Wish– It’s Monday What Are You Reading?

wish

There are often moments in life that feel unsatisfying. We each have our own troubles that feel big and important. We don’t all have the gift of looking at whatever our day brings and feeling content and even grateful.

Charlie doesn’t.

And you might say her washline full of troubles hangs heavy–father in jail, mother sunk into a debilitating depression, separated from her sister and shipped off to live with relatives she barely knows in a run-down mountain town past the edge of nowhere.

Every single day Charlie makes the same wish. She’s found a hundred different ways to wish. But her wish still hasn’t come true.

Fortunately, Charlie meets people with the gift of appreciating the fullness of life, people whose idea of rich is different–richer. And a stubbornly stray dog.

Thanks to Howard, Jackie, Gus and Bertha she learns. And when Wishbone finds a real home, maybe Charlie can, too.

If you know Hollis Woods or Gilly Hopkins, if you’ve met someone who hasn’t found their home, you’ll recognize Charlie. Even if when you hang your troubles up next to the troubles of others, you’d rather keep your own, you’ll find in Charlie a kindred spirit. Many of us wish we were better than we are, but also learn that we are enough.

 

“If all our troubles were hung on a line, you’d choose yours and I’d choose mine.”

It’s Monday What Are You Reading?

cloud and wallfishThis book sat in my bag for quite a while, while I studiously ignored it.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the cover. The blurb on the inside cover didn’t jump up and grab me. It was East Germany…so I felt vaguely like I should have an interest but…meh.

Until I started reading it.

I really enjoyed this book.

Who are we really? What do we really know about ourselves, or each other? Noah/Jonah isn’t so sure anymore. His family up and moves from Virginia to East Germany without much in the way of explanation. That would be unusual enough. But Noah’s mother burns the only childhood photo he’s ever seen of her, and throws out his practically new backpack, the one with his name in sharpie across the top.

Noah may not be thinking spies…but I am.

When they arrive in East Germany, they are predictably isolated. Noah is unable to attend school with other children and is mostly alone. Until he meets Cloud-Claudia. But the east is a tricky place, where your apartment is bugged and officials can pop out at any moment and demand to see your papers. You can’t just say what you’re thinking. And you can’t always be who you are.

The story beautifully explores friendships that grow even in the least hospitable of circumstances. It pokes at issues of identity and belonging.

I grew up thinking that I had (somehow) outlived history, until the Berlin wall fell (and a few other minor historical footnotes). This story plays with the idea of being just at the edge of history as it happens. There’s something exciting about that.

 

Cloud and Wallfish reminded me of A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen. Nielsen’s story was darker, because the characters became isolated even from close friends under the scrutiny and suspicion of the East German state. Nielsen’s book was death defying and full of physical danger. The two would make the beginnings of a nice text set about how society influences individuals or how individuals can remain true to themselves in spite of societal challenges.

I don’t think this book will sit untouched in your bags.

The Storm

Minutes ago the weather alert had sounded. We’d been scurrying to move plants under cover, check windows, and hurry children out of their showers.

Out of nowhere Qaiden announced, “That was thunder.”

The sky was still bright and blue.

Rap, rap, rap.

“Daniel? Are you out?”

“Yes,” came the low rumble of a teenage voice just changing.

Thump thump thump thump thump. Back down the stairs to the table.

We sat together facing the double window.

In a moment the sky darkened a notch and the front edge of the storm clouds peeped over the front of our roof. A curtain of rain pelted down where seconds before there had been not even a sprinkle. Dart spots dotted the road and driveway, still individual marks on the world.

In the next moment the rain slowed, softly blurring the separate dots into a shiny black surface. Steady but gentle. It grew darker still so that it appeared an hour had passed when only minutes ticked by. A brightness remained behind the blue house although it drew farther off, as if beyond a low roof of cloud. Two windows shone golden in the gloom from across the street saying, good thing you’re tucked tidily inside on a night like this.

Lightning flashed. Two. Three. Four. Crash.

And again but closer.

“How far away is the storm when you can count to three between the flash and the crash?” Daniel asked.

“Three miles,” his brother confidently proclaimed.

Flash. Crash!

