America Grelinger

Review (Plus): New Books for Reluctant Readers

One of my struggles as an English teacher is turning my students into lifelong readers. One of the most important tasks is finding the perfect book and placing it in the hands of a reluctant reader; they may roll their eyes at me, but I insistent they read 25 pages of the book I have loaned them. Some of my most reluctant readers are given a graphic novel, because 25 pages of a graphic novel means the reader can find themselves 1/3 into the book. It is a devious-but effect–trick to use in the classroom: the reader is hooked and reluctant to quick because, let’s face it, 25 pages in to a graphic novel you know the character, the setting and the plot! Penguin Random House recently sent me two graphic novels; I am excited to let you know my thoughts and then get them in to the hands of my students because they both were awesome.

The first was Edison Beaker Creature Seeker: The Night Door by Frank Cammuso. Mr. Cammuso has a way of hooking his middle grade readers by giving them real kids with real problems in his action-packed graphic novels. His newest endeavor is about Edison Beaker and his quest to learn the family business–extermination. Not of bugs, but of the things that go bump in the night! It has a few twists and turns, but the best part is that it leaves you hanging! I love it. The middle school student who lands this one will instantly ask, when is the next one coming Ms. G?

The second graphic novel was Caveboy Dave by Aaron Reynolds and Phil McAndrew. In this 2nd in the series, I found Dave is just as funny in his commentary as the last one. I enjoyed the first one in this series and found it appealed to all my students, which surprised me as I thought it would tend to lend itself more to the boys. Dave lives in Bleccchh. (This alone makes the boys laugh because they immediately assume it reads BELCH!) Dave struggles with his community and their ways of life, but overcomes them as he loves his family, friends and way of life. In this new adventure, Not So Faboo, we learn the Shaman of the community has gone MIA, as panic ensues, Dave reassures everyone it will be okay; he will be found. For fear of life without a leader in Bleccchh, the community votes to place Dave in charge–AT AGE 12!  Dave quickly learns about politics and that pleasing everyone is a thankless job, but someone has to do it…

In the classroom:

Reluctant readers need to be encouraged, they need to be challenged, and sometimes they even need to be forced to read. This year I instituted the 20 minutes mandatory daily reading in to my lesson plans. I force students to put down electronic devices and read. This challenge is becoming more present in the classroom as most schools, if you are like mine, have issued laptops or iPads to every student. It is difficult to make the kid who resents reading put down the device, sit silently, and read. I model this every day, but I love to read. (I wish I didn’t have to teach and could just read every day!) However, for them the challenge is real.

I suggest reward based reading. I have a bulletin board where kids can put their “glows and grows” for reading. They have to tell something glowing about the book and some way they can “grow” from reading the book. Both of these graphic novels present a moral dilemma for both protagonists. It doesn’t matter what they read, as long as they are reading.


Edison Beaker Creature Seeker: The Night Door by Frank Cammuso (Viking Books for Young Readers | 9780425291924 | October 2, 2018)

Caveboy Dave: Not So Faboo by Aaron Reynolds and Phil McAndrew (Viking Books for Young Readers | 9780451475480 | October 23, 2018)

Review (Plus): ‘American Heart’ by Laura Moriarty

America’s Bookshelf Blurb:

TSA has regulations in place because of our nation’s threatened security from 9-11—imagine a world where we place our human threats in internment camps to ensure our safety. Sarah-Mary finds she is helping a wanted Muslim escape safely to Canada despite her own political views and know how.

America’s Review:

Sarah-Mary of Hannibal, Missouri finds herself having to uphold a promise to her brother to help an estranged Muslim find safety and shelter outside the walls of the United States. In Laura Moriarty’s new book, American Heart, she explores the depth found within the walls of our hearts and shatters the illusion of safety.

Sarah-Mary and her brother have been repeatedly abandoned by their mother, so they live with their religious, overzealous aunt. Sarah-Mary is forced to go to a private Christian school where the administration enforces a strict dress-code and moral judgments upon everyone who doesn’t think and believe as they do. The outer world and the news around Sarah-Mary doesn’t concern her until the moment her brother makes her promise to help Sadaf: a wanted Muslim woman. Sarah-Mary is a disappointment to many, but to her brother she is his world. She would move mountains for that little man, and in promising to help her brother, she opens her heart to help a Muslim.

This story is told by Sarah-Mary as she makes her way from small town, white majority, Midwest USA to the borders of Canada. Sarah-Mary uses her street smarts and her wits to help the ladies hitchhike across the Midwest while they encounter both unsavory characters and kind-hearted individuals who show Sarah-Mary and Sadaf evil and kindness can lurk in the most unsuspecting places.

