Monday, November 30, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: MINRS

The premise of this book caught my attention. I haven’t read many middle grade novels where kids have to survive underground without any adults. I was also intrigued to find out more about the science and technology of mining in space.

Description from Amazon:
A twelve-year-old boy and his friends must find a way to survive in the mining tunnels after their new space colony is attacked in this gritty action-adventure novel.

In space. Underground. And out of time.

Twelve-year-old Christopher Nichols lives on an asteroid. Earth has been mined to the edge of extinction. Dozen of families, including Christopher’s, have relocated to space to work as miners for terraforming companies.

Then a Blackout hits and the colonists lose communication with Earth. Which means they are on their own when they are ruthlessly attacked.

Now in a race against time, Christopher, along with a small group of survivors, are forced into the maze of mining tunnels. The kids run. They hide. But can they survive?

MINRS was written by Kevin Sylvester and published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division in 2015.

My Take:

This book is fast-paced with lots of action and plot twists. Christopher Nichols is an interesting character who takes on responsibility and learns to become a leader, while struggling to maintain his friendships. I really liked the way the characters all had different reactions to the trouble they were facing – it brought a lot of realism to the story. I also enjoyed the strong female characters who helped question Christopher’s leadership and change the direction of the story. 

As a writer, it was interesting to think about how the information about science and space was blended into the plot without it being too obvious. This was also a good example to study to see how to keep the plot moving along at a good pace.

Opening Line:

“The Earth blinked, and was gone.”


“I held the book against my chest, hugging it. I’d come so close to throwing it away.”

“But I held out hope that if we could just get through this, get through the horror, then we’d be friends again.”

“My dad liked to call me a genius, but I knew I wasn’t, not really.”

Other Info:

Kevin Sylvester is the author of the popular
Neil Flambé series, which also includes some of his drawings, as well as several non-fiction books. He lives in Toronto.

While MINRS doesn’t contain illustrations, the author did make some drawings to help with the writing process, which you can look at on his blog, including a sketch of the disrupter.  

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Learning from Picture Books: MEERKAT MAIL

Even though I mostly review recent picture books, when I saw this in the library I had to pick it up, fondly remembering visits to the meerkat exhibit at the zoo.  And then I discovered it contained postcards! A lot of fun.

Summary from
Stay safe, stay together!

Sunny the meerkat lives with his enormous family in the Kalahari desert. They are all very close . . . so close, in fact, that one day Sunny decides he's had enough and packs his bags. He's off to visit his mongoose cousins. But from the watery world of the Marsh Mongoose to the nocturnal lifestyle of the Malagasy Mongoose, Sunny just doesn't fit in. And who's that shadowy figure who seems to be following him around?

Meerkat Mail was written and illustrated by Emily Gravett. It was published by Macmillan Children’s Books in 2006.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

The cover is so intriguing, since it looks like a paper-wrapped parcel. The endpages are covered with meerkat family photos and news clippings. And I love the line and gesture in the meerkats.

As for the writing, it’s a fun concept to have Sunny leaving home and sending postcards back from really interesting places. It would’ve been even more fun if there was more information about the different animals he visited to add another element for learning, but I enjoyed reading his messages to his family.  

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This book is useful for so many things! It’s a good introduction to the idea of postcards and kids will love lifting the flaps. It’s also a great lead in to discussion about different kinds of families and homes and their differences (and maybe similarities). This would also be nice to pair with some non-fiction texts about meerkats and to talk about habitats.  

Themes: nature, family, mail,
Ages: 4 – 8
Grades: preschool – grade 3
Follow-Up Activities:
  • Research a place you’d like to visit and write a postcard!
  • Find out more about meerkats and their habitats. Where do they live? What do they eat?
  • Discuss: Would you ever want to leave home? Why or why not?
  • Write a story or draw a picture about setting off on an adventure. What would you bring?

To find more great picture books to read or to use in your classroom, visit author Susanna Leonard Hill's website for her theme-based summary of Perfect Picture Books posted by book-loving bloggers on Perfect Picture Book Friday.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: CONNECT THE STARS

I like survival stories, and this one was unique because it took place in a desert.

Description from Amazon:

When thirteen-year-olds Aaron and Audrey meet at a wilderness camp in the desert, they think their quirks are enough to prevent them from ever having friends. But as they trek through the challenging and unforgiving landscape, they learn that they each have what it takes to make the other whole.

Luminous and clever, Connect the Stars takes on some hefty topics of the day—bullying, understanding where you fit in, and learning to live with physical and mental challenges—all in a joyous adventure kids will love!

Connect the Stars was written by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague and published by Harper Collins in 2015.

