One Last Book for Summer Reading

Summer of Lost and Found by Rebecca Behrens. Aladdin, Simon and Schuster, New York, NY 2016

“You don’t expect your life to change because of a toothbrush. But that’s really how my summer of lost and found started, with one missing object.”

During the course of one summer, Nell Dare will become interested in solving several mysteries: Where did those Lost Colony people go? Why is her mother acting so strange? But most of all, why did her father suddenly run off to England? From the moment Nell notices her father’s toothbrush is missing until she meets an unusual boy who seems just as interested in solving mysteries as she, this middle grade novel is full of action and intrigue that entertains from start to finish.

After seeing the word separation on her mom’s computer, Nell is too scared to come right out and ask her why Dad has gone to England. But his disappearance has ruined her summer plans of staying in New York, taking tennis lessons with her best friend, Jade, and maybe meeting cute guys at the tennis court. Her mother announces that Nell will be accompanying her to Roanoke Island to help with her plant research. All the arguments Nell thinks up for staying in New York don’t budge her mother’s resolve.

Once on the island, Nell meets Lila, an annoying girl who thinks they should be best friends. After Nell snubs her, she meets Ambrose, a somewhat odd, but intriguing boy who also likes mysteries. Nell figures that if she and Ambrose can find enough clues to the Lost Colony, maybe her father, a mystery writer, will come home and write about it. But why does she get the feeling someone is spying on her? Is it Lila or someone else?

The end of the book includes an Author’s note, history of Roanoke, a section on Roanoke Today and an extensive bibliography for those wanting to learn more about the island and the lost colony. What I love about historical fiction is how it piques my interest in visiting intriguing locations, far and wide. Roanoke Island, with all its history and mystery, is definitely on my list of such a place.

I found this story particularly fascinating as my father, known for his telling of tall tales, once claimed his mother was a descendant of the Lost Colony. Probably not true, but one never knows…

 

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Tricia Clasen Skillfully Handles the Subject of Grief for Young Readers

The Haunted House Project, by Tricia Clasen. Sky Pony Press, New York, NY, 2016

“I stop outside my dad’s bedroom door. Sometimes I think I can still smell her here. Right now, I’d love even a hint of the stuff she used to spritz that made her smell like a tropical island. I inhale deeply. Nothing. It’s probably for the best. Even if I could catch a whiff, I know I’d be imagining things. Because she’s gone.”

Andie’s mom is dead, hit by a semi-truck in a fatal car accident. Andie’s family is broken. Her father loses his job; her sister has put off college. There’s never enough food in the house and Andie worries what might happen if the authorities find out how they are living. Could she end up in foster care?

When her science partner, a nerdy boy, suggests they study the paranormal for their project, Andie is all in. What if Andie haunts her own house? Pretends it’s her mom? Might that glue her family back together again?

Tricia Clasen has written a poignant and riveting story about a broken family and a girl much too young but determined to heal it all on her own. When friends and the school psychologist try to help, she resists. Andie has her own plan and she is going to stick to it, no matter how ill-advised it may be. When she feels that her old friends just don’t understand her grief, she finds herself moving away from them—another kind of loss.

Clasen’s writing is evocative and the prose keeps the reader turning the page at a quick pace. The author shows how painful grief can be and what it drives us to do. A young girl, trying desperately to save her family by bringing her mother back, albeit as a ghost, is both heartbreaking and believable. This is a story about a family falling apart, but ultimately putting itself back together again.

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The Perfect Book for Exploring Nature with a Grandchild

Grandma is a Slowpoke by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by Michele Coxon. Star Bright Books, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2015.

Being four-years-old apparently means inventing “games,” in which my granddaughter and I have different names and parts to play. Many times these games are based on Disney Princesses and their adventures and challenges. When we arrive at her house each day we are never sure who will meet us at the door. Will it be Elsa from Frozen or Rapunzel from Tangled? And then there’s Elena. I’m not entirely sure who she is. But I digress.

In just the past week she’s taken to acting out books I’ve read to her. Today was a sheer delight. When I first showed her Grandma is a Slowpoke, she said I could read it after our “game.” But we weren’t too far into that adventure when she picked up this book and asked me to read it. “Then we can make that our game” she said. I was thrilled. I’d been waiting for just the right moment to read this book. Today couldn’t have been better. The sky was blue, humidity non-existent and the temperature hovered around 76 degrees. A perfect day to read about a little girl and her grandma taking a walk and learning about nature from each other.

