Goblins in the Castle

Goblins in the CastleGoblins in the Castle by Bruce Coville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Toad-in-a-Cage Castle was filled with secrets–secrets such as the hidden passages that led to every room, the long stairway that wound down to the dungeon, and the weird creature named Igor who lived there. William’s own past was mystery to even him, but it was the mysterious night noises that bothered William the most–the strange moans that drifted through the halls of the castle where he was raised.

He wanted to know what caused them.

Then one night they called his name….

My Review

My 4th grade teacher read this book to our class and I remember getting completely caught up in the story and the characters. It was one of the first books I read (or had read to me) that really had me on the edge of my seat.

So when it got to the point in the school year when I knew there would only be time to read one more book to my 3rd grade class I wanted it to be this one. I hadn’t read the book since hearing it for the first time at 10 years old, and I didn’t remember much of the details or the plot really; but with such fond memories of it I was confident none of us would be disappointed.

It turned out to be even better than I expected. It was the perfect read-aloud to end the year with. At the end of every chapter I would hear students either aloud or under the breath pleading, “Don’t stop! Please keep reading!” They (and me) couldn’t wait to unravel the mysteries of Toad-in-a-Cage castle. Bruce Coville has a real knack for humor but he also nailed the action and suspense-building in this one. It’s a quick and easy read, but not dumbed-down. It presents a well-rounded story arc with a variety of colorful characters which makes it so fun to actually read aloud.

There isn’t a lot of depth to the plot or character development that could lead to real analytical discussions, but this one is perfect for practicing the skill in the language arts curriculum of making and revising predictions. Lots of cliffhangers to provide text evidence with which to formulate predictions. You could also explore text structures throughout the book such as Problem and Solution, and Cause and Effect.

We finished the book on the 2nd to the last day of school, so we didn’t have time to do much else with it, but it would lend itself well to book reports and other projects like drawing or modeling what students imagine the goblins or their kingdom to look like. Students could write poetry or descriptive writing to articulate what they think it would have been like to be trapped in the tower like the goblins were.

But it’s important not to overanalyze or overthink this one. It really is just meant to entertain and excite, and it does a fabulous job of it.

Age Recommendation: It was perfect for 3rd graders and I loved it as a 4th grader. I think 5th and 6th graders would enjoy it too, so I’d say the ideal age would be 8-12. Girls and boys alike loved it in my class.

Appropriateness: If you are offended by a fart joke or practical jokes you might want to stay away from this one, but in my opinion it’s all humorous and harmless fun. Nothing offensive here.

Other book recommendations: If you like Goblins in the Castle you might also enjoy the Deltora Quest series by Emily Rodda, Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage, Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Fudge series by Judy Blume, Skinnybones by Barbara Park, Frindle by Andrew Clements, Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull, Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, and The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm by Nancy Farmer.

Classroom Use: Perfect read-aloud. Use it to practice making and revising predictions, identifying and mapping story elements, discussing problem and solution and cause and effect.

Among the Hidden

Among the Hidden (Shadow Children, #1)Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (from Goodreads)

Luke has never been to school. He’s never had a birthday party, or gone to a friend’s house for an overnight. In fact, Luke has never had a friend. Luke is one of the shadow children, a third child forbidden by the Population Police. He’s lived his entire life in hiding, and now, with a new housing development replacing the woods next to his family’s farm, he is no longer even allowed to go outside. Then, one day Luke sees a girl’s face in the window of a house where he knows two other children already live. Finally, he’s met a shadow child like himself. Jen is willing to risk everything to come out of the shadows — does Luke dare to become involved in her dangerous plan? Can he afford “not” to?

My Review

This was the perfect third grade read-aloud book. It had everyone (girls and boys) engaged from the first chapter, gave plenty of discussion material, and was completely age appropriate. The writing is easy to read without being dumbed down.

This is the one of the few dystopian fiction books I have read that is actually written for middle grade and younger. Most other books I have read from the genre are for young adults and older, but Among the Hidden breaks that mold and it does it perfectly.

When I first saw the book I was intrigued and excited about the idea of introducing my students to a new genre, but also a little concerned that it might get to intense or disturbing for 8 and 9 year olds. But after reading the first few chapters I was enthralled in the plot and certain that it would be just the right amount of dystopia to spur some new thoughts and ideas in my students without traumatizing them.

