Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Review of Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Ages 10 and up (from the publisher)
Another Maine Student Book Award Book 

Dead End in Norvelt is a wonderful blend of fiction and non-fiction. The story is set in the early 1960's in the real town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania.  The town was established in the early 30's and was a subsistence-homestead community established during The Great Depression.  Originally called Westmoreland Homestead, it was renamed after Eleanor Roosevelt following her visit in 1937. 

The main character, Jack Gantos (although the story is only slightly autobiographical) was looking forward to an adventure-filled summer vacation. His plans were drastically changed after he accidentally shoots a hole in a drive-in movie theater screen with his Dad's Japanese rifle (which was not supposed to be loaded) and intentionally mows down his mother's rows of corn. His father ordered him to mow the corn in order to make room for the new bomb shelter and airplane runway for the two-seater he wants to restore.  Since his mother usually sells the corn to raise money to fund meals for the elderly, she is bent on making Jack pay for his decision.  

As a punishment, along with reminding him of what he did every chance she can get, his mother loans him out to their elderly neighbor, Miss Volker for a very unusual chore.  Miss Volker is an original resident of Norvelt.  She is the town's medical examiner and also writes the obituaries of other original Norvelters when they die.  Although she is feisty and sharp, crippling arthritis has taken Miss Volker's ability to write or type so Jack must write for her. They have several hilarious scenes together.  In their first scene together Jack describes, in horrific detail, what he believes is Miss Volker intentionally melting the skin off her hands in a pot on the stove.  It turns out that she needs to soak her twisted hands in parafin wax in order to get them to work properly even for just a few minutes.  

Jack has an unfortunate condition where his nose bleeds profusely whenever he feels any stress, which is often.  In another scene, Miss Volker, after "cooking" her hands, cauterizes the inside of his nose in disgusting detail which many young readers will love.  The close relationship Jack and Miss Volker develop throughout the book is unexpected and heartwarming.  He even starts lying to his parents in order to go on more "adventures" with Miss Volker where he is often allowed to drive her car.   

Throughout the course of the book there are several other story lines.  As I mentioned, Miss Volker is charged with writing the obituaries of the elderly original Norvelt residents.  She made a promise to Eleaner Roosevelt herself to finish this task.  Another original Norvelter is Mr. Spizz.  Mr. Spizz has been sweet on Miss Volker since they were young.  However, she did not return his affection and agreed to marry him only after all the other original resistents have passed on.  

Jack also has another friend in the book, the funeral director's daughter, Bunny. However this friendship is never fully explored or developed. 

Near the end of the book, there is a lot happening including the suspicious deaths of many elderly residents, "Hell's Angel's" attempting to burn down houses in Norvelt and the identity of who loaded the Japanese rifle (unfortunately referred to as a "Jap" rifle by Jack's father) is revealed.

Jack Gantos does not disappoint. I enjoyed this book and would recommend it for 5th grade and up.  

What I am Reading Now...
 Nerd Camp is another pick from The Maine Student Book Award List.  I am only a couple of chapters in, but it promises to be a great read.  More to come!

Monday, September 10, 2012

I'm Nerdy!!

This post was featured on The Nerdy Book Club today!  It is similar to my back story, but a bit different.

The Late Bloomer’s Path to Becoming a Reader
by Gigi McAllister

Unlike many teachers, growing up I was that quiet, painfully shy girl who never participated and lived in fear that everyone would find out that I was dumb.  I was the one who could not understand what I read because it was all just words to me.  Well I’m grown up now and I am really angry!

I have read many children’s book blogs to find new books for my students and to read inspirational stories.  Most of them are wonderfully positive stories describing people who were born with a silver book in their hand or were reading Little Women at age 5 and haven’t stopped since.  I am green with envy as I read about adults who grew up as voracious readers and how books helped influence and shape their lives.  I am so happy for them, but this was not my path.  My path to become a reader was paved with shame, disappointment and self-doubt.   

Reading was not really part of my childhood.  Sure, I had to read in school, but I was reminded, by my constant failure, that I was not a good reader.  My teachers “demoted” me to the “low” reading group in what I assume was an attempt to help me, but it just made me feel more stupid.  I felt like they did not expect much of me and I lived up to those expectations.  I just didn’t get it.  I would try to read my little blue basal reader, but try as I might, it just didn’t click. No one ever showed me that books could be wonderful escapes and reading could actually be fun, NO ONE! 

So what’s the big deal? I can obviously read now.  What did I really miss? 

