Florida SSYRA Book Summaries (2019-2020, Grades 3-5)

One of my favorite things about teaching in Florida was reading SSYRA books with my students! It was always an excellent list of 15 newer books, most of which I had not read before.

If you want to learn more about each book, but don’t have time to read them all on your own, I’ve written short summaries of each one. I hope this will help you pick which books would be the best to read with your students. I’ve also linked to novel study units I’ve created for each book so you can use them in ELA lessons, small groups, or however else you want. Just click on each book’s title to see those resources.

If you don’t teach in Florida, I hope you’ll check out a few of these new books if you’re looking for something different to read with your students. They are all amazing books!

These books are on the SSYRA (Sunshine State Young Readers Award) list for grades 3-5. There’s also a list of 15 books for grades 6-8.

The Bicycle Spy is about a young boy, Marcel, who lives in France during World War II. When German soldiers arrive in his town, he notices everyone is a lot more tense than normal. When a new girl arrives in his class, they bond over their love of cycling. However, when she reveals a secret about her family, Marcel works hard to keep their secret, even if it means putting himself in dangerous situations.

There’s a good chance you have a few students in your class who can relate to the main character in Stella Diaz Has Something to Say. This third-grade girl, whose family is from Mexico, is not confident in her ability to speak English. Other girls tease her about this, which makes Stella even more hesitant to speak. She gets incredibly nervous when the teacher assigns a project which involves a five-minute presentation. Stella’s friends and family give her excellent advice that makes speaking a less-daunting task. Their advice and encouragement help Stella feel much more confident in her speaking ability by the end of the book. Your students who feel nervous about speaking will learn some EXCELLENT tips. Your students will also learn the power of kind words and encouragement.

Bob is a heartwarming story about two friends who go to great lengths to help each other learn more about their past. The main character is an 11-year-old-girl named Olivia. When she visits her grandmother in Australia for the first time in five years, Olivia finds an old friend, Bob, whom she had forgotten about. Why can’t she remember him? Why can’t he remember where he came from? Why did Bob spend five years waiting for Olivia in a closet in Olivia’s grandma’s house? Olivia and Bob work together to figure out these questions in a book that is sure to keep your students turning the pages.

EngiNerds is about four boys who love intellectual challenges. The main character, a boy named Ken, receives a mysterious package full of metal pieces. Those pieces are used to build a robot that has the ability to consume all the food in Ken’s house! At first, Ken thinks it’s amazing to have his own robot. Eventually, he realizes that taking care of a robot is much more challenging than he first thought — especially when more of them appear around town. Ken and his friends have to use their creativity to figure out a way to prevent the robots from destroying the town.

Ben Franklin’s in my Bathroom also begins with a mysterious package arriving at the main character’s house. This story is about Nolan and Olive, a brother and sister, who open the package to see an old radio. Once they figure out how to make it work, Ben Franklin suddenly appears in their house. Nolan wants to figure out a way to get Ben back to the year 1784 ASAP, but Olive and Ben want him to maximize the experiences he has in the 21st century. All three of these characters learn valuable lessons from each other by the end of the story.

Cosmic Commandos is about a young boy, Jeremy, who uses a special power to save the world when enemies from his favorite video game attack in real life. There is also a nice subplot about Jeremy learning how to get along with his twin brother, Justin. In the end, Jeremy and Justin gain a newfound respect for each other that they didn’t think was possible.

Wedgie & Gizmo tells the story of two animals with completely opposite personalities who are forced to live in the same house. When Gizmo’s family moves in with Wedgie’s family, Gizmo is forced to adjust his evil plan to take over the world. At first, he views Wedgie as a dog who he needs to get rid of in order to accomplish his plan. However, by the end of the story, Wedgie is no longer Gizmo’s #1 enemy. While the narrative focuses on these two animals, you’ll also read about how a young boy adjusts to living in a new home and how these animals help him out.

Ghost Attack is a terrific story about the importance of teamwork. Two cousins, Alex and Sarah, work together to clear the name of a person who was wrongly committed of a crime long ago. Their week at their grandparents’ country home is full of surprises as they deal with mysterious rashes, a ghost that only they can see, and a town that has lots of hidden secrets. Alex and Sarah constantly share ideas with each other, which is why they are town heroes by the end of the story.

