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Loving Those Legendary Alston Boys Once Again: The Last Mirror on the Left

What a ride! The cousins Otto and Sheed are back again for some high stakes action in Lamar Giles’ The Last Mirror on the Left, the fabulous sequel to his The Last Last Day of Summer. In this one, Missus Nedraw remembers the boys saving the town of Fry in Logan County in the last installment. Unfortunately she also remembers what they did to save it. It seems Otto and Sheed made quite a mess of things when they borrowed one of Missus Nedraw’s mirrors from her emporium without asking. Her not-so-normal emporium houses dangerous criminals and it seems they also let the most dangerous of all criminal and his gang go free.

Overall, I really liked this middle grade adventure. It has the mystery and adventure that most upper elementary and middle school kids will thoroughly enjoy with diverse characters that are needed. I would love to see Otto and Sheed in a streaming series one day. The books read like an episode arc of Doctor Who or Star Trek from my youth with an interesting spin.

At first glance this may seem like fun fluff for middle grade readers, and it is fun and hilarious. However, the serious themes of freedom and of crime and punishment can spark interesting conversations in the classroom. Who can decide on laws and what happens when punishments do not fit the crime? How can absolute power corrupt? I applaud Mr. Giles for bringing these important issues to the minds of young people.

Teachers, this is an excellent addition to your classroom library. Steer your students directly to Sheed and Otto’s engaging series. Hopefully we see more of these two soon, and I would like to see more of Wiki and Leen in particular! (Spin-off?)

Order from your local indie bookstore or use this link to order now!

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A Scritch and a Scratch make for an entertaining middle grade book

I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. I wanted to read this for quite a while and was very excited for the next book by this dynamic author. I loved Peculiar Incident on Shady Street.


Currie uses Chicago lore once again to craft another story of family entangled with the tales of tragic local history. In Scritch Scratch, Claire Koster is a typical seventh grader whose love of science makes her skeptical, but scared of her dad’s business as a ghost tour conductor. When dad needs her help to complete the tour one fateful evening, someone or something follows Claire home.
In a series of scares and chilling encounters, Claire seeks to help this restless spirit.
I thought the ghostly occurrences were frightening, but accessible to younger age groups. The interwoven history of events of past Chicago will, I believe, light a spark in kids to do their own research. The author describes tragic fires and ill-fated ship voyages that would make readers question if such a horrific thing could have really occurred.
Lindsey Currie’s research and passion for the macabre is clear and she does a fantastic job of piecing it together with the fictional story of Claire. I think a book by this author just about the spooky legends of Chicago or different cities would be well sought after for non-fiction collections. One can only hope that eventually, Currie makes this a goal.
That being said, I love this author and her previous book, so I wanted to love this book as well, but the main character made this nearly impossible. Claire didn’t reach out for help as she should have. There were also the undercurrents of 7th grade drama, but the book is for children and this is to be expected. However, what I really didn’t love was the reasoning behind the spirit’s hauntings. I understand the use of water, without giving too much away, but I really wanted there to be this creepy underlying reasoning for the scritch-scratching that made its way into the title. If the spirit had more to communicate or unfinished business, it would have made the story come together a bit better.
However, it was a quick and compelling read that ultimately made me turn pages. I would recommend to students in class, because I could think of many that would enjoy this. Scary stories are always a big hit with my fifth graders, and I could still see this being a popular choice.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
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Amari and the Night Brothers: An engaging ride for middle grade readers

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I was fortunate enough to have received an ARC of Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston through the Net Galley service. Many would compare this book to the Harry Potter or Men in Black franchises. In fact, Amari and the Night Brothers, as I understand, has been optioned for film rights before the release of this first text in January 2021, but I do believe this has all the potential to be the next big thing in the minds and imaginations of children.

As we meet the main character, Amari Peters, she lives with her hard-working mom and is coping with the disappearance of her brother. Police are giving up on ever finding Quinton Peters who they presume dead via illegal activities without the slightest bit of evidence. Amari is soon to find out that Quinton had a most dangerous job indeed working as an agent with Supernatural Affairs chasing down the mysterious Night Brothers, criminal masterminds and magicians when she herself is invited into the Bureau. Protecting the world and erasing memories as they go, the Bureau ensures average people and the supernaturally inclined don’t collide. They also run a summer camp for young people invited into the Bureau like Amari.

Amari is determined to follow in her brother’s footsteps and become a Junior Agent, but will she be able to discover the truth when there is a bigger secret about to be uncovered about herself?

