Review (Plus)

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)

Review (Plus): Emily and the Spellstone

Bookshelf Blurb: All Emily wants for her birthday is a phone, but not resembling an iPhone with apps that destroy things that go bump in the night! She didn’t realize wishes can come (sorta) true.

Ms. America’s Review:

Poor Emily just wants a phone for her birthday; she isn’t even asking for a certain kind or data plan, but since her sister has to go to physical therapy for texting fingers, it is a lost cause. As she wanders angrily away from her family birthday party at the beach, muttering notions of destroying her family, she discovers a rock…

Emily and the Spellstone by Michael Rubens gives us a character who is suffering from the angst of not fitting in. She wants to be normal, but even her parents forget her true age on her birthday! She thinks all of her woes will become rainbows if she could just have a phone. Most preteen kids can relate to Emily, and they will commiserate with her immediately. Emily’s unique hobby of collecting rocks–or more of a habit at this point in her life–becomes her undoing as she finds an Iphone looking rock on the beach. She picks it up declaring to herself this is as good as life is going to get. She puts it haphazardly on her windowsill that evening, not realizing the moon was the charger it needed to power on.

Along with the phone comes a demon protector who must do as Emily bids, but the minute he is released he will eat her. Just when Emily feels life cannot get any worse, it does. She learns she is the spellstone master and must learn the ‘apps’ in order to save her brother who has been kidnapped by the ultimate evil family in another dimension.

Michael Ruben is a former producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and his book’s wit and comical situations will appeal to any middle grade reader. Emily and the Spellstone is quite comical, and the puns do not stop. Unusually, it is a book which has no mature content which is written at a higher reading level, so it’s a perfect option for those seven- and eight-year-olds who can read at a higher level. This is a start of a series. Introduce to your second and third graders, and they’ll keep reading it into sixth grade.

In the classroom:

Use electronics in the classroom. There are many amazing, free tools to use in your classroom. One of my favorite ones is Prezi.com. It has a multitude of Powerpoint presentations already created for you to use in your classroom. Or you can use their software for free to let your students create a report. It’s super easy to use and navigate. Make your presentations fancy to show off your techy skills or simple and to the point.

Another favorite classroom tool is Khan Academy. It is wonderful for science and math. It allows your students to create accounts and invite a teacher (or parent) to be their coach. My last tech tool lifesaver is Remind.com. It allows you to mass text or email your parents to stay in communication with them. Parents also cannot email you back through this service, so they are forced to email you or talk with their child about your message. This is a great tool to allow your parents to know about upcoming events and no one can say, “We didn’t know….”


Emily and the Spellstone by Michael Rubens (Clarion Books | 9780544790865 | June 13, 2017)

Review (Plus): ‘You May Already Be a Winner’

Bookshelf Blurb: If only hitting ‘send’ on a virtual contest would mean winning, but in a world of ‘Walter Mitty’ type daydreams this is the only hope Olivia Hales has while living in Sunny Pines Trailer Park with an MIA dad and a mother who works yet can’t afford daycare, making Olivia hide her sister in a janitor’s closet in the middle school–totally embarrassing.

Ms. America’s Review:

Olivia Hales’ Merry-Maids-uniform-wearing mother is screaming at her to get out of the pool and help her find her sister, but Olivia is lost in a daydream. She can escape all of her loser moments because She May Already Be a Winner. Ann Dee Ellis has created a realistic world of middle school angst in her debut middle grade novel.

Olivia is stuck in the Sunny Pines Trailer Park watching her youngest sister, doing the laundry, making dinner, and trying to keep up with school while her mother goes to work every day. Her father has left the family and is living in Bryce Canyon working as some type of forest ranger, or so we conclude from daily emails Olivia sends him. Olivia wants to go back to school as she fondly watches her neighbor leave for school every day, but she knows she must be responsible for her sister and even her mom.

One morning Olivia is told by her mother that she must return to school. The truancy office has sent a notice. Olivia has missed half of the year and is behind in all of her class work. Her teachers try to reach out to her, but she is used to being independent, and she fears they are merely judging her and her family. Making matters worse her five year old sister who adores her manages to get kicked out of daycare, and Olivia is forced to offer her mother help again. She will take her sister to middle school and hide her in a janitor’s closet. When one afternoon during passing period she goes to check on her sister and give her a snack to her horror she discovers her sister is gone.

Olivia tries to maintain hope and dignity throughout the book. She is unaware of her mother’s choices, but refuses to let her mom shoulder them by herself. Her unfailing devotion to her family made me want so much more for Olivia than her parents were providing. I want to foster every Olivia out there. Olivia is a strong person and one who I kept hoping would finally become a winner. You May Already Be a Winner is a powerful book for those of us who have Olivias in our lives and want to help both the child and the parent.

In the classroom:

Like many students I have encountered through my years in the classroom, Olivia is a person I admire. Her undying hope is a mystery to me, even as my heart was breaking for this lovely young lady. She is the silent student in the classroom who has too many burdens to bear at home to do her homework. Students like Olivia have hope because sometimes that is all they have to hold on to.

As a teaching tool I would take an excerpt from this book, making students read it and decipher its “deeper meaning.” I especially liked when Olivia’s male teacher tried to relate to her and she became rude and mouthy to him. She even goes so far as to comment on his hair. She wasn’t like this throughout the book. Why is she lashing out at this teacher who is trying to help her and offer an escape?


You May Already Be a Winner by Ann Dee Ellis (Dial Books | 9781101993859 | July 11, 2017)