La Heroína Improbable

I must say, I believe that Faith Laux has hit it out of the park with (what I believe is) her first novel. This book is hilarious. I find it hard to believe that she manages to tell such a compelling story based on farting, using 155 unique words in 11 chapters. I think every single one of my students would enjoy this story, if they take the time to read it. From terrorizing teachers and the school heartthrob to pesky siblings and gigantic farts, this book really has something for everyone.

This story revolves around Anabel, beginning on her 13th birthday. In the span of a few days, she conquers many of the trials and tribulations of teenage life including cruel teachers, being embarrassed, and her first crush. Oh yeah, and farting. There is a lot, a lot, a lot of farting in this book. I do believe it introduces every possible fart expression. At least, I can’t think of a way to talk about someone farting that doesn’t appear in these 60 pages.

As is my custom with previewing books, my first read was done while reading it aloud to my husband in English. It’s a litmus test that I use when deciding whether or not the book is simple enough for my students. If I can’t read the whole thing easily with a natural cadence to my speech rate then it is probably not ideal for my beginning readers, if I can read most of it then it’s a sure bet for fifth grade, and if I can spontaneously translate it in the first read without any trouble at all then it goes to my earliest readers – unless it is disqualified by subject matter. Perhaps this says more about my fluency than it does about the book, and I am open to suggestions on better screening methods, but it is not my only filter, so I try to learn from my read-aloud experience as I make my decision. This is relevant because there was one moment (near the end of the book) where what was being said was so outlandish that I didn’t trust my translation and had to re-read it just to be sure. That indicates to me that perhaps it will not be ideal for my third graders, and I will save it for fourth and fifth grades. I believe that my third graders could read it, but I would rather give it to students with a smidge more confidence than those first-year-of-Spanish babies tend to have at their age.

Content-wise, I love that it deals with crushes without going into kissing. I really, really don’t like giving my elementary students books with kissing. Everyone is different in what they find to be appropriate or not for their students, and that’s just one of my lines. I don’t like many insults and I don’t like any kissing. These kids see so much PDA in their digital life that I’d rather keep it out of their Spanish life. Again, that’s me and my opinions. As for insults – there are several, and some are quite inventive, but they do not dissuade me from thinking this book will be okay for my fourth and fifth grade students. Partially because they do have a fairly complex grammatical structure, which means only devoted novice readers are going to understand the depth of what is being said, and partially because it does fit well into the caricature (at least, I hope it’s a caricature, and not based on a person the author is actually acquainted with!) of the speaker.

Ultimately, if it isn’t obvious enough, I give La Heroína Improbable two thumbs up! While most ideal for middle school, I believe this book will be approved by readers of all ages. Farts really are universally funny. I hope you love it as much as I did.

Brandon Brown Quiere Un Perro

It is time to talk about my husband’s favorite novice Spanish reader. He has read a few of the books that I’ve brought into our home, but it did him laugh out loud. Boasting 105 unique words in it’s 69 pages and 10 chapters, Brandon Brown Quiere un Perro is a real winner! In his words, “I like how this book has high word frequency, they show you a word and then use it a bunch of times in the next few pages. This lets you learn it.”

This book is written by Carol Gaab; and is part of a series of books that begin with a 7 year-old Brandon in Brandon Brown Dice la Verdad. Best of all, the Brandon Brown series is published in several different languages. At FluencyMatters.com I also found it in German, Italian, French, Latin, and Chinese. I am certain that I’ve seen it in English, too, I just can’t figure out where.

I love that this story is written about a nine-year-old, because half my students are nine themselves. That makes this book more relatable to them than many of the other novice readers. (Side note: isn’t it a constant struggle to find that perfect balance of age and language-level appropriate books!?) Back to the story at hand, this is the age-old tale of what a kid would do to have a dog. I think everyone can relate to asking your parents for a pet of your own, but that crazy Brandon just never can let things be. His shenanigans in this story do not disappoint and are engaging enough to keep a grown man groaning and laughing at his outlandish choices. I know that I would have imagined making the same choices Brandon does as a young girl, but I never would have actually done it! Good thing too, because it doesn’t exactly go well for Brandon. I don’t want to spoil the story, so suffice it to say, he misses the mark a bit on the whole dog-ownership thing.

I’ve read four of the Brandon Brown books, but don’t own Brandon Brown Hace Trampa yet, and can say that they maintain a consistent level of interest and simplicity across the whole series. Carol Gaab certainly has a gift for telling stories that readers of all ages can be intrigued by, while avoiding complex structures or other linguistic barriers to beginning students. Any selections of higher-than-novice words or word chunks are translated in footnotes at the bottom of the page where they are first seen, which is a rare occurrence. I feel that their rarity shows Gaab’s deft hand at recognizing when simplifying language would betray the integrity of the story (at best) and disenfranchise the reader (at worst). Her experience shines through her words and builds the comfort and desire to persevere that all beginning students need when learning to read.

