For Teachers

Happy Chanukah and Jewish Books!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Hope you’re all well! This is a little bit of a departure from my regular posts, but I felt it was important. Here we are, smack dab in the middle of Chanukah or Hanukkah, depending on the way you spell it, because there is no wrong way, even though Chanukah is the right way, because that’s the one I use, but anyway, no matter the spelling, Jews all over the world are celebrating. It’s a beautiful holiday, filled with joy, lighting candles, singing songs, giving gifts, and perhaps the best part of all, eating latkes and jelly doughnuts. And yet, this year feels different. This year feels a little sad in many ways, because I don’t recall a time in my life where anti-Semitism was so prevalent. Don’t get me wrong, because people who hate Jews have always been there, but yet over the last ten years or so, it’s seemingly been increasing in numbers and intensity every year. I’ve faced it a lot in my life, and still don’t feel any of the instances are as bad as they are now.

This can’t go on and change needs to occur. It can’t begin with the adults who won’t change opinions, but it can with younger kids who are impressionable. If they learn hate, they’ll grow up hating. If they’re unfamiliar with something, it’ll seem strange and alien. If they see more stories with Jewish characters and see Judaism as part of the world around them, there’s a chance they won’t grow up hating the unknown. So, this post is basically a call for more Jewish characters for younger readers, and especially for Middle Grade. It’s important for parents, teachers, and librarians, to promote books with Jews in them. Jewish books are Diverse books.

So, for this holiday season, while you’re sitting there and fretting over what to get, don’t worry any longer. Because, I now have fantastic news for you! I’m going to tell you about some really great books to go pick up just in time for the end of the Chanukah, which also make for wonderful reading for Christmas!

Now, admittedly, there aren’t a lot of Middle Grade books which are Chanukah-based. There are plenty of them for younger readers who like picture books, but not for the older ones. I’m going to have to rectify that. Get me my agent on the phone! But, to fill in the void, I’m going to suggest some great books by Jewish authors, which would make great gifts for the bibliophiles you care about.

So, without further ado, we’ll start with a couple that are actually centered on Chanukah. I haven’t read this one, but it looks like so much fun!

Dreidels on the Brain, by Joel Ben Izzy:

One lousy miracle.  Is that too much to ask?
Evidently so for Joel, as he tries to survive Hannukah, 1971 in the suburbs of the suburbs of Los Angeles (or, as he calls it, “The Land of Shriveled Dreams”). That’s no small task when you’re a “seriously funny-looking” twelve-year-old magician who dreams of being his own superhero: Normalman.  And Joel’s a long way from that as the only Jew at Bixby School, where his attempts to make himself disappear fail spectacularly.  Home is no better, with a family that’s not just mortifyingly embarrassing but flat-out broke.

That’s why Joel’s betting everything on these eight nights, to see whether it’s worth believing in God or miracles or anything at all.  Armed with his favorite jokes, some choice Yiddish words, and a suitcase full of magic tricks, he’s scrambling to come to terms with the world he lives in—from hospitals to Houdini to the Holocaust—before the last of the candles burns out.

No wonder his head is spinning: He’s got dreidels on the brain. And little does he know that what’s actually about to happen to him and his family this Hanukkah will be worse than he’d feared . . . And better than he could have imagined.

The next one is:

Penina Levine is a Potato Pancake by Rebecca O’Connell

FRESH, FEISTY, FUNNY.

In this Hanukkah story, Penina fi nds that a glass of cold milk and a hot potato pancake go a long way. Penina Levine is the only member of her family who isn’t looking forward to Hanukkah. Not only is it another chance for her annoying sister to steal the spotlight, but her favorite teacher is taking a mysterious leave of absence, and her best friend is deserting her to go on a dream vacation to Aruba. Then Penina discovers why Mrs. Brown must go away and hears that a snowstorm may ruin Zozo’s trip, and Penina knows she’s the one who must bring some holiday spirit to her friends. Readers of all backgrounds will relate to Penina as she turns a pile of problems into a Hanukkah to remember.

 

How I Saved Hanukkah by Amy Goldman Koss

 

Marla Feinstein, the only Jewish kid in her fourth-grade class, hates December. While everyone else is decorating trees, she’ll be forgetting to light the candles and staring at a big plastic dreidel. The holidays couldn’t get much worse. So Marla decides to find out what Hanukkah’s really about—and soon she and her family have made the Festival of Lights the biggest party in town!

