Chiller Book Clubs–Yes, I Went There

I’m with the kids–dolls are scary!

My school’s PTO is paying to have Johnathan Rand, the author of two insanely popular series (Michigan Chillers and American Chillers), visit our school in March.  Rand’s books have been a staple of independent reading in my classroom for several years, and a few of my students were excited to hear that he was stopping by.  And (as I do) I started thinking about how we rarely have author visits, and how it would be nice to really get kids revved up.  The short version–our principal coughed up the money for some small sets of Chillers, and now my class has begun a short book club experience.  I was not excited, because while I see the appeal of these series for many students…they’re just not my thing.

Thank goodness I ignored my personal tastes, because boy howdy!  Virtually every student is tearing through their books.  We had our first, very informal book club meeting today (they got the books Monday) and kids had their heads together, engrossed in conversations about main characters, opening books to share parts and arguing over the scariness factor (consensus is that monsters aren’t scary, but dolls that come alive are pretty creepy).

Yeah, I know.  We aren’t exactly hitting the complex texts with those close and critical reading lenses here.  But at the beginning of the year, most of the kids in this class self-identified as reluctant readers (and most of the parents identified their kids the same way).  So to see them engaged enough to argue about how big the ogre really could be, or whether the main character is too stupid to survive, is AWESOME.  So what if no Chillers made it into the appendices of CCSS?  We’re digging them up in Room 116!


Bad Kitty and New Teaching Assignments

A couple of weeks ago, I was informed that I would be moving from 5th grade to teaching a 3rd/4th split class next year.  This is my second split (the first was a 4/5) and my first time teaching third grade.  With change comes challenge and opportunity and…a new direction in my reading life!  I’ve been weeding through my classroom library, pulling higher level titles and crying a little about it, but now it is time to fill that void with great books for younger readers.  So I’ve been cruising the blogosphere, chatting with kids and colleagues, and even perusing the shelves of my local bookstore.  And here is my inaugeral “third grade” read to kick off a summer of early middle grade reading!

Bad Kitty Gets a Bath

Author:  Nick Bruel

This is my first Bad Kitty book, though there are several.  It was a fun blend of writing and illustration, written like a humorous “how-to” informational text.  Kitty really doesn’t like to get a bath.  Really.  I was imagining reading some parts to a class, thinking about how they’d crack up, and by the end of the book I knew I’d be purchasing the series for my classroom library.

Looking through a second time, I could see a lot of potential for writers workshop focus lessons, too.  Use of text features like labels and a glossary, lots of different text types, rich punctuation…and I just know kids will be all over these books.  Good times ahead with Bad Kitty!

Tag! You’re It–Poetry Style.

You know how sometimes you are just link-chasing?  Maybe you start at one blog, that references another blog, that has a list of links, and so on, and so on…and then you find something really cool?  Okay, so most of the time I’m just chasing my internet tail, but last week, I actually did find something cool–Poetry Tag Time, edited by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong.  Here’s the set-up:  one poet starts with a poem, then tags another poet.  The second poet takes inspiration from the first poet’s work, and writes their own poem, then tags a third poet, who takes inspiration from the second poet’s work, and so it goes until…well, forever or until you stop, I suppose.

This only comes as an e-book, which I downloaded and found totally delightful.  Each tagged poet not only contributes, but writes a blurb kind of explaining what it was that inspired them from the previous poem.  How fun is that?  Poem by poem, I could just tell that these authors were having fun, and I’m keen to try something like this in my classroom–hey, it’s poetry month, after all!

But it’s a classic!

Call It Courage

Author:  Armstrong Sperry

I’ve always been a bit leery of dragging my own childhood favorites out and trying to push them on my students.  Partly because I worry that I may have a romanticized memory of the quality of certain titles.  Partly because I’ve seen other teachers rely heavily on the idea that “classic” equals good or better or best.  But some stories do endure–I’ve had lots of success with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for instance.  So I’ve been toying with the idea of occasionally looking back to try and find other titles from years gone by that might be worth promoting or utilizing in my classroom.

Call It Courage just isn’t going to be one of those titles.  I remember enjoying it as a kid, and it is not entirely a bad book.  The idea of a South Seas youth who, after tragedy strikes, is afraid of the sea and yet must conquer that fear, would still appeal.  The boy, Mafatu, ends up in a man vs. nature situation, gets chased by cannibals, but ultimately triumphs.  It was a good book in its day.

But it does not endure, in my opinion, as a middle grade adventure.  As I read it, my mind kept making comparisons to two other books that tell similar coming-of-age tales.  Written about 20 years after Call It Courage, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George seems a much more compelling story with finer detail of how the main character survives on his own.  Even better, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen is highly engaging from the very first page and does a much better job of revealing the main character’s inner journey as the plot unfolds.  I’ve re-read all three of these books in the past couple of years, and I would never recommend Call It Courage above either of these similar titles.  I would promote it to a reader who has read the others and is looking for similar stories, though, and I expect it will always have a place in my classroom library.

