Saturday, September 23, 2017

Book Review: Gamer Squad #1: The Attack of the Not-So-Virtual Monsters

Book review by Julie Overpeck of Gamer Squad #1: Attack of the Not-So-Virtual Monsters by Kim Harrington

Gamer Squad #1: Attack of the Not-So-Virtual Monsters
By Kim Harrington
Sterling Children’s Books
August 2017

Bexley, or Bex as she is called, and her best friend Charlie are gamers. Specifically, they play a game called Monsters Unleashed. Similar to Pokemon Go, players walk neighborhoods and search for virtual monsters to catch. Players collect the monsters and are always on the hunt for rare ones. Deciding that the best chance to catch some of the rarest would be to find old places in their town of Wolcott, Massachusetts, Bex and Charlie ask Charlie’s Grandpa Tepper if they can take photos of an old map of his up in the attic. This map is from the 1800’s and will surely reveal some great spots to catch monsters.

The problem occurs when Charlie fiddles with an old machine he finds in the attic while Bex is taking pictures. It sparks and knocks out the wifi, and at first, the friends don’t think anything of it beyond how much trouble they might be in. Then Bex checks her Monsters Unleashed app and realizes that all of the monsters that were in her lab are gone. When they walk home in the dark and have to battle a VampWolf for real, they realize what happened. The monsters from the Lab are now in the physical world rather than the virtual one.

So Bex and Charlie have to learn how to catch real Uniguins, Oinkcats, Teddy Globs, and others before real people get hurt. Only players can see the monsters. Among those who assist are frenemy Willa, a public librarian (I love that part), and an elderly gentleman who lives down the street.


Several of my students came to mind as I read this book. It is short, easy to understand, and the problems the kids have, aside from needing to catch monsters, are relatable. The predictability works in its favor as a hi-lo book for less advanced middle school readers, and elementary will eat it up. I like the characters, who learn and grow through their adventures. This age group often ages out of series while the books are still being written, but not this time. The first in the series came out in August, #2 is already out and #3 comes out in October. The author confirmed for me that there are only 3 in the series. I plan to buy all 3 for my library this fall.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Book Review: Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk Book Review Middle Grade Historical Fiction

Beyond the Bright Sea

By Lauren Wolk

Historical Fiction

(Dutton Children’s Books, May 2017))

My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐/5

Thanks to @ for this review copy. All opinions are my own. 

As a baby, Crow washed up in a skiff on the shore of a small island off of Cape Cod. A man called Osh found her and has raised her as his own. Miss Maggie also lives nearby and helps a great deal in Crow’s upbringing. The last twelve years have gone well; Osh painted portraits of whatever struck his fancy, Crow learned her sums, and together they checked lobster traps and farmed. Now, however, Crow’s world is too small. She wants to know where she came from. Penikese is a nearby island that was once a leper colony. Crow has a hunch that she came from that island, but she has no proof. Against Osh’s wishes, because he knows that the past is not always something to want and admire, Crow embarks on a journey to find her roots. In the course of the search, the islanders encounter a greedy treasure hunter who threatens to take more than jewels away from them. Several mysteries are introduced in this book, some are solved, and some are left alone, even at the end.

The staccato style of Crow’s speech seems to fit a child who has never left the islands. Her observations of life on the island make it seem so bucolic. She is wise beyond her years, perhaps because she is raised by two no-nonsense adults who have imparted that wisdom through everyday life. She is adopted, and it’s natural that adolescents want to know their history as they are finding out who they are.The story includes long lost family, treasure hunting, and a history lesson on the Elizabeth Islands.

The first third of this book moves very well. The middle has a lot of conflict and action, which requires that the ending take a long time to wrap up. Consequently, a young reader may need encouragement to reach the satisfying conclusion. Overall a rich and entertaining story.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

Book Review: The Not So Boring Letters of Private Nobody by Matthew Landis

The Not So Boring Letters of Private Nobody Review Middle Grade Historical Fiction

The Not So Boring Letters of Private Nobody
By Matthew Landis

My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐/5

Oliver is a seventh grader in Mr. Carrow’s Social Studies class who is obsessed with the Civil War. He is a reenactor with the 104th Pennsylvania Volunteers and practices with his regiment every Saturday. No other student knows as much about Civil War battles as Ollie does. Since all he wants to talk about relates to the Civil War, Oliver is a bit awkward and does not have many friends.

