman. She was dragged from the bus, kicked, and arrested. Because she was a teenager and from a poor family and neighborhood, the leaders of the civil rights movement did not highlight her case seeing her as an unfit role model. She was shunned by her classmates and ridiculed in the community. Her stand did start the fuel for the famous bus boycott, though. Claudette even spent time with Rosa Parks and had many conversations with her. It was until Rosa Parks did the same thing as Claudette that the actual boycott began. This book showcases her story and tells of her heroism and struggles as well as how her own people turned their back on her.

This book is a “MUST READ” because it brings up the important issue of untold history. We only know what we’ve been told, and thankfully Phillip Hoose took the time to tell this woman’s story. After reading this book, I have a whole different outlook on the civil rights movement and Rosa Parks. It also made me think back to when I was a teenager and how there were times when I felt like nobody was listening to me. I certainly never tried to stand up for something as large as what Claudette stood up for, but it made me remember the importance of listening to every voice no matter how old or experienced.

Claudette Colvin is a hero, and I am so thankful that she stood up for her rights. Even though she did not get the credit that she deserved at the time, I hope this book will shine light on her heroism and write her name into the history books alongside the others who have paved the way in black history.

This book is coming soon to our media center.  Look for it in the next few weeks!

Reviewed by Mr. Plemmons

When You Reach Me

A few years ago I read a book called The Power of Un by Nancy Etchemendy. At the time, I did not consider myself to be a reader of science fiction, but afterward I was hooked. I remember being a little confused throughout the story and constantly picking my brain to figure out what was going on. Since then, I’ve read the story 3-4 more times, and each time I see new clues, new foreshadowing that I didn’t see before.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is that kind of book. It’s a great piece of realistic fiction with some light science fiction woven in. It’s captivating. It’s mysterious. It’s confusing! (but in a good kind of way). It wasn’t until the very last page of the book that I “got it”, and now I want to go back and start reading it all over again.

Miranda, the main character, is a latch key kid who has learned the safety of New York City streets from her mother. Her and her friend Sal do everything together, but suddenly things change when Sal is punched by some kid on the street and Miranda begins receiving mysterious notes that seem like they are from the future. I honestly can’t say much more about the plot without giving something away, but I hope that you can trust that this is an incredible book.

I read most of it aloud to myself and my daughter, and I was in awe at Miranda’s voice. Rebecca Stead captured the consciousness of a sixth grader and created a believable and remarkable character. Rebecca is a strong girl and she learns how to pull the most important things out of life and tie them together just as she ties the string knots taught to her by her mom’s boyfriend, Richard.

This book was very deserving of the Newbery Medal, and I think both kids and adults will enjoy every moment of this book.

Reviewed by Mr. Plemmons

Small Adventures

When I was little, I used to play outside in the creek in front of my house. I would make little boats and sail them down the creek and catch crawdads and keep them in a kiddie tub. My outdoor adventures also took me across the road and into the woods where my Mammaw helped me create what we called the Enchanted Trail. I would spend hours exploring the woods and using my imagination to create all sorts of adventures.

The Small Adventures of Popeye and Elvis by Barbara O’Connor brought all of those memories of the fun I had outdoors back into my mind. Popeye is a child, just like I was, who has to entertain himself. As fate would have it, a rambunctious boy named Elvis and his family get their motor home stuck in the mud, and Elvis and Popeye soon become great friends. When they discover a little boat sailing down the creek made out of Yoo Hoo boxes, a mystery begins to unfold. The Yoo Hoo boat leads them into a series of small adventures to discover where the boat came from and who made it.

This book is filled with great southern characters, which always brings a smile to my face. I also enjoyed how the book introduces lots of interesting vocabulary words. In fact, the word is defined right in the story and then it’s immediately used in a sentence. What a great way to learn some new words!

If you enjoy stories about rambunctious kids, stories about the south, stories about outdoor adventures, stories about creating your own fun, or stories with a small mystery to solve, then this just may be the book for you. I hope you’ll join Popeye and Elvis and take a small adventure with them today.

Reviewed by Mr. Plemmons

Any Which Wall

If you were to stumble upon an object that looked like a Genie’s Lamp, you would know what to do wouldn’t you? You would probably give it a few rubs with your hand and wait for the genie to come rumbling out of the end. He would grant you three wishes with a few conditions attached to them. But….what if you stumbled upon a magical object that you didn’t know the rules for. How would you figure out how it worked? Would you get frustrated and just give up or would you collaborate with your friends to figure it out?

In Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder, Henry, Emma, Roy, and Susan do just that. They discover a magical wall in a field. The wall obviously has rules for how it works, but what are they? Through many different wishes and adventures this team of adventurers work together to unlock the mysteries of the wall, and they meet many interesting characters along the way.

I loved the moments in this story where Laurel Snyder was writing directly to the reader. Within her writing she put out into the open the rules of books and how narratives work. This direct conversation to the reader made me think of Kate DiCamillo’s style of writing in The Tale of Despereaux.

I won’t call this book flawless, because there were a few jumpy moments in the story where the writing quickly sped up to move further into the story, and I felt like we missed some entertaining adventures from the group of kids. However, I really enjoyed this book overall and think that many students would love the adventure, magic, and mystery of this great chapter book.