Those unsuspecting places and people are what truly made me enjoy this book which offered a perspective on human nature I haven’t seen through the eyes of a teenage girl in this dystopian world of Muslim haters. Sarah-Mary was sheltered and naïve to the racism and bigotry that exist in the world. Through the glimpses of people encountered along the way, not only is Sarah-Mary’s perspective broadened but also the perspective of the reader who will turn the pages of this hitch-hiking adventure.

Books like American Heart offer readers a perspective of what could come to pass if we do not change our mindsets and those around us. Sarah-Mary offered her heart at the risk of losing her life to jail time or to murder from the nasty minds of individuals who would rather turn her in than help her save a life.

In the Classroom: Research Paper & Report by poster board

Have your students pick a nationality. See if they can interview someone from there. Write the five paragraph paper with a Works Cited page including facts about their culture, religion and customs. The main part of this assignment is the visual. Have your students create a 3D poster board, share their new found knowledge and display them on your classroom walls. Stay late one day after school and create a Scavenger Hunt worksheet based on the information your students have shared on their poster boards. Then have your students complete your worksheets while learning about their peer’s research. Like Plato and Aristotle, you want your students to become wiser than the teacher.


American Heart by Laura Moriarty (HarperTeen | 9780062694102 | January 30, 2018)

Review (Plus): The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

Review (Plus): The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

Bookshelf Blurb: Do you like Pippi Longstalking? This book is like having FIVE of her all fighting to save their beloved Harlem brownstone, but their heartwarming attempts are interpreted as naughty antics by the grouchy old landlord who wants them out worse than before they started to charm him!

America’s Review: The Vanderbeeker kids are adored by the entire block and surrounding area of their quant Harlem neighborhood on 141st Street; however, their landlord, the Beiderman (or Mr. Beiderman as Mom keeps correcting throughout the story) has told the family he is not renewing their lease. The five kids—varying in age from 12 to 4 ¾—are Isa, Jessie, Oliver, Hyacinth, and Laney. These five children create ‘Operation Beiderman’ to save their home; but with only five days left until Christmas, they must be on their ‘A’ game to make it a success.

Karina Yan Glaser has introduced us to a fantastic family full of energy, passion and love. She has created characters with bold strength and internal issues true to their ages. The twin girls are 12 and Glaser has nailed the pre-teen angst of boys, dances and family loyalty. Doors slamming at angered and annoyed siblings is the perfect example of this age. Oliver, our only boy, is a nine-year-old who abounds with energy and ways to annoy his sisters who won’t leave him alone to just sit and quietly read his books. Our two younger siblings are Hyacinth, a typical middle sibling wanting peace and crafting everyone handmade gifts to show her love and devotion, and little Laney, the innocent, sweet baby of the family who longs to be old like her siblings, but still wants all the attention for herself.

Each chapter is a new day—one closer to losing their beloved brownstone. The kids, unbeknownst to their parents and the older ‘grandparent-like’ couple living above them, start leaving things on the doorstep for the Beiderman to find. One of the kids even decides to give him a kitten! With each new day comes a new gift and a new disaster. This poor old man wants to be left alone and these kids, in their good-hearted nature, keep giving him unwanted presents. When the kids deliver him a homemade breakfast and he opens the door, the sight of him scares them so much they drop the tray, shattering all the dishes and finding the food going splat! I was laughing at their loving attempts that were going SO wrong. These poor kids just want to save their home and every attempt becomes a disaster. It is too funny not to laugh and wonder what they can possibly do next.

It is Christmas Eve when the Beiderman finally has had enough and starts banging on the floors of the apartment. I’m sure he is wondering when will these children EVER leave him alone? The ultimate question I cannot answer is will they save their house? This is a fast paced book due to the many antics, petitions and times spent with the family, including the grandparent types upstairs–who I want as my neighbors! Good fun abounds in this book.

In the Classroom:

This is a 4th/5th grade read and I wouldn’t put it in the hands of anyone past this age level. It offers character traits which they can identify. The one thing I loved about this book was the drawings of the brownstone. There were only a few drawings throughout the book, but it offered the visual needed to complete the complexities of a brownstone in New York. This is a type of lifestyle not identifiable for everyone. That being said, I still recommend that you read this story out loud—perfect read between Thanksgiving and Christmas as it is short and could be finished in this time frame—and have your students draw a map of their street or neighborhood. This story would allow you to teach about compass rose and directions. You could also incorporate math with how many blocks and fastest routes to get from point A to point B. It amazes me how little students know how to get to their house as they are watching an electronic device in the car not paying attention to their surroundings. Encourage your students look out the window and see what is in their neighborhood.


The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser (HMH Books for Young Readers | 9780544876392 | October 3, 2017)

Review (Plus): ‘The Hawkweed Legacy’

Ms. America’s Review: I love when the wait is finally over and you get to touch, smell and devour the next book in a series, which I was able to do with The Hawkweed Legacy, book number two by screenwriter Irena Brignull, which hits shelves tomorrow.