Ella is a smart girl in  Mr. Carrow’s class with a talent for video editing. Unfortunately, she is preoccupied with trying to get the attention of her affluent, workaholic parents by tanking all of her classes and dressing like she just climbed out of a dumpster. She is one failing grade away from repeating the seventh grade.

8th grade Social Studies teacher Mr. Carrow assigns Oliver and Ella to work together on a Civil War research assignment. Aspiring writer and fellow seventh grader Kevin joins them so he can earn credit in his English class. Oliver expects to do a project on one of the Union generals. Instead, the group is assigned Private Raymond Stone, who died not as a hero in battle, but as a victim of dysentery before he ever saw the battlefield. Ollie is devastated.

Oliver, Ella, and Kevin visit the local historical society and read letters and accounts of what the Civil War was really like. Over the course of their research, the three learn about the condition of camps, how homes were turned into hospitals, and what the Quaker Peace Testimony meant for many families. They also find out what it means to have a friend and be a friend, and maybe more in the case of Oliver and Ella, but not before they struggle to define what makes someone important. They inevitably come to the conclusion that the most memorable story is not the only one worth remembering.

Author Matt Landis is a middle school social studies teacher who obviously draws on much personal experience. His description makes the reader care about his quirky but realistic characters, and he moves the story along without dwelling too long on any one event. This story is about the awkwardness of new relationships and navigating boy/girl relationships as much as it is about researching history, and I think many students will relate to the thoughts and feelings of a character or two.

This story is also very timely. Mr. Carrow says, “Sometimes people make history what they want it to be instead of what it actually was” (quoting from an uncorrected text). His statement has a double meaning. He is talking about how the students’ perceptions are not necessarily how things really are, but he is also talking about how the South was so angry after the Confederacy lost the Civil War that they erected monuments to remember their “war heroes” even after they were declared murderers and traitors to the United States. While this sentiment may seem like a foregone conclusion to people in the North, it is not here in the South. This book could elicit some meaningful discussion where many of those men are still honored with monuments and statues.

I highly recommend this book for a middle school library.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

A Beginner's Guide to a Successful Library Conference

It’s coming! It’s coming!

Can you smell it? The brand new paper and glue in all of those books.

The din of the ginormous vendor hall buzzing with librarians from all fields and the sales forces touting their reading materials, digital content, furniture, storytelling, and (wait for it) sparkly t-shirts!

And oh, the sight of all of those glorious books. Stacks and stacks of advanced reader copies and even some published books, just waiting to be read and reviewed.

And then there are The Sessions. I sit at the feet of masters and just soak up their expertise and advice like a sponge. New books, new lists, authors, technology, lesson ideas, coding, makerspaces, and it goes on and on and on…

I loooooooove conferences, I mean, for me conferences rival a trip to Disney World! I start counting down weeks in advance. I save up my money. I plan my outfits. I  can’t wait for the conference!

Whether you attend a huge conference, like the Texas Library Association Conference (TLA), or more modest like the North Carolina School Library Media Association (NCSLMA), some steps will make your trip more successful and less stressful.
Texas Library Association TLA Convention Tips
View of vendor hall at the Texas Library Association (TLA) Convention in Houston 2016.

How to Stay Sane At A Library Conference

1. Plan

Create a tentative schedule.

Some conferences have an app to create a schedule on your device. I mark all of the sessions I am interested in, even double-booking to give me more options later. Studying the program in advance also allows me to see if I can skip a day or two, saving the hotel and per diem money, or if I need to go for the entire conference.

Include time for book signings if you want autographs. Popular, well-known authors have long lines, and some times of day may be better than others.

2. Evaluate

If you determine within the first few minutes that the session will not deliver what you thought it would, leave.

