The Homework Machine by Dan Gutman

The Homework Machine by Dan Gutman is a clever chapter book written from the perspective of four different preteens who have been caught cheating on their homework with a “homework machine.” The book is also fun as the students overcome their own prejudices and judgments of one another in order to unite in using the machine to better enjoy their afternoons. They come to recognize the ways that they are similar to one another, and they stand up for one another against the mockery of the rest of the class. I liked the book as a look at the friendship among young kids.

One of my favorite aspects of the novel was the different voices for each of the youngsters. It is clear from their voices that each has a very different personality, and their writing styles reflect that. This would be a fun novel for a teacher to use to demonstrate the importance of voice in a fictional text.

Beyond that, The Homework Machine is a fun story about kids cheating the “system.” What kid does not wish to do away with busy work homework?

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (2011 National Book Award for Young People and Newbery Honor Award) is a novel in poetry about a young girl’s relocation to American from Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It is about the challenge of starting over and the pain of discrimination in a strange new country and culture. It is a beautiful story for the curious child.

Many of the chapters could stand somewhat alone as they explore different aspects of the journey away from the familiar (in Kim Ha’s case, the busyness of the Saigon markets and their loving home) and into the foreign (a community in Alabama in post-Civil Rights era 1907s). Some of her challenges are specific to her situation as a refuge from Vietnam (such as the language barrier and obvious cultural differences), but others are the difficulties of growing up. I loved to see this unique perspective of the 1970s.

Ha’s story is painful for the aware reader. We know that America will not be as delightful as she dreams in the beginning, that her father will be hard to find, and that traditions are difficult to uphold so far from the familiar marketplace. As an adult, though, I found myself learning a lot about the aftermath of the Vietnam War. I’ve always heard of the Vietnam war from the American soldiers’ side. I think it is important to also learn about from the perspective of the native Vietnamese, and this account from the perspective of a refuge was definitely a needed voice in the literature about the era.

I was grateful to discover, in the author’s note at the end, that many of the events are based on her own experience as a young refuge in a prejudiced America. I am not happy she had to suffer similar frustrations as the character in her novel, but I am grateful to know that the voice was a sincere and realistic one.

 

 

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson (originally published 2012) is an amazing nonfiction account of the Titanic disaster, drawn directly from first-hand accounts written by the survivors of the Titanic crash, as well as the letters and notes of those who did not survive.

What most impressed me by Ms Hopkinson’s account was the amazing readibility of the story. She quoted from first-hand accounts throughout, but it never felt dry. Instead, she provided a clear framework for why the ship was so incredible, the events leading up to the crash, the crash itself, and the aftermath of the disaster. The people who’s stories she shared became real. I could not help becoming emotional as I imagined the moments of realization among the passengers and crew as they realized the painful fact: the ship was going down. Continue Reading

The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron

The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron (originally published 1987) is a clever early chapter book about a boy and his younger brother, along with the crazy stories Julian makes up to explain the world around him.

When seven-year-old Julian does not know the answer to his three-year-old brother Huey’s questions, he makes up stories! For example, he tells his brother that a catalog is a book to order cats from, and they are sent through the mail. His imagination is ripe and the stories crafted in to his adventures are fun for the young reader. In the first chapter, I was concerned when the kids hid from Dad, afraid of the punishment, but the “beating” and “whipping” in store for the pudding-eating boys was just the right kind!

I was delighted to see such a clever and obviously enduring story (it’s almost 30 years old) for the early chapter book crowd. Although my son reads at a high reading level, sometimes he just needs something short and sweet, about a boy just his age. He read this one quickly and found it quite funny. I look forward to checking out the sequels to Julian’s crazy stories as well!