After I was finished, she looked at me eagerly and asked, “Can we go to a park and make a game out of this story?” I was exhausted. Between trying to get my planting done and keeping my house in some modicum of order during a major kitchen remodel, I was ready for a nap. But I knew the time was right and these moments don’t always occur when you’re completely rested. Who is ever completely rested anyway?

We have a small woodland park near our house that several neighbors take care of. New wood chips had recently been laid down on the walking paths. So the two of us set off. I stopped to point out flowers and birds like the grandma in the book. And she answered each time, “Yes, Grandma.” She loved being in the woods and as I watched her run down the path with pure joy I was so glad I’d mustered up the energy to come. I definitely was the slowpoke, but she didn’t seem to care. When we returned she explained to her mom that we’d seen two kinds of flowers, a robin, and we heard, but didn’t see, a very noisy woodpecker.

The illustrations in this book, with their realistic detail of the busy mom with a baby and a house full of loving messiness, add so much to the story. Those pictures alone, without words, show how important the walk in the woods with Grandma is to the little girl. In this way, Halfmann has captured the essence of the child/grandparent relationship. This is a wonderfully sweet book and the perfect book to read now, during this season of sun and warmth. If you have a grandchild, or any child, in your life, run out and get a copy. Before the snow flies!

 

 

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History Comes Alive in Civil Rights Books

9781603094023_p0_v5_s192x3001In honor of Martin Luther King Day, this month I’m reviewing two books that articulate the importance of non-violent direct action to the civil rights movement. These books are not just for young people. Everyone interested in the civil rights movement, past and future will find them engaging and will undoubtedly learn something new. I did.

March Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. Top Shelf Productions, Marietta, GA, 2016.

This third book, like the preceding two, in the March series of graphic “novels” (in reality, graphic memoir), begins and ends with the inauguration of Barack Obama. Bookending the remarkable life of John Lewis and the civil rights movement in this way gives one the sense of watching history unfold in the most unlikely way. When George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, and when non-violent demonstrators were beaten and killed, could anyone imagine a day when there would be an African-American President?

The comic book style makes it easy to read all three books at once. Even though they are a fast read, I found myself lingering a bit over many of the entries. The words of Fannie Lou Hamer describing how she was beaten—by Black prisoners forced to beat other Black prisoners—to within an inch of her life; the specter of children fire-hosed and arrested; the incredible violence that was perpetrated on non-violent demonstrators who sometimes were doing no more than waiting in line outside the courthouse in an effort to register to vote. (A word of caution: the language used is the actual language used by many who fought against the civil rights movement.)

As we prepare to say goodbye to Barack Obama, it is worth our time to take a moment and look back on what has transpired in our history to bring us this far. It is also worth it to look forward and realize we as a nation have, to paraphrase a great poet, miles to go before we sleep. If history teaches us anything, it is that we cannot become complacent. At the very least, we must vote. But more than that we must engage with our government, be it local or federal, on issues dear to hearts. We must be vigilant about our rights, because when rights are taken away from one person they are taken away from every person.

Although targeted to young people, March should be read by everyone.

232994941Bayard Rustin, The Invisible Activist by Jacqueline Houtman, Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long. Quaker Press of Friends General Conference. Philadelphia, Pa, 2014.

“On a hot August afternoon in 1963, Bayard Rustin stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial…he stepped out of the shadows to read the words he had prepared.”
Wait a minute. Don’t you mean Martin Luther King stepped up to speak? Wasn’t that the day of his “I have a dream” speech? Yes, and yes. But Bayard Rustin, the organizational wizard behind the march was there too. Most people have never heard of him.
Bayard Rustin was a pacifist who was arrested for not giving up his seat in the whites only section of a bus thirteen years before Rosa Parks. He taught Martin Luther King the tenets of non-violence. He organized the 1963 March on Washington.

Bayard Rustin was also gay and that fact explains why most people have never heard of him. Besides getting arrested for non-violent civil disobedience, he was also arrested on “morals” charges. More than once, he had to take a step back and work behind the scenes, so as not to compromise the goals of non-violent civil disobedience in the cause of civil rights.

