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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Animal Teachers Invite a Fun Parent Child Dialog

Animal TeachersAnimal Teachers by Janet Halfmann illustrations by Katy Hudson. Blue Apple Books, Maplewood, NJ 07040.

“Did you ever try to bite your toes?” It’s the question asked after explaining how baby chicks peck at everything, including their toes. A young child may not remember biting his toes as a baby, but chances are Mom and Dad have a photograph of it.

Animal Teachers shows how animal parents teach their babies how to do things. The first page is “Food Lessons”, where we find baby chicks biting their toes. Mama has to teach the babies that toes are not food. The text asks: “Who taught you what’s good to eat?”

Each page has a parent animal teaching their baby an important skill. Then the question is posed as to who taught the child a similar skill.

“Shouting Lessons” is a particularly fun page. Prairie dog parents give their babies shouting lessons so they can be distinguished from all the other babies. “Do you yip? Can you bark? Or shout? Or yelp? How do you make yourself heard?” Kids will have a great time trying out all the different attention-getting noises they can come up with.

Did you know that penguin parents give their children singing lessons? I didn’t. Mama cheetah gives her baby running lessons. “Are you a fast runner? Have you ever chased something? Do your parents ever run after you?”

The questions on each page will undoubtedly lead to a spirited dialog between reader and child, and Katy Hudson’s big, bold illustrations perfectly depict the loving relationship between animal parents and their babies. This book is sure to charm both the child and the adult reader.

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One Plastic Bag, the Story of a Village and the Women Who Saved it.

one_plastic_bag_cover_miranda_paul[1]One Plastic Bag, Isatou Ceesay and the recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul, illustrations by Elizabeth Zunon, Millbrook Press, Minneapolis, MN 2015 

“Isatou walks with her chin frozen. Fat raindrops pelt her bare arms. Her face hides in the shadow of a palm-leaf basket…the basket breaks… The basket is useless now. She drops it, knowing it will crumble and mix back in with the dirt.”

But something different is caught by the wind and catches her eye. It is silky. It will hold the fruit that fell when the palm leaf basket broke. It is a plastic bag.

Before long, Isatou’s village is overrun with plastic bags. The garbage pile is unsightly and attracts bugs. It smells bad when burned. The village goats eat the bags, get sick and die.

One Plastic Bag is the true story of Isatou Ceesay, a woman entrepreneur in Gambia who learns to crochet strips of the plastic bags into decorative purses. At first she and the other women crafters are made fun of, but soon the purses become popular and everyone wants one. The garbage pile begins to disappear. Goats no longer find bags to eat.

Miranda Paul visited Gambia several times and met the women who started the recycling project in their village. She was impressed with how the simple craft of making purses out of plastic bags contributed to the health of their village gardens and animals and increased the self-confidence of the people.

Elizabeth Zunon’s collage illustrations are a burst of color, sure to catch the eye of the youngest reader. Older children will be fascinated by the courageous story of these women who went about in a very deliberative way to save their animals and improve their village. Paul’s poetic narrative makes this a pleasurable read for any adult—teacher or parent—looking for an important and engaging read-a-loud that also doubles as a visual treat.



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Crenshaw, a “Harvey” for our time.


Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate, a Feiwel and Friends Book, imprint of Macmillan. New York, NY 2015.

Crenshaw is a cat. A very large cat. If you’ve seen the movie, “Harvey,” with James Stewart, you might call Crenshaw a pooka, a shape changer from Celtic lore. Originally, Crenshaw was Jackson’s imaginary friend, when Jackson was seven. But Jackson is going into fifth grade and he hasn’t seen his imaginary friend since, well, since his family had to live in their van. But that was years ago. Now Jackson hears whispers that his family might not be able to stay in their apartment. They’re only whispers, because his parents never tell him anything important. All they say is that they are going to have a huge garage sale, hoping to make enough money to pay the rent.

Jackson believes in science. He does not believe in imaginary friends. He thinks he has enough problems, trying to figure out his parents. “Sometimes I just wanted to be treated like a grown-up. I wanted to hear the truth, even if it wasn’t a happy truth. I understood things. I knew way more than they thought I did.” He’s afraid they will end up living in their van again.

