“Spy Camp” Should Bunk Up with Disney Channel

1 Oct

Spy Camp

Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee Spy Camp by Stuart Gibbs has all the makings of a great Disney Channel sitcom: lots of too-clever kids, a bumbling dad, danger and peril that miraculously never ends in anyone getting killed, and boy-girl chemistry and crushes with no actual romance happening.

There’s no literary ground being broken here, and in fact the book is a sequel to Spy School featuring the same characters. Bur readers definitely don’t need to read the first book to check in to Spy Camp, since the book’s story can stand alone.

The book’s hero, Ben Ripley, is a middle schooler. His parents think he’s attending a science and technology magnet school, but of course, he’s really at a top-secret training facility for future spies. Spy Camp begins with Ben reluctantly packing up for a spy summer camp, but it’s not going to be all s’mores and songs around the campfire.

Before he can even unroll his sleeping bag, Ben gets a letter with a no-win proposition. In the first book, Ben foiled a plot by an enemy spy organization called SPYDER. Now, they’re so impressed with Ben that they have given him two choices — join the enemy agency or die in 24 hours.

Spy Camp is a quick, fun, read with enough action to keep middle-elementary readers engaged. Not surprising, since author Stuart Gibbs is a real-life adventurer who’s climbed Mt. Kilamanjaro, ice-climbed in Patagonia, and faced down a charging elephant. A third book in the Spy School series is already scheduled for publication.

As with the other nominees, the Texas Bluebonnet Awards folks have put together some amazing resources for Spy Camp readers.

“Odette’s Secrets” Lyrical and Hauntingly Lovely

24 Sep

Odette's Secrets

I read Odette’s Secrets in an evening, drawn in by it’s lyrical prose and unique perspective on a child survivor of the Holocaust, and found Maryann Macdonald’s novel deserving of a spot on the shelf next to Number the Stars if not quite Anne Frank.

The book is inspired by the real life of Odette Meyers, a young Jewish girl growing up in Paris whose father is taken away to the Nazi work camps. Her mother joins the resistance, and sends Odette to live in the French Countryside, where she pretends to be Catholic and lives with a family there.

The book is written in free verse, all in the voice of Odette, which means it looks at the horrors of the Holocaust through the lens of a child’s innocence. Odette’s family was culturally Jewish but not religious, and she is charmed by the rituals of the Catholic school she hides in, even as she wrestles with what it means to be Jewish.

After I gave a book talk on it to my class, I was surprised to see one of my boys who usually gravitates towards NBA player biographies had checked out Odette’s Secrets for his Readers’ Workshop selection. For the next few days, it was in his hands every time he had a free second — I would catch him with it in his lap, sneaking looks at it even when he was supposed to be doing other things.

I never once considered stopping him. When a basketball-playing boy from Texas is connecting with a girl of the Holocaust through a novel written in poetry, that is a sacred space.

More resources about Odette’s Secrets can be found here.

Diving into “The Neptune Project”

15 Sep

The Neptune Project

Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee The Neptune Project left me with a funny taste in my mouth, and not just from imagining the fish-flavored power bars the genetically altered children eat as they adjust to life underwater.

Overall, the book is an extremely captivating read. Author Polly Holyoke has created a clever new twist on the dystopian novel by setting it underwater. A group of children discover early in the book that their parents allowed them to be genetically altered with fish genes that allow them to escape the Orwellian chaos above ground and create a new world as the first humans to live under the sea.

Nere, the book’s protagonist, has always wondered why her eyes don’t see well on land, and why a short run has her wheezing. She finds out when her mother tells her that thanks to some fancy gene-splicing, she’s been growing in readiness for her transformation. Obviously, Nere has some mixed feelings about this. She loves the dolphins she’s been training all her life, but she is still resentful at being a real-life little mermaid experiment.

If the book had stuck to that theme, as Nere battles her feelings about her parents and the project and must become a leader to the group of similarly-spliced children as they escape from both sharks and human predators, I would have been thrilled with its inclusion as a Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee.