Another big boost for this beginning reader is the illustrations throughout the book. I took about two minutes to flip through and count them. There are (plus or minus one) 65. I’ll remind you that this book only has 69 pages. There are several pages with two illustrations, but even more with just one. Basically, you can open this book to any page and see between one and three different illustrations. There are just enough to let you follow the story, even if you struggle with the language, while not giving all of it away. This is not a graphic novel, it is a very meticulously illustrated reader, to be clear. Plus, I like the style of plain black line drawings that are so generously scattered through this book. I love how they convey the story in the simplest form while not being distracting or overly informative. Again, I feel like this is a shining example of how Gaab understands and meets the needs of her ideal target audience.

My only question would be: how does that all important 14-year-old Spanish student respond to such simple graphics? Even the cover is a very simple drawing, albeit in color. I’m not sure whether or not those finicky tweens and teens would flock to this book based on the cover. If you can speak to this, please leave a comment below! I’d love to know your thoughts! Thank goodness for me, my kids are his age, and will pick it up for one simple reason: they also want their own dog.

SSR: El Jersey

Published in 2017 by Puentes Language

El Jersey is a 39-page story that tells a story about 7-year-old Matías (who is a real person, and whose actions inspired this book). I bought my copy from Amazon (technically Blue Eagle Credit Union bought it, as this is one of my grant titles!). This story revolves around two boys and one Messi jersey. The story is written in the third person present, with some chapters written about Matías and his experiences, while the others revolve around Brayan. It is written by Jennifer Degenhardt, a long-time Spanish teacher. It is clearly written and has a good glossary.

Now, excuse me for being super nerdy, but I like the word and line spacing in the publishing. At first glance, I worried that this book would appear too intense to attract my students to read it, especially since it has no illustrations. However, I really like how the words seem to have twice the normal amount of space between them, and the lines are double spaced. I feel like that blank space will help students focus on where they are instead of being overwhelmed by the number of words on the page.

I’ll stop talking about the book and return to the story now. As this story is told from the perspective of a 6-year-old and a 7-year-old, it is very logical to be written using such simple (and comprehensible!) language. Whereas we might expect an older character to speak more in depth, these kids’ thoughts are displayed using very concise language, without feeing forced in any way because it is the natural level of language used by 6 and 7-year-olds.

In addition to simple language, the age of the characters also made it easy to specifically highlight some differences in culture as the American Matías travels through Guatemala. I particularly adore that each boy’s story begins at their homes. The difference between their routines at home provided a nice base for comparison, which could be a nice spring-board for class conversations if this were used as a group reading. Another topic of conversation could easily be soccer, too! Many popular players are mentioned by name, as well as a few different teams which could be described and/or compared.

One of the parts I like best, especially if looking for a group-read (instead of FVR/SSR), is how each chapter has one overarching theme that may or may not appear in any other chapter. This could be great for pre-teaching and for providing pictures or other input. While one chapter describes different soccer teams, another describes how kids without proper soccer balls play still find a way to play. (That made me think of providing my students with my recycling scraps to see if any of them could create a useable ball, as was described in the story.)

Also, I just discovered the audio version of El Jersey in the Free Resources on www.puenteslanguage.com! I don’t know how long they will be there, but it’s an awesome feature while it lasts. Degenhardt also talks about this book specifically in her interview on Ashley Uyaguari’s Inspired Proficiency podcast, so be sure to listen to that if you plan on using this book in groups. If you like this book, she also has several other titles, but I don’t have any of them (yet).

And, as always, here are the stats I always want to know:

  • 39 pages
  • No illustrations
  • 12 chapters that range from 2 to 5 pages
  • 8-page glossary
  • Fictional story based on the real life actions of a 7-year-old American boy that takes place primarily in Guatemala.
  • This could be great for a group read, but it will stay in my SSR library for now because I already have several class sets of books that I need to use at least once before I ask for another class set of anything.

SSR: La Isla Más Peligrosa

Book 1 of  the “Lo más peligroso” series, released in 2018 by Padre de cinco Books

I just finished reading this new addition to my Sustained Silent Reading Library. I bought my copy through Amazon. This book follows 17-year-old Caden through a plane explosion which leaves the people on his flight stranded on an island. Of course, this island is seriously crawling with venomous snakes, and it is a real place! I’ve read a lot of books geared towards novice-mid students, and I have to say honestly I didn’t see one of the twists coming! John Sifert definitely shows his expertise in teaching beginning language students with the compelling story he was capable of creating using such simple language.  Moreover, the story deftly intertwines murderous plots with solid family values.

From the teacher aspect: this book is on point. There are so many things I love about it. The biggest for me is the pictures. In my opinion, this book has the perfect number of illustrations and pictures. There are just enough to make sure that any student could follow the story if they really wanted to, but also not enough that the pictures tell the whole story alone. Second, it directly addresses accents and dialects in a way that blends well into the story. It always strikes me that English speakers are well aware of the different way that English is spoken regionally, but are somehow completely baffled when any variation of Spanish is brought up. The way he almost sneaks this facet in is fluid and logical, I love it. Finally, as I mentioned before, I totally adore that this is a real place.

