Books for Kids
Book Reviewed: Hiaasan, Carl. (2002). Hoot. New York: Random House.

Summary: Roy Eberhardt is the new kid at Trace Middle School in Coconut Grove, Florida. He has no friends, sits at the lunch table by himself, and is teased by a bully named Dana Matherson. One day, as Roy’s face is being pressed against the school bus window by Dana, Roy sees a boy running which sets off a whole series of events. Eventually, Roy finds himself smack dab in the middle of a controversial new construction project for the next Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House, which is scheduled to be built on top of a parliament of protected burrowing owls. Who is sabotaging the construction site by pulling up the survey markets, spray-painting the windows of the police car as the policeman sleeps inside, and putting alligators in the portable bathrooms? And where does Mullet Fingers fit into all of this? Can the owls be saved before they are flattened by a pancake house?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a famous book which middle school kids (and adults) have enjoyed for years. The publication date really doesn’t matter because today’s kids will still immensely enjoy Hoot. It’s a funny book filled with odd characters and weird adults and strange behaviors. The setting of the story is Florida, but the situation could take place in any state in the country.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Kids will cheer on the small burrowing owls as they work to stave themselves off from extinction at the hands of Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House and kids will also boo and hiss the greedy adults who know the owls are a protected species but don’t want anyone to find out they exist before it’s too late. There are memorable characters in this novel—both adult and kid, which make for a very interesting and funny read.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Find two funny scenes in the book. Why are they funny? Try to be as specific as possible.
  • Why does the author use Mullet Fingers as the hero of the “save the owls” quest? Why doesn’t he use a scientist from the local university to lobby on behalf of the owls?
  • Research the owls in this book. Where do they live and what do they eat? Are they really endangered? Why are they endangered?
  • Tell the story out loud to someone else. Try to remember as many of the important scenes as you can.
  • What is the relationship between the construction foreman, Curly, his boss, Chuck Muckle, and police officer Delinko?

Overall evaluation of this book: A fun and entertaining frolic in the state of Florida. Five Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Kinney, Jeff. (2007). Diary of a Wimpy Kid. New York: Amulet Books.

Summary: Greg Heffley is a new sixth grade student and he is terrified of being one of the smallest kids in a building ruled by what he sees as bigger and meaner kids. His mother buys him a diary, over his objections, but Gregory diligently records his daily thoughts in his new diary, along with sketches—or doodles—of what he experiences. As Greg’s diary progresses, he recounts his experiences with his best friend, Rowley and the nerd of the sixth grade—a small wisp of a kid named Fregley—someone Greg does his best to avoid—unless it is in Greg’s best interest. Along the way, Greg encounters bullies, the school play, girls who warrant his attention and those who don’t, major holidays such as Halloween, school bus rides, p.e. class, holiday presents which go to the wrong individuals, the politics of the school safety patrol, and his version of how he fits in on the school popularity index—at one point he estimates he is currently about 52nd or 53rd on the list.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This story will never be confused with other books that are considered as “classics” of middle school literature, such as Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, The Red Pony, or Little Women. However, kids will read this book—and others in the series—voraciously and with great enthusiasm. The author has done a remarkable job of imagining what goes through the head of sixth graders and his accompanying drawings—which will never be considered as “real art” by high-brow aficionados. This book will be better received by kids who are in the lower middle school grades. Ninth graders will try to disguise the fact they are reading this book from their peers.

Why middle school kids should read this book: If kids love sarcasm, irony, and they have a droll sense of humor, Diary of a Wimpy Kid will be really funny to them. If, however, they tend to take the printed word at face value and struggle with the types of humor listed in the preceding line, this book will never make their “Top Ten” list, unless it happens to be their “Bottom Ten List.” This is the kind of book you let kids read to fully develop their sense of humor. It’s not Shakespeare, but how do we know young Shakespeare didn’t start with raw sketches and worrying about things like his social ranking while attending school in Stratford-upon-Avon in merry old England? If kids don’t like to read or have below grade level reading skills, this is a good pick for them because lots of kids read the books in this series. Consequently, they won’t have to worry about being spotted by their peers as reading “baby books.”

Discussion points with kids:

  • Do you know any kids in your school who are like Greg Heffley? How are they similar to Greg? Have they had any incidents similar to those written about by Greg in his diary?
  • Using Diary of a Wimpy Kid as the model or example, keep your own diary for one week, complete with drawings and sketches.
  • What makes this book so funny? Find three examples from the book of things you found really funny. If you didn’t find this book to be very funny, find three examples from the book of things you didn’t find very funny.
  • Greg wants to be popular in his school. What does he attempt, or try to accomplish, in order to be popular?
  • Identify five words which describe Greg’s type of humor. Find one example from the book for each word you use to describe his humor.

