Tag Archives: high-interest

Themed Third Thursday: This is Series-ous

As school wraps up in the next couple of weeks, there are the long days of summer stretching ahead of most families. While I hate to suggest that you force daily education down your children’s throats in their downtime, I do strongly suggest you get them interested in a good book! Sometimes, though, kids read one book they like and then fizzle out, and that’s no good. If a kid gets hooked on a series, however, you’ve got picking a book made simple! Here you will find a great variety of series for a great variety of kids!

Cat the CatCat the Cat and Elephant & Piggie books, by Mo Willems (preschool/early elementary): I reviewed these series in a previous post about Mo Willems’ works. While the Cat the Cat books provide great verbal practice and plenty of repetition, the Elephant & Piggie books provide a fabulous chance to practice expression (both the verbal sort and the facial sort). Both make fantastic read-alouds for preschoolers and up, and both are good starter books for independent readers. The Cat the Cat series is a bit simpler than the Elephant & Piggie books, almost like Dick and Jane (with the limited, repetitive, rhyming vocabulary) but TONS more fun! I personally prefer the Elephant & Piggie books, Elephant & Piggieprobably because I love to read aloud dramatically, and Elephant Gerald is just so dramatic! It’s also a great series for shared reading since the books typically feature just the two characters, and all the words are either spoken dialogue or sound effects (and color coded so it’s easy for the readers to know which line belongs to which reader). These are perfect first series books for early readers!

Fancy NancyFancy Nancy, by Jane O’Connor (preschool to middle elementary): Fancy Nancy stars in books from picture books to early leveled readers to stories for middle elementary readers. Fancy Nancy not only likes a lot of glitz and embellishment in her appearance, but she loves to use fancy words, too! (She defines each of her “fancy” words in parentheses after she uses one, so that helps with comprehension if your reader’s vocabulary isn’t the same as Nancy’s.) Great for celebrating chronic girliness and a well-developed vocabulary, these books appeal strongly to little girls like GirlChild who have a bigger vocabulary than they know what to do with but still love the glitter and sparkle of dress-up and decor. (The website, in addition to having lists of the books and printables for crafts and word activities, also has a great page of tips for the adults of aspiring Nancys with entries about planning birthday parties, tea parties, sleepovers, and encouraging reading.)

Junie B. Jones, by Barbara Park Junie B. Jones(early elementary): I have to start with this caveat: Junie B. is a terrible role model! Her grammar is iffy, her vocabulary is often impolite (she uses “stupid” and “hate,” if you’re concerned about your child picking up such things), and her behavior is something not to be emulated. I personally wouldn’t turn GirlChild loose with these books at this point just because we’d be less likely to discuss the implications of Junie B.’s choices (and it must always be Junie B.!), and GirlChild is kind of into pushing the boundaries right now, but they really are kind of hilarious books. Junie B. is like a less-responsible Ramona Quimby (and I would definitely suggest the Ramona books as a series, too–GirlChild just finished reading them and then listening to them on audiobook this year!), and everything is told from her point of view, so you can almost see why she would say or do the outrageous things that she says and does! (I actually read Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business to my third-graders to help announce my pregnancy with GirlChild way back when!) Once you’ve established that your child isn’t going to be easily led astray by Junie B.’s example, I think you’re safe to let your reader enjoy her! (Although Junie B. is in kindergarten and first grade in these books, many of my fifth graders actually loved reading about her! I think age and perspective enhances the humor since an older reader isn’t in the middle of the kindergarten angst that Junie B. is living in her stories, and the fact that they’re a quick and easy read made them attractive as well.)

Fly GuyFly Guy books, by Tedd Arnold (early elementary): My first Tedd Arnold book was Green Wilma, but I had a good collection of Fly Guy books in my classroom when I taught third grade! Completely silly, easy to read, and complete with covers that catch the eye, these are the kind of easy reader that older kids aren’t embarrassed to be seen reading but aren’t intimidating to younger readers. I have to note that GirlChild refuses to read any of these books because she thinks flies are gross, so you might want to save this suggestion for the less squeamish among your young readers. They would probably appeal to the same sort of kids who would like Jon Sciesczka or Dav Pilkey later in life…