 

Now, some non-Chanukah books by Jewish Authors, which feature Jewish characters:

 

Kat Greene Comes Clean by Melissa Roske

Kat Greene lives in New York City and attends fifth grade in the very progressive Village Humanity School. At the moment she has three major problems—dealing with her boy-crazy best friend, partnering with the overzealous Sam in the class production of Harriet the Spy, and coping with her mother’s preoccupation with cleanliness, a symptom of her worsening obsessive-compulsive disorder.

With nowhere to turn, Kat reaches out to the free-spirited psychologist, Olympia, at her new-age private school in New York’s Greenwich Village. Olympia encourages Kat to be honest. Eventually, Kat realizes that sometimes asking for help is the best way to clean up life’s messes.

 

 

This is Not the Abby Show by Debbie Reed Fischer

Abby was born for the spotlight. Now it’s her time to shine!

Abby is twice exceptional—she is gifted in math and science, and she has ADHD. Normally, she has everything pretty much under control. But when Abby makes one HUGE mistake that leads to “The Night That Ruined My Life,” or “TNTRML,” she lands in summer school.
Abby thinks the other summer-school kids are going to be total weirdos. And what with her parents’ new rules, plus all the fuss over her brother’s bar mitzvah, her life is turning into a complete disaster. But as Abby learns to communicate better and finds friends who love her for who she is, she discovers that her biggest weaknesses could be her greatest assets.
Hilarious and heartwarming, This Is Not the Abby Show is for everyone who knows that standing out is way more fun than blending in.

 

Apple Pie Promises: A Swirl Novel by Hillary Homzie

Lily has lived with her mom since her parents got divorced several years ago, and her dad has recently remarried to a woman with a daughter her age named Hannah. But now, Lily’s mom has gotten a once-in-a-lifetime work opportunity in Africa and she’ll be gone for a year, so Lily is moving in with her dad―and new stepmom and new stepsister. It’ll be as easy as apple pie, right?

Wrong. Lily promises her dad that she’ll try to get along with everyone, but she is not happy about it. Her stepmom is nice, but she’s no replacement for her real mom, and Lily feels like she barely gets any one-on-one time with her dad anymore.

The real problem, though, is Hannah. What starts out as tension between the new stepsisters becomes a full-on war, both at home and at school. Harmless pranks turn into total sabotage. Can Lily survive the year―or is her family fractured beyond repair?

 

Takedown by Laura Shovan

Mikayla is a wrestler; when you grow up in a house full of brothers who wrestle, it’s inevitable. It’s also a way to stay connected to her oldest brother, Evan, who moved in with their dad. Some people object to having a girl on the team. But that’s not stopping Mikayla. She’s determined to work harder than ever, and win.
Lev is determined to make it to the state championships this year. He’s used to training with his two buddies as the Fearsome Threesome; they know how to work together. At the beginning of sixth grade, he’s paired with a new partner–a girl. This better not get in the way of his goal.
Mikayla and Lev work hard together and become friends. But when they face each other, only one of them can win.

 

In Your Shoes by Donna Gephart

Miles is an anxious boy who loves his family’s bowling center even if though he could be killed by a bolt of lightning or a wild animal that escaped from the Philadelphia Zoo on the way there.
Amy is the new girl at school who wishes she didn’t have to live above her uncle’s funeral home and tries to write her way to her own happily-ever-after.
Then Miles and Amy meet in the most unexpected way . . . and that’s when it all begins.

 

These are just a few, and there are many more that I don’t have space for, and if I forgot some, it sincerely wasn’t intentional, but please consider getting books with Jewish characters in them, or supporting Jewish authors. Because again, Jewish books are Diverse books. Say it with me. Let’s all remember it. Jewish books are Diverse books.

Anyway, I want to wish all of our readers a very Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and everything else under the sun!

With that being said, I need to go, because Dorian Cirrone warned me not to make this post longer than the eight days of Chanukah, and I think I might’ve failed that edict.