This story is an epic fantasy with parts of Harry Potter, Men in Black and Percy Jackson all coming together in a glorious new story that I never knew how much my students needed. Teachers can’t go wrong buying this one for their classrooms and I am sure will sell itself right into student hands. The character’s are complex and multifaceted like anyone you would meet in life. I always say if a side character does more than move a plot, it is a story that must be read; and Amari is no exception. You have Elise, a were-dragon and Amari’s roommate, Magnus and Fiona agents and trainers, and even Jayden–once taught by Quinton in tutoring soon follows a life of crime in the absence of his friend.

There is truly so much to love about this text. Rich themes about systematic racism and the need for everyone to be loved and understood run throughout the text and it is clear that Alston is a gifted writer.

As I read this, as a teacher of fifth grade, I was thinking about a beginning of the year activity in which the students enhance their own talents as the characters in the Bureau do by touching the crystal ball. There is so much you can do–regardless of the content area. I teach ELA, so I was thinking of tying in gamified units based on texts like Amari.

Even if you are a student or parent looking for a text that is fun and engaging, look no further than this highly recommended middle grade fiction that will be enjoyed by tweens and early teens alike.

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Coolest Way to Start the New School Year (And It Has Nothing to do with Reading my Students the Syllabus)

We all know that research shows that building positive relationships with our students creates a better classroom environment, but what can you do to start the building on day one? It is a simple technique that I learned two years ago when I read Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess. This book is chock full of ideas and very much worth owning and rereading whenever you feel your creativity draining. I also saw it again recently as part of the text Make Learning Magical by Tisha Richmond under the Burgess Consulting Publishing brand.

A simple tool like play-doh can help you build positive relationships with all students.

So, what do you do that first day?

When students find their seats in your classroom, you will also tell them to choose their favorite color of playdoh that will be organized on a back table. The second instruction is that they do not open it–yet. This builds an excitement in the students, wondering what you may be up to. When everyone has joined you and you’ve done the important things like take attendance and make sure everyone is where they are supposed to be–then tell them to open their color and create a symbol that represents something about them.

As they create, the teacher will circulate the room and ask about the symbols they create. I even take notes of what everyone creates. Why? In Language Arts, it is paramount to know what a particular child will have an interest in reading. If I know they like the New York Jets, I can offer a book on Joe Namath or a fictional story about a kid that loves football. I also write it down for Back to School Night. I make it into a fun game where parents match what each child made to their child’s interest.

Don’t feel as though this cannot be used in the content areas, because this is not the only question I ask. I also ask how the student feels about my subject. Asking them about themselves comes first, however, because you want them to know this is where you place the most importance. Listening to them when they come to you helps cement these feelings. Let them know that they are valued!

When I ask them next about my subject, I have them create an emoji with the clay that represents this feeling. If they have negative feelings, it often tips me off that students didn’t perform as well in the subject in the past, so this is often a student to keep an eye on. I take note of that negativity as well. I ask about reading, writing, listening, and speaking separately.

Make each day of the first week of school something engaging for students. Do you tell them expectations and let them know about non-negotiable rules in your room? Of course, but avoid doing this all at once. It will take practice to learn about how the room works no matter how old your students are. Climate and respect are the main ideas here. Below is a list of some other engaging activities I do during that week:

*Book pass/Book tasting: This helps the students get used to the classroom library and previews some great titles they may not otherwise have found. It also helps them to make a “To be read list” in their reader’s notebooks. When they are looking for a good book later–this is where they should look. How can a content area teacher change this up? How about a book walk through your text and ask students what looks exciting to learn about or difficult?

*Listing important rules they want in their classroom: Giving students a voice in the matter of rules, helps them be a part of the environment. They are not guests in my room, but active participants in creating the culture. This can work in any classroom, but would need to be modified for very young students.

*”I wish my teacher knew” notes: I begin this with what I feel about my students each year, and I give them my own list of “I wish my students knew.” For example, I wish my students knew that when they misbehave, I don’t like the behavior, but I still like them. Yes, some students will be silly with these notes that are just between you and the student, but I have gotten pertinent information about a particular student, that I may have never known.

*Classroom Scavenger Hunt/Inventory of Interests: This just helps them to know where things are, and what certain areas are used for. Depending on your level, you could make this more in depth, where they create the clues for another class. I go all out for this–play the Indiana Jones theme song over the class speakers and dress up like an adventurer.

