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How Tia Lola Came to Stay, by Julia Alvarez
 

The Story

Soon-to-be ten year old Miguel and his younger sister Juanita have just moved from New York City to an old farmhouse in Vermont after their parents' divorce, and they are finding that transitions like this are not easy. Miguel is having trouble making friends because he feels different from the other kids, and this new small town just doesn't feel like home. When their mom needs extra help with the kids because she works all day, she asks her Tia Lola from back home in the Dominican Republic to come stay. Tia Lola is the most flamboyant lady Miguel and Juanita have ever seen! And she brings all sorts of strange things with her, like musical instruments, spices, and foods that the kids have never heard of before. At first Miguel is embarrassed by Tia Lola and tries to keep her a secret from the new friends he is making, but eventually Miguel comes to see that there is something rather magical about his aunt, and he may not want her to leave after all.

The Scoop

How Tia Lola Came to Stay is the first of four books in the Tia Lola series and introduces the reader to this wonderful and loving character. Miguel and Juanita struggle with their new circumstances after their parents' split and Tia Lola's presence is just what they need to come together as siblings. The divorce seems amicable, but the kids do see their Mami feeling sad, and they wonder why their Papi can't be with them more often. Even though Tia Lola is Mami's aunt, she is still on good terms with Papi and takes the children to visit him in New York. There are lovely lessons in this wholesome read about learning to embrace the place where you are, and knowing that you are truly home when you are simply with the people you love. There are lots of Spanish phrases that kids may recognize if they have studied the language a bit, though they are also translated in the text if they haven't. This book would make a good read aloud for a young co-ed audience.
 

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Al Capone Shines My Shoes, by Gennifer Choldenko
 

The Story

In this sequel to the award winning Al Capone Does My Shirts, twelve-year-old Moose continues to live on Alcatraz Island with his family, a handful of friends, and no shortage of famous inmates. When he is not playing baseball with his friend Annie, Moose explores the island and interacts with its inhabitants, most notably the Warden's beautiful but mean daughter, Piper. Moose suspects that Al Capone has pulled some strings from behind his bars to get Moose's autistic sister Natalie into a special school in San Francisco. Now it looks like Capone wants payback. Moose would do anything to help his sister, but how far should he go to repay a debt, especially when the debtor is the most famous criminal in the world?

The Scoop

This charming and poignant story is also a quick and suspenseful read. A message is conveyed that people are not always what they seem, and that the world is a complex place. Doing the right thing and compassion are key themes. Moose is a caring, empathetic boy with a good family. He struggles with many ethical decisions, and usually makes the right choice. His family's conflicting feelings about Natalie going off to school (guilt about "enjoying" their new freedom while missing her at the same time) is handled delicately, with grace and honesty. In fact, the respect and affection that most islanders show Natalie is heartwarming. There is some mild language, a first kiss, and some talk about criminal's various crimes (murder, etc). Moose gets embarrassed when he sees a pregnant woman because her belly "reminded him of how it got to be that way." This would be a good read-aloud choice and it is not necessary to have read the prequel, as the author does a good job of recapping the plot.
 

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Elijah of Buxton, by Christopher Paul Curtis
 

The Story

It's 1860 and eleven-year-old Elijah is the first freeborn child in Buxton, a small settlement of runaway slaves in Canada. A fearful and sensitive boy, Elijah knows little of slavery or what his parents have had to endure. That all changes when he bravely joins his friend in pursuit of the town's corrupt and colorful preacher, who has stolen money meant to buy freedom for a family of slaves. This adventure, both hilarious and heart-breaking, takes the friends across the border to America, where slavery has not yet been abolished.

The Scoop

The author brilliantly mixes the heavy issues of slavery with humor, making this story easy for a kid to digest. Readers will enjoy Elijah's adventures and the colorful cast of characters he meets. True to its time period, some of the dialect may be hard to understand, and there is some mild language. In America, Elijah is exposed to talk of lynching, branding, suicide, murder, and the aftermath of a beating. He witnesses slaves in shackles, adults smacking children, and a finger being cut off in a knife fight. By staying strong during those tough times, Elijah overcomes his fragility, gains a better understanding of racism and hope for a better future.
 

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Storyteller, by Patricia Reilly Giff
 

The Story

When Elizabeth is sent to stay with an aunt she's never met, she gains comfort from a drawing that she finds of a girl who looks remarkably like her. It turns out that her ancestor Eliza (known as Zee) lived during the time of the American Revolution, and shared many of Elizabeth's traits and insecurities. The story alternates between Zee's story and Elizabeth's, and even though their lives are separated by 250 years, there are remarkable parallel's in their lives. After Zee loses her mother to British Loyalists at the beginning of the war, she sets out to find her father and brother who have left home to fight for the Patriots. Along the way, she discovers an inner strength she never knew she had. As Elizabeth tries to come out of her shell with her aunt, Zee's story inspires her to reach beyond what she ever thought she could accomplish.

The Scoop

Written by an award-winning author, Storyteller is the lovely story of two girls who have uneasy relationships with their fathers, but who ultimately discover inner strength and self-confidence. It is a quick read that alternates between modern day and the early days of the Revolutionary War. There is a nice dash of history that is more interesting because it is told from a young girl's point of view. Zee feels clumsy and inadequate in her family during their lives as farmers, but when she finds herself alone at the start of the war, she discovers that bravery and determination have been with her all along. Similarly, Elizabeth is quiet and insecure until she is forced into a living situation she didn't ask for. She discovers a portrait of her distant relative Zee, and the more she learns about Zee, the more she learns about herself and her previously untapped talents. There are nice lessons about embracing your strong suits, whatever they may be.
 

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Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine
 

The Story

Ten-year-old Caitlin sees her world in black and white. Having Asperger's Syndrome, she finds colors, emotions, and school recess confusing and chaotic, and prefers to deal in facts, by herself. But Caitlin has a lot to work through. Her older brother Devon was the victim of a shooting at his middle school and she is trying to understand her grief and find closure (a word she only knows the dictionary definition of). Devon was the member of her family who best understood her and was able to help navigate her world. With the help of a compassionate school counselor, Caitlin embarks on a journey to find closure not only for herself, but for her community as well. And she might even make a friend or two along the way.

The Scoop

Author Kathryn Erskine wrote this book in response to the shootings on the Virginia Tech campus, in an effort to explore how the world might be different if people understood each other better. This story about empathy is told from Caitlin's point of view, and will hopefully be a mind-opening read for kids who may know of a child with Asperger's Syndrome. Caitlin functions well academically, but because she cannot interpret emotions in other people, has trouble making friends or interacting socially. She sets her sights on achieving closure after the death of her brother, even though she doesn't have a good sense of what it means. In her simple understanding, she interprets it as seeing her dad smile again. The school shooting is the most upsetting aspect of this book, though it occurred before the story begins. It is referred to several times, but not described. There are many references to the classic book To Kill a Mockingbird, which readers will likely be curious about after reading Mockingbird. This book is best for the more emotionally mature readers in the publisher's recommended range of ten and up.
 

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