Review (Plus)

Review (Plus): Tracks in the Wild

Bookshelf Blurb: Every two pages is a new animal with its paw print detailed in true size with information about the animal’s habitat, diet and social attitude. Great read for any age! Beautiful wood carved stamped images of the animals found throughout.

TracksInTheWild_9780816698837_097c7America’s Review:

In 1994 the Minnesota Book Award was given to Betsy Bowen for her insightful and beautifully hand-crafted book, Tracks in the Wild. Every illustration in the book was created by using woodcut printing techniques. Each and every page was hand-whittled wood creating the perfect track of an animal along with a beautiful illustration of the animal and the environment in which it lives.

My eight-year-old son loved that his hand was smaller than the prints a moose leaves behind while munching on dripping weeds. The true-to-size animal footprints put the size of these animals in perspective while also educating readers about the habitat, diet and social nature of the beast.

I’m glad to see that University of Minnesota Press reprinted this timeless book filled with magnificent knowledge of our woodland neighbors. Although I don’t live where some of these animals would roam, I did enjoy learning facts about them while also finding out new things regarding animals I have seen in my own backyard.

In the classroom:

This is a well researched, informational text that is easy to read and understand. Each set of pages offers a different animal. You can read this book to your students in one sitting, or you could read two pages over the course of two weeks. At the end of the reading you could have your students write a summary of two or three pieces of information they gleaned from the reading (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.3.7). At the end of the book you could have your students select an animal and create a PowerPoint of their research (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.7) and then have them present their PowerPoints to small groups of students (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.3.4.) Make sure you give your students a quick checklist of information you want presented in their PowerPoint (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.3.1.C.) Students love the ability to “play” teacher. For most classrooms you will want to divide and conquer. Having 25 PowerPoints to show to the class would be time-consuming, so the group option allows you to achieve this task without taking up too much classroom time (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.6).

I used CCSS Grade 3 for the above activity, but many of these concepts overlap up until 6th grade. This is a book to put on the classroom and library shelf.

Tracks in the Wild by Betsy Bowen (University of Minnesota Press | 9780816698837 | November 1, 2015)

Review (Plus): “Need” by Joelle Charbonneau

Bookshelf Blurb: After I read this I had to take a break for several days before picking up another book. The story crept into every aspect of my life and made me second guess every tweet, Snapchat, and Facebook post I made. What do I need? I need to stay alive and away from social media.

Need_JoelleCharbonneau_9780544416697_b7f3bAmerica’s Review:

There are books that stay with you days, months and sometimes the rest of your life. I am a vivacious reader and find that most times I remember the gist of a book, but not always the minute details found within its numerous pages. With this being said, I must say that Joelle Charbonneau’s NEED has seeped into the very soul of my being. I will no longer consider the Internet a friendly environment for anyone I even remotely care about. It is a scary void of unknowns and can creep into the most innocent of lives.

A social media site has entered into the lives of Wisconsin’s Nottawa High School students. It is a place where members invite members and NEEDs are obtained. It’s a simple website: It merely asks you what do you NEED?

It defines needs versus wants. It has clearly stated rules and regulations—the fine print with a large box you check before even reading the details because you just want to move on to the next screen. We’ve all done it. Who reads the terms? Who actually scrolls through all the legal jargon? No one–especially when you can get a new iPhone, a laptop, or even a kidney. This is what Kaylee Dunham needs for her brother to live–a new kidney.

This is Kaylee’s story, but is told from the perspective of multiple NHS students as they explain what they require  and the justification behind what they are doing in order to get what they NEED. The uncomplicated NEED website spirals out of control as membership starts to decline, the NEEDs rise and the demands are met. The website is clear in stating it is the decision of the person to accept the fulfillment request–nothing is given for free. When Kaylee turns to the authorities for guidance the site is conveniently down, making her look the part of the fool.

As innocent as this website looks, the death toll starts to rise. Innocent lives are lost due to the denial of the self-proclaimed innocents. Over one winter break the lives of the NHS students are shattered because of social media. The questions Kaylee must answer are who is behind NEED and what she must do in order to take it down before the site destroys more lives.

In the classroom:

This book does not provide depth of discussion for the elements of a story, but NEED provides a myriad of current and present situations our students deal with every day. Cyber-bullying, peer pressure, suicide and relationships are all issues NEED homes in on that make students feel compelled to complete their tasks in order to achieve what they feel is a NEED pertinent to their life.