Reviewed by Mr. Plemmons

A Newbery Honor Delight

When I was little, my Mammaw and I shared many stories and books with one another.  One book that she shared was a book that she had read as a child and fallen in love with called A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter.  I read this book when I was a boy and loved the character, Elnora Comstock.  She was poor but still found joys in life through her explorations of nature.

As I read The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly.  I felt those same feelings and connections that I found in A Girl of the Limberlost.  Calpurnia Tate is a girl growing up in 1899 at the turn of the century.  She is a girl from a wealthy family of debutante traditions.  Calpurnia is the only girl of the family, so her fate seems to be sealed as living the life of a housewife her entire life.  Her grandfather, however, builds a relationship with her that stirs her in other directions.  He is a scientist and explores the natural world with the scientific eye of Charles Darwin.  His laboratory is filled with specimens and experiments, and he teaches Calpurnia how to keep a scientific notebook.  As her relationship with him builds and her curiosities for science grow, Calpurnia begins to question the expectations of her becoming a housewife and yearns to be a university student.  Will she be able to break through the firm traditions of girls being the wife, mother, housekeeper, and cook?  Will she grow as a scientist?  Will her parents honor her greatest wishes in life?  Join Calpurnia in her journeys and thoughts today by reading this book.

I always feel a deep connection with characters who break the molds that have been created for them by past experiences and traditions in their family.  I was the first person in my family to go to college and leave my small hometown of Blue Ridge, GA.  Unlike Calpurnia’s family, my family was very supportive of my efforts, but it was still difficult to go down a different path that what was the norm.  I encourage all readers who read books like these to think about their dreams and what they need to do in order to nurture those dreams and make them a reality.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate recently was recognized with the Newbery Honor for 2010.  For the most part, the writing was very engaging, especially during the times that Calpurnia interacted with her grandfather.  There were a few chapters where we learn more about the family that I thought were a little slow to read.  If you find yourself slowing down with this book, give it a few more pages or even chapters and things will pick back up.  In the end, I was very pleased and satisfied with this read and actually wanted it to keep going.  If you choose to read this book, I would love to hear what you think.

Reviewed by Mr. Plemmons

A Modern Hansel and Gretel


Have you ever wondered what really happened to the witch from Hansel and Gretel? You don’t really think she just disappeared after the story was over do you? Witches have a way of popping back up even when you think they are gone. In The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children, Keith McGowan gives us a modern update on what has happened to the witch in her last couple of hundred years.

The story opens with an excerpt from witch Holaderry’s journal. In it, we learn just how complex of a scheme this witch has in getting children she can cook for dinner. It seems that she makes it very convenient for today’s parents to easily hand over their children for her dining delight. From drop boxes outside movie theaters to her convenient “pick-up” service, Holaderry offers parents many options for handing over their kids. She knows that kids don’t just wander into the woods these days, and she has thought of every possible way to earn a meal.
This story lets us explore the witch’s thoughts through her journal, but it also focuses us in on one brother and sister and their story of trying to escape the clutches of the witch. This book is filled with sarcasm. If you like reading stories like Lois Lowry’s The Willoughbys or Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, then you will most likely enjoy this story. There is a lot of humor that can only be picked up if you are familiar with how sarcasm works.
This story also holds a lot of mystery for the reader to uncover. In fact, the author leaves many pieces of the story unanswered. Some might say that this is poor writing because by the end of the story, there are several loose ends of the plot still dangling in the air. Some readers might enjoy being able to imagine what might have happened to these loose ends, while others might get frustrated with this and not enjoy the story. I invite you to decide for yourself. Overall, I enjoyed reading this story and didn’t mind that there were pieces left untold. I will say that you should be familiar with the tale of Hansel and Gretel and know its German roots before you read this book.

Come check The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children out today and you might just start noticing things in your world that could be part of Holaderry’s plan to capture her evening meal!

Persuasive Podcasts

Ms. Biehl and Ms. Saxon’s second grade Spectrum class have been persuading once again!  After they wrote persuasive letters to me about books that we needed in our media center, they worked with me on writing book reviews in persuasive ways.  We studied the book reviews on School Library Journal, Spaghetti Book Club, and our own media center blog to see what was needed in a book review.  Then, students thought of ways to include persuasion to try to convince people to read the books they were writing about.  They worked on these pieces in their classrooms.  The students came back to the media center once again with their final drafts and recorded their writing as a podcast using Audacity.  The podcasts can be found on our media center webpage under book talks. and they are also linked here.

The Lorax Yoko’s Paper Cranes Beezus and Ramona

Hardy Boys: Ocean of Osyria Cowboy Jose Bad Case of the Stripes

Bubble Gum Bubble Gum Dinosaurs Walked Here Empress of China

I Spy Fantasy Lightning Thief The Little Island

Wild About Books Caps for Sale I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato

Jackalope Merry Christmas Princess Dinosaur Adventures of Daniel Boom

Little Witch’s Black Magic Cookbook Tin Lizzie Zen Ties

John Philip Duck