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The Invention of Hugo Cabret

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This story takes place in 1931 Paris. Hugo Cabret, a 12-year-old orphan, maintains the clocks at one of Paris’ train stations so no one notices that his uncle -the actual station’s timekeeper- has disappeared, and so he can keep on living in his uncle’s work lodging. Hugo’s goal is to repair an automaton that his clockmaker-father had found in a museum he was working in before tragically dying in the fire that destroyed that museum. In order to fix the automaton, Hugo is following the drawings and instructions in his father’s remaining notebook, and using parts he steals from an old man’s toy booth. The old man catches him stealing, and takes his notebook away. Hugo starts working for the old man in the hope of recovering his notebook, but he discovers he can fix the automaton on his own using the little toy parts he continues to steal. Thanks to a key he steals from Isabelle, the old man’s goddaughter, the automaton he has fixed springs to life, and draws a picture that Hugo recognizes as being from a movie his father once told him about. The automaton signs “Georges Méliès”, which happens to be the name of Isabelle’s godfather. This discovery sets Hugo and Isabelle on a search for her godfather’s mysterious past life that will reveal an unknown world of images and magic to Hugo and Isabelle, and change their lives.This book is highly unusual in that it combines words, drawings and pictures (taken from actual early movies). The drawings and pictures are an integral part of the narrative, and the author has successfully managed to seamlessly integrate all three medium in order to tell his story. The book recounts part of the life of visionary early French filmmaker Georges Méliès. From what I have read on this filmmaker’s life, the details about his professional life seem accurate and well-researched. Early cinema as well as clock and automata workings are extremely well-researched as well, and masterfully woven into the storyline. However, this is much more than a historical fiction book. It is also, and perhaps most importantly, a book about a boy, his emotions, and his life struggles and hopes. In my opinion, this book is close to being a masterpiece in its own “mixed-medium” genre. I found the illustrations to be particularly stunning, and although the sheer size of the book can be a deterrent at first, one soon finds out that it reads quickly and effortlessly. This book can be enjoyed by children, teenagers and adults alike. For children, I would recommend this book for ages 9 to 12.
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

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Joey Pigza has a bad case of ADHD. He is taking medications, but they do not work very well. After he has been living with his not-very-kind grandmother for several years, his mother finally returns to take care of him. Joey constantly gets in trouble at school because he loses control of himself, and starts behaving in ways that can be dangerous to him (such as sticking his finger in the pencil sharpener, or walking on a beam at the top of a barn during a field trip), and to others (he cuts off the tip of one of his classmates’ nose). He ends up being sent to a special education center in order to help him gain better control of his life. Thanks to the structure of that school, the caring attention of a teacher, and new medication, he does get better by the end of the book, and is allowed to return to his original school. This book accurately portrays the struggles and shifting emotions that a child suffering from ADHD might go through. The anguish and guilt caused by seeing oneself do things uncontrollably when one wants to behave well is well conveyed. The first-person narrative puts the reader in Joey’s shoes, and we almost feel ourselves spinning out of control when he does. Joey is an endearing little kid, and after being taken for a wild rollercoaster ride along with Joey, the reader really feels for him, and wants him to succeed in his quest to get better. This is definitely a book that would interest children with ADHD as well as their parents and teachers. Grade 5 and up.
James and the Giant Peach (Roald Dahl)

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After his parents get eaten by a rhinoceros, four-year-old James has to go live with his two mean-spirited aunts who make him work all day long, and prevent him from going anywhere. After three years of living a miserable life, James is given magic crystals by a strange little man, and accidently drops them by an old peach tree. Almost right away, a peach starts growing on the tree until it becomes as big as a house. The next day, James finds an entrance into the peach, and meets seven gigantic insects inside the pit: a grasshopper, a ladybug, a spider, a glow worm, a centipede, an earthworm and a silkworm. Frightened at first, James soon realizes that these oversized animals are very nice, and he becomes good friend with them. They cut off the stem of the peach, and soon embark on a trip that will eventually take them all the way to New York.This story that has become a classic is a wonderful tale of friendship, resourcefulness, and of coming together to solve problems. Even if the main characters besides James are insects, they act and behave like humans, and their feelings and fears make them very realistic and likeable characters. The exaggeration of some of their behaviors actually works well with the story, as are funny-sounding made-up words. That type of humor is sure to appeal to young readers. In my opinion, this is a very nice fantasy. The only negative point is that I do not care very much for the illustrations in the version that I read because I find them a bit sloppy-looking. Grades 4-6.
Muggie Maggie

