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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This Hero Soars in Middle Grade Novel

SoarSoar by Joan Bauer. Viking, New York, NY 2016. Middle Grade, 297 pages.

“I’m probably twelve years old; that’s what the doctor’s think.”

Jeremiah was left in the snack room of a Computer firm. He was in his baby chair with a half filled bottle, clutching a stuffed eagle. Walt found him with a note: “pleez tek car of him. Bcaz he my best booy. I no yur good!” He was about nine months old.

Jeremiah had a rough start in life, but he’s convinced his mother really cared about him. His bottle, after all, was not empty—and she knew Walt would be the first one in on that morning to make coffee—and that Walt would take good care of him. And about that stuffed eagle?

“The number one rule for eagles is they have to be free. I’m sure this is why my mother gave me that stuffy. She knew I had an eagle inside of me.”

Walt does indeed adopt Jeremiah and spends his time reading computer magazines and watching baseball with his young child.

“During baseball season we watched the games together and he told me how the pitcher was trying to psych out the batter and what some of the signals meant.”

Jeremiah may have had a rough start in life, but it gets rougher. In third grade, he needs a heart transplant. This means he will probably never be able to play baseball, a sport he’s obsessed with. Now, just three years later, Walt gets a consulting job in a place called Hillcrest, Ohio. Jeremiah discovers that tomorrow’s baseball stars are playing on the Hillcrest Hornets high school team and he’s immediately excited about the move. Hillcrest is a long way from St. Louis, where they live—and where his doctors are. After making the case to his cardiologist, and a referral to a doctor in Hillcrest, he and Walt get the ok to move.

But there’s a dark secret in Hillcrest. And when a boy on the baseball team dies suddenly, baseball comes to a screeching halt in a town where baseball was religion. Even though he is new in town, Jeremiah, with a handful of a few new trusted friends, is determined to revive the sport.

Jeremiah is one of the most engaging heroes I’ve read all year. His quirky take on his medical issues is both funny and poignant: he names his cardiac defibrillator Fred and his heart Alice. The eagle he was found with as a baby he names Baby and it becomes a sort of totem (my word) animal for him. He is always optimistic, even when he has to miss an important game to spend a few days in the hospital.

Jeremiah says, “It takes time to get used to me.” Well I got more than used to him right away and when I closed the book, wanted to read it all over again. Jeremiah, like an eagle, soars through life and this novel soars with joy, the love of baseball, and an undying optimism that in the end everything will turn out all right. I simply loved it.

This book was especially meaningful for me. To find out why, read on.

The Waiting RoomIz 3yr Cadio Check

This is no ordinary doctor’s waiting room. For starters, we’re in a children’s hospital. The sign says, “Pediatric Specialty Clinics.” Kids aren’t here with colds or flu. They are “special.” Sometimes I want to X that word “special” out of the universe. It sounds so nice. It’s sweet to be special, isn’t it? But what special means is being sent home with a heart monitor. What special means is rushing to the ER with low pulse/oxygen numbers. Watching your child’s color—is she dusky? How’s she breathing today? These parents here, in this room, I don’t know what their kid’s specialness is. But I know their parents are all super heroes. One mom wears a T-shirt that says, “Be Fierce.”

My daughter sends me a photo from the exam room of my three-year-old granddaughter wired up with her EKG. My eyes tear up, but in the picture she shows off the electrodes taped to her chest as if they were medals won in a race. Her proud smile is testament to her parent’s skillful preparation for days like this.

She was born gray and not breathing. The diagnosis was a heart defect. More than one, actually. I won’t go into their names or details. Suffice it to say that, like Jeremy, she had a rough start. In the NICU, one of the nurses commented, “We are cautiously optimistic.” Her papa took great offense at that comment. Of course she’s going to make it. What are you talking about? I was terrified for a long time, almost immobilized. But my daughter and her husband were those heroes I mentioned above. They stood by her isolate and later her crib when she was re-admitted, her Papa whispering, “Don’t cry baby girl” when nurses or doctors visited some new horror on her tiny body. Mama held vigil, making sure her girl received that nourishing mama’s milk her little body needed.

But today there is good news. She won’t need surgery for another year. As with all her cardio visits, she gets to pick out a toy from the hospital gift shop. She’s tired out now. “I want to go home.” She’s had enough. Have a good nap, sweet girl. You’re a hero too. Love you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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