In 1946, the Supreme Court had ruled that segregation on interstate busses was unconstitutional. In 1947 Bayard Rustin and an interracial group of fifteen men from the Fellowship of Reconciliation* boarded busses. African Americans sat in front. White riders sat in the front, middle and back of the bus. Arrests followed. But this was not the first time Bayard was arrested for sitting in the whites only section. The first time was in 1942, when upon boarding a bus, a white woman called him a n….

Bayard Rustin was arrested, beaten, and served on a prison chain gang. He was shunned by his own allies for being gay. But he always managed to pick himself up and continue his important work. His life’s passion was to teach the non-violent techniques of Gandhi, and he never wavered from that work. In his youth, his beautiful speaking and singing voice attracted attention. Later, his outstanding organizational skills served him well behind the scenes. Celebrating his life and work is long overdue. This book accomplishes that in a way that is accessible to people both young–and not so young. Today he would not have to live in the shadows, but even there, this “Invisible Activist” accomplished more than most.

*Fellowship of Reconciliation: An interfaith peace organization of pacifists dedicated to Gandhi’s principles of non-violent direct action.

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Unlikely Friendship at the Heart of A Handful of Stars

a-handful-of-starsA Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord. Scholastic Press, New York, NY, 2015.

When Lucky, Lily’s blind dog, races across a blueberry barren, a young girl catches him by offering him her peanut butter sandwich. When Lily meets Salma Santiago, a migrant worker, Lily feels guilty, thinking that sandwich could’ve been the only thing Salma had to eat for lunch. But when she tells her grandma, Grandma decides Lily should take Salma a tourtiere, a traditional French Canadian meat pie.

“You want me to bring her a pork pie?…Maybe she’s a vegetarian…I should bring her bread and peanut butter so she can make a new sandwich.” Lily tries everything to avoid going to the migrant camp. It would be embarrassing walking in there with a pork pie. But Grandma wouldn’t hear of it.

With the help of her grandfather and the camp manager, Lily finds Salma and drops off the pie. The little blue houses the migrants live in seemed so cute until Lily realizes they are just four walls with very little room inside. And there is no stove to bake the pie. But Lucky has brought the two girls together in an unlikely friendship that will open Lily’s eyes to a whole new world.

Lily is painting small bee houses that people in Maine put in their gardens. She sells them at her grandparent’s general store, saving up the money for an operation for Lucky so that he can see again. Lily uses stencils when she paints. When Salma offers to help, Lily discovers that Salma is an artist and she is not afraid to experiment. Salma does not use stencils. She paints the houses in wild vibrant colors and Lily thinks no one will buy them, but Salma’s colorful bee houses fly off the shelf. Salma encourages Lily to put the stencils away and paint free hand, but Lily isn’t brave enough—she’s afraid she’ll ruin the bee houses and she needs every penny for Lucky’s surgery.

Lily, who lives with her grandparents, has never known her own parents. Salma travels back and forth across the country with her parents always moving, never staying long in any one place. Both girls are dealing with loss and through the course of the story each of them will learn from the other.

This is a gem of a book. I defy any dog lover not to cry at several points in the story—not because Lucky dies, he does not—but because the prose is so well written and the story so poignant the reader will be feeling the same emotions Lily and Salma feel.

Lord’s writing is clear and evocative; the voices of her characters realistic. The two cultures of the girls—Hispanic and French Canadian—are handled with authenticity and care. An extra perk for this reader was to learn so much about Maine and the blueberry harvest. A Handful of Stars is a quiet book. There are no explosions, no huge dramatic moments; only a story about two twelve-year-old girls struggling with loss and trying to figure out who they are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fast Moving Sequel Keeps Reader Enthralled – (Don’t Miss the Book Give-A-Way!)

Bjorn’s Gift by Sandy Brehl. Crispin Books, an imprint of Crickhollow Books, Milwaukee, WI, 2016.BJORN'S GIFT 2016 Brehl copy

“Mari knew that writing to her brother could never happen with Germans in control. They read everyone’s mail, listened to phone calls, followed people in the streets, and even locked up some…always looking for information about anyone who might be involved with the resistance.” And Mari’s brother is fighting, somewhere, with the resistance.

