America Grelinger

Review (Plus): The Lost Property Office

thelostpropertyoffice_9781481467094_9480aBookshelf Blurb: In the English world of lost properties, a Section 13 should never happen–especially in the form of a 13-year-old boy who is missing his father. A bit of Watson & Holmes, magic and mystery explode in this debut novel by a former US Air Force Stealth Bomber Pilot.

America’s Review:

When I read the author bio on this book I was intrigued. James R. Hannibal, author of The Lost Property Office, was a US Air Force stealth bomber pilot and Predator mission commander. Given this impressive vitae in the form of a middle grade read, I had to peruse what mystery and mayhem would be found. In less than 24 hours I had devoured over 300 pages–and with a few left, I stayed up even later to finish!

Our main character, Jack Buckles, is left in charge of his annoying and somewhat bratty little sister Sadie, while his mother goes to find his MIA father. Mr. Buckles Senior is a salesmen who did not come home from his last job forcing his mother to leave the United States in search of her husband in England. Sadie, bored with her tablet within minutes of her mother’s departure, forces Jack to leave the safety of their hotel room, and here begins the twist of the book.

The use of modern day devices and speech will help the young readers when they are suddenly immersed in historical London. Hannibal links the past to the present with the skills soon discovered in the Buckle men as Jack must determine who is father is and the man he wants to become. Sadie leads them to the Lost Property Office where they must complete forms, but alas these are not ordinary forms. The Ministry created the Lost Property Office to help find what was lost and also to keep things hidden–including people.

In the classroom:

Jack is a seer of things beyond the obvious; he can hear, see and sense the shadows of our past giving him the opportunity to solve mysteries of long-ago; however, crimes cannot be solved without a partner, so much like Holmes & Watson, Jack stumbles on a peer who can help him interpret his senses. Find a peer for this assignment, as group work makes it more complicated to agree on visions–as Jack soon discovers!

In the social studies classroom it is fun to challenge your students to create a what-if scenario. This would be a three-part essay. One: If they could go back in time, what time period would they chose and why? Two:  Research the event and historical aspects of this time period. Three: Create a different ending to the story giving specific examples of who might have made a difference decision to change the fate of the event.

Using CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.2 for grades 6-8: Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.

The Lost Property Office by James R. Hannibal (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers | 9781481467094 | November 8, 2016)

Review (Plus): Charlie Pie Chart and the Case of the Missing Hat

Bookshelf Blurb: A mystery to solve and shapes to be taught while reading the story. Included activities reinforce the teaching with hands on activities at the end of the book.

charliepiechart_missinghat9780062370563_51768America’s Review: Eric Comstock and Marilyn Sadler have teamed up again for another mystery-solving adventure with Charlie Pie Chart and his sleuthing dog, Watson. It is the day of the school’s musical theater production of The Princess and the Frog when Margot, the Princess, discovers her hat has disappeared! It has been taken.

In this 2nd Charlie Pie Chart mystery, Charlie Pie Chart and the Case of the Missing Hat, new elements of math are being taught. Charlie must discern where the hat is based on clues; he also must detect what shape he is trying to find among the many other shapes found throughout the school.

As in the first book, multiple skills are being taught as well as the key concept of the book. They integrate prior knowledge (colors, numbers, letters) into the mystery while also adding a new skill. The vibrant colors used in the illustrations help the reader’s interest stay piqued as they too have to search the pictures for details to help Charlie solve the mystery.

In the Classroom: Sadler and Comstock provide lesson plan activities at the end of their books. This is nice added value for parents or teachers because you don’t have to think of what to do or go search for a project. (You will need to send home a letter–or add this to your weekly newsletter–asking parents to send in empty paper towel rolls and toilet paper rolls. These will be used for your activity after you read the book.)

One of the Common Core State Standards for Kindergarten students is for them to correctly name shapes regardless of their orientations or overall size (CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.K.G.A.2.) This book teaches shapes throughout the book giving examples you can find in your own classroom. As you read, pause and have your students find the shapes Charlie identifies as he is searching for the missing hat. If time allows, create a rocket ship for each child to take home using the directions at the end of the story. And if time doesn’t allow, send home instructions for your students to make a rocket ship or princess hat at home with their parents explaining what you taught in class and how parents can reinforce the learning in the home.

Charlie Pie Chart and the Case of the Missing Hat by Marilyn Sadler & Eric Comstock (HarperCollins | 9780062370563 | October 4, 2016)

Review (Plus): ‘They All Saw a Cat’

Bookshelf Blurb: I know how I see a cat. You know how you see a cat. Now we can know how other animals see a cat through their animal eyes, but at the end of the story, you have to ask, how does a cat see a cat?