But before I go, there’s one more thing! If you want a Christmas book written by a Jewish author, you can go pick up my own Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies! (Shameless insertion of self-promotion now complete)

 

Twelve-year-old Devin Dexter has a problem. Well, actually, many of them. His cousin, Tommy, sees conspiracies behind every corner. And Tommy thinks Devin’s new neighbor, Herb, is a warlock . . . but nobody believes him. Even Devin’s skeptical. But soon strange things start happening. Things like the hot new Christmas toy, the Cuddle Bunny, coming to life.

That would be great, because, after all, who doesn’t love a cute bunny? But these aren’t the kind of bunnies you can cuddle with. These bunnies are dangerous. Devin and Tommy set out to prove Herb is a warlock and to stop the mob of bunnies, but will they have enough time before the whole town of Gravesend is overrun by the cutest little monsters ever? This is a very funny “scary” book for kids, in the same vein as the My Teacher books or Goosebumps.

Again, I thank all of you for reading, and until next time . . .

So, Why Realistic Fiction?

Realistic Fiction in the Classroom

By Robyn Gioia

A genre that is not front and center in today’s stories of zombie, vampires, unicorns, and fairies is the world of realistic fiction. My class and I recently studied realistic fiction and what I learned was surprising.

The root word “real” in realism says it all. Are the characters regular people? Do they have problems? Do they make mistakes? Do they have real emotions? Do they grapple with pain, feel love, become utterly depressed, or bubble over with serendipity? Is the world real or is it a fantasy world with three moons and purple mountains? If it’s a made-up world, does it follow the rules of physics? If a character walks off a cliff, do they get hurt?

Plot

Probably the biggest element to examine is plot. Is it believable? Although circumstances may be extraordinary at times, is it something that could really happen? How do the characters deal with real problems? Are the solutions something that can really happen?

I noticed my students were so firmly rooted in fantasy, that when we studied our unit on realistic fiction, it took a lot of examination to decide if something could really happen. They argued that a character who miraculously survived a plane crash could climb the highest mountain, and walk a hundred miles to the next village without any food or water.

When I added that there are no super powers in realistic fiction, they stared at me. Then came the explanations. Maybe the survivor was in shape, they said. Maybe this person had a big dinner before the crash. Then the next set of “maybes” became even grander, without text evidence I might add. Maybe someone gave the person a ride. Maybe the person found a bunch of  power drinks. The “maybe” syndrome continued.

After our discussion, things got better. I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard the different reading groups asking each other, “Can it really happen and where is the evidence?”

So, why realistic fiction?

This brings us to the question. Why teach realistic fiction when other genres are vastly more popular?

Realistic fiction grounds students in real life. It lets them experience real life situations through cause and effect. It shows them the complexity of problems and how humans might react. It helps them to understand relationships. It helps students see life through the perspective of others.  It shows them how problems may or may not be solved. It exposes them to the vast differences in cultural beliefs and interactions between others.

To sum it up, realistic fiction helps students understand the way life works.

At the end of our study, something I did not expect was a comment from one of my brightest. “I haven’t found any books that I like. But I just learned that I like realistic fiction.” Grinning from ear to ear, he pulled out a copy of Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and settled down to read.

 

December’s New Releases

December’s New Releases are all about series (some the final books), female superheroes, and lots of humor. So if you’re looking for a holiday gift to put a smile on the face of your favorite middle-grade reader, here are a few to choose from.

 

The Hive Queen (Wings of Fire, Book 12) by Tui T. Sutherland

Growing up in the hives, Cricket has always had a million questions. Why are trees forbidden, even in art? Why do her parents seem to hate her? And the biggest, most dangerous and secret question of all: why is Cricket immune to Queen Wasp’s powers? Whenever the queen takes control of all the HiveWings, speaking through their mouths and seeing through their eyes, Cricket has to hide, terrified of being discovered.

Now she’s hiding again, wanted for stealing the Book of Clearsight along with her new SilkWing friends, Blue and Swordtail, and the fierce LeafWing, Sundew. The fugitives need answers, and fast, in order to prevent a LeafWing attack. But Cricket has more questions than ever. How can she stay hidden and discover the queen’s deadliest secret? And if she does succeed—can a powerless dragonet really do anything to topple a regime and stop a war?

