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The SOS File
By Betsy Byars, Betsy Duffey, and Laurie Myers
Illustrated by Arthur Howard
Henry Holt & Company
ISBN: 9780805068887
Grades 3-5
In Stores

When a book can grab students from page one and hold their interest throughout, it’s a keeper. When said book can accomplish these feats in a read-aloud setting, well, it’s a book that you need to have on hand. “The SOS File” is just such a book. A collection of short stories that will no doubt be a read-aloud standby for upper elementary students.

“SOS” works like this. The first page shows a file folder with the following instructions:

Have you ever needed to call 9-1-1, but you couldn’t get to a phone? Have you ever needed to run, but your legs were like spaghetti? Have you ever needed to yell “help!” but your throat was dry with fear?

For fun and extra credit write your story and put it in this file.

The first chapter begins with the teacher, Mr. Magro, addressing the class. He explains that the SOS file is full and it’s time for students to read their stories. Mr. Magro even sets up some intrigue by mentioning that one SOS will not receive extra credit.

For the next twelve chapters, students present their stories. All are written in the first person, drawing the reader into the action. Some stories are exciting (“The Pink Panther” is about a go cart test gone awry), many are funny (“Three Strikes, You’re Out”, “Pumpkin Man”), and some are touching (“Miracle on Main Street”). All are written in a basic enough style to make the reader buy into the idea that they were written by kids. When Mr. Magro finally gets to the last story (it’s his own, about being held back a grade) the reader realizes who will not be receiving extra credit.

Each chapter is brief, clocking in at just a few pages. This structure is good for a couple reasons:

1. Stories never drag. Young readers who are easily turned off by plodding storylines will want to keep on reading.

2. Short chapters give provide options in a read-aloud setting. You don’t have a lot of time? Just read one chapter – it’s still an entire story in and of itself. Got more time? Read a couple – kids will be asking for you to keep going.

It’s a pleasure to share a book that has been so useful to me as a school librarian. Be sure to add this one to your collection. If you read it to your students, beware – you may not see it on the shelves again for a while. My highest recommendation.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.


The Full Belly Bowl
By Jim Aylesworth
Illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin
Atheneum ©1999
ISBN: 9780689810336
Grades 2-4
In Stores

I eat the same thing for lunch every day. Granola bar, string cheese, banana, crackers, pretzels with peanut butter. I like those things and they’re easy to pack, so that’s what I stick with. I’m not saying this to highlight how boring I am (although… mission accomplished); I’m saying this to make the point that when you find something good, you tend to stick with it. “The Full Belly Bowl” has been one of my standbys for years. It’s read aloud gold. If it’s not in your collection, you’re missing out on a story that truly engages kids.

A folktale, well told, can really draw youngsters in. “The Full Belly Bowl” begins with our unnamed protagonist (known only as “the very old man”) rescuing a “wee small man” from the clutches of a fox. In return, the small man gives his savior a gift – the Full Belly Bowl. He also leaves directions:

Use it wisely or it will be a burden. To empty, pour it out. When not in use, store it upside down and out of reach of children.

Having nothing else to go on, the old man experiments with the bowl and discovers that it duplicates anything that is put into it. His hunger is soon a thing of the past. But when he discovers that the bowl can duplicate things besides food, the story starts getting interesting.

It made him wonder what would happen if he put a coin in the bowl, and though the only coin he had was a copper penny, he decided to give it a try.

But the very old man’s excitement about his discovery leads to a hasty mistake. Tension builds until the man’s dreams of a wealthy future are dashed, putting him right back where he started. To the very old man, however, this is not a bad thing.

The colored pencil illustrations are detailed and inventive. When an unfortunate accident with the Full Belly Bowl leaves the very old man’s house rodent infested, the page is literally covered with mice. The borders of each illustration also add to the story. When the man discovers he can eat all he wants with the help of the bowl, food is incorporated in the border. Overall, the effect is that of an illustrator who was really seeking to compliment the story.

