SPARKS

Todd Foster’s fifth-grade classmates call him a range of insulting nicknames from Gump (after Forrest Gump) to Retardo. Todd discovers that being promoted from the Special Needs classroom, where he was the smart kid, to the regular fifth-grade classroom has drawbacks. In addition to the humiliating name-calling and the difficult subject matter that Todd struggles to master, there is the issue of his best friend Eva from Special Needs. Now that he is in the big leagues, can Todd afford to be seen with the sometimes overly exuberant Eva in her rose-colored glasses? Although prone to wistfulness about the kinder, gentler Special Needs classroom, Todd is determined to make it in the regular fifth grade. When Todd’s imaginative history paper earns him a grade of B, his best grade ever, he realizes that Eva is the one he wants to share the good news with and decides to make amends for having spent the first two months of school avoiding her. Good-natured Todd faces his limitations with equanimity and humor, but not without a certain amount of frustration, as when he reacts to his teacher giving him four weeks to bring his grades up with the comment, “I’ve spent my whole life being an idiot. What can I do in four weeks?” McNamee (Nothing Wrong with a Three-Legged Dog, 2000, etc.) succeeds in making Todd an endearing and believable character. This sweet story sparkles with wit and warmth. (Fiction. 8-11)

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2002

ISBN: 0-385-72977-4

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Wendy Lamb/Random

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2002

HOW TÍA LOLA CAME TO (VISIT) STAY

From the Tía Lola Stories series , Vol. 1

Simple, bella, un regalo permenente: simple and beautiful, a gift that will stay.

Renowned Latin American writer Alvarez has created another story about cultural identity, but this time the primary character is 11-year-old Miguel Guzmán. 

When Tía Lola arrives to help the family, Miguel and his hermana, Juanita, have just moved from New York City to Vermont with their recently divorced mother. The last thing Miguel wants, as he's trying to fit into a predominantly white community, is a flamboyant aunt who doesn't speak a word of English. Tía Lola, however, knows a language that defies words; she quickly charms and befriends all the neighbors. She can also cook exotic food, dance (anywhere, anytime), plan fun parties, and tell enchanting stories. Eventually, Tía Lola and the children swap English and Spanish ejercicios, but the true lesson is "mutual understanding." Peppered with Spanish words and phrases, Alvarez makes the reader as much a part of the "language" lessons as the characters. This story seamlessly weaves two culturaswhile letting each remain intact, just as Miguel is learning to do with his own life. Like all good stories, this one incorporates a lesson just subtle enough that readers will forget they're being taught, but in the end will understand themselves, and others, a little better, regardless of la lengua nativa—the mother tongue.

Simple, bella, un regalo permenente: simple and beautiful, a gift that will stay. (Fiction. 9-11)

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-375-80215-0

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001

THE YEAR OF MISS AGNES

In 1948 the unorthodox Miss Agnes arrives to teach the children of an Athabascan Indian Village in remote Alaska. Ten-year-old Fred (Fredrika) matter-of-factly narrates this story of how a teacher transformed the school. Miss Agnes’s one-room schoolhouse is a progressive classroom, where the old textbooks are stored away first thing upon her arrival. The children learn to read using handmade books that are about their own village and lives: winter trapping camps, tanning moose hides, fishing, and curing the catch, etc. Math is a lesson on how not to get cheated when selling animal pelts. These young geographers learn about the world on a huge map that covers one whole schoolhouse wall. Fred is pitch-perfect in her observations of the village residents. “Little Pete made a picture of his dad’s trapline cabin . . . He was proud of that picture, I could tell, because he kept making fun of it.” Hill (Winter Camp, 1993, etc.) creates a community of realistically unique adults and children that is rich in the detail of their daily lives. Big Pete is as small and scrappy, as his son Little Pete is huge, gentle, and kind. Fred’s 12-year-old deaf sister, Bokko, has her father’s smile and has never gone to school until Miss Agnes. Charlie-Boy is so physically adept at age 6 that he is the best runner, thrower, and catcher of all the children. These are just a few of the residents in this rural community. The school year is not without tension. Will Bokko continue in school? Will Mama stay angry with Miss Agnes? And most important, who will be their teacher after Miss Agnes leaves? A quiet, yet satisfying account. (Fiction. 9-11)

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-689-82933-7

Page Count: 128

Publisher: McElderry

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2000

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