The street went black as deep night. No longer could we see the tree silhouetted against the distant brightness. The dark was total. Not miles away. We were in the heart of the storm. Lightning continued to streak all around. And now the rain intensified, not a curtain nor a gentle shower, this was driven by wind. Waves crashed over the curbs blowing saltless spray across the edge of the lawns. Thousands of drops leapt off the pavement as they hit and flew skyward again for the space of a heartbeat before crashing together against the rivers of water on this inland hilltop street. Minutes stretched this time in the embrace of the first summer squall.

Before we registered it the sky had returned a few candles of light. No longer midnight, it was once again evening, though seemingly later than we began. Gradually more light leaked into the scope of the window’s scene. Now the tail end of the stormclouds slipped past the edge of our roof, frayed and torn, yet all the closer for sliding in layers. Not the distant, muted and undiscernable ceiling of cloud. Solemn children, recently scolded, they clung to their mother’s skirts shamefully as she strode silently away.

And with the storm past, the blue house stood warmly inviting all to comfort, the stately tree once again silhouetted against a paler sky. Just over the edge of the hill a sliver of moon glittered against the horizon. One sleek black form dipped and swooped across the space between the houses, safe again to fly.

 

[Flashdraft-no pun intended]

Taking on New Ideas and Projects vs. Nurturing the Ones We Have (and Ourselves)

One of the things that I love about being a teacher are the endings and beginnings.

Where else could I have a complete life cycle of experiences and then get the chance to do it again, but maybe even better?

At this time of year as I wrap up projects and close out sets of responsibilities, as I look backward and forward, I wonder.

anne-of-green-gables-quote1

Thursday night was an award banquet for the Connecticut Reading Association (CRA). I’d never been before. But this year, as a grant recipient, I was invited to attend with a guest. I invited my colleague, Kristyn, who took on the grant project with me. (Huge and heartfelt thanks to Kristyn for sharing this crazy journey!)

As we chatted over dinner, we talked about the project (and others we’ve been working on together) and what we’re each thinking for next year. We thought about what worked well and what could work better.

One important thing I heard in the conversation was that Kristyn can’t take on anything new next year. She’s enjoyed these projects and cares about them, but she has other big things in motion with our school library.

It was an important conversation, and a good reminder.

I’m an ideas person. Sometimes I bubble and spark with ideas that need to find a way out. Ideas that twitch until I give them a try. It can be simple like rearranging furniture…or more of a schoolwide initiative. While the ideas begin with me, I’m eager to share. That’s how Kristyn came aboard for the Reading Ambassadors and the Real Writers Publishing Company. But once the ideas come alive, they aren’t really mine, they’re ours. A little like children. We co-parent and somehow they take on a life of their own.

But sometimes the plate feels very full.

I feel it. Not only for myself, but for the teachers around me who nurture those sparks of ideas. And family members, too.

That conversation was an important reminder to pause and reflect. Just because we could do a thing doesn’t mean we must do a thing. What brings us joy? What has to get done? How much do we have in our tanks? And is this project one that will empty our tank or leave it fuller?

Those of us reading this, may be the kind of teachers who put our whole heart and all of our energy into doing it in the most amazing way we can every day. I guess what I’m saying is, it’s OK for us to do these amazing things and not all the amazing things that could exist in the universe. Maybe someday we’ll do still more great things. But sometimes we need to recognize when to keep some capacity in reserve.

And for me it’s a reminder not just to check on my own fuel gauge, but also the gauges of those around me. I don’t want to see someone stuck on the side of the road because I asked them to drive farther than they had fuel to go.

It strikes me that this is important as a teacher myself, as a coach, a wife, and a mom.

So let’s celebrate what has been wonderful, especially those things that also fueled our passion and will. Let’s capture the sparks we find like lightning bugs and hold them to flicker brightly in a jar until we’re ready to release them on the world (maybe just in a notebook or Twitter feed somewhere). And let’s check to see where our fuel gauges are before we commit to new and fabulous things for next year. Then let’s refuel in whatever way we fill our tanks. For me, it will be reading, writing, and travel.

A fresh start awaits.

It’s Monday What Are You Reading?

I’m so glad to be reading again!

This weekend I came down with a brutal case of strep throat. Not only did I sleep through most of yesterday, but I felt so awful I couldn’t even read. Seriously, that’s how you know it’s bad.

Today, after my first two naps, I was able to finish reading The Trials of Apollo: The Hidden Oracle.

trials of apollo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Insert some clever joke here about the healing arts of Apollo.

I didn’t care much for the fallen god Apollo at the beginning of the book, which was entirely the point. But he grew on me. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a good Riordan romp.