Childnet, a non-profit group organized to educate and inform parents of safe uses of the Internet, says 96% of children ages 11-19 use some form of Internet communication tool on a daily basis–this isn’t necessarily a computer, but could be a cell phone. Most of these children and young adults spend a minimum of 1.5 hours daily on social media sites. More statistics on bullying can be found at

NEED, although a work of fiction, is an ever-present reality. In the high school classroom–across the subjects–students are asked to use the Internet to write research papers, complete homework assignments and oftentimes even go to Facebook to see what the teacher has posted for an assignment. The Internet has infiltrated our lives, and for most of us we assume everything is safe.f it isn’t, our children would come to us, right? Not so.

In an assignment with your students, teach them about safe websites. Teach them about This is a fabulous resource I used throughout my years in the classroom. to learn who a website’s author is and about first and secondary sources.This is also great knowledge to possess as you enter into the world of college. Anyone can have a blog and anyone can post something to the Internet. The worst part:nothing on the Internet ever goes completely away. There is always a ghost image that can come back to haunt you. Students are naive to this fact. Students are naive in thinking a ‘simple post’ won’t cause harm, as seen repeatedly in the tasks completed by students on NEED. No task is without a repercussion.

Teach your students the difference between being positive and negative in both posts and text messages. I have students text me about assignments, and it’s amazing how they address me in a text message. Don’t allow your students to become complacent with their grammar or their respect. Teach them the difference. Your lesson on cyber etiquette may be a lifesaver one day.

College and Career Readiness (CCR) Anchor Standards are achieved in the above lesson plan as well as CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.1

NEED by Joelle Charbonneau (HMH Books for Young Readers | 9780544416697 | November 3, 2015)

Review (Plus): “My Wild Family”

Bookshelf Blurb: Brilliant illustrations depicting family members as animals! What animal would you be? What about your mom, or dad, or grandma?

MyWildFamily_9781452144238_0c8a5America’s Review:

The cover and the title made me anticipate a story about animals, but much to my delightful surprise I found My Wild Family by Laurent Moreau to be a book about what makes each us special. The narrator describes each member of her family and puts a picture of the animal she feels best represents their personality within the confines of daily life. She tells us her brother is strong; we find her brother on a school playground with his classmates, except he is a glorious gray elephant!

I have to admit it took me a minute to grasp the person being described was an animal. I had to flip back to the beginning and find the animal being described before I had an “A-HA” moment. The vivid colors and the scenes kept me grinning like a fool as I read the book. How great to think of my family as animals—oh, how my brain was already thinking of how to use this in the classroom.

In the classroom (my favorite part):

Run to your nearest “dollar” store and buy a pack of paper plates. Now, read My Wild Family to your classroom; make students identify the author and illustrator of the text (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.6). With prompting and support, describe the relationship between illustrations and the story in which they appear” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.7). This ensures your students become familiar with an animal being a representation of a member of the narrator’s family.

Enlist the help of your librarian and assign your students to go to the library to select a book about an animal they believe they are,thus answering the last question, “What makes you special?”

Send home the book with your students to read with their parent (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.K.10). You will need to send home a letter to the parents explaining the assignment: Your child has selected an animal they feel best represents them. Please read this with them and brainstorm why they chose this animal. You may even talk about what animal you would be and why.

After completion of this story have each student make a paper-plate mask depicting what animal they would be. This is a simple pre-K or kindergarten activity where limited reading is acceptable.

My Wild Family by Laurent Moreau (Chronicle Books | 9781452144238 | November 3, 2015)

Review (Plus): “The Lightning Queen”

The Bookstore Blurb: If you enjoyed The Princess Bride, you will enjoy this book–a love story spanning generations featuring great storytelling by the grandfather to his 11-year-old grandson.

TheLightningQueen_9780545800846_88712The Book Review by Ms. America:

I adored Fred Savage balking when his grandfather, played by Peter Falk, showed up to take care of him while he was home sick from school in the initial scene of the 1987 film The Princess Bride. It was a generational disconnect of a grandpa taking time to read to his middle school-aged grandson who, of course, doesn’t appreciate the gesture, but within the first few pages of the story is hooked and wants to hear the story of the undying love between the Farm Boy and Princess Buttercup.

This is how I felt while reading The Lightning Queen by Laura Resau. It is about a young boy who journeys to Mexico to visit his grandfather; while there, the boy is told the tale of his grandfather, Teo, and his childhood friendship with Esma, Queen of Lightning. A few times the audience is brought to the present by interruptions, but it doesn’t alter the telling of the story; it even made me want to get back into the story. I enjoyed this type of storytelling, which I later learned was based on true events.

Teo is an Indigenous Mexican–called a Mixteco–and lives without running water, electricity and modern day facilities. After the death of both his father and sister, Teo’s mother was too emotionally distraught to take care of him, so he is being raised by his grandfather, who is a healer and a wonderful man constantly encouraging Teo to aspire for more than what the little village offers.