Ok, so it’s not great advice if you sat in the front row, but even the most seasoned conference attendees have done it. With so much happening, who has time to waste an hour on making robots out of toilet paper tubes when you need to learn how to code? Choosing more than one concurrent session gives you another option when this happens (see #1).

3. Scour the vendor listings

Big library conferences always have the best giveaways--books, posters, the occasional plushes. Some vendors give them away in exchange for your contact info. Some have things hidden away for those who read the program. I have gotten some great items by looking through the vendor listings in advance.

4. Go green

Be choosy with the books and trinkets.

A friend and I play the Tacky Trinket Treasure Hunt. I go through the vendor hall and look for the absolute worst trinket I can find. I send a picture to her and either get a thumbs up (yes, very tacky indeed!) or a thumbs down (seriously? You can do better!). By the way, a stress-ball-type foam toilet won last year’s game. This pursuit amuses me, but it also made me realize how much stuff I would take home to throw in the trash.

The same goes for all of those advanced reader copies. I don’t take it if I am not going to read it. Yes, it’s free, but what a waste - for me, for the vendor, for the planet! A bag full of books I will never read gets heavy on the way to the hotel room. Now I take what I intend to read, use, or give to someone I know will love it.

Advanced Reader Copies from Texas Library Association TLA Convention
My haul from the TLA Convention in Houston 2016. And yes, I read most of them.

5. Breathe

I am an introvert. There, I said it. I love people, and I am not shy, but being around so many people all day exhausts me. I have to build in time to recharge. Some years I have booked my own hotel room, other years I stayed with my introverted friend. We go to dinner with friends and stay busy most of the day, but we always build in time to decompress.

6. Reflect

All of the notes in the world about makerspaces and social media will not change anything if they sit in a pile until you decide to declutter your desk in June. Clarify the notes now while the subject is still fresh. Decide on whether you intend to call the vendor who gave you her business card, or if you were being polite. Go through the handouts and be ruthless! Jot down ideas about when and how and plan who you will call, changes you will make, authors you need to look up, etc. Do it soon, or you won’t do it.

Don’t forget your great ideas. Implement.

Return the favor

When you sit through enough presentations and think, “I know how to do this,” you ought to consider submitting a proposal to present next year. It’s your time, and it’s your duty to share what you have learned with others.

Conferences take on a whole new level of excitement--the books smell newer, the cute shirts sparkle brighter, the food even tastes better--when you serve other media specialists in their quest to improve their schools.

Make this conference visit the best ever!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How to Determine if You Need a Makerspace

The Makerspace. I didn’t get it. For years I didn’t get it. The Makerspace has been a buzz word in the School Library Media Center World for several years, but I couldn’t understand why. It doesn’t really have anything to do with books. It usually doesn’t involve traditional research. Why do I need to give up space in the slmc so kids can come and be loud and make a mess and not read?

School Library Media Center Starting a Makerspace

Then I met Mrs. Makerspace herself, Colleen Graves. She only knows who I am now because I keep tagging her on Instagram (@makerteacherlibrarian) and she graciously replies. Colleen led a Makerspace playground at a TCEA conference (Texas Computer Educators Association). So while at TCEA I decided to see what the hoopla was about.

I walked through the ballroom area where Colleen had set up her "toys." She looks so young, at first I mistook her for a high school student. She was so calm and casual, but incredibly knowledgeable about all of her "stuff", the electronics and robots. I was overwhelmed and didn't know where to start, so I just wandered. I looked, but I didn't touch. I still didn't get it. I'm not sure I really wanted to get it yet.

Colleen noticed me and asked if I'd like to try anything. I played for a while with the Little Bits and thought, “OK, this is fun.” Then I wandered over to the Makey Makeys and stared at the banana piano. "Try it!" she encouraged. I played with the Makey Makeys.

I used an iPad to control the Dash robot through a maze taped on the floor. Eventually, I sat down to take it all in and thought, “My students really would love this!” How could they not?  But then the doubts crept in again and my skepticism came back. Maybe in the computer lab, not the library. Maybe the Instructional Technologist should do it, not me. I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the connection to these electronics and the media center.