I just want them to want to be in school in the next day, even if it is to answer “What is in my mystery bag? Find out tomorrow, folks.” I love to keep them guessing, because it keeps them paying attention to important things. However, I certainly don’t have all the answers.

Comment with your tips and tricks for the first day/week of school!

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A Review of LAUNCH: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in All Students by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani

John Spencer and A.J. Juliani base this teaching resource around the STEAM related LAUNCH cycle, but promise throughout that any content area can use its teachings.

The expectation of an unruly class coming to meet me on September 3rd, made me pick up this text which seems at first glance not to be an ELA teacher’s required summer reading. Although most of the text is geared toward the mindset of science exploration or the hands-on projects of Gifted and Talented groups.

However, during orientation night I heard many members of my new fifth grade say, “I hate Language Arts.” So my natural next question is– “Well, what do you like?” I think I took them off guard with the question that many ignored, but some told me how exciting science is. One told me he wanted to be an engineer. Approaching Language Arts instruction as a logical method may be exactly what the class needs.

I have to admit that the structure of the text turns less academic and more about how we as teachers should be weaving problem solving into our daily lessons. The authors themselves tell the reader that it is difficult to think about the launch cycle in terms of math. I also find it difficult to do this with Language Arts. I found myself thinking that Science and STEM classes were lucky without having to worry about the testing mandates that stress so many in the math and ELA departments. It would be interesting for an administrator to allow this application in a testing subject, however. In my building, this doesn’t seem like a distinct possibility.

That is not to say that nothing can be gleaned from having read the text as an ELA teacher. Many of the steps lend themselves to comparison of the writing process. Such as research in fun interesting ways such as immersing yourself in a topic until you are an expert. Or creating a “prototype” of a first draft.

The reading and speaking requirements of ELA, however become a more difficult fit to this. It is all about the creation of something. In reading class, I want students to be aware of their thought processes and use strategies if they do not understand more difficult text. Although a book talk or TED talk could be created based on the understanding of a text or strategy, it doesn’t lend itself to not creating.

There were plenty of times, inspiration struck me throughout reading, that did not make it a loss of time or resource for me. One such time was seeing the standards-based assessment grid. I liked their evidence-based and less grade focused approach. I felt this could be something that students use to reflect on their process and if they truly grasp the standards of learning.

Another source of inspiration springing from the text was the fact that we should all consider ourselves creative. For teachers, this is so important. It keeps us growing and changing and learning how to be better for our students. Making the bracket of 64 interests comes to mind in particular. Using our passions in the classroom shows students to embrace theirs. Especially in middle school, students are so unsure of who they are as people. If they know their teachers are human and maybe share some interests with them, it can make relationships that lead to better learning.

Overall, even though it is primarily a resource for ELA teachers, it did not disappoint me in its approaches. I agreed with the authors’ values and beliefs of how a classroom should run. Choice and voice are paramount. In reading choice novels and no mandated texts, my reading students can explore an topics that interest them. I did hope it would have more innovation in the process of gamification, but I was not disappointed. Three out of five stars.

What Lives in the Woods? A Spook-tastic time!

I am so lucky to have been able to receive a digital ARC of Lindsey Currie’s latest middle grade mystery from Netgalley.

As a fifth-grade teacher, my students love spooky mysteries and Lindsey Currie is quickly becoming the queen of this genre. I am a proud owner of both Peculiar Incident on Shady Street and Scritch, Scratch, both with that delightful Chicago history sprinkled in. What Lives in the Woods has a different feel than her other books, less historical and this time set outside of Chicago, but this doesn’t take away Currie’s talent to build a tale that will have middle school kids flipping pages (yes–even those reluctant readers will love the fast paced chapters and engaging storyline). She pulls the mood straight out of Agatha Christie as main character, Ginny, a budding mystery writer, brother, Leo and new friend, Will all work together to discover what’s really going on in Woodmoor Manor.

The latest novel has no shortage of terrifying scenes that will demand the reader be in a well-lit room at all times. Currie does so well with these scenes, that the reader is drawn into that horror movie unsettled mood in their mind from page one. 5th to 8th graders will love the mystery of Woodmoor Manor as it unfolds. I highly recommend What Lives in the Woods to live on a shelf near you!

Note: This title will be released just in time for spooky weather in September 2021! Pre-order from your favorite local indie book store or Pre-order here!

Alone and Fierce: Freeman’s Alone is the Ultimate in Survival

I was fortunate enough to receive this ARC through my ARC sharing group. This represents my honest opinion about the book.