The world of the Shadow Children is full of injustice and unfairness. The government is corrupt and overly controlling. The main character, Luke, and his family have very little control in their lives as farmers, but Luke’s biggest problem is that he shouldn’t be alive in the first place, at least according to Population Law. Families are allowed to have 2 children, no more; and Luke is a third child. These are all pretty heavy issues, but the author presents them through the eyes of a child, a very sheltered and inexperienced one at that, so I found there was nothing inappropriate, nothing that I couldn’t read and discuss with 8 and 9 year-olds.

We had productive discussions on the role of government, the validity of information from certain sources, times when rules/laws should and shouldn’t be broken, and how to better appreciate the world we live in. We were also able to look at what ways our world might be similar to that of the book, and how we can avoid the problems getting worse.

Each time I closed the book at the end of read-aloud time there were groans of disappointment and displeasure. The author has a real knack for cliffhangers at the end of every chapter. My class is begging me to read book 2 in the series as our next read-aloud, but I want to introduce them to other genres this year, so the rest of this series will have to wait. I can assure you, however, that I will be picking up the other books in the series to satisfy my own curiosity and hunger to find out what happens next.

Age Recommendation: My third graders were at a perfect age to enjoy this book.  There is nothing that would be inappropriate for younger readers, but I’m not sure younger than 8 would understand the context fully. As an adult the plot and storyline was intriguing and I enjoyed the read, though the writing was more of a middle grade level.  I think readers from ages 8 to 14 would be the target audience.

Appropriateness: In reading this book you have to be prepared for pondering government corruption, the consequences of naivety, the idea of mass killing (though not described in any detail), and the general discomfort of a dystopian society. However, it is all told without profanity and with sensitivity for the ages for which this book is intended.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in Among the Hidden you might also enjoy The Deltora Quest series by Emily Rodda, Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling, Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Beyonders series by Brandon Mull, and the Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage.

Classroom Use: As described in my review, there is a lot of class discussion material in the book.  Some applicable discussion questions could be

  1. What change causes Luke to finally feel dissatisfied with his life to the point that he risks be seen?
  2. How does the government control the people in Luke’s world?
  3. Do you think the books and media reports we read are always accurate?
  4. How would knowing the true facts of history help the people in Luke’s world to solve some of the problems with which they are faced?
  5. How are Luke and Jen alike? How are they different? How do their differences affect their reactions to their situations?
  6. What do you think of the laws in place in Luke’s world?
  7. The Barons seem to be able to break a lot of rules and laws. Is this fair? What about if the laws are unfair?
  8. What do you think would be the hardest part about being a shadow child?

We also used this book to practice writing book reviews. Students were required to state whether or not they liked the book and why.  They gave a basic summary, and then stated whether or not they would recommend the book to others and why. You could also integrate this book into science and social studies by studying renewable sources of energy and food, and finding ways students could help with hunger or injustice in today’s world.

Skinny bones

SkinnybonesSkinnybones by Barbara Park

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary

Alex Frankovitch is a little on the skinny side for his age and definitely on the uncoordinated side. He has extra talent, however, for making the people in his life (and readers) laugh. It’s this talent that helps him get through baseball season and life as the target for the school jock and bully.

My review 

I consider read aloud time in my third grade classroom to be sacred. Ok maybe not sacred, but pretty darn important. Kids need to be exposed to “good” literature, not just curriculum stories formulated to teach information or a concept. They need to know what it feels like and sounds like to read a story with an interesting and smart author voice, one in which all the story elements are present, consistent, and complete. They need to be exposed to different genres as well. This is how experienced readers can motivate those still learning to want to keep at it. A read aloud experience at home or the classroom can show kids the adventures that wait them when they can independently read.

So I take seriously the responsibility of choosing “good” books to read aloud to my class. The BFG was our first read aloud this year, and then The Magician’s Elephant. Both of these books were fantasy though with very different voices. But I decided we needed a realistic fiction for our third read aloud. I perused all kinds of library lists and blogs to get ideas. On one list I saw Skinnybones. The name sounded vaguely familiar so I looked it up on Goodreads. As soon as I saw the cover memories from 5th grade came flooding back. My teacher read it to my class that year and I suddenly remembered bunting in baseball being confused with vomiting and other hilarious antics from Alex Frankovitch (a.k.a. Skinny bones). I knew it had to be the next read aloud in my classroom.