A quick synopsis of the first one, The Hawkweed Prophecy, which will be released in paperback on the same day: Two girls–Poppy and Ember–are switched at birth: one has magic running through her veins, the other is a mere mortal. One is to be ruler over the Covens of Witches, the other will just be. A jealous aunt craving power casts a spell switching these two girls at birth, their altered destinies interfering with the powers of the universe. As Karma takes hold of their lives we see Mother Earth prevail and these two girls discover their true identities.

Throw in a homeless boy, Leo, who befriends them both (as they always do), who tests their love and loyalty while struggling with his own painful past.

The prophecy dictates Poppy Hawkweed will govern the witches, but she has fled to Africa to escape the responsibilities given to her. Charlock Hawkweed, her mother, leads the Coven in her absence. The witches start to revolt and Charlock knows she must find Poppy and lead her back to her rightful place: leader of the Coven.

At first I found Charlock to be a shy and timid witch who was a mere follower, doing whatever her sister, Raven, bid. My heart yearned for Charlock who held Ember close and protected her, despite knowing her true daughter was elsewhere. But the thought process of this unsuspecting reader was far from the truth. Charlock had a past–one we are told in this book, one which changed my thoughts from innocent Charlock to conniving and slightly evil. Once I had realized her true intentions it changed my thought process on how the Hawkweed Legacy was to ever come to fruition.

Our characters evolve giving more insight to the Prophecy. As Charlock goes in search of Leo’s mom, we glean more about his past and the powers he possesses. We also see Ember understand the depth of being a human tied to a Coven of very powerful witches. I was thrilled to see the development of the characters I so loved in the first book. I am hopeful to learn more in the third book which is promised to come sooner than later. I can’t get enough of the Fantasy genre, so this is good soul food if you’re in to that kind of thing!

In the classroom: Fantasy abounds! When you are overwhelmed grading papers, I encourage you to think outside the box and NOT make your students write a book report (CCLS.ELA-Literacy.SL.1-12.5). Instead invite your students to create a board game based on a Fantasy Book. Write clear rules of the game. Use direct quotes from the book. Use Character questions. Use Setting questions. It is a great way to establish comprehension without having to grade another paper. Each year Hasbro Gaming Lab opens up submissions for gaming ideas, so for extra credit have your students submit their idea and show you proof for submitting their book/game.


The Hawkweed Legacy by Irena Brignull (Weinstein Books | 9781602863149 | August 15, 2017)

Review (Plus): ‘One for Sorrow’ by Mary Downing Hahn

Bookshelf Blurb: “In flew Enza” was a playground chant, but influenza was a real epidemic in 1918. The mean girls who chanted this discover that they can’t cheat death as quickly as they can wish it upon others. A dark, sinister and creepy ghost story.

Ms. America’s Review: Mary Downing Hahn is an author I quickly give to any middle school student asking for a ghost story. I never hesitate, and she has never disappointed. Her newest book, One for Sorrow: A Ghost Story, can easily be classified as fantasy with a some useful crossover into historical fiction.

One for Sorrow gives us Annie, an only child who has recently moved to a small town. Annie is immediately greeted by Elsie who demands instant friendship. At first Annie is appreciative of the friendship until she realizes Elsie is a social outcast. Elsie is mean to Annie, but Annie is afraid to leave Elsie despite her mean spirit until the week Elsie goes missing from school. After that, Annie joins the other girls in their taunting and cruelty toward Elsie.

School is soon cancelled due to the outbreak of influenza and the girls take advantage of this by attending wakes of those who have passed, enjoying the free cakes and cookies. It isn’t until they go to the wake of Elsie that Annie discovers she is being haunted by Elsie’s lost soul. Annie is sent to an insane asylum hoping to remove Elsie from her life, but poor Annie’s torment is just beginning.

The flu epidemic of 1918 was a reality for the United States and, thanks to flu vaccines, is more history than reality for today’s young readers. Within twenty-four hours of the flu’s first symptoms, its victims were dead. A simple black wreath would adorn the front door of the deceased telling neighbors the house was in mourning. This tragic time in our country is not often taught, as it was overshadowed by the coming of World War I. One for Sorrow is both a chilling ghost story and a useful history lesson.

In the classroom: Ghost stories allow creative writing to occur while also allowing Common Core to be met and all in the month of October! Read aloud passages from the text: especially the part where Rosie has made up a jump rope chant rhyming “In flew Enza” into the art of jumping between the ropes. If you miss, the flu has got you and you are dead. What chants can your students incorporate into a unit of social studies?


One for Sorrow: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn (Clarion Books | 9780544818095 | July 18, 2017)