But when Mari discovers a secret place to call her own, she chooses to write Bjorn regularly, in hopes that one day he will come home and be able to read the letters she cannot send. When her older sister, Lise, comes to visit Lise shows Mari the perfect hiding place for the precious letters, just in case a soldier searches their cottage.

In Bjorn’s Gift, the sequel to Odin’s Promise, Sandy Brehl writes a riveting story that kept this reader on the edge of her seat, wondering what would happen next. As Brehl’s research revealed, the people of Norway found simple, yet effective, ways of resisting the Nazi occupation. Many of those techniques are outlined in this novel. When Mari’s father generously offers the soldiers his home for them to stay in—and moves the family to Mari’s grandmother’s small cottage—Mari wonders why her father is being so accommodating to the Nazis. When her family receives extra rations for the favor she is conflicted. But, as Mari will discover, all is not black and white when it comes to resistance. When Lise comes for a Christmas visit, she reveals how her husband has been using the Nazi’s fear of germs against them.

When Mari learns that a classmate, Leif, is hanging out with the Ungherd, a Nazi group for boys, she’s shocked. Her disgust with him and his apparent admiration for her, a crush perhaps, lends more intrigue to an already suspenseful story. When he tries to convince her that the Nazis are here to stay and she’d better go along to get along, she rebuffs him. Eventually, not trusting Leif, she learns to hold her tongue in order to keep her family safe. But he becomes a constant thorn in her side throughout the story.

Bjorn’s Gift is a compelling novel told with skill, but even more than that, it illuminated for me a whole host of details about the Nazi occupation of Norway, of which I knew little. The extensive glossary, complete with German and Norwegian translation guides, author’s note, and bibliography will be a useful resource for inquisitive readers and especially teachers who wish to pursue the subject with their students. This is one of the best historical novels for the middle grade that I’ve read. I predict it winning awards.
For the next review on this blog tour, to be posted on September 11,  see www.unleashingreaders.com

If you’d like to be considered for a Bjorn’s Gift book give-a-way, leave a comment below by September 11. U.S. and Canada only.

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The Thing About Jellyfish

 

 

 

The Thing About JellyfishThe Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin. Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY, 2015.

“Mrs. Turton says that if you lived to be eighty years old, your heart would beat three billion times.”

Suzy Swanson is obsessed with scientific facts. She can recite loads of statistics about jellyfish stings and Shakespeare’s atoms (which, apparently, we all have in abundance. I did not know this.) She could recite facts—past tense—before she decided to disappear. She is not speaking anymore.

“The heart does what it needs to do, one beat after another, until it gets the message that it’s time to stop…”

What Suzy can’t explain is why her best friend, Franny, an accomplished swimmer, drowned. And why did she have to drown before Suzy could apologize for the terrible thing she did to her. So Suzy has chosen to disappear. She no longer speaks.

“A person can become invisible simply by staying quiet.”

Her parents take her to a therapist. Suzy does not speak, so most sessions are one full hour of silence.

Her teacher gets used to the fact that Suzy will not speak. The other kids soon ignore her. Meanwhile, when her class visits an aquarium, Suzy becomes obsessed with jellyfish. There are so many, and so many people are bitten by them every year. Some die. Could this be what happened to Franny?

This is a heart breaking story about a young girl’s desire to make sense of a senseless death, and to somehow come to terms with her own guilty conscience after hurting her best friend in a terrible way. It is also a story of the typical middle school pain of best friends growing up and growing apart. Suzy’s quirky personality that wasn’t an issue when they were little girls, becomes the last straw for Franny when she wants to move on to boys and make-up. And yes, Franny does something unspeakable to Suzy before Suzy, to even the score, hurts her best friend.

This would’ve been a depressing story about loss and middle school angst in the hands of a less gifted author, but Benjamin’s skilled prose peels away the layers of Suzy’s broken heart, facing a loss that is so inexplicable.   While wrestling with her own guilt, as well as being the “odd one out” in a new social setting, the reader can well sympathize with Suzy’s choice to disappear. Eventually though, Suzy’s world expands in unexpected ways and she is able to move on.

This is, quite simply, a beautiful, hopeful story.

 

 

 

 

 

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