Posts Tagged middle-grade fiction

Home Learning: A World of Opportunities to Read & Think

by Aixa Perez-Prado

Last March schools across the world closed due the Covid-19 pandemic. Teachers, parents and students were unprepared. Many had difficulty with the online learning that was offered. Even under ideal circumstances, hours of daily screen time will not be feasible for many young learners. Therefore, some families have chosen to try their hand at home learning, otherwise known as homeschooling. If you are one of these families, or if you simply wish to augment the remote learning your child is receiving from school with books that will help you do it, this article is for you.

Out of school learning time can provide kids with a chance to acquire knowledge in a manner that is free and flexible. Allowing kids the freedom to explore topics of interest instills a love for learning and inspires curiosity. But this freedom is not always available in a highly structured school day. Thankfully, it can be available at home. Encouraging kids to nourish their personal passions is one way to help them thrive during this crisis. Giving them books that will help them discover those passions, is another. Does your kid love… Planets and Stars? Mysteries? Birds?  There are so many books to choose from!

Opening up the home learning experience to embrace problem solving and critical / creative thinking activities prepares kids for learning anywhere. Giving kids the power to direct some of their own learning will help them obtain the identified 21st century skills: critical thinking, creative thinking, communication and collaboration.

Parents need to provide guidance, resources, great books, and encouragement to kids learning at home. However, they don’t need to provide all of the answers. The best teachers encourage learners to ask interesting questions and discover the answers themselves. They give learners the freedom to fail and try again. Making interesting and informative books available to kids is a great place to start a critical and creative thinking home learning life.

Check out my homeschooling tips and accompanying books below. They will help you help your kids flourish as critical and creative thinkers while learning at home.

Learning at home tips, and books to go with them:

Tip 1: Do not set unrealistic learning goals. Start small and build rather than the other way around. It is better for encouraging learning to start with small successes than to overreach and start by experiencing failure. Short stories can deliver meaningful content and help kids feel a quick sense of accomplishment. They can also be springboards for inspiring kids to read longer texts.

The Hero Next Door Cover

The Hero Next Door by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (ed)

All the heroes in these stories make the world a better place. They do it by using acts of kindness to help others. Published in partnership with We Need Diverse Books, this vibrant anthology features thirteen acclaimed authors. Stories celebrate the hero in all of us. Authors includeWilliam Alexander, Joseph Bruchac, Lamar Giles, Mike Jung, Hena Khan, Juana Medina, Ellen Oh, R. J. Palacio, Linda Sue Park and Anna Dobbin, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Ronald L. Smith, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Suma Subramaniam

Stories to Solve: Folktales from Around the World Cover

Stories to Solve: Folktales from Around the World by George Shannon

This collection of fourteen illustrated mysteries from world folklore give readers a chance to figure out the solution to a problem by thinking critically, before the solution is given. Backmatter includes origins of the tales and more information for further research.

Tip 2: Be present. Put away cell phones and turn off the TV as much as you can. Listen with empathy and understanding to kid’s concerns and ideas without being dismissive. Use what is happening in the world as material for your home learning.

.Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws That Affect Us Today Cover 

Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights and the Flaws that Affect us Today by Cynthia and Sanford Levinson.

For a nonfiction possibility, this book offers a fearless glimpse into the Constitution including its failures and flaws. The text can be used to inspire kids to think critically.

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The Kid Who Ran for President by Dan Gutman

A humorous and fast-paced account of a kid’s run for president as a third party candidate. A great book to inspire dialogue with kids about this election season. Kids learn how government works. and fails, while thinking critically and creatively about what makes a good president.

Tip 3: Answer questions while being honest with what you don’t know. Investigate unknowns together, encouraging kids to question and problem pose, exercising their critical thinking skills.

Song for a Whale Cover

Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Iris is a creative and critical thinking tech wiz. She can fix computers and repair old radios. But she’s the only deaf person at her school. Sometimes treat her like she’s not very bright and she often feels unheard, even by her mom. Then she learns about Blue 55, a real whale who is unable to speak to other whales. Iris immediately feels a connection. She has an idea to invent a way to “sing” to him! But he’s three thousand miles away. What can she do?

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The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kennedy

Calpurnia Virginia Tate is a critical thinker. She wonders about what she sees in nature. Calpurnia’s grumpy grandfather, a naturalist, helps her figure out why green grasshoppers get eaten more often than yellow ones. But Callie’s curiosity is not always rewarded by society. She struggles with society’s expectations of girls at a time when a girl interested in science is not well viewed.

Tip 4: Be flexible thinkers. Every family is different and diverse, you do not have to follow what any other family is doing. Kids learn in different ways. Families work together in different ways. Do what works for YOUR family.