Well…A LOT!
I missed out on being a super sleuth with Nancy Drew or Harriet from Harriet the Spy.  Ramona and I never got into trouble together in Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series and I never watched Charlotte save her friend Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web.  I also missed Judy Blume!  What was the early 80”s for a young girl without Judy Blume? Ok I did read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret  to see what the big deal was, but I missed out on sharing fears with Sheila Tubman in Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great.  I would have loved to hold hands with Mary Lenox in the pages of The Secret Garden. And traveling to Narnia with Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in The Narnia Series by C.S. Lewis would have been amazing.  I could go on and on.

I did not become a reader until I started teaching in my early twenties..   When I understood what all the fuss was about, and realized what I had missed, I felt cheated

We teachers need to remember that yes, we need to teach skills and strategies like cause and effect, sequencing and author’s purpose.  But we must never forget that it is our ultimate job to inspire and help create lifelong readers.  So let’s keep the emphasis on the books!  I’m sure you can find at least one student just like me each year in your class.  Please show her (or him) that there is more to reading than just reading words.  Show your students that reading can entertain you, inspire you and change you…forever.    

Saturday, September 8, 2012

More Books For Kids Who Think They Don't Like to Read

My Ace In The Hole....

Newberry Medal of Honor 2002

For years this has been my "go to" book for my fourth grade boys who think they don't like to read and it works every time.  

What Alex Frankovitch lacks in stature, he makes up for with his smart mouth.  Although he is the smallest and worst baseball player on the team, he has continued to play for 6 years.  He is repeatedly picked on by a bully named TJ Stoner who has been a star pitcher since they were very young.  After Alex brags about his own "mean curve ball",  he finds himself in a humiliating pitching contest with TJ.  Alex's mouth often works faster than his brain and he finds himself constantly trying to talk himself out of embarrassing situations.  

Alex is hilarious and students often love watching how he stands up to the bully and how he often ends up embarrassing TJ along with himself.  Alex says things to TJ that many kids would love to say to bullies and students admire his tenacity and perseverance.  

The ending is satisfying when Alex's true talent is revealed to all his schoolmates.  

Although published 30 years ago, Skinny-Bones is still very relevant today.  I would recommend this book for grades 3-5, especially those who have not connected with other books.  It may be the book to light the spark that will make them want to read more!

by Dan Gutman
Ages 7-10
Lexile ranges around 540 

Often many of my fourth graders are not sure of what books to read at the beginning of the year.  I find that readers who are still building their fluency, vocabulary and stamina for longer books often enjoy this series. 

Dan Gutman has admitted that he writes for "kids who don't like to read" and this is obviously the case in this series.  The books are a step up in difficulty and text complexity compared to The Magic Tree House series (although they lack the historical or academic information gained in the series).  

It is true that the main character, AJ, is not the most respectful boy and he often talks about how much he hates school.  Yes, the adults in the books are portrayed as being completely unable to control their emotions (to put it mildly) and are made to look stupid by AJ and his gang.   But that is what makes it appealing to students who don't yet love to read... they think these books are hilariously silly and, more importantly, they want to read more.  

I highly recommend this series for boys and girls in grades 3-5 who enjoy silly, not too difficult books.  Thankfully Dan Gutman has written a ton of books in this series to keep those reluctant readers busy (My weird School, My Wierd School Daze and My Weirder School series).  By the time they finish several of these books, they are ready for something more.  

Dan Gutman has written over 100 books!
Check out his website here.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Books for Kids Who Think They Don't Like to Read

Graphic Novels- More than Just Glorified Comic Books

Each new school year I can count on several things. First, I will have a wonderfully, diverse and energetic class.  Second, I will grow to love and appreciate each one of them for the gifts they bring to our class.  I can also count on having a few "dormant readers" (to coin a phrase from Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer Jossey-Bass, 2009).  These are the students who have not yet been bitten by the reading bug.  These students see reading as difficult and boring. They may choose a book for a few minutes and then return it to the shelf or pretend to read but are really just looking at the book (or the clock).  They turn up their nose at book suggestions and never seem to finish any book they start.  
This post is the first in a series of posts describing books I use to get dormant readers to take a step into the wonderful world of reading. 

Graphic novels are GREAT  books to start with.  I call them "gateway books" because they really do open the reading "gate" for many students.  Parents often feel that graphic novels are not "real" reading and all the students have to do is look at the pictures.  This is an understandable concern.  However, I have read many of these books and they are usually more complex than one would think and the pictures do not tell the entire story.  In my opinion, any enjoyable interaction with a book is a positive step toward awakening dormant readers.  What happens every year is students spend the first couple of months reading the graphic novels and then they move on to more complex and traditional books throughout the year.

Here are some graphic novel series that my students seem to enjoy...

So teachers and parents, if you have a student or child who has yet to discover the love of reading, try some graphic novels and open the reading gate!