Part of me mourns a little as I look back on this post–my inner 10-year-old, I suppose.   But hey… “they don’t make ’em like they used to” may apply to children’s literature as it often applies to, say, toasters or cars, just in reverse.  And I am definitely keen to continue rereading and exploring the uses of more “classics” with the hope it will not become a festival of sacred cow slaughter.

Deep and Dark and Dangerous and IWishI’dReadItDuringTheDay!

Deep and Dark and Dangerous

Author:  Mary Downing Hahn

Creepy bit:

“One painting leaned against the easel.  In black paint and large clumsy letters, someone had scrawled:  “I’m watching you.  Tell the truth.  Or else.” Emma clutched her mother’s hand and pointed at the painting. ‘Bones,’ she whispered. ‘There’s bones at the bottom.’  I drew in my breath.  She was right.  In the painting’s lower right-hand corner, in the darkest part, was a small, clumsily drawn skeleton.” (p. 80)

I did not want to read Deep and Dark and Dangerous.  I have a few books by this author in my classroom library, all picked up at school book fairs, though I don’t usually enjoy thriller/chiller books, even at the middle grade level.  But one of my students loves Mary Downing Hahn’s books and kept encouraging me to give her a try.

So I did.  At night, which was silly.  Because this book is about as creep-tastic as I’d want a middle grade book to be.  The story centers around a girl who discovers a terrible family secret after going away with her aunt for the summer to a remote cottage in Maine.  I feel like saying much more would be spoiler-ish, because part of the fun of this sort of story is the suspense-building, and Hahn is pretty good at that.  There are just enough clues so that a sharp reader will see where the plot is going, and the twists in the plot made the scary parts acceptable for an upper el or middle school reader as the story progresses.  If I enjoyed being scared, then this book would be a good read.  I just don’t, though!

The good news is that I now know what to do with these scary stories by Mary Downing Hahn.  This story came in around 4.0-ish as far as reading level, and I can see using her books as a bridge out of the American Chillers/Goosebumps books that some of my readers get stuck in.  Don’t get me wrong, these series have an important place, but they are endless and some kids just get, well…stuck there long after they are ready to bridge out to other reading.  Hahn may work for some of them, with lots of suspense that manages to end in a way that won’t give a kid nightmares.  Probably.

Not-So-Bad Island

Bad Island

Author:  Doug TenNapel

A family boat vacation gone WAAAY wrong is the premise for Bad Island.  Storm, boat crash, and one really bad island ensue.  Like Ghostopolis before it, Bad Island has graphics that I know will appeal to my fifth grade readers, and the relationships between family members will be easy for those same readers to relate to.  My favorite character is the younger sister, who has a pet snake that she sneaks on vacation and keeps close, even after the thing is dead and smelly.  I suspect that many of my students will like the monsters best–yeah, Bad Island is full of monsters.  Surprise.

Laundry Schmaundry–Let’s Read Instead

“I wish I belonged somewhere.”  p. 351


Creator:  Brian Selznick

Instead of doing laundry, or “correcting” papers, or several other practical sorts of things, I spent the early evening reading Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick.  I remember enjoying The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and thinking it was interesting in structure…but I didn’t love it, innovative though it clearly was.  But I really, really liked Wonderstruck, and read it straight through.  Selznick uses both text and pictures to shape the novel in much the same way he did in Hugo Cabret.  This time the stories of two people, seemingly separated by many decades, become intertwined.  Rose is a deaf girl frustrated by the overly protective life her parents insist on as she grows up near the end of the silent film era.  Ben is just a boy in the mid-1970s when his mother dies and he is subsequently struck by lightning and loses his hearing.  Slowly their stories come together until they eventually meet and have a surprising connection to one another.

So Selznick’s genius is in using his illustrations not to enhance the text, but as an integral part of the story–it simply could not be told without the illustrations, which act like a silent movie, telling the bulk of Rose’s story in parallel to Ben’s.  Because the illustrations take up so much page-space, the book is huge, just like Hugo Cabret, but the full story is not particularly long as middle grade novels go (the level clocks in around 4.6ish).  But really what I like about Wonderstruck, what made it work for me as a reader, is that the characters feel so rich.  Ben and Rose are each lost in their own ways, each searching and yearning, and I quickly found myself right their with them in their struggles.  And that’s what makes a story for me, regardless of structure.

I am totally planning this as my next read aloud.  I’ve been toying with maybe trying a graphic novel as a read aloud, what with the fancy document camera and interactive whiteboard I’m fortunate enough to employ in my classroom.  I’ve done picture books and other short text this way, but this will be my first whole novel “on the big screen”.  I think the students will find the main characters compelling, and those same characters will provide us with many and varied opportunities for practice making inferences, which is something we always need.  I won’t be done with my current read aloud for a couple more weeks, and I’ll be counting the days until my whole class can get Wonderstruck along with me.

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