.Millicent Min, Girl Genius Cover

Millicent Min Girl Genius by Lisa Yee

Millicent Min’s family is different from most of the families in her community. And so is the way she learns. Her classmates hate her for going to high school at such a young age. But Emily doesn’t know her IQ and actually thinks she’s cool. Millie decides to hide who she is and how her family works to finally make a real friend.

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Music for Tigers by Michelle Kadarusman

Violinist Louisa ships off to Tasmania to spend the summer with her mother’s eccentric Australian relatives. And she’s not too happy about it. Life at the family’s remote camp in the Tasmanian rainforest is very different. There’s a quirky boy, a strange uncle, old journals and a Tasmanian tiger problem. Louisa has her work cut out for her! Can her music save the day?

Books that make kids think are one of the hallmarks of great learning at home, and at school. Check the books you already have at home and can use in a new way, or try a few of these great books to add to your home learning library.

 

 

 

 

Of Real Places, Real Events, and Fictional Adventures – A Selection

Sometimes places take on special meanings to people who live or visit there; especially during the times of growing up.

Considering the places I have lived in, visited, and found fascinating, while growing up, and recently, I thought middle grade readers might have fun reading interesting fictional stories about young people’s experiences connected to actual unique happenings in particular places; with happenings being one time big events, annual events, events connected to special landmarks, and so on.

Here is a potpourri of stories I’ve discovered, set in places I have lived, or remember visiting, sometimes during special events. These stories are fictional, but realistic; mostly; as happens in “The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” in NY City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the shadow or spotlight of the Brooklyn Bridge, 12 year old Francie lives in poverty with her mom, dad, 11 year old brother, then baby sister in Williamsburg Brooklyn NY around 1910; in the shade of an ailanthus tree (a favored decorative street tree sometimes called “tree of life”). She helps her mom with chores, enjoys going to a library, goes to a school that isn’t nice, but then, thanks to her dad, gets to a nicer school. Then her dad dies. She must get a job; her brother only can go to high school. Eventually, a sergeant offers to marry her mom, adopt the little sister, and send the brother, and Francie, to college, after she takes some courses. // (Wikipedia notes: the ailanthus tree is “an analogy for the ability to thrive in a difficult environment.” It was common in neglected urban areas. Author Betty White wrote in the novel: “There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly…survives without sun, water, and seemingly earth….” — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Introduction)

On his 11th birthday, a boy living in New York City hopes for a dog as a present. He and his classmates are suddenly sent home early from school. His mom calls, delayed at work. She warns: don’t watch the TV; take care of your little sister. Then a stray dog shows up at the door. The boy will surely have an unusual birthday in a place and on a day that he is witness to a monumental happening and deals with being in the midst of it.  

12 year old Nikki lives with her dad just across the street from Central Park in New York City, on 77th Street by the Explorers Gate park entrance. She often visits the park, and is acquainted with the park’s tour guide, Mrs. G, and regular or special events. Things aren’t always what they seem to be in the park though, as Nikki notices at quiet times strange incidents happening. Then a treasure hunt turns into something much more, with the statues right in the center of it all.

Is there really something haunting Sleepy Hollow in New York near where the author of the well-known story lived long ago? Are things not just the ‘for fun’ spooky festivities at a camp? What are some rather strange things that are happening? Three young people decide to find out.

A boy who lives in Hawaii is sent to spend the summer with some grandparents who live in the Adirondack Mountains in New York. He really doesn’t want to go. He finds, however, that this place offers him something unique to experience and take part in.

Three young people are invited and excited to take part in an archaeological dig in one of the first settlements of the American colonies, but then something unusual is found. The young people are determined to solve the mystery.

In Monticello, in Virginia, three young people find a journal written by the 2nd U.S. president’s (Thomas Jefferson’s) granddaughters, but then it’s stolen. The young people strive to get the journal back where it belongs, although danger lurks.

In the mountains of Virginia, (the Blue Ridge Mountains?), two brothers explore the woods outside their new home. Exploring, not only amid the trees, but also caves, rushing waters, and hidden passages, the boys discover something that causes them to eagerly search for clues to find a special type of treasure lost years ago.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, some young people discover that the real Liberty Bell is missing. They are determined to find the real one before the next July 4th celebration. Along the way they get clues from some unique characters. Who are they?!

A boy and his cousin, living along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, decide to visit an island said to have something strange about it.

12 year old Melanie is bored by her hometown’s (New Orleans’) celebration of Mardi Gras, but then she finds a code on a Mardi Gras float. As her interest in the holiday reignites, she decides to find out what the code means, along with some help from some friends.

Nancy and her friends visit New Orleans during a Mardi Gras event, While there, they find out about an art theft. Nancy is determined to locate the masterpiece, and happens to discover a secret too.

