Gordon Korman’s Masterminds (2015)
Eli lives in a perfect town: Serenity, New Mexico. Every house has a swimming pool, every kid has a tree house, and there’s no such thing as crime.
Eli has never been out of Serenity before — there’s really no reason to leave — but one day he and a friend go for a bike ride that takes them beyond the town limits. Eli looks back and sees the sign “Welcome to Serenity” behind him. All of a sudden, he feels sick to his stomach and gets a blinding headache. He tries to keep up with his friend, but he can’t. He topples from his bike, afraid he’s dying.
The next moment, a large military-type helicopter thunders in and lands near him. Inside the helicopter is Eli’s dad — and a half-dozen security guys. They load him into the helicopter and inject him with a sedative that knocks him out. That’s the last thing he remembers from that very strange day.
When Eli begins to recover from the incident, he realizes that his dad, the doctor, and maybe even every single adult in town are hiding something — something big. Eli and his friends set out to discover what is going on. Little do they know that they’ll uncover evidence linking their idyllic town to the greatest criminal masterminds in the country.
Genre: science fiction, thriller
I used this title to start out my fifth and sixth grade booktalk presentations last fall. In good Korman style, the story is fast-paced and suspenseful, and it was a great book to get the students (and teachers) hooked into my talk. I would usually hear whispers of “I want to read that one!” from the audience, and several teachers thought they might use it as a read-aloud in class.
At the end of one session, when I was passing out the list of titles I had booktalked that day, a student shook his head, indicating that he didn’t need a copy. He held up his arm to show me that he had written “MASTERMINDS” from elbow to wrist with orange marker. He wasn’t about to let himself forget.
Dan Gemeinhart’s The Honest Truth (2015)
Mark has always wanted to climb Mt. Rainier, but he’s been too sick. He got cancer for the first time when he was five, and it keeps coming back. Now he’s 13 and the doctors have just told him it’s back again. Mark packs a bag of gear, takes his dog Beau, and heads toward the mountain. He knows he might never have another chance.
But how much of a chance does he have this time? It is 255 miles from his home in Wenatchee, Washington, to the trailhead on Mt. Rainier, and another 8 miles to the top. His medications make him nauseous. Thugs beat him up in Seattle. His picture and story are all over the news. And a major storm is rolling in.
Mark has the world’s best dog and a gut load of determination. But that might not be enough to get him through.
Genre: realistic fiction, adventure
This was a solid title on my middle school booktalk list last fall, and I was happy to see that it’s been selected as one of the 2016-17 Oregon Battle of the Books titles for the 6th-8th grade division.
I included this title in booktalks for several classes of seventh graders who weren’t strong readers. Four or five boys came up after one session and pointed out the titles they most wanted to read. The Honest Truth had really grabbed their attention — as did QB 1, The Port Chicago 50, and I Am Princess X.
Jennifer Nielsen’s A Night Divided (2015)
August 13, 1961. Gerta will never forget that date as long as she lives. Barbed wired Sunday, people start calling it. It is the date that a wall goes up around communist East Berlin. The wall isn’t for keeping other people out, but for keeping the East Germans in.
For Gerta, it is also the date that her family gets torn apart. Gerta, her mother, and her oldest brother Fritz are trapped inside the new walls. Her father and her other brother Dominic went over to West Berlin a few days earlier to look for a job and a house, planning to return that very Sunday to flee with the whole family. Now they are unreachable on the other side of concrete, barbed wire, and merciless border guards.
That terrible day happened four long years ago. Gerta is 12 now. She walks to school every day in the shadow of the wall. It seems like her classmates hardly even notice it anymore. But Gerta can never stop thinking about the wall. She knows she’s a prisoner in her own country, and that the guards kill anyone who tries to escape to the West. It happened to her best friend’s brother.
Then one cold gray day, Gerta glimpses her own brother Dominic, the one she hasn’t seen in four years. He’s standing on one of the viewing platforms in the West. And her father is there too! Her father starts doing an odd dance. He’s acting out the motions to a song they used to sing together when she was little — but he’s not doing it right. He’s only doing the verse for digging. Digging … digging. He’s trying to tell her something. He wants her to dig? Dig what? And why? Did he leave something behind for them?
And then she realizes. He wants her to dig a tunnel — under the Berlin Wall, under the wide Death Strip, and to safety on the other side. He wants her to try to dig her way to freedom.
If she gets caught, it will cost her life.
Genre: historical fiction, thriller
This was one of the superstar titles on my spring 2016 booktalk list for 5th and 6th graders. I didn’t know if the unfamiliar historical setting — East Berlin in the 1960s — would be off-putting, but kids were absolutely desperate to read it.
In one class, a student got up at the end of my presentation and started opening cupboard doors — she rummaged around and pulled out a classroom copy of A Night Divided. Some tussling and happy squealing ensued when her classmates spied the book. The copy, it turned out, came from the “self-managers’ library.” Kids who’d proven themselves responsible not only got privileges like lining up first for the bus or being dismissed to recess first, but in this case, also the chance to read A Night Divided. When one of the squealing girls heard it was only for self-managers, she got a very disappointed look on her face. Another girl encouraged her, saying that she could still become a self-manager if she tried. Perhaps A Night Divided was going to provide the motivation she needed. (And I reminded her that she could also come get it at the public library.)
These and other booktalks are available on The Booktalk Blog: Great Reading for Tweens and Teens.
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