Finally, I walked across the room and cornered Colleen. Without preface or introduction, I demanded, “Why should I have a Makerspace? Why in the library?”

I was ready for her apologetics. I was ready for her to justify it with research and some noble mission to connect surreptitiously with kids who don’t like to read, to get them in the media center as a maker, and later to get them in there to read.

But her response stopped me dead in my tracks. She simply looked at me and said, “Why not?”

That moment is frozen in my brain. Why not?

Why not?

Why not offer them what they aren’t getting elsewhere because of high stakes testing? Why not use the space rather than let it sit idle before school? Why not get nerdy and experiment and just see what happens?

I tried to research (because, ahem, librarian), and I found that as no two schools are the same, no two Makerspaces are the same. Their purpose, schedule, supplies and offerings are all suited to their schools and their populations and their time or money constraints.

I had to just take a chance and be a creator myself to create a Makerspace for my students.

So I did it. I created a Makerspace when I had no idea how it should look or what it should contain. For the first time in over 20 book fairs, I took all of my profit in Scholastic Dollars. I spent the bucks in the Scholastic catalog on bright red furniture, and maker kits, specifically Little Bits and Makey Makeys. I collected donated craft supplies. We received Legos from a DonorsChoose grant. I moved furniture around and started getting rid of our professional collection. Seriously, no one has checked out those books in 15 years, so now that bookshelf stores our Maker stuff.
Students in School Library Media Center Makerspace
Creating music with Little Bits Synth Kit

The next time classes came in, we talked about what a Makerspace is and when they could use it. I showed them what we had and taught them the basics. Then we got busy. I turned them loose as nervous teachers gave me sideways glances and asked, “Are you sure you don’t want to assign them to groups? Are you sure they can handle 20 minutes of freedom? Are you sure they don’t need more instruction?”

I was sure. They experimented. They struggled to understand. They figured it out. They tried everything and created wonderful things. They got it.
Students in School Library Media Center Makerspace
Crowd favorite, the Makey Makey

Mrs. M told me she had never been able to engage one particular boy in anything. It is February, six months into the year. Now we couldn’t get him to stop. Mrs. V said I was right--even her most challenging class was engaged, making music with the Little Bits Synth Kit and foil keys attached to a Makey Makey. Mrs. J showed me a group of girls at the back of the room using old Stampin’ Up kits to decorate and write encouraging letters to each other, with no prompting from the adults. They just knew that one of their friends needed a pick-me-up, and so they did it. Be still my heart.
Students in School Library Media Center Makerspace
Crafting and creating

It’s still a mess and a work in progress. I am still ironing out the particulars of how many students may come and when.  I told the students and teachers up front that I was still learning and it might take awhile to get the kinks worked out, but we'll get it.

And now that we've got it, we love it and don’t want to go back to the days without it. I wish that I had done it sooner.

I'm not sure of my next addition, but we may venture into robotics or 3D printing.

Why not?

Do you have a Makerspace? If you don't, why not? What is holding you back? Space? Cost? Time? All of those issues can be solved, and some solutions change over time. I would love to hear about your experiences with deciding to implement a Makerspace or not, and what challenges you have faced.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Space for the Story

“Do you have anything I can help you with?” Dwayne asks me, the same way he asks me every time his class comes to the media center. Dwayne gets in trouble. A lot. He’s lucky if he makes it through a class without getting sent out by the teacher for getting mad or saying something inappropriate. He’s 13 and can barely read, but for some reason, Dwayne likes me, the librarian.

“Well, do you?” I don’t need any help in the media center right now, so I make something up. I never tell him no. “Why don’t you sharpen this cup of pencils for me?”

Photo: Joanna Kosinka

This kid craves connection. Like so many kids in our school, Dwayne has a tough life outside of school, but school life is just as rough. What is that like, to struggle all of the time? To never be able to relax because you are failing/ hungry/ moving again/ can’t read the assignment/ are constantly in trouble? He smiles at me most of the time, but it is one of those smiles that doesn’t mean he’s happy. It just means he hopes I’m listening.