America’s Review: Each animal has a different visual perception of the world around them. The illustrations created by Brendan Wenzel in They All Saw a Cat display the unique view of a cat through a variety of species. As a cat prows through the world with his whiskers, ears and paws, the animals see him in a variety of ways: as colorful dots as a bee has a limited vision, or in the colors they are themselves–black and white like a skunk. The worms merely see a dark shadow cross their path as they are under ground and the cat is passing them above on the ground. Each different animal sees the cat as a friend, foe, or possibly a mere part of the passing scenery.

With each turn of the page, the reader is given the opportunity to also see how the cat is viewed. It isn’t until the end of the story, when the reader is asked the simple question, how does the cat view himself?

In the classroom: As you turn the pages of this book, you can ask your young reader (actually this book would be a great read for the middle school age as well as the elementary audience) why the cat is viewed in this manner? The illustrations differ from page to page, so the discussion should vary base on the drawings given on the pages associated with the different species.

The given perspectives of how the different animals “all saw a cat” leads itself to a simple classroom discussion: how do we see ourselves verse how others view us? Ask multiple questions defining “others.” Others can be peers, teachers, parents, family members, etc. Do these perspectives differ based on the environments of our relationships?

At the conclusion of the book, your audience will have differing opinions on how the cat views itself. Will the cat see itself as a shadow, as spots, as a black and white vision? These answers can also reveal how your reader views themselves. These discussions (or journal entry for your older audience) can allow you a different perspective of your student. Sometimes this type of story can open discussions that aren’t answered through  a direct morning question, “How are you?” Fine is a common answer, but with a story about a cat and views of animals, you may find a different answer.

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel (Chronicle Books | 9781452150130 | August 30, 2016)


Review (Plus): ‘Towers Falling’ by Jewell Parker Rhodes

TowersFalling_9780316262224_99601Bookshelf Blurb: 9/11 devastated our nation and for 15 years, children have been born who have no idea of how this event united people from sea to shining sea. History comes alive through three best friends who live in Brooklyn, NY in 2016.

Ms. America’s Review:

As I listened to the laughter and shouts of joy coming from my two children who were happily watching bombs bursting in air, I realized how innocent and free these 9- & 11-year-old boys were. I watched my 9-year-old place a whirly-bird on the ground and then take off running for his life as he knew the fuse would soon blow. Once he was a safe distance away, he turned back to watch the firework launch into the air and explode in a multitude of lights above his head. I didn’t turn to watch the show, but instead turned to watch his angelic, innocent face and see his eyes reflecting the glow of the night.

Feeling my stare, he turned to look at me, then asked, “Mommy, are you crying?”

I shook my head, wiping away tears, and explained, “This reminds me of the book I am reading about a time you weren’t alive to know about. It was a time that made us realize our freedom comes at a price.” He knew I was upset, not an angry kind of upset, but one of pure sadness. He sat down beside me as his brother took his turn blowing something up and asked me again, “Why are you crying about a book?”

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes is a book of truth. It will make the adult readers pause and tell the young reader in whose hands this book should belong, exactly the time and place they were the moment they learned that suicidal terrorists flew planes into four US locations: the Pentagon, a field in Pennsylvania and into two of the largest buildings in New York City: The Twin Towers.

Jewell Parker Rhodes won the Coretta Scott King Honor Award for her book Ninth Ward and I hope to see her recognized again for her ability to tell the story of 9/11 through the words of a homeless 10-year-old girl, Deja.

After her family of five have been evicted from their home, Deja has to learn to embrace who she is despite her ailing father, a working mother and her two younger siblings. On the first day of school she meets Ben, who is also new and has just moved to Brooklyn from Arizona, and Sabeen, a young Muslim student who has lived in NY all of her life. The three children are in Miss Garcia’s homeroom where this unlikely friendship forms between a white boy, a black girl and a Muslim girl.

Within the first few days of school, Miss Garcia informs her students they will be working on a class unit learning about the absence of the towers which they could see from their classroom windows 15 years ago. Deja is unaware of this event, and through the friendship of Ben and Sabeen, she soon learns of the devastation and ruin. She has to learn how this affected our nation, but also how this event is the reason her father can no longer hold a job or maintain sanity.

Fifteen years has passed since this attack occurred, but to many people, this tragedy will forever be a part of their life. Freedom is given to us in the United States, but present day children do not realize how freedom can be taken away in mere moments. Pass this book on to our youth. Teach them a moment of history through the perspective of one of their 5th grade peers….Deja learns more about herself and her family through our history of 9/11.

