Pack of Dorks

Pack of Dorks by Beth Vrabel was a nominee for the 2016-17 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

Lucy is pretty secure in her status as one of the most popular girls in the 4th grade, but her best friend Becky convinces her that kissing Tom Lemmings at recess will really make her cool. Lucy reluctantly agrees, and that action may just cost her dearly.

After the ill-fated kissing incident, Lucy quickly finds herself moving from the top of the heap in 4th grade to the bottom. Tom is no longer her boyfriend, Becky is being mean to her, and the other kids are laughing at her. And her situation at home isn’t much better. Her new baby sister has Down Syndrome, and Lucy’s parents are totally focused on the baby. They don’t seem to care at all about Lucy anymore. She feels all alone and doesn’t know who she can turn to.

Lucy eventually finds an ally in quiet Sam Righter. The two share a table at lunch and work together on a class project about wolves. Through this project, Lucy compares the behavior of wolf packs to the treacherous world of school life. She looks at the actions of alphas, lone wolves, and how the weak or different are treated in wolf packs. The similarities between wolves and the kids in her world are striking, and Lucy thinks about how she could form her own pack. A pack of dorks.

As Lucy learns more and more about wolves and grows closer to the other outsiders at school, she also thinks about her own behavior. Maybe she was not-so-nice in the past. She doesn’t want to be that way anymore, and she really doesn’t want her little sister to be the target of bullies just because she’s different.

Can Lucy change her ways and become the person she wants to be? Will her “pack of dorks” be able to stand up to the bullies that torment them? Will Lucy find her place at school and within her own home?

How will Lucy’s home and school situations be resolved? Find out when you read Pack of Dorks by Beth Vrabel!

In addition to being an excellent book for addressing topics like bullying, respecting differences, and handling conflict, Pack of Dorks is also great for teaching the concept of voice. Lucy’s voice in this book is engaging and authentic, and many readers–no matter their ages–will respond to that. This wonderful book would make an excellent read-aloud in upper elementary and middle grade classrooms.

The Iron Trial

The Iron Trial, book one in the Magisterium series by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, is a nominee for the 16-17 South Carolina Children’s and Junior Book Awards.

What kid wouldn’t want magical powers? What kid wouldn’t want to attend the Magisterium, a super-secret school to learn how to use those abilities? Callum Hunt, that’s who.

For as long as Call can remember, his dad has told him that the Magisterium is evil and that he must do whatever it takes to fail the Iron Trial, a series of tests used to determine who earns a place at this magical school. And Call does his best to fail…and it looks like he’s succeeded. He fails spectacularly and gets the lowest possible marks at the Iron Trial…but he’s selected for the Magisterium anyway. Not only is he accepted; he’s with one of the best mages, in the group with the most gifted apprentices. What’s going on here? Why would anyone want him as an apprentice? What is so special about Callum Hunt, a kid with a bum leg who wants to be anywhere but here?

As Call begins his Iron year at the Magisterium and learns more about magic, he begins to wonder just what his dad had against the school and magic. Call is learning so much…and he’s actually getting pretty good at his studies, despite his rather horrible start. His fellow apprentices, Aaron and Tamara, soon become his closest friends, and that’s kind of a big deal to a kid who really didn’t have friends before now.

Call is becoming more and more comfortable with himself and his abilities, so he’s eager to learn just why his dad didn’t want him here. Since Call is a curious sort with a certain disregard for rules, Call begins to investigate. He stumbles upon a few things that might answer some questions…or they might create even more.

It seems that Call’s past is tied to the most feared being in the magical world, the Enemy of Death. This figure, cloaked in mystery, is responsible for the deaths of many, many mages–including Call’s mother–and he’s still out there, biding his time until he can use the forces of chaos to rise to power. The Magisterium has recently discovered its own weapon in the coming war with the Enemy…but will that be enough? What if the Enemy has already infiltrated the Magisterium? What will that mean for the Magisterium then? And what does all of this have to do with Call?

Soon, Call will come face-to-face with his past, his place at the Magisterium, and what it could mean for his future. He learns just why his father wanted to keep him from magic. What will Call do with this new and disturbing information? Time will tell…

The Very Inappropriate Word

The Very Inappropriate Word, written by Jim Tobin and illustrated by Dave Coverly, was a nominee for the 2015-16 South Carolina Picture Book Award.

Michael is a word collector. Whenever he comes across interesting words, he admires them and puts them under his bed. One day on the bus, though, he hears an inappropriate word. It’s a word that, even though it’s bad, is interesting, so Michael collects it. He hears others use the word, too. Other kids, people on the radio, and even his mom say this inappropriate word. Michael decides to share this word with his friends at school…which is maybe not the smartest thing he could have done.

When Michael’s teacher learns he’s been spreading the inappropriate word around, she gives him the task of finding more spelling words for the class. Michael dives into his work, and he finds so many cool words that he simply forgets about the inappropriate word…as he should.

The Very Inappropriate Word, while maybe not the best choice for a read-aloud, could open up discussions with young readers about word choice and the importance of a large vocabulary. It may also emphasize that using “inappropriate words” shows a lack of imagination.

A fun exercise to go along with this book could be to have readers find interesting words in the dictionary (or in their own spelling lists) and create drawings, like those featured in this book, that illustrate just what the words mean.