Sled Dog School is the perfect book for students who are self-conscious because they are bad at math. The story is about a sixth-grader named Matt who has always struggled in math class, but he is terrific at guiding his dogs while dogsledding around his home in northern Michigan. Matt is in danger of failing math and being sent to remedial math class, so he jumps at his teacher’s extra-credit assignment to create a real business. Matt’s dogsledding talents help him start a helpful business, but he makes lots of mistakes along the way. By the end of the story, Matt has learned from his mistakes, made two terrific friends, and realizes he should feel good about his talents instead of dwelling on things he’s bad at. BONUS — the story includes an amazing scene of Matt standing up to a kid who’s bullied him for a long time. It’s a terrific way to model how kids should stand up to bullies!

If you like stories that are written in different styles, then Annie’s Life in Lists is the book for you! Annie is a fifth-grader who loves writing lists, so the story is written as a series of lists from Annie’s notebook. The author, Kristin Mahoney, does a fabulous job of telling the story this way. Annie is a young girl with an amazing memory, but it gets her in trouble one day at school in Brooklyn. Annie spends months after that trying to blend in, stay quiet, and hide the fact that she can remember lots of things about people. The story also describes her family’s adjustment as they move from Brooklyn to a small town. This book has lots of good lessons about accepting who you are, adjusting to a new city/town, and working with your family to help you do these things.

I taught so many students who loved reading about the Titanic. Now, kids can read a story about what it was like for animals who were on the ship. Survival Tails: The Titanic, is written from the point of view of a dog and cat who were on board. These animals have very different owners, which affects their experiences on the ship, but they end up coming together to help each other in ways they didn’t think were possible. Students will learn a lot by reading what the animals did before the ship hit the iceberg. Kids will also gain a unique perspective by reading what the animals saw and experienced as the ship sank. The end of this story does an amazing job of showing what it was like for those who survived this tragedy.

If you’re looking for a book with unexpected plot twists, check out The Ambrose Deception. Three middle school students — to the surprise of their counselors — are chosen to participate in a competition for $10,000 in scholarship money. They have to solve three mysterious clues that require them to do a lot of research and explore their hometown of Chicago. The three students are told to work individually, but once they start working together, they learn that they are participating in something much bigger than a scholarship competition. This is a longer read, but each section is short, so there are plenty of places you can pause while you’re reading this. Side note: I LOVED the characters in this story!!!

If you’re a fan of Rules, you should like Superstar, which is a book written from the perspective of a fifth-grade boy who has autism. Lester loves science, watching meteor showers with his mom, and reading books at the library, and being taught by his mom at home. However, when Lester’s mom gets a full-time job, Lester is forced to attend public school for the first time. He has a difficult time adjusting to the schedule, teachers, rude classmates, and cafeteria noise. Thankfully, Lester is surrounded by teachers who help Lester feel more comfortable at school. As Lester learns more about school, he also learns more about himself — like how his knowledge of science can help him get better at kickball.

Tumble & Blue is one of the longest books on this SSYRA list, but if you have the time to read it, it’s well worth it! This is a story about two kids who learn that they are cursed. Blue always loses. Tumble wants to be a hero, but she always ends up being the one who needs to be saved. Blue’s great-grandmother holds a long competition where her huge family competes against each other. She chooses the winner, who then gets to learn how they can change their fate. Blue refuses to participate in this cutthroat competition. Instead, he takes his fate into his own hands. As Tumble does everything she can to help, she realizes she needs to join Blue and do the same. By the end of the story, Tumble and Blue feel a lot better about themselves. You’ll love reading why!