Overall evaluation of this book: A fun graphic novel kids will breeze through with little difficulty. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Patterson, James. (2012). I Funny. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Summary: Despite a terrible accident which killed his immediate family and left him paralyzed from the waist down, Jamie has dreams of becoming a standup comedian—even though he really can’t “standup” because he is confined to a wheelchair. Along his journey to fulfill his dream, Jamie encounters an adoptive family who doesn’t appear to have a funny bone anywhere in their skeletal system, a bully who throws him out of his wheelchair and over the side of the railing, an inquisitive girl who wonders how he goes to the bathroom, an strange but supportive uncle who keeps encouraging Jamie, and teachers who don’t appreciate his one-liners in class. In the end, Jamie must battle his fears on stage and find out whether or not he has what it takes to be a professional comedian.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a funny book which is filled with one-liners, which means that after kids are finished with the book, you will almost certainly be the recipient of lots of jokes for at least a day or two. The jokes are clean and the book is filled with illustrations that will delight kids. There are references to comedians—such as George Carlin—which kids may not recognize, but a short internet search will solve that problem.

Why middle school kids should read this book: What I especially liked about this book is not the humor—there’s a lot of it—or the setting—Long Island, New York—but that the story is told from the point of view of someone who is confined to a wheelchair. The situations Jamie finds himself in and his viewpoint on things like how people feel sorry for the handicapped and treat him differently, is worth the price of admission to this book.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How do the illustrations and pictures in the book help Patterson move the story along?
  • What were the best jokes in the book?
  • Jamie is paralyzed from the waist down and must use a wheelchair. How should you treat someone who is handicapped? Should you treat them differently from other kids? Why or why not?
  • At one point in the book, Jamie uses private information and makes fun of people he knows. This helps him win the comedian award. But what about his friends? Do most friends like being the butt of jokes? What about you? How else could Jamie have handled the situation?

Overall evaluation of this book: A very fast read but probably a better fit for younger middle school kids. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Patterson, James. (2011). Middle School: The Worst Years of my Life. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Summary: This book follows the adventure of Rafe, a newbie to middle school who is determined, by the end of the year, to break every school rule. As you might expect, he has all sorts of adventures in his determination to accomplish his goal, including setting off fire alarms, getting into a fight, being tardy to class, not doing his homework, and being the class clown. Rafe uses a point system to determine the extent of his rule breaking prowess. For example, being tardy to class is worth 7,500 points while using a scooter outside designated areas is worth a whopping 20,000 points. Along the way he encounters infatuation with a girl who wants to help him with his problems, unhelpful advice from his friend, and a bully who torments him on a regular basis. (But don’t worry, the bully eventually gets his comeuppance.) Rafe is also beset by problems at home. His mother has a lazy boyfriend who hangs around the house, causing his mother to work extra hard, trying to keep the family afloat. Of course, Rafe doesn’t like his mother’s boyfriend and does what he can to drive a wedge between his mother and the irresponsible boyfriend. After an ugly incident, however, the situation is resolved and the waste-of-a-boyfriend is sent packing.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: The story is very funny but if you (or your child or class) can’t see the humor in what has to be the fantasy of nearly every middle schooler—to poke fun at all the rules in a school—then you aren’t going to like this book. There is no swearing but there are allusions to the use of swear words. There are several scenes involving some violence—one is serious but the others are muted and avoid many of the details.

Why middle school kids should read this book: It’s a funny book and very well-done. The inclusion of numerous pictures and diagrams and sketches add to the humor. The book has a serious undertone with the mother and her abusive boyfriend which some kids will be able to relate to. In the end, the story is about redemption for Rafe and the events which lead him to a more promising outcome for his unusual talents. This is one of those books that kids who would never dare of breaking school rules will like to read because of the audacity of Rafe, who flouts the school rules on a regular basis. He does and says what most kids would not ever say to the teacher but it is all in good fun and nobody is hurt by Rafe’s actions, even though his mother becomes increasingly frustrated with him.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What is the purpose of a school having rules?
  • What would happen to you if you broke the same rules Rafe broke
  • Rafe encounters a bully. What are some effective strategies for dealing with bullies?
  • How do you know the difference between knowing when you should follow the rules and knowing when the rules can bend a little?
  • What is an abusive relationship and what should you do when you know someone is involved in an abusive relationship?

Overall evaluation of this book: This book is excellent and funny, though better suited for the lower grades levels of middle school. It’s a fast read and the sketches and drawings fit in well with the story line. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Paulsen, Gary. (1993). Harris and Me. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers.

Summary: A young boy is sent to live with his relatives on a farm in rural Minnesota. There he meets his cousin, Harris, who is rude, crude, lewd, and a barrel full of fun. Harris will try anything—or at least attempt to talk his visiting cousin into trying anything. (Many times he succeeds.) As you can imagine, what happens on the farm is what generally happens whenever two young boys are left to themselves, without adult supervision. The boys blow up a frog, fight an attacking rooster, try to unsuccessfully ride a pig, trap mice, hide “dourty peectures,” swing on a rope in the barn, shoot at the family Lynx and get their just rewards, get bucked off a horse, make the mistake of attaching a washing machine motor to a bicycle, and learn about the principals of electricity along the fence line. In other words, one misadventure follows another misadventure which begets another plan which inevitably goes awry.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There is swearing in the book and kids may find some of the scenes revolting. The setting of the book is on a farm and the two young boys are left pretty much to themselves much of the time so you can use your imagination as to what some of the revolting scenes may be. If you only want kids reading “G” rated books, you should skip this one.