But Nere is also caught in the middle of a developing love triangle between  Dai, the loner renegade of the undersea group, and Tobin, the group’s caring and gentle medic. In one scene towards the end, she swims off with Dai for what turns to a session of kissing in the reef. Dai gets a little too rough, and has to break away to chill his gills, and this great read suddenly turns into 50 shades of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen.

Being a Bluebonnet nominee means this book is being talked up in nearly every elementary-school library in the state, and therein lies my problem. The love interest sub-plot isn’t necessary for the story, and really doesn’t need to be part of a book targeted to elementary schoolers. A crush is one thing. Getting crushed up against the reef by an uncontrolled kiss is another, and it will keep me from enthusiastically recommending this one to my 4th graders.

For older grades, though, the book has lots to recommend, and the Bluebonnet Award committee has put together some great links and resources for students whose appetite for more infomation is whetted — or “wetted” — by the undersea adventure.

The Neptune Project Resource Page

Holy Bagumba! Kate DiCamillo Pens Another Winner

13 Sep

Flora & Ulysses

Ulysses the squirrel’s day is off to a sucky start — thanks a super-powered vacuum that has run amok and pulled him in tail first. Fortunately for him, Flora, a quirky lover of comic books and a self-proclaimed cynic, is watching out the window and rushes to administer mouth-to-squirrel resuscitation.

When Ulysses comes to, he has incredible new superpowers and a new friend for life. He also has a new arch-nemesis, Flora’s mother, who says her daughter’s furry friend has to go. But a squirrel with super-strength, flying abilities, and a penchant for writing poetry is not easily vanquished.

DiCamillo, best known for the Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn-Dixie, won the 2014 Newbury Award for Flora & Ulysses, a hilarious and smart book targeted to readers in grades 4-6. The rich vocabulary makes it a challenging independent read for some students in this age group, but it makes a great read-aloud. I giggled as much as my 4th-grade students when we were reading, and by the end of the book, we had all added “Holy Bagumba!” to our classroom lexicon.

The book is one of the 2014-1015 Texas Bluebonnet Award nominees, and the award committee has compiled a great list of resources and recommendations to help your readers get even more out of the book.  Check them out here: Flora & Ulysses Bluebonnet Page.

Scholastic, I Don’t Know If We Can Be BFFs

21 Feb

One of my favorite things about elementary school, besides the fact that the paste in the ’70s tasted like mint, was getting the Scholastic book order forms. I would pore over the catalog, optimistically marking a dozen books. My parents would wheedle me down to two or three favorites, and then, we would wait.

Book order day was like having Christmas in the classroom. Nothing smells quite like a new book — scented with just-dried ink and a whiff of adventure.

As a teacher, I still love the Scholastic order forms. My students can’t all afford to buy books, but every month, Scholastic catalogs offer a $1 book, and I always buy a class set so we can explore a new book together.

This month, I was especially excited to get a catalog  featuring just books on math and science.

Until I saw this:

Girls who like math are nwe

Girls who like math are nerds. Girls who twirl batons are ditzy!

“The Clueless Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Genius.”

Because, you know, the way we need to market science and math to girls is by offering not an experiment kit or a calculator, but two sparkly  “BFF” necklaces.  And the girl who is into math is a “nerd,” while the girl who twirls batons is a “ditz.” Because apparently smart girls are unattractive nerds and pretty girls are stupid.

(I did find part of the advertisement helpful, though — the warning about a choking hazard. Because I was like, totally fighting a gag reflex.)

An educational publishing powerhouse like Scholastic can do better for our girls.  Better than a catalog that only offers biographies of Einstein and the Wright Brothers. Better than the book and LEGO sets for boys “teaming up to save the world,”  while the ones for girls invite you to “adopt a pet, go camping, plan a surprise party.”

The catalog offers plenty of great books to stir interest in STEM for boys and girls. I’ll still spend way more money than I should, and I will still think “new book day,” is the best day of the month.

But Scholastic, if we’re going to be BFFs, maybe you need to read “The Clueless Publishing House’s Guide to Being a Genius,” and give girls something challenging to wrap their brains around instead of something sparkly to wrap around their necks.