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart is a terrific way to model positive self-talk for your students. The main character, Adventurine, is transformed from a dragon into a human just as she discovers that chocolate is her passion in life. She works hard to learn how to interact with humans, make friends, and become an apprentice at a chocolate house. At one point, Adventurine makes a terrible mistake. She is devastated because she thinks she will never be allowed to make chocolate again. An entire chapter describes the self-doubt she has. After that, the book describes how she motivates herself to get back in the chocolate-making business. Through sheer determination and positive self-talk, Adventurine discovers that she is more powerful than she could ever imagine while making enemies become friends. I LOVE the way this story shows the exact words that Adventurine speaks to herself to give her the confidence to pursue her passion and NOT listen to all the doubts she has about herself.

If you’d like novel studies for all 15 books, you can save money by purchasing my bundle.

How To Use Novels For Morning Work

Ideas to help you use novels for morning work

“Did you say boring work or morning work?”

I asked a student this question early in my teaching career.  He wanted to know where to turn in his morning work.  I could have sworn he said “boring work.”  The normally respectful student answered “morning work” and I told him where to turn it in.

I had the following goals for morning work during my first few years of teaching:

  • Make it routine so I don’t have to answer questions while I collect homework.
  • Make it something that will get the kids quiet.
  • Make it a worksheet because I can easily prepare it.

My students were given a math review worksheet when they entered my classroom.  It met my goals every day.  It kept the kids quiet.  The questions were simple review problems that most students could easily complete.  It gave me time to quickly check homework and take attendance…

…and it was DEFINITELY “boring work.”  So I added the following to my list of goals for morning work:

Make it engaging.

I had been wanting to increase the number of novels my students read.  So I decided to incorporate them into my morning work.   I went to my board after school and wrote, “Morning Work:  Read pages 1-10 of Loser.”

Hmmmm, that was not any more engaging than my math worksheets.  And how was I going to get 25 copies of the book?

I spent a few days pondering how to make this work, but couldn’t think of an idea that was practical.  Then I saw a student dozing off while completing his “boring work” math worksheet.  This student LOVED talking.  Then I realized the solution.

Have kids read 5-10 pages with a partner and give them a discussion topic each morning.

I put students in groups of 2 or 3 based on their reading level.  I wrote the book title and pages they needed to read during the first 15 minutes of the day.  All I had to do was change the page numbers each day.

How to use novels for your morning work


The day’s discussion question for each group was displayed on the projector.  All I had to do was type a question from the book’s novel study for that chapter (see links at the end).

How to use novels for your morning work

Before students started reading, they had to leave their homework assignment on their desk.  I collected homework while they read, marking who had completed homework and who had not.

After time was up, I randomly called on one or two students for each book to tell me what they discussed.  Then we began our day.

Discussing quality literature was more beneficial to students than quietly completing a math worksheet.  It’s difficult to explain, but it seemed like my students’ brains were flipped to “learn” instead of “zoned out” when our first subject started.  Some of my fifth-grade students fell asleep less often during the morning.

This new system was never perfect.  It required some tinkering every now and then, but the student engagement made the work worth my time.  Here are a few pointers to help this system run well in your room.

Tip #1: Use Novels That Are A Bit Lower Than The Students’ Reading Level

I usually used three or four novels at a time.  I wanted each book to be a bit lower than each of my fifth graders’ reading level.  I did not want this to be a frustrating reading experience.  But if a student ran into problems, that’s where reading with a partner could help.

Tip #2:  Use Novels That Students Can Finish In 3-4 Weeks

When I first started this, I made the mistake of assigning Hoot to a few groups of students.  Since Hoot is 292 pages, and kids could only make it through about 8 pages each morning, this took forever to finish.  Kids lost interest if their book took more than a month to finish.  Books like Loser, The Hero Two Doors Down, Shiloh, Hatchet, and Inside Out & Back Again were perfect lengths.  Some of your groups will be able to read more or less each day, so that affects which books you can assign.  Use your judgment.  Just try to avoid having a group read one book for more than 3-4 weeks.

Tip #3:  Ask Your Librarian For Copies

Librarians are rock stars.  A few weeks before I needed a new set of books, I asked my librarian to ask for copies from other libraries in our district.  This usually provided enough copies for every student.  If kids have the book on their Kindle, I got parental permission for students to bring the Kindle to school.