When I was a kid, survival books were boy centric epic adventures in the wilderness like the Hatchet series. Looking back after reading Megan Freeman’s Alone, Brian Robeson had it easy! Main character Madeline Albright Harrison (love her name by the way) is a 12 year old girl living in a future world in which the United States relocates people that live in the Western part of the US due to an “imminent threat.” She is accidentally left behind when National Guard transports relocate her family and the surrounding areas.

Maddie, with the help of one of the best supporting characters, a neighbor’s dog, George, must face issues like looters, natural disasters, run-ins with packs of wild dogs, on top of finding food, shelter and warmth through a considerable length of time. Freeman’s presentation is done in verse and the poems are vivid, yet quick page-turning ordeals that the reader must see through until the end.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to the middle schooler in your life!

Magic of the Magical Imperfect

**I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinions**

I absolutely loved this novel in verse. It takes place right before the Bay Area earthquake of 1989 that we watched as it happened during the World Series.

Etan is struggling to find his voice when his mom leaves. Dad and grandpa want to help him, but really they are at a loss. Mom was the glue that held the family together. One day, Etan is told to make a grocery delivery and meets a friend named Malia that is struggling to feel comfortable in her own skin figuratively and literally.

The characters in this book are absolutely unforgettable. Middle grade kids that love those heartfelt books will gladly enjoy this quick read.

I really loved the mixture of faith and messages of hope we all need right now.
Teachers will love the poetry that can easily teach skills and strategies to middle grade readers. I used a few chapters with my own classes to illustrate inferences and the chapters could stand on their own with a bit of background. Kids will be borrowing this text often from the class library. This title is scheduled for a June 15th release and is worth the order and pre-order.

Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares: Just As Exciting as the First

**I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

What an action-packed adventure for middle grade readers! Tehlor Kay Mejia’s work, Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares really shines in this Rick Riordian Presents book that follows Paola, Emma and Dante through another adventure.

In her previous book, River of Tears, we met Paola and Dante that fought off arguably one of the scariest ghost legends of all time, La Llorona, who wanders the banks of the Gila at night, looking for unsuspecting young people to drag into a watery grave. Again in Forest of Nightmares, we have a strange entity calling out to Paola. Could it be her long lost dad that mom never discusses? Is it just Pao being upset at her mother’s new boyfriend?

The book pulls some old friends together and the author fantastically weaves a plot line that reveals a change in Dante. I also love that the author shows kids to be themselves through the character of Emma.

Mejia creates fantastical events in a way that also lets the reader in on what happened in River of Tears, so the title could stand alone, and she even manages to skillfully build in important and timely themes like systematic racism and themes that kids in middle school can relate to like evolving friendships.

Middle grade readers will find many reasons to love this book and series. Teachers can easily use chapter excerpts to teach about fantasy fiction and theme. I highly recommend to anyone looking for great books for the classroom that kids will pass around until they fall apart. Pre-order for it’s August 3rd 2021 release.

It’s Actually Fun to Learn about Insects: The Way of the Hive by Jay Hosler

I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I must preface this with the fact that I am not a science person, nor have I ever enjoyed insects. Jay Hosler’s The Way of the Hive really made me change my mind. I am always looking for nonfiction texts that will engage my fifth graders, and this is an excellent choice for anyone looking for that engagement in a nonfiction text.
It is told in the form of a graphic novel, making it a quick, but informative read. It centers around a honeybee with a lot of questions named Nyuki and the big sister that mentors her named Devorah. The way the author weaves literary story into an informational text about honeybees and the natural world truly is genius.
The love of the characters creates an overpowering need for the reader to turn the page. Kids will identify with young Nyuki and learn with her in spite of their best efforts. I read an excerpt to my fifth grade students and they were chomping at the bit to read it themselves. A quick, engaging read that will resonate with middle grade students. I can’t say enough good things about a book that taught me a thing or two about a subject I previously knew nothing about.

Available now from your local indie book store or use this link to purchase on Amazon.

I Hope We Have NOT Seen the Last of the Last Shadow Warrior by Sam Subity

The Last Shadow Warrior: Subity, Sam: 9781338636079: Amazon.com: Books

As a teacher in 5th grade, I am always looking for middle grade titles that capture the imaginations of my classes and ones that will be loved for years. I believe The Last Shadow Warrior by Sam Subity is one of those titles. In fact, my order for next year has three copies of this title included.

