Four Short Book Reviews

Screaming at the UmpScreaming at the Ump by Audrey Vernick

This middle-grade novel’s narrator is sixth-grader Casey Snowden, a baseball-writer-wannabe whose father and grandfather run the third best (out of three) umpiring schools in America. The supporting cast of Screaming at the Ump is one of its appeals, along with interesting perspectives on the training of umpires. For readers interested in baseball, Audrey Vernick provides authentic insights that go beyond the cliches found in most sports books.

Audrey Vernick is also the author of the picture book Brothers at Bat, another fine baseball book for young readers.

Look for Screaming at the Ump from Clarion Books in March, 2014.

Lessons from a Dead GirlLessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles

After reading all of the other fine Jo Knowles novels, I kept putting different books in line ahead of Lessons from a Dead Girl, her 2007 debut. Maybe the title struck me as a little too goth, plus it is a first novel—how good could it be? Well, guess what? Lessons from a Dead Girl is excellent, and I should have read it long ago.

We learn on the first page that Laine’s friend Leah is dead. Then we go back to the beginning of their toxic friendship. 215 pages later, we see how the girls’ troubled and troubling relationship is set in motion by forces they cannot control or understand. Lessons from a Dead Girl may have fewer touches of humor than the later books, but it is no less authentic or compelling as the chapters build toward the devastating ending that we know is coming. Each chapter is presented as a “lesson” learned by Laine as a result of her involvement with Leah. By the end, Leah has learned her lessons well enough to realize “even though I still don’t completely understand why she did all the things she did, I really do forgive her.” And this hard-earned lesson of Leah’s becomes our lesson too.

A Tale of Two CitiesA Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

After spending most of a year reading A Tale of Two Cities slowly in an attempt to roughly duplicate the reading experience of those who subscribed to the original Dickens novel, I wound up finding a lot to admire about the style of Charles Dickens. This book has many compelling cinematic flourishes, even though cinema would not exist for several decades in the future. Modern readers may find that the novel plods in the middle and is overwritten in places. People kept telling me that the last section makes it all worthwhile. I see what they mean, but in order to appreciate the ending, we have to accept some amazing coincidences which probably did not bother readers in Victorian times. My big take-away from this unique reading adventure is that the act and art of reading a novel today is different than it was for the contemporaries of Charles Dickens.

Moo!Moo! by David LaRochelle

Moo! accomplishes exactly what I’m looking for in a read-aloud picture book. It warms up students’ literacy mechanisms by spotlighting different ways to express a single word depending on context.

And it’s fun! I used it by showing the pictures and flipping the pages while asking different groups of students to supply the various Moos.

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