My Take:

I really enjoyed the wilderness survival aspect of this story. I’ve never thought about what it would be like to survive in a desert before, and wondering what would happen kept me turning the pages. The story is told by two different main characters, Aaron and Audrey, who each have an interesting “super” ability that has made life difficult for them with friends and school. I liked the characters and was rooting for them to sort out their issues, which included dealing with bullies, feeling like they didn’t have any friends and figuring out to live with their abilities.

From a writing perspective, I liked the way the authors blended in information about the desert and the sensations the characters were feeling. The dialogue and perspectives of the two different main characters seemed realistic.

Opening Line:

“I was thirteen years old, and I could have written a book on lying.”


“I breathed in the air. It was clean. And clear. And smelled of something sharp and exciting, like a city on a spring day when you ride the school bus to visit the science museum.”

“Thinking is a lot harder than knowing.”

“I could tell that everything wasn’t really okay between me and the others, but every time I opened my mouth to speak, it was like all the words I could think of to say turned to dust on my tongue.”

Other Info:

Marisa de los Santos and David Teague are married. This is their second middle grade novel. They previously wrote Saving Lucas Biggs together. Marisa de los Santos also writes adult fiction. David Teague writes picture books, including Franklin’s Big Dreams.

For another take on this book, check out these thoughts from This Kid Reviews Books:  Review! Connect the Stars by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Learning from Picture Books -- THIS MOOSE BELONGS TO ME

An interesting story that hits on an issue I see a lot of in my kindergarten class – what if your friend doesn't go along with what you want to do?

Summary from

Wilfred is a boy with rules. He lives a very orderly life. It's fortunate, then, that he has a pet who abides by rules, such as not making noise while Wilfred educates him on his record collection. There is, however, one rule that Wilfred's pet has difficulty following: Going whichever way Wilfred wants to go. Perhaps this is because Wilfred's pet doesn't quite realize that he belongs to anyone.

A moose can be obstinate in such ways.

Fortunately, the two manage to work out a compromise. Let's just say it involves apples.

This Moose Belongs to Me was written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. It was published by Philomel Books in 2012.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

I really loved the way Wilfred’s rules became part of the story. The scene where Wilfred claims the moose really shows Wilfred’s personality. This a great example of a picture book where the story told in the illustrations is different and even opposite to the one told by the text.  

Using real paintings as a backdrop in the illustrations layered with a more modern digital techiques was interested. I loved the way Wilfred’s clothing and bowtie fit with his somewhat rigid view of the moose and their relationship at the beginning of the story.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This book would be a good one for introducing a discussion about compromise, how friends may have different expectations about play, and how an individual cannot control another person’s behavior. It would also be wonderful for discussing the relationship between humans and wild animals.  

Themes: nature, compromise, friendship

Ages: 4 – 8

Grades: K- grade 3

Follow-Up Activities:
  • Make a list of  ways that the moose does and does not act like a “pet”, or the way Wilfred expected.
  • What do you think of Wilfred’s rules? Discuss. Create you own list of rules for having a pet.
  • Do some research about moose. Where do they live? What do they eat?
  • Draw a picture or write about your favorite page in the story.
  • Paint a landscape that shows the habitat for your favorite animal.

To find more great picture books to read or to use in your classroom, visit author Susanna Leonard Hill's website for her theme-based summary of Perfect Picture Books posted by book-loving bloggers on Perfect Picture Book Friday.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH

Just a warning -- this is a sad book that may make you feel like crying. I read this one as an e-book from my local library.

Description from Amazon:
After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy was a rare jellyfish sting. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory--even if it means traveling the globe, alone. Suzy's achingly heartfelt journey explores life, death, the astonishing wonder of the universe...and the potential for love and hope right next door.

The Thing About Jellyfish was written by Ali Benjamin and published by Little, Brown and Company in 2015.

My Take:

If you like stories that make you feel a lot of emotion, this is a good choice. I found it quite sad. The difficulties of friendships and fitting in during middle school are portrayed realistically. Suzy had an interesting character. One of the things I liked most about this novel was the integration of scientific facts and information about jellyfish.

As a writer, I also admired the way the author used language to show the pain that Suzy was feeling. It’s a good example of a story where a character undergoes an emotional transformation.

Opening Line:

“A jellyfish, if you watch it long enough, begins to look like a heart beating.”


“During the first three weeks of seventh grade, I’d learned one thing above all else: A person can become invisible by staying quiet.”

“I liked that so many things were out there, waiting to be known.”

“Over time, as people forget you, your silhouette gradually fades into darkness until the final time anyone says your name on this planet. That’s when your very last feature—the freckled tip of your nose, or the heart-top bubble of your lips—fades for good.”

Other Info:

As a child, Ali Benjamin spent many hours catching bugs and frogs. Her love of nature is what inspired The Thing About Jellyfish.