When Crenshaw shows up, it’s the last straw. “I invented you when I was seven…and I can un-invent you now.” Jackson doesn’t need one more problem. When he pleads with Crenshaw to leave, the oversized cat explains: “Imaginary friends don’t come of their own volition. We are invited. We stay as long as we’re needed.” Jackson insists he did not invite him.

Crenshaw, the cat, is not thrilled to have to put up with the family dog, who senses the pooka, if he doesn’t actually see him. This is a wonderful book that hits all the right notes. It’s never too dark for middle grade readers and Crenshaw is pure delight as an opinionated cat with attitude. And doesn’t that sound like most cats you know? 

The story of Jackson’s family is a reflection of the times in which we live. As a substitute teacher, I know of children who live in their family car. I know of teachers who keep a stash of granola bars in their desks for kids who’ve missed breakfast. I know that attendance at the free breakfast programs in our schools has increased. But the homeless families, for whatever reason, get way less press than the homeless men who linger on street corners and make everyone nervous. Yes, that is a situation we need to come to grips with, especially the homeless who are mentally ill. But let’s not forget about the families who’ve become homeless, like Jackson’s, through no fault of their own. A major medical crisis or a lost job can send a family, already living paycheck to paycheck, spinning into a downward financial crash.

Like Jackson, we need to see the truth, even if it’s an unhappy truth, before we can solve the problems of homelessness and hunger. Let’s make sure these kids and their families can be seen, and like Crenshaw, remain seen until the problem is solved.

There have been food drives, inspired by the book Crenshaw, at bookstores all over the country. If you’d like to find out how you can do more to help kids, click on the link below.



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Dia De Los Muertos a Joyous Celebration of Life

Dia de losMuertosDia De Los Muertos by Roseanne Greenfield Thong, pictures by Carles Ballesteros. Albert Whitman & Company, Chicago, IL. 2015.

I must admit, when I first learned of the holiday known as Day of the Dead, I was a little taken aback. Walking into a gift shop in Tucson some years ago and being greeted by an array of skeletons, I could only wonder, what was the appeal?

Then, ironically, a man who attends Quaker Meeting, where I am a member, introduced the holiday to our Sunday school children. He had made beautiful papel picado, cut paper banners, carefully carved with an exacto knife. I was told this holiday helps people remember their relatives who have passed on and is meant to be a joyous event.

Roseanne Greenfield Thong has certainly accomplished that goal. Carles Ballesteros’ illustrations exude all the joy and fun of the closely related holiday of Halloween. But Dia de los Muertos, rooted in pre-Christian tradition, is more closely allied to All Souls Day, the day Catholics remember their deceased loved ones. The Day of the Dead is about honoring and remembering those who’ve passed, and celebrating their lives in a joyous way. The children in the story gather gifts to adorn remembrance altars. Treats and mementos fill the altars in hopes of enticing the spirits of the dead to come back and visit for one night. Perhaps a picture of grandpa, “…who’s riding on horseback just like Pancho Villa!” Dollhouses and trains may be left out for small angelitos (children who’ve passed.)

The rhyming text keeps the story playful, not scary, and describes all the treats the children make for themselves—and their ancestors. “Sweet Calaveras, so sugary white—they give toothy smiles, but never a fright.”

The vibrant pastels and deep reds, blues and greens of the illustrations are a welcome relief to the ubiquitous orange and black colors of Halloween. There is a two page addendum explaining the holiday and a glossary assists in understanding the Spanish words. This is a beautiful book and has convinced this skeptic that the Day of the Dead is indeed a joyous and necessary holiday. I couldn’t help but think how this holiday could’ve served my needs as a child, when I lost my father at a young age. Although we remember our loved ones with sorrow, Dia de los Muertos reminds us of the happiness they brought into our lives. I am sure this story will spark fond memories in many children, as well as the adult readers. A very special book.


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The Dress-Up Mirror a Spooky Choice for October Read-Aloud

DressUoMirrorCover6x9.inddThe Dress-Up Mirror by Raymond Bial. Crispin Books, Milwaukee, WI. 2015

“On Friday night there were more noises, loud and frantic, throughout the night. Amanda heard muffled shrieks of ‘Murder! Murder!’and some sort of quarreling about a mirror. She looked around the dark bedroom, petrified. Amanda wanted to flee to her parents’ bedroom, but how weird would that be? She was thirteen.”