The Last Shadow Warrior introduces us to Abby, a not-so-average twelve year old that may or may not be the last of the Aesir, an elite group of Viking warriors that hunts the elusive Grendel monster, which you may be familiar with from the classic Beowulf. While Abby’s Aesir mother passed when she was younger, her father without the benefit of Viking bloodlines, seeks to protect her from forces she doesn’t yet understand. With Abby’s transfer to her new school, she meets new friends and follows an unfolding mystery her mother never got to share with her.

This book calls to mind other titles that kids love such as Harry Potter with it’s school of gifted Vikings, although in Subity’s work students at the school may or may not be aware of the special nature of Vale. There’s also the ancient sport of Knattleikr to add a flair of the Quidditch of Harry Potter. Although, Knattleikr is very much a real sport of the Vikings, although, as Subity posted on Twitter, no one really knows the exact way it was played.

Even though I distinctly remember loathing Beowulf and the story this is based on, I thoroughly enjoyed Subity’s work. The strong female characters and the ancient lurking enemy in the shadows were strong selling points. I chose this one for my class library primarily for the uniqueness of the research. I wanted to show students that passion for a subject, like Subity’s with the ancient culture of the Vikings, can lead to intriguing writing.

This teacher hopes that Abby’s story doesn’t end with this book!

You can pre-order this April 2021 release by clicking here.

A Tale of Survival: How Alone in the Woods can Hook your middle grade readers

When I was a kid, I loved survival tales like Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain, but female readers like me never really saw themselves in the story. That’s what I liked about Rebecca Behrens’ Alone in the Woods.

She presents the story told between the voices of Alex and Joss. Behrens does this so realistically, that the characters become true to the reader. I can really see readers feeling the emotions presented here. As a middle school teacher of ten years, I can say just how true to life their voices are. Alex and Joss have fallen on a rough patch, a growing apart, although even their families are close, going on vacation together. At camp, Alex found a new friend, but is there still room in her heart for Joss and their friendship? Put this together with a dynamic story about getting lost and relying on themselves for survival.

Behrens really gets that middle school voice and tells a fast paced tale that students will enjoy. Teachers shouldn’t hesitate to stock this in the class library as it will be well-loved and worn out before you know it. For readers that love books like Paulsen’s and George’s, it is a new voice more representative of the students in the classroom.

The Ghost with the Most: How I fell in love with Ghosted by Michael Fry

I was fortunate to receive this ARC as part of my new book sharing group, #BookAllies! My students are already chomping at the bit for Ghosted by Michael Fry as I used the book in my book talk example lesson for my fifth graders. They could feel how much I genuinely loved this book. So much so that I have recently purchased the first of the How to be a Supervillain series by the same author.
Although many people may compare this to a Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Captain Underpants, I suggest that this book is in a league of its own. It is just the right mixture of laugh out loud comedy and heartfelt emotion. I really mean this–I was modeling good independent reading for my class–ok, ok, I just could not stop reading–and I actually laughed out loud disturbing a very quiet and engaged fifth graders.
Larry and Grimm are memorable and realistic characters in this funny and beautiful work coupled with the illustrations of this talented writer.
The wait until January will be unbearable thanks to fantastic reads like this! I have two already on pre-order!

Don’t Turn Off the Lights: A Short Story Collection for Everyone

I was fortunate enough to obtain a copy of the ARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. As with any book of short stories, there will be those that you love, want to read to your students year after year at that spooky time of year and there were others I didn’t feel that way about.
Jonathan Mayberry does an excellent job overall paying homage to the great Alvin Schwartz with this compilation of frightening tales. I felt that the stories could have been fewer and truly the amazing ones that will live on in my memory should have been allowed to shine a bit more. Tales like “Lint Trap” and “The Open Window” and “Brain Spiders” I believe could be read to upper elementary/middle school level students like my 5th graders, but there are some I wouldn’t recommend for that age group.
The true purpose of the book, I believe is for teachers to carefully curate passages and read aloud stories to students especially at this particularly frightening time of year. If you are a teacher, I would not hesitate to recommend, using it in the classroom multiple times this year myself. At the end of “Lint Trap,” the students in my class looked at me wide eyed and silent unbelieving what they just heard. It allows for inferences and mysteries with the abrupt endings that imply the worst. “Copy and Paste/Kill” was a particular good one for introducing inferences.
Recommending to students, however, I am less hesitant to do as the themes of some stories are upper middle school/high school in nature. Overall, a great quick read that had me pulling from it multiple times.