All the Answers

Ava Anderson knows what it means to be anxious. She worries about everything. She panics before every test, and this morning is no different. She’s got a big math test today, and Ava knows she’s going to flub her way through it. She knows the material, but when tests roll around, Ava’s anxiety always gets the best of her. This morning, however, is going to be a little different…

It looks like an ordinary pencil, the kind someone would pick up at a conference or something, but this one turns out to be very different. When Ava grabs it out of her parents’ junk drawer, she has no way of knowing that this pencil is going to change her life.

Ava uses the pencil during her dreaded math test, and, wonder of wonders, when she presents questions to this strange pencil, it gives her the answers! For the first time in forever, Ava feels great about how she performed on a test. But does this magical pencil only work on math questions? Well, Ava and her best friend Sophie are about to find out…

Ava and Sophie soon realize that the special pencil will only answer factual questions, and it won’t answer anything with free will involved. The girls decide to use their new “power” to get some important information. For instance, which boys at school have a crush on Sophie? (This information leads to some rather sticky situations, as you can imagine.) They also use the pencil to figure out what would make Ava’s grandfather and his friends at the nursing home truly happy.

One day, though, Ava asks the pencil a question, and the answer rocks the girl’s entire world. This information has the power to change Ava’s entire family, and Ava can’t stop herself from worrying about what it could mean. Is Ava strong enough to handle what is coming, or will panic take over?

As Ava deals with everything revealed by this mysterious pencil, she begins to wonder if having all the answers is really so important. Does knowing so much make things better, or does it give people even more to obsess over? Can Ava put her worries–and her pencil–aside and finally trust in her own strength? And will that strength get her through the tough times ahead?

For the answers to these questions and many more, read All the Answers by Kate Messner.

Lost and Found

Lost and Found, written by Bill Harley and illustrated by Adam Gustavson, is a nominee for the 2014-15 South Carolina Picture Book Award.

Lost and Found is a charming, colorful book about Justin, a boy who has lost his hat. He looks everywhere for this special hat made by his grandmother, but he can’t find it anywhere. Eventually, he makes his way to the Lost and Found at school. Everyone avoids the Lost and Found because they’re scared of the custodian, Mr. Rumkowsky.

Justin soon learns that Mr. Rumkowsky isn’t so scary, and the Lost and Found is full of neat stuff, even things that his friends have been looking for! But he still can’t find his hat. But what’s that at the bottom of the Lost and Found box? Could it be his hat, or maybe something even more special?

Lost and Found is a wonderful picture book that lots of kids and adults will be able to relate to. After all, we’ve all lost things and had no clue where to find them! Sometimes, though, when we’re looking for one thing, we find something even better!

This book could also be a cool gift for school custodians. I think they’ll find humor in how the book ends!

Third Grade Angels

“First grade babies!
Second grade cats!
Third grade angels!
Fourth grade rats!”

George, better known as Suds, is glad that he’s not a baby or a cat anymore. He’s looking forward to being a “third grade angel,” especially when he begins to understand just what that means. His new third grade teacher, Mrs. Simms, will award a halo each week to the boy or girl who demonstrates the most “angelic” qualities. Well, Suds really wants the first halo, but is he willing to do what it takes to earn the prize?

Suds, along with the rest of Mrs. Simms’ class, is soon behaving better than ever before. They’re picking up trash, holding doors for each other, and even fighting to help a lady who has lost her hat. To be honest, all this angel stuff is getting out of hand! Suds doesn’t know how much longer he can keep it up. And when his mom says that he needs to be angelic at home too–which means being nice to his little sister–Suds gets even more anxious about winning the first halo.

Eventually, when his other classmates forget about being angels all the time, Suds starts to like his chances of being the first “third grade angel.” But he’s not the only one who’s still in it to win it. How can Suds prove that he deserves a halo? What does a guy have to do to show his teacher that he’s the nicest kid around? And will Suds learn that being a real “angel” means doing nice things without being rewarded?

Read Third Grade Angels, a 2014-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominee, to see if Suds learns what it means to be truly “angelic!”

Third Grade Angels is a pretty fun, quick read that is well-suited to read-alouds, particularly with third grade students. They will root for Suds to get the first halo, but I hope they question Suds’ motives. Is he being nice just to win a prize, or is he doing it because it’s the right thing to do?

Many young readers may not grasp how fitting the ending of this book was, but that ending–and any confusion that surrounds it–could open up some interesting discussions about how people should behave, even when no one is looking.

Third Grade Angels is a prequel to Fourth Grade Rats, originally published in 1991, and I hope many of my students will want to discover what Suds gets up to when he’s a “fourth grade rat.”

If you’d like more information on Third Grade Angels and author Jerry Spinelli, check out his website!

Wink: The Ninja Who Wanted to Nap

Wink: The Ninja Who Wanted to Nap by J.C. Phillipps is a nominee for the 2013-2014 South Carolina Picture Book Award.

After performing in the Lucky Dragon Circus, it’s time for Wink to take a break. Wink, however, is finding that taking a nap might not be so easy when he’s surrounded by adoring fans. So what does he do? After trying everything he can think of, Wink returns to the Summer Moon School for Young Ninjas and takes the advice of Master Zutsu. It’s time for this ninja to nap, and he’ll need some help to get the rest he needs!

As a lifelong lover of naps, I enjoyed this book. The best part, though, was not Wink’s quest for sleep. It was the lovely illustrations. The collages really jumped off the page and, in my opinion, brought a little of Japan to the reader.

When sharing this book with young readers, some explanation of Master Zutsu’s sayings may be needed. I don’t know of many kindergarteners or 1st graders who’ll know what “A golden cage is still a cage” really means.