Young Cam Jansen mysteries, by David A. Adler Young Cam Jansen(early elementary): The Cam Jansen books with which I’m most familiar are written for older kids (Cam is starting fifth grade in one of them, and they’re recommended for grades 2-5), but this series is just perfect for early elementary readers. Cam (her nickname, based on “Camera,” because of her photographic memory) and her friend Eric solve simple mysteries based on observation and memory. This series has an Easy Reader Level of 3 (transitional reader), and the Guided Reading range is J-M. Because of the nonthreatening mysteries and Cam’s tendency to talk through the clues, young readers can feel like they have mystery-solving skills and might even work on their observational skills in real life! In addition to the books in the Young Cam Jansen series, the original series can help extend an interested reader’s book list once they have become more confident readers.

LuluLulu books, by Hilary McKay (early to middle elementary): Lulu is “famous for animals”; her cousin, Mellie, is famous for losing things (among other things). They are both in Class Three (3rd grade, perhaps?) at school. (The author is British, and the school is presumably also in the UK.) Lulu’s parents have rules about her pets (pretty much that she can have as many animals as she wants as long as she cleans up after them), and her teacher does, too: No. More! (She’s not really an animal person.) Each book in this series is about Lulu having an animal adventure either with her own pets or an animal she finds. The author has also written a series about animals that features a boy protagonist, Charlie. (The author says one of her favorite parts of being a children’s writer is reading letters from kids, so maybe having your children use the Contact Me page on her website or maybe try her publishers (since I can’t find a direct address for her) would be a good extension idea!)

Ivy and Bean, by Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall Ivy and Bean(middle elementary): Seven-year-old Bean has no intention of making friends with boring, well-behaved Ivy across the street just because her mother says she should. Ivy (who we come to find out is not nearly as boring or well-behaved as she appears) feels similarly about wild-and-crazy Bean. When circumstances intervene (Bean tries to escape punishment when a prank on her sister goes too far, and Ivy helps her hide), they realize that they are well-suited for friendship after all. Ivy has aspirations to become a real-life, potion-making witch (although none of her spells have worked out so far), and Bean is happy to contribute to Ivy’s ever-changing room set-up with its activity zones. (Bean’s mom sets some ground rules for their potion-making plans, including no poisons or explosions, but she is happy to have them play together.) And this is how Ivy and Bean begin their unusual and loyal friendship!

Adventures of the Bailey School KidsThe Adventures of the Bailey School Kids, by Debbie Dadey and Marcia Thornton Jones (middle  to upper elementary): While I inherited several of these from the fifth grade teacher who had my classroom before me, I had never actually read one!  They are pretty solidly middle grade level readers, but the amount of “education” happening in the pages (in the one I read, Werewolves Don’t Run for President, readers get many only-slightly-subtle lessons in government, and there is an appendix with additional facts as well) means that there is content for older readers, too. It’s not surprising that the authors are a teacher and librarian team who used to work together in a school! I wouldn’t try to extol the virtues of the educational aspect to your young readers, but they might end up learning something in spite of themselves. The series begins with the Bailey School Kids (two boys and two girls) in third grade, and they believe their teacher, Mrs. Jeepers, is a vampire. Each book has a similar scenario: 1) Adult behaves oddly. 2) Children believe adult to be some mythical creature. 3) Children solve some issue but never clearly prove or disprove theory about mythical creature. The authors use a lot of loaded figurative language (“howled with laughter,” “Mr. Youngblood stalked across,” “voice was as low and growly as a Doberman pinscher’s”) to support the characters’ assumptions. For a teacher wanting to use these books, the aspect of using loaded language and perspective to influence a reading audience is something that can definitely be used with older students.

The Time Warp Trio, by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith Time Warp Trio(middle elementary): These books are deceptively short in that they pack a lot of educational value (and silly, silly stuff!) into their brief pages. Joe’s uncle, a magician, gives him a special book for his birthday: The Book. The Book has the power to transport Joe and his friends Sam and Fred anywhere in time (and, in a couple cases, myths and their summer reading list!). Scieszka and Smith’s quirky humor can make delving into the Wild West, King Arthur’s court, or the Stone Age a hilarious way to pick up tidbits of information about history that might spark further investigation (and we all know that historical and speculative fiction are gateway books to nonfiction research!). Perfect for that hard-to-engage reader with an unconventional funny bone!