Tip #4:  Be Ready For These Books To Be In Demand

Some students will want to read the book their classmates are reading.  When I had a few groups read Loser during morning work, they laughed at several events in the book.  Other students saw this.  Then they asked to read Loser on their own.  This became a perfect way to promote reading.

Tip #5:  Make This A Reading Participation Grade

I created one assignment in my grade book called “Morning Work Participation.”  Everyone started the grading period with a 100%.  If a student refused to read, I took 5 points off the grade.  If a student refused to respond to the discussion question when called upon, I took off 5 points.  With all the difficult reading tests kids are graded on, I liked to have at least one or two assignments like this where they could earn a 100% as long as they gave an honest effort every day.  It also provided the perfect amount of accountability.

Tip #6:  Don’t Rush An Occasional Extended Discussion

Did you notice the topic for Shiloh above?  Students had to think about whether the main character should lie to his parents about keeping a stray dog or be honest and return the dog to an abusive owner.  Students had strong opinions on this.  Even kids who weren’t reading Shiloh chimed in.  ELA class started about 10 minutes later that day because my students wanted to discuss this.  There was no way I was saying, “Sorry class, we have to stop this discussion so we can begin Language Arts on time.”  If your students are wanting to spend 40 minutes discussing books every day, that’s a different story.  But you should certainly allow time for the occasional extended discussion.

Need Discussion Ideas?

If you’d like discussion ideas, I have created novel studies for over 40 books.  My writing prompts and quiz questions make perfect discussion topics for morning work.  You can download the first novel study for free!

Use novels for morning work

Use novels for morning work

Use novels for morning work

Use novels for morning work

Use novels for morning work

Don’t see a novel study for a book you love?  Click here to browse over 40 novel studies I have created.

Teaching Growth Mindset with Esperanza Rising

Students can learn so much more from novels than test-prep passages.  I know you’re under a ton of pressure to get students to pass multiple-choice reading tests.  But I hope you will find time this year to read awesome novels, like Esperanza Rising.  In addition to teaching reading skills, your students can learn to face challenging situations instead of giving up.

Teaching Growth Mindset with Esperanza Rising

Esperanza Rising is a wonderful story of a young girl whose life changes dramatically after a terrible tragedy.  The author, Pam Munoz Ryan, does a beautiful job of developing characters that students feel an immediate connection with.  This can really help your students develop a growth mindset.  I’ve taught so many students whose first instinct is to quit when faced with a challenging situation.  I hope you teach your students that challenging school assignments can help them grow academically.  Facing difficult situations in life can help them grow as a person.  We all know students are far more likely to remember these ideas from characters they connect with during a story as opposed to us lecturing them.  So here are three ways you can use the characters and events of Esperanza Rising to foster a growth mindset with your students.

 1.  You can learn a lot about yourself during difficult situations

Chapter one paints Esperanza as a nice, but spoiled, rich girl.  Her father is a wealthy land-owner.  Esperanza spends time with her father in the fields but never has to actually do any of the work.  She has servants attending to her every need.  She lives in a beautiful home and has very nice things.  Esperanza has a wonderful, loving family.  But that all changes when her father is murdered. Esperanza and her mother are forced to leave everything behind and flee to the United States.

Esperanza’s new home in California is tiny and dirty.  She is thrust into a new life where she has to do many chores that servants had always done for her.  Esperanza is miserable.  Her father has just died.  She is living in a strange place.  She is going to have to work in a way that she’s never worked before.  It would be really easy for Esperanza to quit.

Things get worse for Esperanza before they get better.  One of her first chores is to sweep, and she fails because she’s never had to sweep before.  Other girls laugh at Esperanza’s inability to perform such a simple task.  She refuses to leave the house for a day because she is so humiliated.  Later, she has to take care of babies.  She feeds them plums, not knowing this would give the babies an upset stomach.  She also burns food that she cooks.  She has given these tasks an honest effort, but has failed.  Again, it would be really easy for Esperanza to quit.

But Esperanza decides to ignore the taunts of others and continue cleaning.  She continues looking after the babies.  She continues cooking.  Day, after day, after day.  SLOWLY, Esperanza learns how to accomplish these tasks.  I emphasize the word SLOWLY with my students to help them realize success does not happen overnight, as Esperanza finds out.

