A Book a Week: Books 4 & 5

January 23, 2010

4.  When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Level:  not sure, but I think Later Bridging to Early Fluent readers could enjoy this independently.

This is the first time I have rushed out to read the Newbery winner the same week it was announced. That’s  because I never followed the book awards very closely until a few years ago.  I always knew who the winner was (eventually), but now that I follow these kid lit blogs I could not miss the announcement and was really intrigued by the reviews.  And so I rushed right up to the MS library to get this year’s winner.

This book really wowed me and it was instantly clear why it won the Newbery.  Basically, the book is about the 12 year old Miranda who is trying to solve the mystery of why someone is leaving her notes that seem to defy the conventional wisdom of time.  But there is more to this book- so much more.

There were times when reading this book that I was transported back to the way it feels to be 12:  hard, agonizing, deeply uncomfortable, innocent, thrilling, expansive.  Stead captures the emotion precisely with spartan prose.

“I was miserable, sitting on the edge of her bed in that puddle of meanness.  But I couldn’t help it.”

“Sometimes you never feel meaner than the moment you stop being mean.”

Her descriptions are also straightforward and breathtaking at the same time.

“I walked up the hill, where the sunlight seemed to touch everything like it was a hyper kid running all over a toy store- it bounced off the dirty metal lampposts, the shiny brass awning posts, even the sunglasses of a woman walking her dogs with a cup of coffee in one hand.  Everything shined.”

Reading Challenges and Teaching Opportunities:

Rereading: Almost immediately after reading this book I wanted to start it again.  Because it is a mystery, once you figure it out at the end, you want to go back and put all the clues together again- see them in a new way.  This book would make a great class discussion on re-reading and why we do it.

Use of Time: Stead jumps back and forth as she lays the story out and a reader could get lost if they are not aware of this.

Chapter Titles: Remember the game show “The $20,000 Pyramid”?  One of the threads of the story involves this show and the chapter titles follow the format of the show “Things That Turn Pink”, “Things That Are Sweet”.  Thinking through these chapter titles after the book is a good opportunity for thinking through inference.

Plot Structure: It’s a mystery!  The clues are everywhere.  But the answer is not obvious until the moment that it is obvious.  Which is what makes it so great.  There are also multiple problems in the story, so mapping these with a class would be a good way to see how one book can tell many stories.

Characters: The main character is obvious, but all the secondary characters are used masterfully to tell the story- each one contributing something subtle and vital at the same time.  The main character would be a good study for following the internal journey of a character and examining character change at a more sophisticated level.

It would help to read this book with A Wrinkle In Time by Madeline L’Engle already under your belt, but it is not completely necessary.  It would be a good read aloud for a 4th or 5th grade class.

5. Welcome to the Bed and Biscuit by Joan Carris

Level (probably about an N?)

I read about this book on another blog I follow.  It falls into one of my favorite genres of entertainment:  the talking animal genre.  The story is about a group of animals who live on a farm that also boards other animals.  There are three main animal characters- a mynah bird, a miniature pig, and a cat.  Later the author brings another animal on board as the story progresses.  Integrating this new character is the main problem in the book:  can the other pets deal with the jealousy they feel as Grandpa (main human character) turns his attention to the new animal?

I read this book aloud to my own kids, because I wanted to see how ‘low’ this book could go (J and E have just turned 6).  They liked this story well enough, but had a hard time getting to know the characters and keeping them all straight.  After spending the last few weeks reading some of the best childrens authors out there, this book highlighted for me what makes some books great and others just OK.  This book was just OK.  Having said that, we are reading the second book in the series together and I do not have to explain as much this time.  That’s the beauty of a series!

Reading Challenges and Teaching Opportunities:

Setting- The reader would have to have some knowledge of what it means to boarder, though this does become clear in the story to the alert reader.

Characters- There are a lot of characters in this story.  It could be a good book to talk about main characters and secondary characters and the function of secondary characters.

Dialogue- One of the reasons the story was hard to read out loud is that the author does not use many speaker tags in the dialogue (‘he said’, ‘Ernest grunted’).  Therefore, the reader has to be able to carry the conversation between the characters just by understanding how conversation goes.  I could see readers not understanding who has said what in this book- a great teaching point.  This would be a good book to study written dialogue with.

Theme- the central problem involves making room emotionally when someone new joins the family.

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One response to “A Book a Week: Books 4 & 5

  1. I could see When You Reach Me being a very successful read-aloud especially in a grade five classroom. It is a quite a complex mystery. When, at the end, I retraced my steps through the book and explored the clues, I still had to think about it very carefully. I had watched the Time Travellers Wife just prior to reading the book so there were interesting connections.
    Catriona

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