I was certain boys and girls with love this book and that we would all have a good laugh. I was 100% right. Alex Frankovitch is definitely the class clown, but an often misunderstood one. He makes some pretty dumb choices that get him into trouble but never out of maliciousness. He just doesn’t always think through his decisions. And he loves to make people laugh. The result is a laugh out loud journey through the perils of being an uncoordinated 5th grade aspiring baseball player with a problem with the class bully. My students were literally on the edge of their seats at times as we waited to see what Alex would do or say next. Everyday there were groans of disappointment when read loud time was over.

I loved the trip down memory lane. There are so many times that I would read a line or turn a page and suddenly remember what was going to happen next despite it having been over 20 years since my teacher read the book to my class. Occasionally I would start laughing at just the memory of what was to come and then have the hardest time reading it out loud without laughing through it. The laughter was contagious and my students would start laughing along with me before they even knew what the funny part was. Some highlights of the book for me are the beginning with Kitty Fritters fiasco, Alex’s conversations with God, and of course “Ooga Booga” in the middle of a baseball game.

Alex is just a lovable character despite his trouble-making tendencies. He reminds me of a boy in my class actually. I love how his parents handle his personality with their own sense of humor. The writing is genius. Though it was originally published in 1982, but it could just as easily take place today. So much of the story telling is dialogue and Alex’s thoughts which made it extra fun to read aloud with different voices and expression.

If you are in the mood for a ROTFL read pick up Skinnybones. I’m looking forward to seeing how many of my students pick up the next books in the series when we go to the library.

Age Recommendation: My third graders were the perfect age for appreciating this book. 5th and 6th grades would love it as well. But this book isn’t just for kids. Adults will appreciate the story and especially the perspectives of Alex’s parents and teachers.

Appropriateness: I love that this book is relatable for girls and boys. There is vomit talk, as would be expected when entering the mind of a 5th grade boy. Alex also has conversations with God but not in relation to any specific religion or spirituality. It was interesting to watch my students’ faces as I read the word “God” over and over. I live in a very religious area and yet students are not used to “that word” coming up at school. I loved being able to show them that it’s not taboo in all forms and that God is a real part of life for some people and even characters in books. I found nothing offensive in this book and it made for a perfect classroom read aloud.

Discussion Material: In my classroom this book inspired discussion about how to handle bullying, how to make up for mistakes we make or trouble we might cause, and how to keep a positive attitude and to like yourself even when life isn’t perfect.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like the sound of Skinnybones I think you would also like Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath, The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan, Holes by Louis Sachar, Frindle by Andrew Clements, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume, The Ramona series by Beverly Cleary, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

The BFG

The BFGThe BFG by Roald Dahl

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Captured by a giant! It’s lucky for Sophie he is the Big Friendly Giant. Had she been carried off in the middle of the night by the Bloodbottler, the Fleshlumpeater, the Bonecruncher, or any of the other giants-rather than the BFG-she would have soon become breakfast. When Sophie hears that they are flush-bunking off in England to swollomp a few nice little chiddlers, she decides she must stop them once and for all. And the BFG is going to help her!

My review

It had been over 20 years since I read this book, but I remembered thinking it was hilarious as a 10 year old. So I decided to pick it up as our first read-aloud in my 3rd grade class. It was a hit! My students loved the way the BFG mixed up his words and they could not get enough of “whizpopping.” The story develops quickly so it kept their interest well, but it also has a great balance of developing details and really painting a picture of the characters, settings, and action. There is a lot of dialogue in the book which makes it especially fun as a read aloud. The text was on the perfect level for a class of 8 and 9 year olds.

Discussion material: The BFG inspired class discussions on metaphors, stereotypes, and geography. As a class we got to practice comprehension strategies inference, predictions, character mapping, sequence of events, and cause and effect.

Age Recommendation: Readers of any age can enjoy the fun, creativity, and humor in The BFG, but I think 2nd-4th graders will be especially enthralled.

Appropriateness: I didn’t find anything offensive or inappropriate; however, if you have a problem reading about passing gas (called whizpopping in the book) you may want to avoid this one. But if you are willing to loosen up and give it a chance, despite the whizpopping involved, you won’t regret it! It’s a clever and humorous adventure.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like the BFG then you should give other Roald Dahl books a try like Matilda, The Twits, and George’s Marvelous Medicine. You will also like Frindle by Andrew Clements, Skinnybones by Barbara Park, Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath, Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye, The Magician’s Elephant by Katie DiCamillo, The Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley, and The Percy Jackson Series by Rick Riordan.