Maybe I’ll hunt down the Magnus Chase sequel next. It’s around here somewhere. Eh, one more nap.

 

 

More About Real Writers Publishing Co.

Thank you to those of you who asked to know more about how we manage our school publishing company. I’ll do my best to lay it out, bit by bit. When I went back to look, sure I must have a write up somewhere, I was surprised to see how much of  the planning has been mainly on the back of napkins. If you have questions, or you’d like to talk more about it, feel free to email me (kgordon@region15.org).

Deciding on a Publishing Capacity

When we first began this project in the fall of 2015, I sat with our interim Librarian to gauge what we thought we could handle. We really didn’t yet know what it would take to go from a submission to a published book. And you won’t either until you decide things like, do you plan to leave invented spelling in the books of your primary writers? I think it’s charming and authentic, and really quite impressive. My initial partner on the project felt strongly that if we were going to put it in the library it needed to be conventionally perfect. Two different approaches require differing time and input.

However, I did want to give our authors a special experience in which they could feel a (small) degree of the work and effort that goes into professional publishing. Real writers don’t often get it just right on their first try. They revise. Reread. Listen to feedback from other readers and writers. Revise. And edit. Writers (or their publishing team) need to think about illustrations, text features, cover design, dedications, and more. I wanted it to feel just weighty enough that writers would feel quite proud of their achievement.

Originally we thought we could publish 15-18 books at a time. For us that could mean roughly 3 books per grade. With some experience under our belts, we’ve cut back to 5-10 in a round. There are two of us shepherding the project. Perhaps, if there was a bigger publishing “staff” we could effectively support more books. By the way, hats off to all the classroom teachers who routinely captain 20+ authors at a time!

Deciding on a Publishing Schedule

Our publishing company has been holding three rounds of publishing per year. We’ve called for submissions in October, January, and May. We originally came to those dates  with questions like:

  • When can we showcase the newly published books to the school and families? (Conference week, our One School One Book Family night)
  • When do the two of us have a full day to commit to the Publishing Workshop? (Though to be fair we each snuck out to fulfil previous commitments to intervention groups, etc. since there was a second adult.)
  • How much lead time do we need to read submissions before the Publishing Workshop? (We generally give ourselves a week…though that’s sometimes tight since some of the books are 40-80 pages long.)
  • Do we want to capitalize on an event in the school calendar to boost participation and excitement? (Next fall we’ll publish shortly after returning from summer break to encourage voluntary summer writing. We might call for submissions shortly after an author visit.)

Each round consists of the Call for submissions, two or three weeks for authors to write or select their project, the selection week, a publishing day, and a week or so of post workshop production, binding, etc. All told, plan to give yourself about 6 weeks.

Call for Books & the Selection Process

Our call for books is a single page flyer. We send one home with the youngest child in each family (our regular Brother/Sister distribution list). We post them all around school in each grade level hallway and high visibility areas like over water fountains. Once or twice we’ve added it to the morning announcements as well. And our principal mentions it in one of her weekly emails to families.

The first year, we asked each teacher to submit three pieces from their class instead of reaching out directly to writers. It engaged most of our teachers, but not all teachers submitted student writing. Some teachers selected the strongest pieces from their class. Others chose to submit pieces from writers to whom it would mean the most. That was an amazing experience. Two of the third grade authors in our very first round told me, “I didn’t think I was a real writer. I didn’t ever really like to write before.” My heart melted right then. THAT was exactly why we were doing this. We chose to move away from teacher submissions partly because we got the impression it was an added burden on teachers, and partly because not all students who wanted to be published were even submitted. This year authors placed their submissions in a box in the library. Though in reflecting, I think I’ll make our next call open to student authors or their teachers who may want to nominate them.

We don’t have a special rubric or selection criteria, exactly. It’s more–holistic might sound like the professional version–a gut thing. Some books jump out of your hands and into your heart. Those are yesses. Some have good bones. The story has a good premise and the author is using some good craft moves that could be refined with some work. Those also go in the yes pile. Some are so unclear that readers would have a difficult time following them. Those need major revision. We take into account how much revision a submission will require before it’s ready to publish. I’ve taken these authors aside to thank, cheerlead, and coach before sending them off to keep writing and revising. Last year I even started a biweekly writer’s group over lunch for five of our young novelists whose books were so long (one as long as 80 pages) that revisions (heck-editing alone) would take more than a single day. The girls loved the lunches and were perfectly happy to publish later in the year.

The Publishing Workshop

You’ll surely put your own spin on a publishing workshop based on your expertise, passions, and facilities. We gather our authors together and pair them up to read each others books and provide some writer to writer feedback. We confer into some of these conversations and with individual authors as well sharing what we noted as we were reading their draft. Each author develops a revision plan. Some of these are quote brief because they’d done it before submitting, but some are meaty. At some point in the day we introduce the idea of the special pages or features of a published book. I once prepared a lovely presentation with models from a gorgeous picture book, but of course the day I was going to use it some emergency cropped up and I wasn’t able to be there for the beginning of the workshop. In reality, we roll this out to each writer as they finish their revisions and edits. We take a picture of each author for their About the Author page. Sometimes authors write their own. Other times they interview one another and write it for a fellow author. Once we had a 5th grader who was our Editor in charge of About the Author pages. This time some of our returning authors decided they wanted their back cover to have blurbs from other published authors. So they coordinated it amongst themselves. In the morning there’s a working snack. We have lunch together in the library. Authors leave in a staggered wave depending on when they finish.

Post-Production

The time with our writers is tremendous and energizing. It’s the post-production punch list that can feel daunting. Once our writers have done their part and their books’ pages are printed, our work begins. We produce a copy for the library shelves, another for the author to take home, and a spare set of pages for the “vault” (a safe shelf in the back office of the library) in case the library copy is damaged. We laminate the pages to protect them. Trimming all the pages might be the biggest time sink. I’ve been known to sit in my car outside a hockey rink trimming pages before a game or during a practice. For the very lengthy books we only laminate the front and back covers. For most books the ABout the Author becomes the outward facing back cover. For those books who wanted blurbs, we made the About the Author the inner facing back cover and laminated the two together back to back. We use the binding machine to add the plastic spines to each book. Originally we were publishing as 8.5’x11″ but this time we shifted to a paperback size. Our novelists were thrilled. It did require some additional formatting puzzles, but we had a good team to work through them. ANy day now we’ll finish producing the books. Our library aide will add them to Destiny and assign them a barcode. They’ll find their new homes on our very own PES Author Shelves.

I’d be thrilled to know that more schools were publishing their authors for wider audiences. If you decide to ‘franchise’ the Real Writers Publishing Company, I wish you all the best!

The Best Part of My Day– Slice of Life

I’ve been noticing #thebestpartofmyday on Twitter lately. Sometimes they’re snippits, and occasionally video clips. It feels like such a positive lens through which to see a day. It reminded me of Slice of Life since both have me on the lookout for notable moments. Today I decided to combine the two.

Their eyes widened and her smile, especially, was wide.

“Is that my cover?!”

“Wow, Elaina, it looks great!” her friends chimed in.

She reached out for the newly laminated copies of the cover reverently.

“All you need now is to print the main text. We’ll copy it and trim it to size.”

We founded the Real Writers Publishing Company last year at PES. As a school whose literacy program is aligned with reading and writing workshop, we believe that our children are not just preparing for exams or practicing for high school, but that they are real writers, right now.

What says, “I’m a writer!” more than writing a book that other people can actually read?

That’s what we thought, too.

So three times a year we’ve been putting out a call for submissions to all our writers*. Anyone who wants can submit a book and we select what we hope are a manageable number to publish. The end result for each of our authors is an actual book on the library shelves with a call number and a bar code. Anyone in the school can check these books out and bring them home like any other library book. We have a dedicated set of shelves for our PES Authors.

Last year we published about 17 at a time. It took us weeks of lunch sessions to work through revision. Books sometimes didn’t make it to the library shelves for a month or more. This year we’ve opted to scale back slightly. However, for each round of submissions, we host a publishing workshop as a day-long in-school field-trip culminating in all but completed books. Yesterday was one of those workshops.

We invited the authors to join us for a writerly day:

9:45-10-15 Peer review and feedback from fellow authors

10:15-10:45 Working snack and personal planning

10:45-12:00 Revisions based on personal plans

12:00-12:30 Author luncheon, book talks, camaraderie

12:30-2:00 Editing, Creation of covers, dedication pages, about the author pages, tables of contents, and special features

This time around we had seven authors. Five of them have published with Real Writers Publishing before, including one of our second graders. We had two sets of co-authors inspired by a visit last year from co-authors Stephanie Robinson and Jessica Haight who described collaborating on The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow via Google docs…a platform our students routinely use.

Lest you think these are mini stories, two of the books this time will be more than 50 pages long. We’ve had to wrestle with how many of those books we can reasonably and effectively shepherd through at any one time. To be ready to publish after a single day workshop, means the books have to be pretty far along already.

For those authors who submitted, but whose books won’t make it to our shelves this time around, we met to thank, cheer, and encourage them to keep writing. We explained how real writers, like them, often wrote and rewrote, submitted and resubmitted a story before it was ready to publish. I’ll follow up with them one more time before summer to be sure they’re still writing and that they have a plan to write over the summer. As an added incentive, we’ll aim to have our first round of submissions shortly after we return from summer.

Given that I believe all our children are writers, I wrestle with only being able to publish some of the submissions. We’re constantly reviewing and revising the plans. Maybe next year we’ll have another small round of publishing. Maybe we’ll have rolling submissions so writers don’t cram their writing into the couple weeks before a deadline.  Perhaps we’ll host writing clubs twice a month to nurture the writers and their projects along the way.

We’ve also considered involving our art teacher and some of her art students in designing covers or illustrations for some of the books. We still need to work out the timing so that our publishing windows would align with her art enrichment or ELT (extended learning time) groups.

Maybe one day we’ll recruit “employees” to our publishing house. Perhaps some writers would be great editors, giving expert advice on possible revisions. Others could be great copy editors or designers. Maybe they’ll be the writing equivalent of our Reading Ambassadors.

In all the projects I imagine for our students, I always hope that mine will be the spark of an idea, but that the students will make the heart of it their own.

If the result of the idea is a smile like the one I saw yesterday when Elaina beheld her new cover, then that’s the best part of my year.

 

(*Caveat: we only invited our kindergarteners in the spring round.)

It’s Monday What Are You Reading?

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Thanks to the buzz on Twitter, I’m reading Erin Downing’s Moon Shadow. Although I haven’t quite caught up to Lucia’s shadow (nor has she, yet) I’m enjoying the writing. It’s the kind that feels invisible, leaving only the story and not so much an awareness of reading them.

I feel a little fractured myself, though, as I’m reading it. Like Lucia, one part of me is thinking one thing, and another part is focused on something else entirely. The part of me that’s just reading for me is tripping happily along through this story. The teacher-brain part of me is wondering whether my elementary students are ready for the relationship boyfriend-girlfriend drama. (There’s my Lucia-like caution stepping in.) When I stand back I think that my 4th and 5th graders will be fine with it. It actually seems to have the message that there’s no rush. Just because some people may be moving on to “grown up” things, you can still just be friends with the boy next door without it having to be a big deal.

I look forward to reading the rest in stolen moon shadow moments this week.

Next up…A Guide to the Reading Workshop, chapter 6. (Not quite the same)

Making Space for Young Readers and Helping Them Find Their Voices

I haven’t felt the Monday blues in months. We’ve met nearly every Monday since mid-January with a rotating cast of young readers. Some have come and gone as the topic shifted, but three have come reliably week in and week out. Yesterday was the final Monday morning workshop.

These are our Reading Ambassadors. I went to our new Library Media Specialist this fall and pitched an idea. With her partnership it grew into this! The idea was to connect readers from across our K-5 building by inviting a few, giving them some tools, and standing back to watch what they’d do.

One of those Ambassadors has been to all four workshop series. She has been diligent and engaged, but hesitant. Not quite trusting herself. Across the first two months I may only have heard her voice a few times. So I was determined in the final three weeks to sit nearby and give her as much wait time as she needed to make a crack in her shell.

I can see daylight.

We started a group Twitter account (@RdgAmbassadors) and studied @thelivbits to see how creating a digital presence can connect us to amazing people and ideas. Some of the others were eager to experiment with selfie videos or other projects, but  as their ideas sparked and they popped up from the story nook, she remained behind. I sat down on the floor near her and settled in. Some general encouragement and more wait time than felt possible hadn’t yielded fruit. I saw self doubt–what could I possibly say?

I dug into what I knew about her over the previous weeks.

“Maddy, what if you posted the book review you wrote? I remember you were wondering where we could publish it.” For a time there were only heartbeats and silence as she considered. Then she nodded. “Great! Let me show you how to add a link to your post.”

And when she finished that small but mighty post, she asked to write another–another review for another tweet.

I have cherished these mornings before school with readers. Moments like this make my heart jump. For Maddy I did a very quiet interior happy dance that to her would just look like a beaming smile.

But as I looked up from Maddy and around the room on this final morning, I saw many different iterations of that joy. Hers was soft. Others were exuberant.

An unlikely pair sat in one of the couches over a single iPad to design their book trailer for The One and Only Ivan. One had been staunchly against Twitter (in favor of You Tube), the other had been just as hesitant as Maddy. But the mention of Ivan softened them both. There they sat working side by side.

The other end of the library erupted in giggles as three girls who posted their debut selfie videos to our twitter feed last week (and reaped enough likes, retweets, and mentions to attract the attention of the local paper’s account) planned and staged a reading scene for their new video. Two of those girls I’ve seen as confident and steady over the years. But one has only just opened up. Last year in book conversations, though she is an avid and skilled reader, she would only watch and listen. Today she was doubled over in fits of laughter, hamming it up with reading pals old and new.

Behind those girls were two boys, who in the span of ten minutes had orchestrated a good chunk of a stop motion video you’ll smile to see. A lego mini figure drives up to a looming copy of Harry Potter, heaves open the cover, and knocks it down for a good look inside. This is not a tool I could have taught them. They had both used it at home and asked if we could add the app to our iPads for them to use here, too. Thanks to my amazing partner in wildly ambitious and continually evolving projects, Kristyn, we could make it possible.

How could anyone have a case of the Mondays with mornings like this? I don’t understand the people who are counting down to the final day. I’ll miss these moments. This is the seed of something special. I hope to nurture it and help it grow with just enough time and attention that it is fueled and not stifled.

It seems that while yesterday was the final official workshop, several of the projects need more time. All around the library in the minutes before the bell I heard, “Can we come back later today?”

Oh, my Reading Ambassadors, I hope you will come back many many times.

I relish the way students who have always had a strong voice are able to project it to the universe, and how quiet, unsure readers have found a voice and an amplifier to help it be heard.

This is a project we’ll continue next year in some form. I’m counting on these Ambassadors to show me how it might look.

 

 

Middle Grade Fantasy Series- It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?

My two very favorite genres are historical fiction and fantasy. I love stepping through the page into another time and place. And of the times and locales that fascinate me, Elizabethan England is certainly one. After reading the Cabinet of Wonders a few weeks ago, I purchased books two and three in the series (did I mention that I love series?). The Celestial Globe and The Jewel of the Kalderash by Marie Rutkoski were also full of globetrotting adventure.

I gulped down book 2 early in the weekend, but was stymied in my progress on book 3. Life and family persisted. When I woke up in the middle of the night, it had nothing to do with the series. But as I lay there I found myself thinking about Petra and her friends. Wondering about what was likely to happen to close out the several open storylines. It was tantalizing. Eventually I gave up, went downstairs, and curled up to finish the remaining 200 pages. I’m a little bleary eyed this morning, but well-satisfied.

The Kronos Chronicles are set in an alternate version of the Hapsburg Empire in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Petra Kronos, hero of book one, shares the spotlight in the subsequent books. The action alternates between Petra on one hand and her friends Tomik and Neel on the other. In this reality, some people like Petra and her father have magical talents. For those who enjoy modern superhero stories, it’s a little like the X-men, where each individual’s gift is unique. If you’re more of a Harry Potter fan, in the universe of Petra Kronos magical and non magical folk work side by side. Indeed, the value of even ‘common’ people is a theme that resonates through the series. It turns out that not our talents, but our hearts and choices make us who we are.

Rutkoski does a nice job of letting readers into the thoughts of more than one character. Neel’s journey, with its own little twist, mirrors Petra’s in many ways. When one faces a downturn, the other recovers something precious to them. Both doubt who they are and whether they are enough. Both display courage, determination, and a cleverness that transcends wit.

There is a subtle sub-plot in the stories, which I think my 4th and 5th grade readers will mostly ignore. Both Tomik and Neel care a great deal for Petra. And while the friendships remain innocent, there is an undercurrent of romantic, sometimes unrequited, love. Rutkoski keeps it more tender than mushy. For younger readers, it could come across as a simpler friend jealousy.

If you’re looking to add a fantasy series to your shelves, this one has enough action and explosions to please plot-junkies, combined with enough meat and meaning to please thoughtful readers and teachers alike.