Add this one to your read aloud menu and it may well become a staple.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.

van-allsburg-wretched-stone.jpgThe Wretched Stone
By Chris Van Allsburg
Houghton Mifflin Company (1991)
ISBN 9780395533079
Grades 2-4
In Stores

Unless there is some strange cult out there that seeks to unlock life’s mysteries through meditations on “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” (and really, there might be), nowhere on earth does Grand Rapids native Chris Van Allsburg receive more love than in the Southwest region of the mitten state. How do I know? Well, it’s where I live and work as a school librarian. The wonderful Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) recently wrapped up an exhibit of Mr. V.A.’s drawings and I stopped by for a look. Amazing stuff. Original artwork was on display from just about every book he’s worked on, including my personal favorite “The Wretched Stone”. The visit inspired me to dust of the ol’ retro review.

The story begins as the ship Rita Anne is setting sail. Where she is going is never made clear. The work is narrated entirely through ship’s log entries by Captain Randall Ethan Hope, and an ominous tone is set right from the get go. Van Allsburg really needs to check into the legality of patenting a mood, because this sort of quiet unease has been his calling card for years – you just know some things are about to go down. And indeed they do. The crew soon discovers an uncharted island and decide to explore. They find a lush landscape, but encounter no signs of life. The crew does find an extrordinary glowing rock and decide to bring it on board. This is were things start to get weird. As the crew stares at the stone, they begin to take on some, shall we say, simian characteristics. The odd appeal of the stone proves to be very strong, putting their voyage in danger.

Call me an oblivious youth, but when I was a kid the correlation between the glowing rock and television didn’t occur to me. I dug the mystery, I dug the pictures, I dug the fact that humans were turning into apes. Only after I read the book later on did I understand that “The Wretched Stone” was indeed Van Allsburg’s ode to the pitfalls of too much television. This realization made me appreciate the book anew. A classic to meditate on.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More
by Roald Dahl
Puffin Books
ISBN 9780141304700
Grades 4-7
In Stores

As the title suggests, this book is a collection of seven short stories written by one of the all time greats: Roald Dahl. Let us start with the big one, the monster, the “man this one is so good, let’s just name the whole book after it” – “The Wonderful Story” in the flesh.

Stretching the limits of short by clocking (flipping?) in at 68 pages, “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” could nearly be published all by itself. I can see the title now: Henry Sugar, the EP. The tale is worth every page. The story centers on a rich, bored man (the aforementioned Henry) who comes upon an unassuming notebook. The thin volume holds the key to something, as Dahl would put it, fantastically extraordinary: the ability to see through solid objects.

Now I don’t know about you, but this premise alone had me hooked as a youngster. The remaining pages melted away as I wondered if Mr. Sugar would have the patience and determination to learn this astounding skill, and what he would do with the power if he got it.

While “The Wonderful Story…” towers over the others in both size and ability to thrill, the accompanying six short stories pack a significant punch. From a true story of a man unearthing a fortune to an unforgettable tale of a hitchhiker with sticky fingers, young readers (especially boys) will be delighted. A landmark in my childhood of reading.

Homer Price
by Robert McCloskey
ISBN 978-0142404157
Ages 7-11
In Stores

For the first selection to receive a retro review, you best believe it had to be a winner. Homer Price does not disappoint. Puffin recently released this book with updated cover art under the moniker “Modern Classic”, and indeed it is. The book is separated into six chapters, with each acting as it’s own short story. There are a few things you should know about Homer:

  • He enjoys a good doughnut (hence the cover art).
  • He lives just outside the small Midwestern town of Centerburg where everyone is in each others business.
  • He apparently is more intelligent that most (ok, all) of the adults in town.

McCloskey keeps the action moving along – from catching criminals to stopping an out of control doughnut making machine, each story contains a large dollop of interest-piquing situations and characters. How could you not love a story about two men taking part in a contest to see who has the largest collection of string, with the winner getting the opportunity to propose to the woman they’re both in love with? Or how about a story with a mysterious Rip Van Winkle type character who has devised a ingenious way to rid Centerburg of mice – without harming a single one?

Reading Homer Price reminded me of listening to an album where the first few songs are so good that you’re nervous about the rest of the tracks living up the high standard. In this book, there really isn’t a letdown. As you might expect with a book that was written in the days of yore (c. 1943) there is some dated content, but that is minor and unlikely to make much of an impression to young readers who will be too engrossed in the story to notice much. A classic for modern times.

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