Boxcar ChildrenThe Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner (elementary): I read the first Boxcar Children book aloud to both kids, and they were enchanted from the start. Now they play Boxcar Children on a pretty regular basis (GirlChild is either Jessie or Violet, and BoyChild is always Benny!), watch the movie on Netflix regularly, and GirlChild has gotten into the mystery series that follows. While none of them stack up to the original, the extremely lengthy series has been pretty popular in my classrooms (and you don’t get over 100 titles in a series without there being a market for them!). It’s been a long, long while since I had read any of them, so I went ahead and reread Tree House Mystery (#14) just to get a feel for them, and the kids have already aged enough that Benny (the  youngest, just learning his alphabet in the first book) is older than ten, and Henry (the oldest) is driving. More recent additions to the series (like #132, Mystery of the Fallen Treasure) seem to be a modern reboot: Benny is six again, and Henry Googles things on his cell phone. (This is decidedly odd in that the originals were set in the ’30s or ’40s, so the unaccompanied minors living on their own in the woods thing wouldn’t have been as strange as it would be were it happening in the 2000s!) The mysteries are typically pretty mild and the children well-behaved and conscientious. This might be a good series for the kind of child who wants to read mysteries but is sensitive to frightening things or situations (like GirlChild) or as high-interest, low-reading-level series for those who can tolerate well-behaved children and simple mystery stories. And the first book, at the very least, is a good read for any child! (For the truly dedicated, there’s a Boxcar Children Museum in Connecticut in the author’s hometown, and Patricia MacLachlan has even written a sort of prequel!)

Clubhouse Mysteries, by Sharon M. Draper Clubhouse Mysteries/Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs(middle to upper elementary): By the Coretta Scott King award winning author of many YA books and the Sassy series for tween girls, this series has a cast of four black preteen boys from Ohio who, out of boredom after their neighborhood basketball court is destroyed, create a club they call the Black Dinosaurs. They build a clubhouse using old fence sections, and when they dig to bury their club treasures, they discover a buried box full of bones. (This is where the first mystery comes in!) While the slim volumes and attractive but somewhat juvenile cover art make these books look like they are geared toward middle elementary (the kids on the cover look to be second or third graders to me), the characters are actually just out of fifth grade (and are illustrated as such on the inside illustrations), and many references in the book are to historical events and topics that are likely not studied (in school, at least) until fourth or fifth grade (like knowing who the Tuskegee airmen were to better understand a reference to Tuskegee University). GirlChild enjoyed the book, actually, and asked for the next one in the series, but I am fairly sure she didn’t get anything deeper out of it than that some kids made a club and found a box of bones. This six-book series was apparently first published under the title Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs and had more realistic cover art, and I can definitely see it as a teaching tool (for introducing some of the topics brought up in the books) for younger students or as a high-interest/lower-reading-level book for upper elementary (although I think the original covers would make the series more marketable to older kids than the current ones).

Secrets of the ManorSecrets of the Manor, by Adele Whitby (middle to upper elementary): Each book in this historical fiction series focuses on the girls from a noble family based at Chatsworth Manor in the English countryside. The first Elizabeth and Katherine were twins, and the eldest daughter from each following generation is named after the matriarch of that family line. The first Elizabeth’s family line remains at Chatsworth Manor, and Katherine moved to America upon her marriage, so her family line lives at Vandermeer Manor in Rhode Island. As suggested by the title of the series, this is, in part, a mystery series…like American (er, and English) Girl meets the Boxcar Children (but with more money). While the storyline in the first book seemed pretty predictable and slightly anachronistic in regards to attitudes and behaviors, I am not entirely familiar with the time frame in which these books take place (1848-1934 for the first six books in the series (and not in chronological order!)), so I could be stuck thinking of Regency manners and unaware of progress in that area. GirlChild adores these books (the peerage is a step down from royalty, I guess, but it’s close enough for her!), and I’m sure she’ll be excited to read the new ones (set in Paris) that are just coming out, too!