I often tell people that being a media specialist is like being a grandparent: I get to love on all of the students, and then I send them back to their teacher before we get tired of each other. I get to spoil them a little. I give students boundaries and expect them to respect those boundaries, but I am not the main disciplinarian, nor am I a task master.

I am the one who doesn’t know a girl just had a crappy first class with a sub, so she gets a clean slate when she walks through my door.  I am the one who lets a boy take a power nap in my nice comfy chair because he had an AAU basketball tournament that lasted until 10:30 in the neighboring city last night, and he didn’t sleep long enough to function well today. I am the one who looks at the Lego tower and says, “I don’t know. How high can you build it?” and then doesn’t flinch when the whole thing crashes, spilling Legos everywhere.

The next time Dwayne asks if he can help me, I tell him I could use his help before school each morning to log on my 10 computers so they will be ready for the day. I figure it will keep him out the cafeteria where he has nothing better to do than mouth off and get in trouble, and I really hate logging on all of those computers. It is during one of these early mornings that I learn that Dwayne doesn’t think he lost his book last month. It’s probably in the storage unit they rented when he and his mom were evicted and he had to go live with his dad. Mom gambled away the rent. The other adults at school don’t know this yet. They care, but they don’t have the time or space for his story to come out. And so I listen to this heartbreaking story. I don’t try to fix it (not right now, anyway), and I don’t get overly emotional. If I did, he might not confide in me later.

The next morning we work, me printing out overdue notices and him logging on the computers. As I tap on my keyboard, I pray for the chance to connect with other kiddos who need to tell their story, and I break a few pencil leads so someone can sharpen them again.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Word of Mouse
By James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
Illustrated by Joe Sutphin
Review by Julie Overpeck

The talking blue rodent in Word of Mouse is not the type of character that I normally associate with author James Patterson, but when Chris Grabenstein is the other half of the writing duo, things become a bit absurd, but in a good way.

Isaiah is a brightly colored, ex-lab mouse who escaped the confines of “the bad place” with his family. Unfortunately, the rest of his family was recaptured and Isaiah was left to navigate the real world outside the lab by using his wits, new friends, and ability to communicate with humans. The unfortunate experiments that Isaiah suffered at the hands of his captors not only created the bright blue hue of his coat. They also gave him the ability to read, type, and think at a level higher than your average mouse.

Separated from his 96 siblings, Isaiah runs from cats, dogs, and hawks. He meets a regular brown mouse named Mikayla, who takes him home to her mischief. “Mischief” is the name for a mouse family. Mikayla’s mischief teaches Isaiah the finer art of stealing food in the pig-stye that is the home of the Brophy family. The Brophys are such slobs that the pickings are good and the opportunities plentiful.

Hailey is a human girl living next to the Brophys. She makes Isaiah’s acquaintance when he raids her kitchen in search of some crumb cake. She makes up excuses not to go to school because she is bullied about her white hair and pale blue eyes. She and Isaiah make a connection because they look different from others in their species. And because Isaiah can read and type, the two communicate and become friends.

As easy as this life is, Isaiah is not content to live the good life knowing that his own mischief is penned up and part of a giant, dangerous science experiment. With the help of Hailey, Mikayla’s mischief, and every mouse in the surrounding area, Isaiah mobilizes a rescue operation to deliver his family from a terrible fate.

Isaiah and the others learn that the unique traits that make them noticeable have nothing to do with important they are to the world. They are strong, with good hearts that want to help others and make things right. Joe Sutphin’s illustrations, especially of a bright eyed Isaiah and the hairless Sphinx cat, Lucifer, are charming and well done. The story moves along at a good pace and the characters have some depth.

This is solid middle grade fiction. The book length and subject is great for those precocious readers who have ability that exceeds their interest- and maturity level. 12 years old may be pushing it, but this would be a good classroom or family read aloud.

This book will be available December, 2016.