Here are the stats that I always want to know: 

  • 68 pages
  • illustrations or pictures about every third page
  • 13 chapters that range from one paragraph to seven pages (with illustrations included in page count)
  • 10 page glossary
  • Fictional story that includes real details about La Isla de la Quemada Grande and the Golden Lancehead snakes.

As I read new books I always try to consider whether they would be better suited towards my SSR library, or if I should hold it back for a whole class read. In this case, I will happily add it to my SSR library. The only difficulty I foresee in class reads is having to plan for having such varied chapter lengths. That being said, the chapter breaks are totally perfect and logical, I would not want them any other way. 

In summary: this book is great, I can’t wait to see what Señor Sifert has planned for the next book. It thrills me that this is intended to be a series. I will be keeping my eye out for news on the next book.

First Class Novel – Winning with Capibara Con Botas!

I have never taught a novel before. Honestly, I didn’t even pay very close attention during my Reading in the Content Area course all those many years ago. I feel bad now, but I had no idea that beginning students could read! Certainly not novels anyway. Besides, I have only one book that was ever assigned to me by any of my Spanish teachers that I actually enjoyed reading, 17 Narradoras Latinoamericanas, a collection of writings from female Latin American authors. (Side note: Still have it, still like it.) That equals a lot of years of teachers implying that interesting chapter books were far from my mostly-monolingual grasp, an implication that isn’t easily changed. Then I started Sustained Silent Reading twice a week with my students. The words and the stories wound up in their writing, so I got them more different things to read. Would you believe they are just as excited to read in Spanish as they were in English? You probably do, that’s why you’re here, and you should because they are.

I had a mission ready for my fifth-grade class as soon as we returned from Thanksgiving break. We were going to read a real, chapters and everything, novel in Spanish. I was super ambitious and planned for four days of intensive background knowledge and vocabulary pre-teaching sessions. We worked our tails off over those four days, and those little 11-year-old minds were churning because we had never done anything so strongly driven before. Every day we worked together to construct meaning through conversation. We talked about the same things over and over and over. Then, they opened their workbooks (that I created for them, which they thought were so neat, using the amazing guide from www.Miracanion.com) and I would ask them one of the questions for the day, they would answer me aloud in full sentences, then I would write their answer on the board. They honestly thought they were doing nothing except copying answers off the board! They never even noticed that I was simply presenting their spoken words in written form! I laughed a lot about how they believed they were pulling a fast one.

After four days, I finally gave them the book. They were ready, I was sure of that. To say they disagreed, would be putting it mildly. They went straight in to English, saying they couldn’t do this, and did anyone else notice it had chapters? And was there really no English in the book at all?!? I let them freak out for a moment, as I had predicted it might go something like this. Then, I opened my book to page 6 and instructed them to do the same. Then I called on a kid to read, the next paragraph was another reader, and same with the third. Then, the chapter was over. They stared at their books for a moment, then looked at each other, then stared at me. They got it. They understood it all. They were so completely dumbfounded that they couldn’t believe it had happened. It might have been the most powerful moment I’ve ever experienced as a teacher. Then we continued with our regular plan of going to the workbook and answering the questions. They did such great work. I was actually sad that it was Friday and I would have to wait the entire weekend before we could do it again.

The saga continued when I was too sick the following Wednesday to come to work. My husband even had to take me to school so I could line up everything for my absence, I couldn’t even manage driving. I named two teachers and divided the rest of the students up in the most productive teams I could think of, then left the next chapter and it’s activity as their assignment. I was so thankful that the assignment wasn’t simply questions to answer, but rather an activity that came from the guide. Then I waited in fear on the couch for my cell phone to tell me that it had gone horribly, and they had burned down the school. (They are a dynamic bunch, it’s the best and worst thing about them, and why their classroom teacher and I adore them so much.) My fear was totally unfounded. The next day I was greeted with so many stories from teachers and students about how well it had gone! They managed the entire lesson with nothing more than their own brains and the legally-mandated adult presence. Perhaps, had that adult not been their classroom teacher, things might have gone differently, but it didn’t! This novel has convinced them that they are mastering Spanish!

Today, I accidentally gave them a pop-quiz. I meant to tell them it was coming, but I’m not feeling great, and I almost never give them tests, it just slipped my mind. They were hardly phased. I told them that it was only chapters 1&2, they asked to use their resources and I agreed to books, not workbooks. They did so well! They used their books to look up information, relied on the words they knew to help them with whatever word they weren’t recognizing, and handed in papers they were proud of. We even had enough time to finish our work with the next chapter! All that’s left now is to hope that this snow storm is not actually headed our way, because there are just enough days left for us to finish our book before winter break! …Any teacher have a NO Snow Dance?… Anyone…?

Want a great novel to start your kids out with? Check out Mira Canion’s books. This group is reading Capibara con Botas, and I just posted a donor’s choose project to hopefully bring them El Escape Cubano. I have read several of her books, and seen three of the teachers guides, and they all strike me as high quality material that I am excited to present to my students. (No, she has no idea who I am, or that I’m writing this.)