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The Winner’s Kiss (Winner’s Trilogy book 3)

The Winner's Kiss (The Winner's Trilogy, #3)The Winner’s Kiss by Marie Rutkoski

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

War has begun. Arin is in the thick of it with untrustworthy new allies and the empire as his enemy. Though he has convinced himself that he no longer loves Kestrel, Arin hasn’t forgotten her, or how she became exactly the kind of person he has always despised. She cared more for the empire than she did for the lives of innocent people—and certainly more than she did for him.

At least, that’s what he thinks.

In the frozen north, Kestrel is a prisoner in a brutal work camp. As she searches desperately for a way to escape, she wishes Arin could know what she sacrificed for him. She wishes she could make the empire pay for what they’ve done to her.

But no one gets what they want just by wishing.

The war intensifies and the world is changing. There is so much to lose; it’s almost impossible to see how anyone can win.

My Review

It was torture to not have this book immediately available after I finished book 2 in the series. When I finally got my hands on it I read in every free minute I had for 3 days. I was completely caught up in the story and conflict, in the romance, and in the storytelling just like with the first two books. I was worried that since it had been about 8 months since I had read book 2 that I wouldn’t remember enough to really get enthralled, but all the details came back to me as soon as I started reading. (You can read my review of books 1 and 2 here)

The same intrigue, stratagem, deceit, and difficult decisions from the first two books are alive and well in the series’ conclusion. It’s a web of lies and moral dilemmas and it makes these books more interesting and intelligent than your average YA romance. However, I’m giving this book 3 stars instead of the 4 that the other 2 books got simply because this one felt a little more like a soap opera. I was still completely enraptured in all the aspects of the story (the war and intrigue as well as the romance), but the characters lost just a little of their intelligence and strength for me because the focus seemed SO much on the romance. And there were SO many obstacles to the relationship just finally solidifying. I think it was dragged out just a little too long for me, but that didn’t stop me from devouring the book.

I enjoy the author’s voice; it’s poetic but for the most part not to the point of distraction. I respect her genius in creating such a complicated world and dilemma, web of characters and motivations, and pulling it all together into a satisfying story.

I will probably read this series again one day, and I will very much enjoy being able to read the whole thing from start to finish without months in between books.

Age Recommendation: With the harsh circumstances of war and imprisonment I would recommend this book for 16 and older.

Appropriateness: There is killing as well as torture and other harsh realities associated with war. But none of these horrors are glorified and the descriptions aren’t graphic.  There is description of kissing and intimacy, but the actual act of sex is not described graphically.

Other Book Recommendations: If The Winner’s Trilogy interests you I recommend that you also read The Wild Orchid: a retelling of the story of Mulan by Cameron Dokey, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, The Books of Bayern Series by Shannon Hale, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, and The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins.

An Uncommon Blue

An Uncommon Blue (Colorblind, #1)An Uncommon Blue by R.C. Hancock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (from Goodreads)

In Télesphore, the glowing color of a person’s palm determines their place in society, and touching hands with another mixes the colors permanently. When sixteen-year-old Bruno accidentally kills a royal soldier, he goes from favored to fugitive. Now Bruno’s only chance at survival is to become someone else. That means a haircut, a change of wardrobe, and most important, getting rid of his once cherished Blue. Now he’s visiting parts of town he never knew existed, and making friends with people he would’ve crossed the street to avoid only weeks ago. At the last minute, Bruno’s parents arrange a deal to clear his name and get his life back. All Bruno has to do is abandon those in the Red slums that look to him as a leader and let an innocent Green boy die in his place.

My Review

The first word that comes to my mind to describe An Uncommon Blue is fast-paced. It starts out with the action and conflict right away and it just keeps moving. I was enthralled at the get-go and I didn’t want to put it down until I had read the last word. This is absolutely a dystopian novel, but the world created in it is unique and fresh; it stands out in the very popular genre.

I appreciated a main character worthy of admiration, one who is trying to do good and make a difference as he faces the harsh realities of his world. However, I did feel there were some holes in his character motivation and development that left me wondering why, exactly, he was so generous and cared so much for the unfortunate people he met. With his privileged upbringing and naivety when it came to the “lower classes” in his society, I would have thought it would have taken him more time to be ok with sacrificing his privilege for the sake of those beneath him. But he was willing to risk his reputation and coming to bodily harm right from the beginning, even for the kid that had pretty much just ruined his life. Just made me wonder how he got to be so caring, especially while it was also clear that his main concern up to that point had been keeping his privileged status and easy life as a star athlete.