A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony SnicketA Series of Unfortunate Events (upper elementary/middle school): Another quirky series best enjoyed by readers who revel in wordplay and a bit of Gothic parody, I am feeling a distinct reminiscence for Northanger Abbey as I reread the first pages… If your child is sensitive and will take these books seriously (like GirlChild at this point in her reading life), they probably will not enjoy these books at all. If, however, they seem to the sort to really enjoy Monsters Eat Whiny Children and anything by Jon Scieszka, this is more likely their thing. (I’m hoping GirlChild will grow into them, and I see BoyChild as a future fan!) The Baudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, live a life which is, in fact, a series of unfortunate events from the time of the mysterious death of their parents and their subsequent placement in the care of an unscrupulous relative, Count Olaf. Written from the point of view of a man who is following their trail and reporting their misfortunes, these thirteen books are full of well-meaning but bumbling adults, perilous events, last-minute saves based on Violet’s inventions, Klaus’ intelligence, or Sunny’s sharp incisors (Really.), sly humor, and fabulous vocabulary. If your reader is the sort to tent his or her fingers and plan devious plots (but not actually the sort to go through with them–that’s too far!), he or she might find this series worth a try! (I think the characters in Ivy and Bean might like these books when they’re a little older, actually…)

Who Was...?Who Was…? books (elementary): These biographies are the perfect sort to keep in an elementary classroom. They are written as narratives with occasional inserts of background information on the times or events being discussed. They are written chronologically, are easy to follow and interesting, and the more difficult aspects of lives are not gone into in gory detail, but they are discussed. (For instance, Who Was Ronald Reagan? discusses his father’s alcoholism, his divorce, the assassination attempt, and his Alzheimer’s disease.) Although these books are not written for research purposes, they would make great first-reads for someone needing to write a biographical report because they introduce topics about the person’s life that the reader can then use to guide and inform their further research. (Also includes What Is…?/What Was…?/Who Is…? books for other nonfiction reading!)

Other series previously reviewed/mentioned:

Topsy and Tim

Themed Third Thursday: Princess Possibilities: Princess Posey and The Rescue Princesses and The Royal Diaries

Themed Third Thursday: My Bin of Books: How Do Dinosaurs…? and Pigeon and Llama Llama and Magic Tree House series

Themed Third Thursday: An Incidental Christmas: most of the titles, so click through to the post to find links for the series!

The Very Fairy Princess

Rainbow Magic Fairies (Christmas) (and all the rest on Amazon)

Fun Fourth Friday: Andrew Clements: Keepers of the School

Themed Third Thursday: Anthropomorphic Animals: Geronimo Stilton and Warriors

Themed Third Thursday: The Naughty List Edition: Horrible Harry and Artemis Fowl

(And that’s not all! I just got tired of linking! Search “series” in the search box on the right sidebar to find more!)

What series books would you recommend for summertime reading for kids? Leave your suggestions in the comments!


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Filed under online resources, reader input sought, teaching suggestion, theme

Natalie the Christmas Stocking Fairy, by Daisy Meadows

Natalie the Christmas Stocking Fairy

Natalie the Christmas Stocking Fairy (Rainbow Magic Special Edition), by Daisy Meadows (2011)

For this second review of Christmas, I have chosen one of GirlChild’s newest obsessions: the Rainbow Magic fairies! These books are promoted as 2nd-3rd grade interest level and 3rd grade reading level, but the formulaic nature of the series and the high interest topic make them pretty accessible for new chapter book readers, and their appearance (including thickness) makes them appropriate high-interest, low-reading-level books for older children as well. After the Ramona books, these are GirlChild’s favorites to read and reread, and they’re a whole lot simpler!

The basic storyline of every book in this series appears to be that Kirsty and Rachel (two friends in the human world) notice that something is amiss and suddenly discover a goblin (one of Jack Frost’s lackeys) making mischief. Either a fairy shows up to ask them for help (typically in finding her three magical objects which, of course, Jack Frost has stolen) or they use their special lockets filled with fairy dust (which causes them to shrink to the size of the fairies and sprout wings) to bring them to Fairyland to tell the fairies about what’s been going on. They then help the fairy find her magical objects (or sometimes just one object in the shorter books) and convince the goblin in possession of the stolen goods to give the magical object over in exchange for something the fairy with her magic can provide. The last stop is always with Jack Frost himself. Of course, everything works out in the end, and everyone is happy again…until next time Jack Frost steals something!