“Into the Woods” Definitely A Trip Worth Taking

18 Feb
Full disclosure: we are a family of musical theater nerds, and were delighted when the Woodlawn Theatre invited us to be their guests at a showing of “Into the Woods.”
Photo credit: Siggi Ragnar

Photo credit: Siggi Ragnar

Tight musical harmonies, magical sets, and one of Stephen Sondheim’s most accessible works come to life in San Antonio’s historic Woodlawn Theatre — and they all add up to a don’t-miss local theater performance.

The story pours the traditional fairy tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Rising Hood and Jack in the Beanstalk into a witches cauldron, and stirs them up with a hearty shaking of social commentary and adult humor that looks at the dark side of happily ever after.

All the actors’ performances are solid, but Megan DeYoung’s turn as the Wicked Witch was truly spectacular, and had the audience laughing during her cleverly subversive rap of the “Witches Entrance,” while sighing at the emotional punch of  “Stay with Me,” and “Children Will Listen.” Trevor Chauvin hits the perfect note as Jack, and his “Giants in the Sky,” was a definite high point.

The Woodlawn Theatre itself is rich in history — John Wayne himself hosted the premiere of “The Alamo” there in 1960, and this gem of San Antonio’s Deco District is being lovingly restored bit by bit to its former glory. If you haven’t been down yet to see a show, make the trip for this one.

Into the Woods  runs this through March 16. Tickets are on sale now at www.woodlawntheatre.org or by calling the box office at 210-267-8388. Show times are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sundays 3 pm. Tickets cost $15 – $23 with discounts for students, military and SATCO members. Go on a Saturday night, and hang out in the lobby lounge afterwards for “Broadway Nights,” featuring local singers taking their turn in the spotlight. Feel brave enough, and you can bring your own sheet music and sign up for a turn at the mic.

Lee Ann

31 Jan

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The first thing you should know is that she would be really mad at me for posting this picture.

She was so reticent about sharing pictures that our circle of close friends, who first met on a cooking website, had a running joke that all this time we were picturing her as a genteel blonde New Englander, she was probably really a sassy black soul-sister. I’ve known her more than a decade and I have seen exactly six pictures of her, and four of them were taken with my camera.

The second thing you should know is I will never not miss my friend Lee Ann.

In all the years I have known her, talking almost every day, she has made me laugh more times than I can count. She has prayed with me, cried with me, cussed with me, rolled her eyes with me, had my back, set me straight, listened to my stories, shared hers, given me advice, told me I didn’t need advice, asked me for help, offered me help, and gotten dinner on my table by sharing her recipes.

If you know Lee Ann from her blog, Elle’s New England Kitchen, you already know she can cook. She would do her own “Chopped” challenges, and I would have loved to see her on the show, all gentle sweetness and light and brilliance until someone crossed her. Then, she would unleash one of her completely unexpected zingers that would leave her opponent shell-shocked and everyone else rolling on the floor.

Lee Ann and I met on a cooking website when we were young moms. I went there to find out how long I needed to boil eggs. I left there with friends I know I will have for all my life.  In the years that have passed, we have been there for each other through the birth of children and the loss of them, the death of parents, new jobs, lost jobs, marriages beginning and ending. We are spread out over four countries, and if you looked at all the different life stages, personalities, political and religious beliefs you would think “no way are they friends.”

But we are, and Lee Ann was at the heart of that friendship. She had four precious children of her own, and she mothered us, too. She was the kind of friend you hope to grow up to be. When I read through our private emails and conversations with me, I realized none of them were about her. They were all about another one of our friends, someone she was worried about, hurting for, wanting to help.

With her death, I have seen this week the strength of what she has built as her friends solider up to help her family, and comfort each other. And yes, sometimes in the midst of it, we have unleashed zingers that leave everyone laughing until our sides hurt. Because above all else, Lee Ann brought joy.

She loved snow, and she gave me Sarah McLaughlan’s “Wintersong” album. As I played it yesterday, the lyrics settled in my heart like a blanket.

“This is how I see you
In the snow on Christmas morning
Love and happiness surround you
As you throw your arms up to the sky
I keep this moment by and by.”
***
Until we meet again, my precious friend.
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