This unclarity in character motivation didn’t keep me from devouring every page, however. The writing style is simple, no stand-out prose, but it’s well-done. I wasn’t distracted at all by awkward phrasing or overly flowery description. Easy to read. The rules of the fictional world were conveyed through the story-telling; I appreciated that I didn’t have to get bogged down or interrupted from the story to read long explanations. In fact, the story may have even moved a little too quickly for me. I would have like a little more time spent on introducing the world and its rules, and the people and their motivations. There is a sequel so I hope that more will be explained because there were quite a lot of unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries at the end. I will definitely be getting my hands on the sequel quickly after it is released.

Overall though this is just a fun, fast, interesting, read. If you are looking for a book to get lost in for a few hours, I recommend An Uncommon Blue.

Age Recommendation: I suggest 15 and older. There is some killing and harsh inequalities in the book, and while the description isn’t graphic it could be disturbing to younger readers.

Appropriateness: Clean with great examples of selflessness and kindness. It would be of particular interest to boys. It has great book club discussion material too. The prejudices and inequalities based on the color of a persons’ light in their hand gives an interesting way to talk about the difficulties in our society as well. The sacrifices and rewards of selflessness and kindness would also be fitting topics.

Book Recommendations: If you like An Uncommon Blue you should read The Uglies series by Scott Westerfield, The Giver by Lois Lowry, Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, Eruption by Adrienne Quintana, The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima, Beyonders series Brandon Mull, and Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins.

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Gregor the Overlander

Gregor the Overlander (Underland Chronicles, #1)Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a fan of The Hunger Games series this book caught my interest because it is written by the same author. I wondered if Suzanne Collins writing could draw me into another world as effectively as she did with The Hunger Games. As indicated by a 3 start rating she was semi-successful. I liked the book. Collins’s writing is good; her characters are unique, memorable, and likable. She gets right into the story; by the end of the first chapter I was familiar with the main character, his life situation, his inner conflict, and the plot development was well on its way as Gregor had already fallen into the Underland. All that in just 13 pages. The action moved quickly after that and the plot developed logically and smoothly.

I appreciated the theme of family love and loyalty. That was what I related to in The Hunger Games as well. Collins’s characters face difficult challenges, have to overcome their fears, and make hard choices, but they find the strength to do all of this because they are motivated by a desire to protect their family. I may be a wuss at times like when needles or really hot weather are involved, but I would suffer through a lot to protect my family. I can relate to the characters’ motivations.

This was a good read, but it didn’t match my love for the Hunger Games books which got 4 and 5 stars. A lot of that has to do with the target audience. Gregor the Overlander is definitely written for young readers (boys in particular would enjoy it), so it is lacking some detail that as an adult reader I wanted. More info about why and how the Underland came to be would have helped, but for young readers this information may have been too much.

The writing is appropriate for young readers and also engaging for an older audience, but I was distracted by the inconsistency related to the age of the main character. He is 11 which matches the age of the readers for which it is intended, but the kind of internal “talk” we get from him, the choices he makes, and the maturity with which he makes them seemed incompatible with his age. Yes, some hard life circumstances have required Gregor to step up and take on more responsibility than your average 11 year old, but that responsibility wouldn’t be enough to justify the maturity level he displays. Fourteen years old would have been a much more accurate age for his behaviors and thought processes. And still he would be a mature 14 year old, so 11 was a little unbelievable. About halfway through I was able to just start picturing him as 14 and that helped.

Had the book been written for a slightly older audience then some of those background details and explanation that were missing could have been appropriately added. It would have made for a stronger and more enthralling world. The plot and action is certainly interesting enough for older readers, and I think it should have been written for them.

A unique world, fast pace, likable characters, and pleasant writing make this an overall satisfying reading adventure.

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Age Recommendation: 9 and older. Easy to read, but not too dumbed-down.

Appropriateness: There is war and death related to that. The darkness of an underground world and the creatures there may seem disturbing, but the writing is not graphic. This would be a fun read aloud for parents and kids or for teacher and classroom. 3rd graders would especially enjoy it.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like this one you should read Deltora Quest by Emily Rodda, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Fablehaven and Beyonders both by Brandon Mull, The City of Ember by Jeane DuPrau, Holes by Louis Sachar, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman