Tag Archives: learning differences

Focused by Alyson Gerber

focused-alyson-gerber-199x300by Alyson Gerber
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Seventh-grader Clea Adams is really struggling this year. She thinks she’s stupid and lazy and just needs to work harder. What she doesn’t realize is that she has ADHD, which makes it hard for her to focus – or, when she is in the zone, really hard to pull out of it. Over the course of the book, she not only comes to terms with her diagnosis but also learns not to be ashamed of it and to ask for accommodations. Once she does, everything gets a lot easier.

Clea’s little sister, Henley, is in maybe first grade and is very very shy. She has a lot of trouble speaking up and has accidents at school and other mishaps. Clearly Clea’s parents have a lot to deal with, especially her mom since her dad is on the road a lot for work. One thing Clea always had to look forward to was her weekly pizza-and-movie nights with her dad and her best friend, Red. But Clea’s impulsivity comes between her and Red, along with Red’s new best friend, Dylan, who is not so nice to her. Clea also becomes closer with Sanam, a girl on the chess team with Clea, Red, and Dylan. (There is some mild dating and hand holding and even a first kiss, for those concerned about such things.) I loved that Clea loved chess, and loved the use of chess as a metaphor. There’s also a bully named Quinn and I liked (for the most part) how Clea and her friends dealt with Quinn.

I generally really liked this book, and liked Clea a lot. I learned a lot about ADHD; since I live with someone with it that was partly why I picked this book up (though it’s important to note that it presents differently in boys/men than girls/women). My main issues were that the ADHD facts and theories felt pretty didactic in spots, and that Clea gets over her anger and suspicion of the psychologists and other adults involved pretty fast. Maybe ADHD is treated a lot differently now by peers but I would have thought that Clea would need a lot more to work through her anger about it. Sanam also reveals that she has dyslexia, which helps Clea ask for help from teachers, and also helps them get closer.

Up for Air by Laurie Morrison

9781419733666by Laurie Morrison
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Twelve-year-old Annabelle is looking forward to another summer of competitive swimming and hanging out with her best friends Mia and Jeremy. But her school year ends harder than she thought, even with accommodations made for her learning disabilities (ADHD?), Mia is busy with her new lacrosse friends, and Jeremy is leaving for camp in Boston for a month. When Annabelle gets recruited to the high school swim team and gets to spend more time with cute Connor Madison, things start to look up. But it turns out that Annabelle isn’t really mature enough for high school shenanigans and makes some bad choices that get her injured enough to be off the swim team. After an adventure into Boston to track down her newly-back-in-the-picture dad (who turns out to have a new family and be in recovery from alcoholism), she comes to be more comfortable with where she is and stop rushing to grow up.

This book is rich in relationships and the reader is really inside Annabelle’s head. I thought it was extremely realistic to how kids can know what the right thing is and still be conflicted and want to fit in, and therefore make bad decisions. All the parts of dissecting a boy’s texts and actions felt exactly right and yet I could see, from an adult’s point of view, that Connor was just a player. Even once Annabelle is off the team, her teammates want to hang out with her and try to help her through this in an amazing show of female solidarity, which was another excellent piece of wisdom imparted with this story. I also liked how Annabelle’s mother and stepfather, Mitch (with whom she is close), relate to her not just as parents but as people at the end of the story. That seems like a huge piece of growing up and navigating changing relationships and I was very pleased to read it. Annabelle also makes peace with Mia and Jeremy, though things don’t go exactly back to how they were before, which was also satisfying.

One note on race is that Annabelle’s summer tutor, Janine, is black, which we learn through a comment on her hair and then on her outsider status, which could have been handled differently. The other social issues of note are that Jeremy’s older sister, Kayla, who is on the high school swim team with Annabelle, was treated for an eating disorder the previous year, so note that as a sensitive topic. (The author thanks Jen Petro-Roy for her assistance in understanding and representing eating disorder aftermath accurately.) And finally, Annabelle, Mia, and Jeremy are all day students at the private school on Gray Island (which is I think supposed to be Martha’s Vineyard?), so neither fully fit in with the other boarding students or the public school kids who are there for the summer. Annabelle’s learning differences make her feel even more like she doesn’t belong – but that’s another issue that gets resolved over the course of the story.

Adventure like: Nest by Esther Ehrlich
Relationship growth like: A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

9780062422675by Tiffany D. Jackson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

When I first finished this book, I would not have given it 5 stars, but after pondering it for a while, I overcame most of my beef with the nonlinear way in which the story is told. Claudia tells the story of the disappearance of her best friend, Monday Charles, and how she discovered what happened to her. I normally really dislike nonlinear narratives but Jackson executes this one, if not flawlessly, then at least brilliantly. Chapters are titled The Before, The After, A Year Before the Before, Two Years Before the Before, and then a series with month titles, moving presumably through one of those years/times, though it is unclear when. When I finished reading, I felt like I still didn’t know a lot and had a lot of questions, so I went back through and re-read just the After chapters in order, and things made a lot more sense. And Jackson had to tell the story in that way in order for you to really experience how Claudia experienced the story. I’m reluctant to give away too much of the story because Jackson’s reveal of the plot is excellent, but I will say that my poor sensitive soul was WIRED reading this too late at night, so tread gently. Once I got into it though, I devoured it, so maybe devote a weekend day to it. I will also say that I was extremely glad to read that part of Claudia’s (and others’) healing at the end included going to therapy.

Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan

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by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Ravi is brand new to his New Jersey classroom, straight from Bangalore. His teacher claims not to understand him when he talks and sends him with the Resource Room teacher with Joe, who has Auditory Processing Disorder, which makes Ravi furious. He’s sure he’s found a friend in Dillon Samreen, the only other Indian in his class (even though he’s an ABCD), but the teacher’s actions, not to mention Dillon’s natural malevolence, undermine their friendship. The story alternates between Ravi’s point of view and Joe’s, which shows aspects of each boy’s culture through their own eyes and through the eyes of an outsider, which was a really neat device and one I wouldn’t mind seeing more of. There’s even two glossaries at the back, one for words from Ravi’s world and one for words from Joe’s world, and some of them are defined in the other’s terms, like “Trunk: storage area at the rear of a vehicle, in India known as a dickey or boot” or “Baseball: an American game similar to cricket.” Ravi also makes it well known to the reader both how to pronounce his name (emphasis on the second syllable) and how important it is to him. Joe is the first person outside Ravi’s family to get his name right, and Ravi notices.

The story takes place over one week, Ravi’s first week of school. His singleminded focus on Dillon leads him to think Dillon is nice and Joe is mean and stupid, but luckily he comes to his senses by the end of the week, especially when Dillon tricks him into eating beef, which he explains is a sin for Hindus. The students are given an assignment to bring in an object that represents them, which brings Ravi and Joe together against Dillon and they become friends. This is what I love about middle grade fiction; everything ties up neatly and people learn things about themselves and how to get along.

Other interesting things about this story in particular: Joe’s dad is away driving a truck a lot, but when he is there, he spouts some hate against immigrants, but sort of redeems himself with a loving note to Joe, which was interesting. Joe’s mom takes a job at his school as a cafeteria employee, which embarrasses him to no end, especially once Dillon gets wind of it. Ravi’s teacher also displays some bias against him, mispronouncing his name, disregarding how he has been taught (especially math) and telling him she can’t understand him due to his accent. When she says English is not his native language, she shows her own (and many Americans’) ignorance; however, this exchange and others show a lot of nuance in our multicultural society. To Americans’ ears, the Indian accent is quite different and can be hard to understand, even if you have heard it a lot. Ravi also shows he is quite defensive and quick to anger when it comes to insulting his intelligence or social standing, but he realizes that his teacher is not always wrong about him. Overall, the nuance in particular is very well done and is a testament to how well these two authors work together to show both cultures.

Here’s Hank!: Bookmarks Are People Too!

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by Henry Winkler & Lin Oliver
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a great early chapter book about a boy who can’t read very well and therefore doesn’t do terribly well in school. In this first book of the series, Hank’s class is putting on a play and he doesn’t get the part he wants because he has trouble memorizing the lines. His teacher creates a part for him and the class bully gets his part, just to rub salt in the wound. But he saves the day in the end and all is well.

There’s a lot I like about this book, but the one thing I like best is that it’s about a kid with reading challenges AND it’s purposefully set in a font that is meant to help kids with dyslexia have an easier time reading.

Reads like: Monkey and Me
Prequel series to: Hank Zipzer (also J)

Fish in a Tree

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by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Oh wow. This book has all the feels. I was sort of keeping my distance since this one was already really popular at my library so it felt like one that was selling itself and I had a general idea that it was good and also that it was along the lines of Wonder somehow. But then I actually read (or rather, listened to) it, and was just blown away.

Ally is in sixth grade and has mostly skated through school by being a troublemaker and pretending a lot. The truth is, she can’t read. The resident mean girls (really one mean girl and her crony, who actually turns out to be sort of nice) figure this out and target her more than they do other kids. But their teacher goes on maternity leave and they get a new teacher who doesn’t let her get away with much – and she finds she doesn’t want to. She wants to work hard, but she has so internalized what Shay has been saying, which is that she’s stupid. There are some completely heartbreaking scenes – so many, in fact, that I almost couldn’t get past the second of five CDs. Finally the new teacher, Mr. Daniels, figures out that Ally has dyslexia and manages to get her reading. There are themes of friendship and misfits, silver dollars and wooden nickels, poetry and spelling and class president and student of the month – everything you could want in a middle-grade story.

Ally starts the year with no friends, but soon irrepressible Keisha, who doesn’t care what anyone says and somehow doesn’t already have friends, decides nothing Ally says or does will make Keisha not like her. They also team up with Albert, who is nerdy and poor.¬†They all get picked on by Shay, who it turns out has an overbearing mother, but they stand up for each other.

The other main theme, aside from the bullying and dyslexia, is family. Ally’s grandfather has passed away sometime relatively recently, maybe about a year ago, and her father is in the army, currently deployed. The scene where they go to a neighbor’s house to skype with him is incredibly moving. Ally adores her older brother, Travis, who adores her back, but he has his own issues. I couldn’t help thinking of Mr. Daniels as a sort of substitute father figure for Ally.