Follow the adventure of a fictional First Daughter of a first fictional woman U.S. president. The girl finds a diary (fictional) of a real First Daughter: precocious Alice Roosevelt, who lived in the White House starting in 1901 at age 17

Through this guide, young visitors can get ready for a trip to Washington DC, by delving into the scavenger hunt around the city’s landmarks.

It’s so awesome that interesting places can be brought alive in fascinating ways for young readers through adventures in the literary world!

Interview With Janet Fox, Author of The Artifact Hunters

The Artifact Hunters is one of my favorite books of 2020. So I immediately called dibs on an interview with Janet Fox for MUF. This sequel to THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE combines historical fiction and magic in a fast-paced adventure full of twists and turns.

Let’s get to it!

1. Tell us about The Artifact Hunters.

My main character, Isaac Wolf, is a 12 year old boy living in Prague in 1942, when his parents suddenly send him away alone with a talisman (a pendant in the shape of an “eternity knot”), a mysterious box containing…, and instructions to find Rookskill Castle in Scotland. When he arrives at Rookskill he discovers the Special Alternative Intelligence Unit where gifted children learn to harness their magical powers to support the Allies’ cause. Isaac has to learn that he, too, has magical powers, but to harness and use them he must hunt for a series of magical artifacts that are scattered throughout the past. And what is inside the mysterious box? How can he find those artifacts? And who – or what – is actually hunting him, as he unlocks the answers to these secrets?

2. How did you come up with the idea?

All of my Rookskill books have something to do with time.

In the first book, my protagonist Kat (who is also in this book) knows how to fix clocks, which gives her the ability to defeat the antagonist (there’s a bit of a steampunk element). In this new book, I wanted to play with time travel and the dangers inherent in time loops, time warps, and so on. I also wanted in this book to touch, albeit subtly, on how societies rise and fall and the nature of conflict.

But the real touchstone for me was when I happened upon an article about something called a Death’s Head Watch, which is a totally creepy real thing. https://janetsfox.com/2020/07/the-deaths-head-watch/

3. Do you base your characters on people you know? If yes, spill the beans!

Actually…no. My characters come to me, begging to be written. I’m not kidding.

Of course, there is an element of me in each of them. Kat is especially close to the kid inside me. But I try to enrich them by playing at opposites, at something I would never do or say or think, even if I share their fears or dreams. Each time I start a new story I start with the character first, and build the story around him or her.

4. How much of your real-life experiences play a role in the stories you tell?

When I write I do a lot of research, and my favorite kind of research is travel (which is a little hard to do right now, sadly.) For The Artifact Hunters, I went to Prague, where Isaac is from, and for Charmed Children I visited Scotland. A sense of place is really important to everything I write, so if you look carefully at any of my books you’ll see that they are set in places I’ve lived or visited.

I also have a master’s degree in science (geology), and so science plays a huge role in my work.

5. What books did you like to read when you were a kid? Do those books influence your writing?

My all-time favorite books as a kid were the Narnia books. And yes, they profoundly influence everything I write. I try to invoke that same sense of wonder and magic, and the kid relationships Lewis developed. My first three books are YA novels, and I have one picture book out, but I feel now that my sweet spot is middle grade, and that’s probably due to my love of Narnia.

6. What are you working on now?

I have a third Rookskill novel in proposal stage with my publisher (Viking), so we’ll see whether that’s a go or not. It may depend on how well The Artifact Hunters does, as all things in this business.

I have another book, Carry Me Home, coming out with Simon & Schuster next summer that is really different for me – a contemporary middle grade story about a homeless girl. I really, really love that book and can’t wait to see it out in the world.

But I’ve also been working hard on a “Covid” book, another middle grade fantasy that’s set in contemporary times but with a parallel universes theme. It’s tentative title is The Book of Weirds and Wonders.

7. What is your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I’ve been a pantser forever but I’m trying really hard to plan more, and am finding my way to a technique I really like (that I’m teaching as part of my coaching business https://janetsfox.com/book-coaching/ ). I love pantsing but it makes the work so much more difficult. I’m working on this new in-between strategy called the inside-outline.

https://montana.scbwi.org/events/webinar-a-new-way-to-outline-with-author-janet-fox/

8. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Don’t give up.

It’s so amazing to me to think that I’ve written and published as much as I have. I remember too well the early days, the rejections, the disappointments, the thinking I’d never make it, never publish anything, never be read. There’s only one real reason I did make it – I didn’t give up.

Oh, sure, I studied craft. I have my MFA in writing. I work hard. I’ve been lucky. But honestly, there are many ways to reach your dreams and only one thing that will really get you there and that’s to Never Give Up.

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