 

 

Children of Jubilee (Children of Exile, Book 3) by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Kiandra has to use her wits and tech-savvy ways to help rescue Edwy, Enu, and the others from the clutches of the Enforcers in the thrilling final novel of the Children of Exile series from New York Times bestselling author, Margaret Peterson Haddix. Since the Enforcers raided Refuge City, Rosi, Edwy, and the others are captured and forced to work as slave labor on an alien planet, digging up strange pearls. Weak and hungry, none of them are certain they will make it out of this alive.

But Edwy’s tech-savvy sister, Kiandra, has always been the one with all the answers, and so they turn to her. But Kiandra realizes that she can’t find her way out of this one on her own, and they all might need to rely on young Cana and her alien friend if they are going to survive.

 

 

The Terrible Two’s Last Laugh by Mac Barnett and Jory John, illus. Kevin Cornell

It’s Miles and Niles’s final year at Yawnee Valley Science and Letters Academy, and the Terrible Two have one goal: an epic prank. Something big, something brilliant, something that will leave a lasting legacy at their school. Which should be easy-peasy for these experts, especially now that their principal has gone from arch nemesis to pranking protégé.

But their smooth sailing gets downright bumpy when they find out that the new superintendent is none other than Bertrand Barkin, their principal’s father . . . and their sworn enemy. Now that Former Principal Barkin is Acting Superintendent Barkin, he has a first order of business: his long-promised revenge on the Terrible Two. This rollicking finale to the bestselling series by Mac Barnett and Jory John will settle once and for all who—between quick wits and powerful fists—will have the last laugh.

 

 

Zach King: Mirror Magic by Zach King

Since Zach finally recovered his magical powers, middle school has never been better—he’s teaming up with his best friend, Aaron, on their super-popular YouTube channel and talking to the nicest, smartest, prettiest girl in school, Rachel. But when Zach magically “passes through” a magical mirror, he lands in a world that is the exact opposite of everything he’s ever known.

Instead of finding himself at Horace Greeley Middle School, he’s at Horace Greeley MAGIC School. And in this world of opposites, everyone here has magic except him. Even worse, Zach is stuck in this world AND his alter-ego, the newly magical Jack, has passed in to Zach’s world and now living his life and getting into all sorts of trouble.

Fortunately, Zach can always count on his friends—even this mixed-up magical world’s versions of them! If he can just convince the guys about the truth of his world-jumping misadventure, Zach knows, they’ll work together to figure out how to put everyone back where they belong—before it’s too late.

 

 

Dog Diaries: A Middle School Story by James Patterson, illus. Richard Watson, contributor Steven Butler

Here’s MIDDLE SCHOOL for young readers—through the eyes of Rafe Khatchadorian’s misbehaving mutt, Junior! When rule-breaking Rafe has to train his new dog in obedience school, you know things are about to get really ruff! Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! I’ve been waiting for ages to tell my story, and now it’s finally happening! Being Rafe’s dog isn’t always easy, but it is always EXCITING! I’ve got so much to tell you about:

How I protect the yard from birds, raccoons, squirrels, raccoons, mail carriers . . . and did I mention RACCOONS?

Sniffing pooch posteriors for the latest canine news.

And the terrifying monster hiding in the hall closet: the vacuum cleaner!

These were all the most paw-some parts of my doggie life—until the evil Mrs. Stricker threatened to send me back to the pound if I didn’t learn to behave. Now Rafe and I have to go to obedience school and win the trophy for Best Trained Dog . . . or else!

 

Marvel Fearless and Fantastic! Female Super Heroes Save the World by Sam Maggs, Ruth Amos, and Emma Grange

More than fifty incredible female Super Heroes from the Marvel Comics universe inspire girls and women of all ages to be powerful, passionate, and persistent.

From Captain Marvel and Wasp to Storm and Shuri, this beautiful book profiles dozens of aspirational female comic-book characters, all of whom use their intelligence, strength, kindness, and courage to help others and save the world. Fierce fan-favorites such as Gamora, Squirrel Girl, and Black Widow feature alongside lesser known faces from all corners of the Marvel comic-book universe. Young girls will discover modern, diverse heroes they can relate to and look up to, including America Chavez and Kamala Khan. Featuring a foreword by Marvel Comics writer Kelly Thompson, DK’s Fearless and Fantastic! is the ultimate tribute to Marvel’s most powerful women and girls, and a treasured gift for comic fans.