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Maggie Schultz is starting third-grade, and after some teasing by her parents, she decides that she will not learn cursive. However, what starts more as a dare turns complicated when Maggie (who is normally a good student) realizes that she cannot read cursive, and her classmates are making fun of her. Just as Maggie is not sure how she will get out of her self-caused predicament without losing face, her teacher comes up with a clever way of having her learn cursive without confronting Maggie directly about it, or causing embarrassment to her. This short book is cleverly written because it is about learning to read and write cursive (or rather not to want to do it), and since there is cursive writing in the book, that actually encourages readers to learn how to read cursive. The “third-grade girl” of the dedication (see “Common Knowledge”) got the book she was asking for. The decision Maggie makes at the beginning of the book, and the difficulties that ensue for her (and her parents and teacher) are realistically portrayed, and young readers will find in Maggie an authentic character they can identify with. They will also empathize with her struggles to learn cursive when she has finally understood the importance of it. The illustrations are not the best around, but they do give specific ideas about what the characters look like (at least, from the illustrator’s point of view), and they depict scenes from the book, which can help with comprehension if needed. Recommended for grades 3 (or any grade that children start learning cursive writing) to 5.
Oso pardo, oso pardo, ¿qué ves ahí?

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Martin, B., & Carle, E. (Ill.). (1967). Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? New York: Henry Holt and Company. This book uses the pretext of the question “What do you see?” asked of different animals and finally people to present various animals with an overall color, a mother and several multicolored children. Finally, there is a recapitulation of all the animals in the book along with their corresponding color.This simple book works well, I think, to teach basic colors to young children as well as the names of some common animals (although the horse and the cat have unnatural colors, which is surprising). The bright-colored illustrations by Eric Carle look almost like they could have been made by children, which might make them particularly likable to children. In addition, the “singsongy” quality of the text as well as the repetitions make this book perfect for a read-aloud. One problem with the text: there is a mismatch between what animals and the mother say they see and what is on the page. As a result, the reader has to turn the page to see what the characters are talking about. Ages 2-6.The treatment of colors in this book is different than in Seven blind mice since here, each animal corresponds to a different color whereas in Seven blind mice, the animals with the different colors are all mice along with the objects they think the “Something” is. Brown bear has somewhat of an “old” feeling to me, which makes Seven blind mice more appealing in my opinion.
Clementine and the Family Meeting

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Clementine is a feisty and creative nine-year-old who has a big problem: the “family meeting” sign is up at her house, and that usually means that she is in trouble. To make matters worse, Eighteen, the rat she has been working with for a science project, has gone missing, and so has a favorite hat of hers. When Clementine learns during the family meeting that she is going to have a new brother or sister, she does not take it very well. She already has a young brother, and she thinks that four is a perfect number. As far as she is concerned, getting a pet gorilla would have been a much better idea. Still, slowly, Clementine goes through the process of accepting that she is going to be a big sister once again.This book tackles an important subject that many elementary school children go through, which is to welcome a new baby at their house, and it also addresses sibling rivalry in general. The confusion that sweeps through Clementine’s mind when she learns of the news, the various emotions she experiences, and the different ways she tries to deal with her feelings are very realistically portrayed. Clementine’s voice is endearing, and the pen and ink illustrations by Marla Frazee add a delightful touch to the book. This modern story definitely has universal implications about growing up. Grades 2-5.
The Green Futures of Tycho

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Eleven-year-old Tycho does not have an easy life. His three older brothers and sister are all gifted: Ludwig is a music prodigy, Tamara a talented classical dancer, and Leonardo a budding artist and inventor. Tycho, on the other hand, has changing interests and no particular gift for anything, so his parents and siblings are disappointed in him. One day, while digging to plant a vegetable garden, he finds an egg-shaped object in the ground. Accidentally, he discovers that it is a time travel device. He begins to use it intentionally to avenge himself of his siblings in the past, but mostly, he is interested in traveling to the future to know what will become of him and his family. However, the futures he travels to become darker and scarier every time, and things have changed in the present every time he gets back. As he comes to know more and more about his grown-up self, he makes the decision to prevent the horrible future he sees from happening. Will he succeed?This is a well-written and quite thrilling science fiction book. The reader’s mind gets sucked into the different futures that Tycho visits, trying to make sense of it all at the same time as Tycho. Some of the bleak futures he visits send chills down the spine, and I found myself hoping that Tycho would succeed in the mission he set for himself, as if it would actually have an effect on real life. I guess that means Tycho and what he goes through are very believable. This is a definite page-turner with an intriguing and dark quality to it. I believe that this book, because of some of the darker subjects it tackles, is best for more mature readers. Ages 10 and up.
Inside Out & Back Again