Why middle school kids should read this book: If you don’t mind a little bit of swearing and some risqué scenes—there is no sex in the book but there are some French postcards with exposed flesh, and a scene involving urination and an electric fence—but if you and your kids can get past these events—the book is really funny. It’s a realistic tale of what may happen on a farm when two boys have too much time on their hands. Anyone who has grown up on a farm or a farming community will resonate with this one. If your kids haven’t been on a farm, and you don’t mind having them read some “edgy stuff” this could be their ticket to a few belly laughs.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How does the setting add to the humor of the story?
  • There is some swearing and “edgy stuff” in this book. Do you think it adds or detracts to the story? Why or why not?
  • Imagine you get to spend the summer on a farm. What do you think you would do? What would you explore?
  • Gary Paulson places the setting of this story sometime in the early to mid-1950’s. How would the story be different if the setting had been in modern times? How would it be the same?

Overall evaluation of this book: A really funny and engaging book set in the days before modern farming techniques. But this story is not for the squeamish or prude. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Peck, Richard. (1998). A Long Way from Chicago. New York: Penguin Group.

Summary: Joey and his younger sister have been banished from their hometown of Chicago to live in a small town in Illinois with their eccentric grandmother who turns out to be a handful. Sometimes Joey can’t tell whether his grandmother is telling the truth or whether she is telling tall tales. But whatever grandmother is saying, she is also a woman of action and soon Joey is swept up in Grandma’s adventures in righting the wrong and making fun of people who put on “airs.” Most of the book covers Grandma’s outlandish outings and no one is safe from her plots and plans, including bankers, sheriffs, and teenagers.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Kids may initially not be willing to read this book for two reasons. First, the story takes place primarily in a rural setting—and kids aren’t sometimes thrilled about reading these books, especially if they haven’t had much contact with the rural countryside, and second, because the book has been around for a while and has lost the lure of having been recently published.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a really funny book and you don’t want kids to miss the adventures of Joey and Grandma Dowdel. Grandma is a hoot and doesn’t care what people think of her. She is also out of control and everything a kid wants in a reckless older member of the family. Probably a bit more suited for younger middle age students, but many older kids have loved reading this book.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How does the setting, in a rural town in the 1930’s, add to the humor?
  • What would life really be like living with someone like Grandma Dowdel? Could you do it? Why or why not?
  • This book is in some ways a satire on small town living. What examples of satire can you find? Do you know of any examples of satire you encounter in your life? (Note: If you don’t know what satire is—look it up.)
  • This book has lots of stories which are funny—but there are not very many jokes in the novel. How does the author make the stories funny without telling jokes?

Overall evaluation of this book: This book is short and sweet but oh so good. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Peck, Richard. (2000). A Year Down Yonder. New York: Scholastic Inc.

Summary: Mary Alice, a 15-year-old girl, is back visiting the eccentric and outrageous Grandma Dowdel—only this time she has to stay with her for an entire year. Mary Alice is soon swept up as an accomplice in Grandma’s plots and deceptions. To say that Grandma Dowdel is a highly opinionated woman is putting it mildly. No one in town is safe from Grandma as she meddles with the townsfolk and those who live around the small municipality.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a follow-up book to A Long Way to Chicago, which chronicles the early adventures of Grandma Dowdel. It’s not critical that kids have read the first book but neither would it hurt. In both books, the themes, style, and humor are similar. In other words, they are both really good books. The books maybe better suited for younger middle school kids but I wouldn’t ignore the fact that many older middle schools kids have also loved reading this book. The book—and its companion—are great for reading aloud, so don’t be bashful about turning off the electronics and having a good old fashioned family or class read-aloud.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This novel is a good example of how stories can be written without using profanity and gore—and still carry a punch which resonates with middle school kids. If kids have designs on being a good storyteller, they can learn much by reading this book—and its companion—several times.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Why do the kids initially think Mary Alice is the rich girl from the big city? If you lived in a small town, how might someone from a large city appear if they suddenly moved into your town? Likewise, if you lived in a large, urban city, how might someone from a small town appear if they suddenly moved into your city?
  • Write a short story about something funny or humorous about your family. Read it out loud when you are finished.
  • Guess what Grandma Dowdel was like when she was middle school aged. Describe her as if she lived in your neighborhood.
  • Imagine yourself living next to someone like Grandma Dowdel. What would life in the neighborhood be like?
  • Do you know anyone like Grandma Dowdel? How are they like her?

Overall evaluation of this book: A rollicking good story. The pages fly by. If you don’t laugh or smile occasionally, then you probably aren’t human. Five Stars ★★★★★

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