Thursday, January 22, 2015

2015 Mock Newbery discussions at Emerson, part 3: The Great Greene Heist + Half a Chance + The Life of Zarf

Emerson's 2015 Mock Newbery discussions
Like the Newbery Committee, our students have been reading and reading over many months. Some books created a strong initial impression, but they did not stay with readers the same way as other books. What does that say about a book? Is it less distinguished? Maybe or maybe not. These three books below had fewer readers that championed these books in our final discussion.
The Great Greene Heist
by Varian Johnson
Scholastic, 2014
Your local library
ages 10-14
Students liked this complex, engaging plot as they followed Jackson Greene's efforts to help Gabriela win the student council election. Thea wrote when she nominated it, "This book is good because it felt like you were there with the characters. I couldn't put it down." I really enjoyed the twists and turns in the story when I read this. But I did find the way it started right in the middle of the action--with a big cast of characters--a little confusing. I kept wishing there was a cast list!

This is a great story for kids who like thinking how all the pieces of a puzzle fit together. Although we had two copies at school all fall, not many students picked it up. At first, I thought it might be more suited to middle school, but it isn't circulating very much at our neighboring middle school. It will be interesting to see how this does over time.

Cynthia Lord's Half a Chance is as different as can be than The Great Greene Heist. While the former is sharp and witty, Half a Chance is quiet and reflective. Since our students picked which books they wanted to read and didn't read all of our nominated titles, these two books drew very different readers. One of the interesting things about the Newbery committee members is that they read everything and they need to consider a wide range of readers.
Half a Chance
by Cynthia Lord
Scholastic, 2014
Your local library
ages 8-12
This friendship story appealed to readers who enjoy quieter stories with a lot of heart. Gwen nominated it, saying it had a unique style and felt very special. The rural New Hampshire setting was very different for our urban readers, and Cynthia Lord's language & tone created a timeless feel. Readers noted that it didn't seem like the 21st century--a big contrast to The Crossover and The Swap.

As we discussed setting, Gwen noted that the setting was "quiet but beautiful"-- and that the setting really helped develop the whole feeling for the book. The characters were reserved, and I'm not sure if my students really understood the full scope of the story. If we had more time, I'd love to draw the students who read it together and ask them more about the grandmother's dementia.

Where Half a Chance is quiet and reflective, The Life of Zarf is funny and zany. The students who loved this book were so excited that they convinced lots of friends to read it. It definitely had "book buzz" throughout the fall. But I'm not sure many readers considered it their top book by the end of the year.
The Life of Zarf
The Trouble with Weasels
by Rob Harrell
Dial / Penguin, 2014
Your local library
ages 8-12
Our students laughed and laughed at Zarf's attempts to deal with middle school social structure, albeit in a mixed up fairy-tale world with princes, trolls and neurotic pigs. Like many kids, Zarf is goofy and funny -- it was a joy for them to read. Over and over again, kids ask me for funny books and this is a great one to hand them.

As we talked about the elements of a distinguished book, students noticed that Harrell's plot was suspenseful and funny. But more than that, they noticed how he paced the story. McKenna said, "There are times when I thought it was scary, but then it ends up funny." Harrell develops a rhythm, so kids were excited to turn the page but could expect something outrageous to happen in just a moment to break the tension. They also loved the exaggerated reactions. Here's McKenna again:
"One exciting part that ended up funny is when Chester (Zarf's friend, the neurotic pig) is walking and a branch hit him. He thought it was a Snufflewheezle and he started freaking out. Then Zarf and Kevin Littlepig who were with him started freaking out too."
Just like the Oscars, the Newbery goes to "serious" books much more often than funny books -- even though slapstick humor is just as difficult to write well. I think it's because taste in humor is much more individual and varied. I didn't respond to the themes quite the same way that the kids did, probably because the humor seemed too exaggerated for my tastes. But if you know a kid who wants a fast-paced, funny story, definitely seek this out.

The review copies came from my home collection and our library collection and our classroom collections. Early review copies were also kindly sent by Scholastic. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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