Later, Esperanza’s mother gets really sick.  She has to stay in the hospital for several months.  Now, Esperanza is forced to work in the fields.  Esperanza promises her mom to take care of the family.  I tell my students that Esperanza is probably not the best field worker, but she does well enough to keep her job and provide a little bit of money that her family needs to survive while her mother is sick.

The book ends one year after her father died.  During that year, Esperanza has done things she never thought she could do.  I have the students reread chapter one and think, “Would Esperanza have ever dreamed she could accomplish these things (cooking, cleaning, babysitting, farming, etc.) just a year earlier?”

Also, kids need to realize that there are times when life will be challenging.  But it is possible to come out of these challenging situations a stronger person.  Emphasize to your students that Esperanza went from a spoiled, helpless girl to a strong, determined woman who provided for her family – all in one year.

This is awesome for students who are adapting to a new school, city, or country.  You can say:

“I know it’s hard adjusting to life in this new school/city/country.  Remember Esperanza.  She fought through lots of challenging situations and after a year, she started to feel better about her new home.”

2.  Accept help

When Esperanza arrived in California, a young girl named Isabel greeted her.  Isabel was in awe of Esperanza.  Isabel had heard all about Esperanza’s extravagant life in Mexico before her father died.  Esperanza, on the other hand, looked down on Isabel for being poor.  Esperanza saw Isabel’s meager home and possessions.  She wondered how Isabel could be so happy with so little.

SLOWLY, Esperanza realizes that Isabel is a kind girl.  Esperanza also realizes that Isabel knows how to do things like clean and babysit.  So Esperanza drops her ego and asks Isabel to teach her how to sweep and take care of babies, even though she thought Isabel was beneath her.  Isabel is a huge help as Esperanza starts to learn how to tackle the day-to-day chores of her new life.  Esperanza eventually becomes friends with Isabella.

This is an outstanding reminder to students that everyone needs to accept help.  It’s also a good reminder that the people we look down upon may be the ones who can help us the most.

Tell a student:

“I know you’re struggling to learn this science vocabulary.  And I know you’re not getting along with (insert name or names of students), but I think the two of you could help each other learn this vocabulary and do well on your quiz.  Remember how Esperanza accepted help from Isabel.  I think (name of student) could help you just like Isabel helped Esperanza.”

3.  Remember the things you have to be thankful for

Esperanza hears her mother singing a few hours after they arrive at their new home in California.  Esperanza is furious.  How can her mother possibly be singing during such a terrible time?   They have gone from living in luxury to living in poverty in a very short time.  But Mama tells Esperanza to focus on what they do have.  They have each other.  They have a place to live.  They have people there who can help them.  And Mama has a job.  Mama reminds Esperanza that Abuelita would want her to make the best of her new life instead of dwelling on all the negatives.  Mama is not saying their new life is going to be easy.  But she reminds her daughter they still have a lot to be thankful for.

In my 14 years of teaching, I’ve taught many kids who have a difficult time focusing on the positives.  This story of Mama singing is great for students to think about during challenges they face.  Students need to know that it’s ok to get discouraged during challenging times.  Don’t tell students that they have to be positive, happy, cheerful people 24/7.  But Mama’s attitude helps kids remember that it’s possible to find a little bit of joy even during the gloomiest of situations.

Tell a student: 

“Sure you’re struggling with this math problem.  It’s really hard and that’s no fun.  But think about Esperanza’s mom when they first arrived in California.  Remember you have people around you who are here to help.  Look at this as a chance to grow and learn perseverance.”

I really hope you can read Esperanza Rising with your students.  You can use the story’s characters and events to teach reading skills, but the life lessons your students can learn are even more powerful.  These three ideas can start some discussions with your students, but there are many more ways this book can help your students develop a growth mindset.  I have also developed several activities for each chapter so you don’t have to worry about planning activities.  Click the image below for more info.

Enjoy this book with your students and remind them of these characters throughout the year.

Esperanza Rising Novel Study