Monday, June 04, 2012

Max Finder Mystery Collected Casebook, Volume 5

Max Finder and his friends are middle school (junior high) detectives who were first featured in Owl Magazine. Created by Liam O'Donnell, and written and illustrated by Craig Battle and Ramon Perez, this volume opens with a "Central Meadows Junior High Yearbook, complete with "photos" of the students, listing their clubs/sports, a "most likely to" statement and favorite movies/quotes. This clever introduction to the characters not only serves to introduce new readers to the cast, but also provides a fun refresher to long-time fans. Each case includes all of the clues needed to solve the mystery--some in words and some in pictures. Solutions are provided at the end of each case, including a listing of the various clues and the ultimate conclusion. The mysteries are fun, the illustrations vivid, and the characters real--most students will be able to relate to (and probably recognize) some of the same people in their own schools.

As a teacher, I am always excited to find new ways to introduce and expand on concepts. The Max Finder Mysteries are divided into bite-sized chunks perfect for before lunch, before dismissal, or those time periods that are just too short for a full-fledged lesson. Any one of these mysteries offers a great lead-in to a brainstorming session on "character counts" topics such as honesty, caring and respect; but the creators has also included some ready-made lessons. I really like is the "How to Be a Detective" section in the back of this volume. With an increased emphasis on research and writing skills in our school district, this section offers a fun approach to research, couched in terms of mystery solving--perfect considering how many of my students like to watch crime drama. Sections are titled "Conducting Research," "Making Observations," and "Completing Cases," with insets defining "Detective Lingo" such as alibi, red herring and inference. Each section is "co-authored" by Alison and Max, giving an equal-opportunity "feel" to the article and providing two distinctly different perspectives on each. I particularly like the definition given for "inference" and think this might just offer a new path to understanding of a difficult concept. As a further bonus, a "Sit Down With the Creators" is included in an interview format, where the creators/writers/artists answer questions such as "What inspires you to come up with a story?" This offers a great opportunity for the reader to hear some different answers to questions they themselves might ask the authors/illustrators. For educators, there is also a brief section on ways to use Max Finder in the classroom, including Readers' Theater, Genre Study and Character Study along with other classroom connections.

Overall, I suspect that once I use this volume in class, I will have several students asking for the other volumes and a waiting list to read them. For a first-hand look at Max Finder online, visit

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I have always been saddened to find old photos at thrift stores and antique shops--images taken and collected, probably carried around for years, ending up disconnected from anyone who knew the people, the events, or the places--photos lying in dusty bins, their stories long forgotten. This book managed to take a disparate series of "found" photos and weave them into a spooky tale of family, lost love, lost history, and identity found. As written, the story stands on its own--but it ended in such a way that leads me to hope for a sequel. This book has some excellent descriptive language, wonderful vocabularyreat photos and a really neat concept--with hints of Poe and Lovecraft. If old photographs haunt you, fascinate you, and maybe even creep you out a little, read Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by James Ransome

This absolutely beautiful book, written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by James Ransome, is just what I needed to share with my 5th graders to complement their unit on the Civil War. It also gave me a chance to discuss historical fiction, the use of dialect, and descriptive language. The story led to some great discussion about slavery and plantation hierarchy as 12-year-old Clara's story brings history to life. I like to follow this one up with the shorter story,
Under the Quilt of Night, which includes a great author's note about Hopkinson's research into the history and folklore of the Underground Railroad.

For more information, be sure to check out Deborah Hopkinson's website at She includes great links to sites with ideas for lesson plans and other activities that go with these books.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Beyonders: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull

Book one of the Beyonders series starts out with a typical day in the life of Jason Walker, who plays on his school's baseball team and works part-time at the local zoo. On this day, mysterious music leads him to a fall into another world where he soon gets into trouble trying to save a band of musicians who seem intent on riding a raft to their deaths over a waterfall. Forced to go on the run, he discovers that he has entered Lyrian, a world dominated by a ruthless wizard who rules with an iron fist and cruel magics. Curiosity and a strong sense of justice lead Jason into a quest that could mean the salvation of Lyrian--or his own doom. Along the way, he is joined by Rachel and together they makes some powerful friends--but possibly even more powerful enemies. This story will appeal to readers who enjoy epic adventure tales full of intrigue, battles against overwhelming odds, and a healthy dose of fantasy.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

An Island Grows by Lola M. Schaefer, illustrated by Cathie Felstead

The overall look and feel of this book is one of simplicity--the illustrations are spare but lovely, the text is minimal, and the story takes the reader/listener from an underwater volcanic eruption to the gradual growth of a life-sustaining island. While the story itself does NOT give a real indication about the time involved in this whole process, the notes at the back do. The book makes for a great introduction to volcanoes and would be very nice paired with a non-fiction title showing actual photographs. Another plus? With my 1st and 2nd graders, I never fail to get a gasp when I turn the page and they see the picture of the underwater volcano. This book would also make a nice pairing for social studies lessons (trading, open air markets). Suggestions are provided for further reading. Note: This book was nominated for the 2008-09 Volunteer State Book Award.

Monday, January 16, 2012

I Can Make That! Fantastic Crafts for Kids by Mary Wallace

I love crafts and craft books, so when my teachers assign their yearly how-to writing project, I am thrilled to have an extra chance to guide the kids to the "how to" section of the library (translation: science experiments, cooking, arts, crafts). Unfortunately, I have found that many so-called "children's" how-to books aren't very child friendly. Often these books are cluttered with non-helpful or poorly drawn illustrations, hard-to-follow instructions, and sometimes projects that just aren't that appealing or interesting. I am happy to say that I Can Make That! by Mary Wallace more than lives up to its title. This colorful book hits all the right notes, pairing clearly written, kid-friendly step-by-step instructions with well-staged, colorful photographs of each step.

Projects are divided into sections including costumes, puppets, nature crafts, toys, and games. Each section begins with a brief introduction and lists of items needed to create the various projects--many of which can be found around the house--often rescued from the trash, rag bag, or recycle bin. Wallace gently reminds her users to get permission to use things found around the home and to respect nature. Kids will find instructions for using cardboard and ribbon for making simple Roman sandals, using twist-ties and embroidery floss for making "Eensy Weensy People," using chairs to make a puppet stage or a rocket ship, and cardboard boxes to make everything from an animal-themed mini-golf course to a play castle.

I Can Make That! isn't just a how-to book for specific one-time-only craft projects. This book is not just a how-to book--it is creative inspiration, not just for our kids, but for the kid in all of us. I can not wait to try some of these projects myself, and see where they take me.