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“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.

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