When Amanda’s mother brings home an antique mirror, Amanda persuades her to put it in the attic of their new home-a rambling Victorian with many passageways and closets.  Amanda, an aspiring fashion designer, keeps old clothing up there to mix and match, experimenting with different ensembles. After many nights of hearing noises and sleeping poorly, she convinces her mother that she should allow Amanda to have a sleep-over. She hopes not having to sleep in her room alone, and with two friends to distract her, she can forget about the creepy noises she keeps hearing. That night, the girls are impressed by the charm of the beautiful mirror. And then the trouble begins.

Raymond Bial has spun an exciting time travel story that keeps the reader wanting more. But it’s not just a mystery. Description of the historic details of the haunted house in the first chapter is reflective of the Victorian period to which Amanda and her friends will be thrown into in the following chapter. It is in 1912 that they learn all was not charming about this period in history. Immigrants were looked down upon. People were fighting for better working conditions, and prejudice was rampant. But once the girls are thrown back in time by the mysterious mirror, they must figure out why they have been brought to the exact same house in 1912.

The Dress-Up Mirror is a fast, fun read. Finally, even though the girls learn some ugly truths about our rapidly growing country at the turn of the last century, they also learn that most people are kind and want to help others.

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Two Books that Reflect Turbulent Times in America

dust of edenDust of Eden, a novel by Mariko Nagai. Albert Whitman & Company, Park Ridge, IL. 2014

Thirteen-year-old Mina Tagawa is singing in Sunday school choir, practicing Silent Night, when a man crashes through the door, yelling,

“‘…the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor.’ The world stopped.”

Mina Tagawa has a best friend that she shares secrets with. She has a big brother with a room full of track trophies. She has a grandfather who raises roses. But suddenly, in December 1941, she has a new identity: enemy.

Dust of Eden is a powerful story, told simply in verse. The beautiful writing and simple lines belie the tragedy of the subject: for three years Mina and her family live behind barbed wire for no other reason than that they are of Japanese-American ancestry.

I am an American, I scream in my head.”

Mina wishes she could change her hair color to match Jamie’s, her best friend; change her name; change her parents. But of course she cannot. When they are told they must leave, there are two lists. A list of things they must take and a list of things they may not. Basho, their scruffy cat, must stay behind. Mina explains to Jamie, who will be taking care of him:

“He doesn’t understand English; he grew up around us, listening to Japanese. He doesn’t drink milk. He grew up drinking miso soup…”

At first it is a matter of putting up with classmates and others throwing that hated word, “Jap,” in her face. But once they are removed to an internment camp, there are more ordinary challenges in an extraordinary circumstance: how to take a shower. How to keep a dirt floor clean. But most of all, how to keep her father and brother from fighting.

Dust of Eden tells the story of one of America’s great shames. But it also tells the story of the ties that bind a family and friends,who remain true even when a prejudice tide sweeps away so many.

How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson. Dial Books, New York, NY. 2014

Four-year-old Marilyn, sitting next to her mother in church, wonders why Lot had to flee from the bad city.

“imagine having a pet flea.”

“I giggle soundlessly, but Mama swats my leg, holding a finger to her lips.”

Written in unrhymed sonnets, How I discovered Poetry, is both a heartwarming and disturbing memoir. It is Marilyn Nelson’s story of growing up in the 1950’s, an African-American girl, daughter of one of the first African-American career officers in the Air Force. It is the story of a military family, moving many times, following her father’s transfers all over the States and constantly saying goodbye to friends.

Set against a travelogue of a military family, How I Discovered Poetry is also an exploration of the fifties: racism, the civil rights movement, bomb shelters and the beginning of women’s liberation. It also tells the story of a young girl coming to grips with what is happening in the South. She prays for the students in Little Rock. She recoils at the poem her teacher insists she read to the class, a poem filled with:

“…darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats.”

But most of all, it is a poignant memoir of a young girl, coming to maturity and recording, in beautiful verse, her own history, so similar, but different, to the history of so many others.




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