A band of traveling Gypsies come once a year to Teo’s village to show a movie and tell fortunes. With this group is Esma, who sings beautifully enough to bring the dead back to life. Her charismatic personality arouses life in the faltering young Teo. He has experienced too much grief for one so young, so when Esma’s grandmother reads Teo’s fortune and it tells of a lifelong friendship with the one the Gypsies referred to as ‘Squashhead’ –the ever-beautiful and charming Esma–he is enthralled with the possibilities of a friendship for life.

The friendship evolves over the next few years to give both children hope to find something beyond the despair they live each and every day. Teo is encouraged to go to the nearby school with a white teacher; Esma is encouraged to become a singer. Their two paths veer and ultimately they grow apart until present day. Teo feels a longing to find his estranged friend, and he enlists the help of his grandson. Thanks to Google, Esma is discovered and the friends can reunite. (No spoilers, so I must stop now while I’m still keeping the secret!)

In the classroom:

The historical aspect of this book is phenomenal. The description of the two outcast cultures–the Romani and the Mixtec Indians–allow the reader to have a taste of what it would be like to be shunned within the world as well as within their own village. Teo and Esma form an unlikely friendship that is allowed by the grandparents and tolerated by the villagers.

This is a story allowing a platform for discussion on diversity. Use YouTube to show quick videos of different cultures. I found several videos depicting both cultures represented in The Lightning Queen. Using several different clips, have your students “analyze the main ideas and supporting details presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and explain how the ideas clarify a topic, text, or issue under study” (CCSS ELA.SL.6.2 & ELA.SL.7.2). You can go a step further and have your students discover their own clips and present them to the class.

The Lightning Queen by Laura Resau (Scholastic | 9780545800846 | October 27, 2015)

Review (Plus): “These Shallow Graves”

Book Shelf Blurb: Set in 1890s and true to the time period, These Shallow Graves is about Jo Montfort, an aristocratic girl whose father gets murdered and who must dig up information—including a dead body–in order to solve the mystery.

TheseShallowGraves_9780385737654_ab97fAmerica’s Review:

As we approached to Halloween, I was intrigued by the title of Jennifer Donnelly’s newest YA novel, These Shallow Graves, and wanted a good bone-chilling novel to keep me awake at night. Although I enjoyed the book, I am glad to say I won’t be left with nagging or reoccurring nightmares. Instead, I am left with a sense of relief to know the innocent lives lost in the telling of the story get their due in the end.

We start the story with three people digging up a corpse–apropos to the title, but it isn’t the literal grave that Donnelly wants her readers to grasp, but rather the figure of speech. We all are subject to ‘digging’ our own graves, and as the plot thickens we see how narcissistic people can become.

Covered in dirt and standing with a shovel above a grave is our protagonist, Josephine Montfort. Jo is a 17-year-old girl living in the 1890s among the upper echelon in New York City. She is covered head to toe in dirt, but we are not told why; instead, we are transported to the past, where it is unveiled why our lovely and innocent protagonist is standing at a graveside at 2 in the morning. Jo’s father has been murdered; his partners in his shipping company have been murdered as well, and it seems the business has been compromised when shipping manifests mysteriously disappear. Compelled to become a reporter, Jo finds herself yearning to learn the truth of her father’s untimely demise, as well as the truth of the shipping business.

Much to Jo’s chagrin this is not the time when a young lady can ask questions or go anywhere without a chaperone. Jo is at the mercy of the era and has to discover how to elicit answers without shaming her family or herself. Thanks to her intelligence, wit and charm, she manages to befriend a newsie who has connections throughout the city. This friendship quickly evolves into a romantic relationship which will epically fail due to their lineage.

The historical aspect of this novel was compelling, as was the plot development and characters. I felt like a winner because I knew who did what before Jo did, but that isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book. The authors depiction of the time allowed me to create beautiful images of the story as I read (well, some not-so-beautiful, as New York has a lurking evilness to its west side, with its pickpockets and ladies of the evening, though some of these settings allowed for great characterization to develop).

In the classroom:

Historical fiction allows the opportunity for a cross-curriculum activity. Jo is 17 and getting ready to enter the world in which she was raised. Her family has selected the correct man for her to marry. They have molded her to lead a perfectly sheltered and blissfully ignorant life. But she has other plans.

What was life like for teenagers in 1890 versus today? A comparison/contrast paper is the perfect assignment for this novel. Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources (CCSS 9-10 English/Language Arts/ History/Social Studies). Do not make students write a paper, but merely find sources. Teach them the difference between secondary and primary, as they are difficult to determine when a student is using the Internet. The Internet can be deceiving and it is best to educate prior to giving an assignment. Once you have instructed them between the differences, you can assign a book report allowing students to select historical fiction books detailing the differences between current day and the past.

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly (Delacorte Press | 9780385737654 | October 27, 2015)