Cool Time Travel and Animals That Don’t Talk–Hooray!

The Secret Zoo

Author:  Bryan Chick

I knew from the first twenty pages that The Secret Zoo will be a big hit with my fifth grade readers.  Lots of action, some magic, animals…its like the middle grade reader trifecta!  And coming in at a 4.7ish reading level, it is accessible to most students who I teach.  Here’s the deal.  Noah’s sister Megan disappears, and he and his two BFFs get mysterious clues that lead them to the zoo next to Noah’s house.  They are befriended by zoo animals and discover a–you guessed it–secret zoo in their quest to find the missing Megan.

My favorite thing about this book is that the animals are clearly special, magical even, but they don’t talk.  Instead, they find other ways to communicate.  I’ve always had a bit of a hard time with the talking animals bit, but Chick does a credible job giving the animals some character without totally humanizing them.

For Writers Workshop–Chick uses plenty of onomatopoeia, with cool sounds like thap, crraaaccckkk, and skrrackkk, and my favorite, the monkey patrols hollering “Oou!  Oou!  Oou!”  Great examples of sound words!

For Readers Workshop–Well…honestly, the character development is a bit sparse, and I wouldn’t say there are strong themes that stand out.  But this is the kind of book that gets kids reading, which makes it gold for many readers.  I can really see getting some reluctant readers drawn in, because the story starts right away with action.  There’s an important place for plot-driven books in my classroom library, and this book fits in that spot.  And here’s the best part–it’s the beginning of a series.  Woot!  The second has already been published, and I’ll be picking that up before school starts in September.

When You Reach Me

Author:  Rebecca Stead

First off, like about a kajillion people, I have read and loved Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.  So finding that the main character of When You Reach Me loves the same story made this book extra enjoyable for me.  Miranda can’t understand why her friend Sal doesn’t want to be friends anymore.  This would be stressful enough, but then she starts getting these weird notes telling her to do certain things, and to write down all the details of what has been happening in her life in order to help prevent something terrible that will happen in the future.  Stead does a fine job developing the main character, and does that thing I love, blending a bit of science fiction into realistic fiction, which makes it feel more possible.

For Readers Workshop:  While this book is working a 4.9ish reading level, I would look for more sophisticated readers to recommend the story to, mainly because the story doesn’t develop in obvious and predictable ways.  The characters motivations become clear over time, but you have to wait and think some.  And that is the great part–this book has some complexity in terms of plot and character relationships, but isn’t built on big vocabulary.  I think my readers will have to work a little, to reach for some of the meaning, and I kind of love that–seemingly small details eventually become meaningful over the course of the story, which makes this a perfect sort of book for fifth grade. This is another of my summer reads that will be on my book club list for the coming school year.

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