In this book, Kirsty and Rachel and their families are spending Christmas together at a cottage in the country, and things keep going wrong while the two girls try to make pies. When they see a goblin taking off after he destroys their kitchen, they decide to go to Fairyland to warn the Christmas fairies. When they arrive at the Christmas Workshop, Natalie is distraught because her magical items are missing and none of her Christmas preparations are going right. While the other Christmas fairies head off to warn the Fairy King and Queen about what is happening, Kirsty and Rachel go with Natalie to search for the first item. After finding and retrieving the magic Christmas pie, they return to the cottage to wait for Natalie to come to them with any information she has about finding the other objects. This time, their parents announce that the stockings have gone missing, and Natalie arrives with news of the missing enchanted stocking. Kirsty and Rachel catch some goblins trying to abscond with their stockings, and they once again work out a deal to get the magic object back. They overhear the leaving goblins say something that makes them believe the last object is at the Ice Castle with Jack Frost, so they all head there to sneak in and try to find it. The charmed candy cane is tucked into the throne next to a grumpy and demanding Jack Frost (who is cranky because he never gets anything from Santa). Once they snag the magical candy cane, Natalie feels sorry for Jack Frost and the goblins and makes a wish for all of them to get the treats that they like best (since they like gross stuff like bogwater and seaweed instead of sweets) and they all get their own stocking. Kirsty and Rachel return to the human world to find their new fairy-themed stockings full of gifts just in time for Christmas Day.

GirlChild’s Reactions: I could write all day about GirlChild’s love of these books. It’s unhealthy, I tell you! That said, the books are clean, topically interesting (to fairy-obsessed young girls in particular), have cute illustrations, and are formulaic enough to make comprehension easier for new or struggling readers. I also know that all I have to do to make her happy every Thursday is to come home from library day with a Rainbow Magic book and a Boxcar Children mystery. She says she likes the books because she likes fairies and because the fairies are nice and kind. She and I worked out the solution to the conflict in every book–just let Jack Frost know to come and ask the fairies nicely for whatever it is he wants–but since the characters in these books will never figure that out, the series will go on, and GirlChild will continue to love it!

Other Christmas books in the series:

Holly the Christmas Fairy





Cheryl the Christmas Tree Fairy





Paige the Christmas Play Fairy





Stella the Star Fairy





Robyn the Christmas Party Fairy


Filed under review

Themed Third Thursday: Jon Scieszka

I don’t know if it’s because I’m messed up in the head or what, but I do love some Jon Scieszka! He’s a little wacky like Louis Sacher and a little witty like Mo Willems, and his signature style appeals particularly to mid-to-upper elementary boys. (This might be why he founded the Guys Read literacy initiative to encourage boys to become engaged in reading for a lifetime by providing them with books they will actually like reading!) Maybe I like his books so much because I taught fifth grade for so long (and once with a classroom that was 80% boys, and we got along swimmingly!)…or maybe that’s why I liked teaching fifth grade, because I liked things like his books! Anyway, Scieszka (pronounced “shes-kuh” (“pretty much rhymes with ‘Fresca'”)) will not be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you’ve got a reluctant reader (particularly a boy) on your hands, you might give some of his books a try!

For Small Truck Lovers–the Trucktown series:

Smash! Crash! (Jon Scieszka’s Trucktown) (2008): BoyChild loved this book…especially the end papers and back cover with all the different truck characters together! The story itself is simple: Jack Truck and Dump Truck Dan go around town doing what they do best…smash and crash! A big shadow with a big voice keeps calling for them, and they scoot off to a different place to smash and crash to keep out of trouble. Some of their smashing and crashing is pretty irresponsible and destructive, but some of it has creative results. In the end, they discover that the big shadow and voice belong to Wrecking Crane Rosie and she wants them…to smash and crash with her! One of a number of books (including board books) in the Trucktown series, a series created by Scieszka and illustrated with designs co-created by David Shannon (No, David!), Loren Long (Otis), and David Gordon (The Three Little Rigs).

For Young Space Cadets:

Robot Zot (2009): Robot Zot, a tiny invader from outer space, crash lands his Attack Ship in enemy territory: somebody’s backyard. The appliances are no match for him, and he leaves a trail of destruction behind him as he makes his way through one suburban home. He finds the Earth Queen (a toy telephone) guarded by two evil babydoll toys, and he manages to rescue his new love and escape toward his ship. The ferocious General (an overly friendly dog) is his last barrier before he can take off in his ship for distant galaxies, and he conquers once again (and the dog gets blamed for all his mess). There is a lot of assonance in this book for preschool to early elementary listeners or independent readers, so even BoyChild got the hang of it and will leaf through this book saying, “Bot! Zot! Bot! Zot!” so it’s a keeper!