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers | 9780316262224 | July 12, 2016)

Review (Plus): The Crown’s Game

Bookshelf Blurb: Two magicians are vying for the title of Imperial Enchanter despite their admiration for each other and the romantic affection that slowly grows between them. Unfortunately, there can only be one winner of The Crown’s Game and they must fight to the death… or figure out a way to best the game.

TheCrownsGame_9780062422583_8fbe0America’s Review: From the first page, the reader learns that even before Tsardom there was a need for a magician of indisputable power–one who will yield unimaginable magic within themselves–and the game would alleviate any question as to who this person was. History dictates the Tsar of Russia must have an Imperial Magician to help maintain order in the kingdom by using the elements of wind, fire and nature. There can only be one Imperial Magician to yield the power of the earth and in the event two are born of the same year, The Crown’s Game was invented to ensure the mightiest would prevail. In 1825, such a tragedy occurs: two magicians are born and they must fight to the death in The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye.

I was drawn into The Crown’s Game by the unique history given in the prelude of a magician so powerful they are to help the Tsar of Russia–and the date–1825. As the first chapter unfolds, the stage is set in a wooded area on a small Russian island where young Vika is being tested by her father, and mentor. To save herself from destruction, her father has created this test to measure her skills as a magician. Instantly, I was drawn to the wit, self-preservation and strength found in our protagonist. She exudes a toughness found in few; not a nasty mean girls attitude, but instead one that offers humility and beauty.

After meeting Vika, the reader is given a new perspective in the next chapter through, Nikolai, a young man who was orphaned and has been serving as an apprentice to a mean, vindictive woman, Galina.   Not only is Galina a self-serving woman who realizes that the talent Nikolai possesses will one day be tested, but she also knows it will be matched against her brother’s daughter/mentee in the Crown’s Game. She is Vika’s aunt.

Galina took Nikolai in to her household, but taught him to be reliant on no one and to take care of himself using only his magic. To fend for himself Nikolai finds himself on the street gambling with other young ruffians when he first encounters his best friend, Pasha, who he helps not get taken advantage of on the streets as Nikolai soon discovers Pasha’s truth–he is the heir to the Tsar.

Pasha dreams beyond the walls of his father’s kingdom and often escapes his guards to wander amongst the pheasants. He invites Nikolai along on his adventures and through the years these two become the best of friends–until the fateful day when they wander into the woods of a small island not far from the capital of St. Petersburg where they discover a girl with wild red hair surrounded by fire, creating a shield of ice to protect herself from injury. Nikolai has never confided in his friend his own abilities, but knows he has just discovered his opponent in the game for which he has been training his entire life. He also knows he is besought with the beauty and magnificence of the one person in the world who can relate to the magic that flows in his veins.

These fateful moments allow the two boys to discover this beautiful, courageous young magician. It is this moment which causes Pasha to go home and learn about the Crown’s Game all while trying to discover the identity to the young woman who has captured his heart. As Pasha sits reading about the game, the kingdom is under assault with gossip of wars and traders. Pasha’s lack of leadership prompts Pasha’s sister, Yuliana, to insist their father, the Tsar, must commence The Crown’s Game as Pasha is not a strong enough ruler without an Imperial Magician by his side.

The Crown’s Game begins and the two must battle to the death for there can only be one Imperial Magician as governed by the rules of the game. The Tsar has placed a unique twist to the game; they must complete magical feats for Pasha’s upcoming birthday in which he will become the new Tsar. As Nikolai and Vika make their moves, it is clear they must find a way to change the rules or destroy the other magician who has won their love.

In the Classroom: In the AP English classroom, students are reading, studying, reviewing and analyzing the great literary classics. In their junior and senior years, students could read War and Peace, Crime and Punishment or Anna Karenina. These are ‘heavy’ reads offering a plethora of literary traits, but also allow you to create a Russia Themed Unit. Russian History–a complicated past of Autocratic views, the Rise of Moscow, Ivan the Terrible, Romanov Dynasty, Alexander the Great, the Cold War, to modern era problems.

The Crown’s Game offers researched information about the Tsar, his kingdom and the arising problems of the 19th Century. In her Author’s Notes, Evelyn Skye, has told her readers this is historical fantasy, but also states she has done her research for times, places and events in her story. As an English teacher I have read all of the AP reads mentioned above and the fantasy offered in The Crown’s Game allows the reader to grasp more of the context of the time and place than the words offered by Tolstoy. I am comparing apples to oranges here, but if you can get both books into the hands of your readers they will enjoy the adventure found in both while walking away with a more in-depth picture of Russia. All while assigning your student a research paper based on one of the books, the history or the people. This assignment may inspire them as it did Evelyn Skye!

The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye (Balzar + Bray | 9780062422583 | May 17, 2016)