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Hà is ten years old, loves snacks and papayas, and does not want to be treated differently because she is a girl. Hà lives in Saigon with her mother and three older brothers, and it is spring 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War. Times are tough: bombs are falling ever closer to the city, goods and food are very expensive, school ends early, and Hà’s father has gone missing nine years prior in a navy mission. Finally, Hà’s mother and older brothers decide the family must flee the country to escape the impending Communist rule. They flee by boat, and the very next day, April 30, Saigon falls to the Communists. After spending a month on a boat, and two more months in tent refugee camps in Guam and then Florida, the family finally gets a sponsor who takes them to Alabama. They arrive August 15, and have to learn to adapt to a new culture, new surroundings, new language, and new food in an unfriendly neighborhood and in schools where bullies loom. Will Hà succeed in finding a new home in the United States?This book (based on the author’s personal experience) offers a moving depiction of the plight of ten-year-old refugee Hà. Through the free-verse poems, the author depicts by little touches the daily life of Hà in Vietnam, the consequences of the war on people, the coldness of some neighbors in Alabama, but also the kindness of two teachers, and the strength and warmth of her family. This book feels like a very honest and accurate portrayal of what it must be like to be forced to flee from a country at war, and have to resettle in a foreign (literally and figuratively) country. Even though it depicts a time and a war that elementary school students probably have not heard of yet, I think they can identify to the story because of the age of the main character. I would recommend this book for grades 4 and up.
The Green Book

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The story takes place in a future when the inhabitants of Earth have to leave it to escape its impending destruction (the cause of which is not explained in the book, but some allusions to the light getting bluer and the planet colder might mean the Sun is dying). Young Pattie, her father, older brother and sister are part of one of the last groups to leave. Their spaceship is quite old, and they are headed towards a planet where life might be possible. After four years of traveling, they finally arrive on the planet, which turns out to be quite hospitable at first with breathable air, drinkable water, and no dangerous animals or other beings. However, the group soon discovers that they cannot grow Earth vegetables in its crystalline-like soil, and the wheat they sowed looks more like glass than wheat. Will they be able to survive on Shine?I am not a reader of science fiction, and apprehended reading this book, but I actually got into the story which is still very much “human” because it portrays a future that humanity might be confronted with one day, and I was actually disappointed at the end that the story was not longer. I wanted to know more about the life of the people on the new planet even though to stop the story where it does makes sense. The narration of the book is interesting because the narrator is omniscient, but includes himself/herself in the story by using the pronoun “we”. Since all the main characters are mentioned in the third-person, I spent the whole book wondering about that narrator. In an interesting mise en abyme, it turns out that the book we are reading was actually written by Pattie in a green cover notebook she had brought from Earth, hence the title. It usually takes a particular kind of child to enjoy science fiction stories, but I believe this book could appeal to other readers as well because of the more universal story. Ages 8 and up.
Jake Drake, Teacher's Pet

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Third-grader Jake has a problem: he is a teacher’s pet. It all starts when he helps Mrs. Snavin, his teacher, with a computer program. Then, it gets worse when his art teacher thanks him for cleaning out art supplies, and his gym teacher points him out to the class for not complaining when he got hit first in six games of dodgeball. But the absolute worst happens when the principal praises him in front of the entire lunch room. The next day, it seems that every teacher and even the bus driver is giving him a special nice treatment whereas the school kids are giving him a special mean treatment. In an attempt to make it all stop, Jake decides to start misbehaving, but the results are not quite what he had expected, and he has to take a different approach: be true to himself.This is an unassuming little book that accurately portrays the difficulties that a child might encounter if he were to be treated specially by teachers and other adult school personnel. Elementary school students will recognize the school atmosphere that is depicted, and the first-person narration effectively puts the reader in Jake’s shoes. Jake is a credible character, and the story is written in accessible language that could be that of a fourth-grader (which is the grade Jake is in when he recounts this story). Some quirky details lend a humorous undertone to the story, which does not take away from Jake’s dilemmas. The few pen and ink illustrations add vividness to the story. Recommended for grades 2 to 5.
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