Fractured Folk and Fairy Tales:

The Frog Prince Continued (1991): The Frog Prince is feeling a little disillusioned after his wedding to the princess because things aren’t quite so “happily ever after” as he hoped; he misses his froggy ways, and she keeps pressuring him to be more princely. The Prince decides to seek out a witch to turn him back into a frog, and his trip through the forest puts him in contact with the evil witches from three other fairy tales and a one-trick-pony kind of fairy godmother, but a stroke of luck (and the stroke of midnight) gives him the chance to run safely home into the arms of the (understandably) worried and (somewhat understandably) nagging Princess. When he thinks about how she believed in him when no one else had and that she “had actually kissed his slimy frog lips” and how she loves him, he kisses her; they both turn into frogs and live happily ever after (for real this time). I performed this one in high school as a part of a three-person team for a reader’s theater production for speech class (I played all the female characters by switching hats, one guy was the narrator, and the other was the Prince). It was great fun–you should try it!

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!, by A. Wolf (1989): The wolf known as the Big Bad Wolf takes this opportunity to tell his side of the story, and, according to him, “The real story is about a sneeze and a cup of sugar.” Told in first person, this story tells of how Al Wolf (aka, the Big Bad Wolf) goes from house to house asking to borrow a cup of sugar to finish a cake for his ailing granny (who just so happens to be from the Little Red Riding Hood story, if the portrait on Wolf’s wall is any indication). Some ill-timed and powerful sneezes result in the deaths of the first two little pigs (which he eats because he doesn’t want them going to waste!). The third pig, the one in the brick house, is pretty rude and insults the wolf’s granny, so the wolf loses his temper and gets the police called on him, and that’s how he ends up in jail. Since the real story isn’t very exciting, the reporters embellish it and make Al Wolf out to be big and bad. (This was Scieskza’s first published book.)

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992): “What is that funky smell?” This memorable line–spoken by the fox to the title character–is what keeps bringing me back to this book! (Okay, it’s what reminds me that this 1993 Caldecott Honor Book exists and amuses me to no end!) This is a perfect book for kids with quirky senses of humor who are tired of trite fairy tales or those who just like peculiar stories with running visual and literary gags. Some of the illustrations are almost Picasso-esque in their absurdity and skewed perspective, and the stories are pretty much just as skewed. If you want to hear an elementary age boy cackle aloud while reading, this just might be the book! It’s just unfortunate that “The Boy Who Cried ‘Cow Patty'” broke off the table of contents (and is therefore not included in the book) when it fell and crushed the Chicken Licken crowd…

Also try: Squids Will Be Squids: Fresh Morals, Beastly Fables (1998) and The Book that Jack Wrote (1994)

Cross-Curricular Reads:

Math Curse (1995): “On Monday in math class, Mrs. Fibonacci says, ‘You know, you can think of almost everything as a math problem.'” The problem is, suddenly the narrator does! The whole next day, she (he? it’s actually kind of unclear) is overwhelmed by the word problems and math-related questions that arise as a normal part of the day. Even that night’s dreams are full of math, and the only way to break the curse comes in the form of the oldest joke in the book (figuratively)–the one about two halves making a (w)hole. Too bad it all starts again in science class the next day… Each page has a number of real math problems that can be solved along with a completely silly question or two. I’ve read this book to my fifth grade math classes at the beginning of the year (Erin McEwan, Your Days Are Numbered is another one, but it takes longer and isn’t as funny) to demonstrate how math happens in real life all the time, so it’s important (and also that Jon Scieszka writes some funny, funny stuff that they should check out.)

Science Verse (2004): Featuring the bespectacled classmate sitting next to the narrator of Math Curse, this book starts with Mr. Newton announcing, “You know, if you listen closely enough, you can hear the poetry of science in everything.” What follows is a series of bizarre poems about science topics (from the nutrient-based take on “Jabberwocky” to the limerick about mixing electrical currents and metal) and the equally bizarre illustrations of the main character to go with each one. A variety of different types of poems, mostly poems based on actual, published poetry, are included, and a hilarious “Observations and Conclusions” appendix helps clarify which is which in case you don’t recognize the inspiration. Again, this is a cross-curricular boon (as long as you don’t assign a bunch of stuff based on the book and ruin the fun for everyone…try them as part of a center or something!) and might pique a poet’s interest in science or a scientist’s interest in poetry if the timing is right!

Seen Art? (2005): “It all started when I told my friend Art I would meet him on the corner of Fifth and Fifty-third.” Another Scieszka/Smith collaboration, this book combines a little wordplay with a little modern art. When Art isn’t where the narrator is supposed to meet him, the narrator asks a passing woman, “Seen Art?” Her response, “MoMA?” confuses him, but he still follows her directions to the “beautiful new building” down Fifty-third Street. He remains completely clueless as he meets person after person who responds to his, “Seen Art?” (or other similar) question by leading him to another room full of paintings or sculptures or whatever to find what that person considers “art.” (His facial expressions are pretty hilarious for some of the pieces, including a furry cup and saucer…) He finally decides to look for Art on his own (and peruses some art along the way), and, just when he gives up on finding Art, he suddenly realizes that he has found art. Then he walks outside and actually finds Art. (See what they did there?) An appendix shows each of the featured works of art with the identifying information (name of piece, artist, size of the work, etc.) for interested readers and their teachers. (This volume is actually horizontal, but I can’t rotate the image for some reason!)

 Middle Grade Time-Traveling Series, The Time Warp Trio:

The Time Warp Trio: Knights of the Kitchen Table (2004 (2nd edition)): Joe, Sam, and Fred are transported back in time to the age of King Arthur when Fred makes a wish when he opens up The Book, a gift that Joe has just opened from his magician uncle, Joe the Magnificent. Smoke fills the room, and when it clears, they have no idea where–or when!–they are! The three friends face the Black Knight, a giant, and a dragon before Merlin figures out how to send the pesky interlopers back home again (just in time for Joe’s mom to finish scolding him for the smoke bomb she thinks he set off in the kitchen). The first book of the series, Knights of the Kitchen Table sets the tone for the rest: a little bit of magic, a little bit of history, and a whole lot of goofy middle grade humor! (I almost included this series as cross-curricular because of the historical element, but there is enough legend and fantasy involved in most of the books that the historical value is lessened. However, these books just might spark an interest in further reading about King Arthur, Blackbeard (The Not-So-Jolly Roger), the Old West (The Good, the Bad, and the Goofy), or King Tut (Tut, Tut), so there is every possibility of a history tie-in for the careful teacher!) At a brief 50-odd pages each, these are high-interest books that are neither intimidating nor embarrassing to be caught reading, so it’s another great series for reluctant readers!


Cowboy & Octopus (2007): I don’t really know how to explain this book, actually. The vintage-feel illustrations–done by Lane Smith, a frequent collaborator of Scieszka’s–are collage images where there is one cut-out of an octopus and one of a cowboy in various situations. We discover that Cowboy is not very bright and that Octopus is a caring and patient friend. Quite a bit of inference is necessary to really get what exactly is happening in this book, but I imagine that less mature readers (in multiple senses of the word) would still get a kick out of the silliness of the story and the illustrations without fully knowing what is going on!

Baloney (Henry P.) (2001): When I first read this book, I was a little confused. Henry P. Baloney is an alien who has arrived late to school one time too many and is told by his teacher, Miss Bugscuffle, that he’ll have Permanent Lifelong Detention if he doesn’t have “one very good and very believable excuse.” Henry P. launches into a long, detailed explanation for his lateness that is peppered with words that I at first assumed to be a kind of alien-speak for a variety of words whose meaning could be figured out by context or illustration clues or, occasionally, similarity to the English word. (This is where I got confused, because a few of the first “nonsense” words were near-cognates and others were seemingly random and others were just mangled versions of the replaced word. I couldn’t figure out the pattern.) In the end, although his story is completely unbelievable, the day’s assignment just so happens to be to write a tall tale, so the teacher lets it slide so he can get writing. Then I read the afterword and the “decoder” page…and it explains the origin of the words, some in other languages, some Spoonerisms or nonsense words created by transposition. Well played, gentlemen. Well played. A kid with a high tolerance for confusion or good context skills could be given this book without preface and would probably find the discovery at the end enlightening, but a child who might be frustrated or embarrassed by the inability to understand the non-English words might be better off if given fair warning (and a bookmark on the decoder page) before starting to read.

The Guys Read Initiative:

Founded by Scieszka, the First National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, Guys Read’s “mission is to help boys become self-motivated, lifelong readers.” The books listed and featured on the site are books “that guys have told us they like,” and interest is the only real way to get someone hooked on reading. Along with literacy information for the adults in a reader’s life, the site has books listed by theme or topic or genre, so it’s easy for a guy to browse the headings and find something he might like to read. (There are other ways to find book suggestions, too, if you take some time to familiarize yourself with the site.) Because these are books that guys have self-selected, you’re probably going to find a lot of things that a “typical” guy likes…so there will be things like potty humor, violence, sports, and some language in some of the books. Just like I mentioned that Scieszka might not be everybody’s cup of tea, neither will these books. As a parent or teacher, you’ll have to know your guy to know if you’ll want to suggest these books to him since not every boy responds to these things in literature and entertainment the same way. (Actually, the following note on the books page shows how in tune Guys Read is with this idea: “Important Note: These are not the only good books in the world. Not every guy will love every book here.  This is a collection that will grow with every recommendation and rating.  So help out.  Suggest a book.  Rate a book.  Help Guys Read.”) In addition to the recommended books from the site, the Guys Read initiative is also responsible for several anthologies geared toward guys (mostly upper elementary and middle school) and edited by Scieszka.

Guys Write for Guys Read (2005): This book is a collection of stories, drawings, and memoirs by some of boys’ favorite authors–all about their different experiences growing up. As Scieszka, the editor, says in the foreword, it is not meant to be read through from start to finish; it is designed and compiled for browsing, self-selection, and just general enjoyment–no assigned reading allowed! 😉 I tried to read it straight through, but I can see how picking and choosing what entries to read (perhaps based on if you know the writer’s works or just the draw of the title or illustrations) would be a better way to approach this book since some of the parts just weren’t appealing to me. Each entry includes an incredibly brief biography of the selection’s author and a selected bibliography that might facilitate further reading (ie., if the kid likes that entry, maybe finding one of the author’s books to read would be a good thing).

Guys Read: Thriller (2011): Ghosts, private eyes, monster hunters, atomic pudding…ten short stories (including one in graphic novel style) by a wide sampling of famous authors are included in this second anthology in the Guys Read series. (The first is Guys Read: Funny Business, and Guys Read: The Sports Pages is the third.) Where Guys Write for Guys Read includes brief essays of two to four pages, these stories are mostly from 20 to 40 pages in length. Like the other books in this series, Guys Read: Thriller includes stories (written specifically for this book, I believe) from the theme or genre by a variety of writers and, therefore, a variety of readers. Again, if a reader enjoys a specific story in this volume, it’s not hard to find more by that author that might continue to intrigue and encourage more reading. Guys Read: Thriller is intended for upper elementary and middle school readers.

A Very Different Sort of Autobiography:

Knucklehead (2008): With a cover designed to resemble an old comic book (and featuring a childhood portrait of the author superimposed over the face of a man in an army tank), this collection of stories of Scieszka’s childhood is intended for readers in middle to upper elementary, but I think it would probably appeal more to slightly older children and adults because it relies, in part, on some background knowledge of the era that most younger readers won’t have. Then again, it might not matter because it seems like boys are boys no matter what the decade, and Scieszka’s family included six of them (he was the second oldest) growing up in Flint, Michigan. Told in random vignettes and illustrated with family photos and images of other memorabilia, this book gives readers a glimpse into what made Scieszka the kind of reader and writer he grew up to be, and, as you might expect, it’s a pretty funny recollection! While the typical nonfiction features are there (the table of contents, captions, and the “not your usual index”), the contents are very much not what you would find in the dry biographies so commonly assigned for author research!

So, there you have it. Jon Scieszka has actually written even more than what I’ve included here, but this is a good sampling and includes most of my favorites. Again, if you have a reluctant middle grade reader on your hands, put ones of these books in his (hands, that is)!


Filed under online resources, teaching suggestion, theme