A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord

A Handful of Stars9780545700276_p0_v2_s260x420A Handful of Stars

Cynthia Lord, Author

Scholastic Press, Fiction, May 26, 2015

Pages: 192

Suitable for Ages: 8-12, Grades 3-7

Themes: Blueberries, Migrant workers, Hispanic-American children, Prejudice, Blind dog, Friendship, Multicultural

Opening: The only reason I ever spoke to Salma Santiago was because my dog ate her lunch. 

Synopsis: Two girls from different cultures meet when Lily’s blind dog, Lucky, takes off across the blueberry barrens of Maine. Salma, a migrant girl, grabs her peanut butter sandwich and lures Lucky before he runs onto a highway. Lucky is Lily’s last link to her mother who left them with her grandparents when she was two. Lily and her grandfather thank Salma at the migrant camp with a pork dinner pie. The girls bond over their love of dogs and painting.  Salma helps Lily paint wooden bee hives to raise money for an operation to save Lucky’s eyesight. When Salma decides to enter the Blueberry Queen Pageant, something a bilingual Hispanic migrant girl has not done before, Lily becomes aware of the town’s biases. Through their enduring friendship, both girls find their own inner strengths .

What I love about A Handful of Stars:

Cynthia Lord delivers a magical and richly textured story about an unlikely friendship between Lily, a French Canadian, and Salma, a Hispanic-American.  She draws her readers into the story with that great opening sentence (above) that begs the reader to want to know more.

I love that Lord continues to use her home state of Maine as the setting for many of her stories. She paints a vivid picture of the blueberry barrens of eastern Maine. Readers will learn a little history about the Mason bees that pollinate the blueberries and gardens, the raking of the wild Maine blueberries by migrant workers, and the top of a blueberry is shaped like a star. Readers will also gain insight into the lives of migrant children and how hard it is to be uprooted.

Lord is a master at developing memorable characters. Readers will easily connect with Lily and Salma’s struggles, longings and hopes. Lily and Lucky live with her grandparents. Lily feels the loss of her mother, who is deceased. Lucky is Lily’s last link to her mother, so she is determined to earn money and save his eyesight. Salma is imaginative and artistic, but secretly longs to belong and stay in one place.   Their friendship will test and carry them to a new self-confidence and healing.

The plot is realistic with the right amount of tension that will keep readers turning pages. Lord seamlessly weaves many themes into this touching story: migrant families, cultural differences, biases, community, loss, letting go and accepting change. There is a wonderful twist in the plot of the story, so readers will be pleasantly surprised with the ending.

A Handful of Stars is a perfect summer read. The cultural themes will encourage many lively discussions. Visit Cynthia Lord at her website.

Cynthia Lord is the award-winning author of Rules, a Newbery Honor book and a Schneider Family Book Award winner. She is also the author Half a Chance, Touch Blue, and the Shelter Pet Squad chapter book series.

A Monster Calls – Grief

A Monster Calls9780763680817_p0_v1_s260x420A Monster Calls

Patrick Ness, Author

Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd

Jim Kay, Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Fiction, 2011; Reprint Aug. 4, 2015

Motion Picture Release: October 2016

Suitable for Ages: 14 -17

Themes: Grief, Loss, Monsters, Mothers and sons, Breast cancer,  Single-parent families, Bullying, School

Book Jacket Synopsis: The Monster Showed up after midnight. As they do. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster, though, is something different. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor. It wants the truth.

What I like about this story:

Patrick Ness has written a powerful and haunting story about a 13-year-old boy trying to deal with grief and loss. This beautifully crafted story is also filled with dark humor, vivid imagery, fear, rage, and courage.

The characters are realistic and fleshed out. Conor O’Malley is dealing with the nightly visits of a monster at precisely 12:07 a.m., but it’s not the monster that frightens him. It is the recurrent nightmare “that is filled with darkness, screaming and a hand slipping from his grasp.”  The dream begins when his mother starts chemotherapy and is so terrifying that he hasn’t told anyone. His father is remarried and living in America, his grandmother is cold and doesn’t understand him, and the kids bully him at school. Conor is totally alone. Ness brilliantly creates a monster that resembles a nearby ancient Yew tree to act as a catalyst to help Conor face his greatest fear. The monster shares three tales with him and tells Conor that he will tell the fourth story which will be his truth.

The plot is distinctly realistic and the tension is palpable. Readers will ride Conor’s roller coaster as his world spins out of control. In confronting his fear and releasing his rage, Conor destroys his grandmother’s living room — all important steps that will lead him to face the final truth and heal.

Jack Kay liberally uses his pen and ink drawings to illustrate the darkness and intensity of Conor’s fears and rage on each page, heightening the emotion and the scary truth that lies ahead. The total package is a beautiful collaboration between author and illustrator.

Note: In his introduction,  Patrick Ness says he never met Siobhan Dowd. She had a final story idea, but her premature death from cancer prevented her from writing this story herself. This would have been her fifth book.  According to Ness, “she had an idea, the characters, a premise, and a beginning.” With some hesitation, Ness undertook the project and decided from the start that “he would not write a novel that mimicked her voice.” Visit Patrick Ness at his website.

Nobody!: A Story About Overcoming Bullying in Schools

Nobody9781575424965_p0_v1_s260x420Nobody!: A Story About Overcoming Bullying in Schools

Erin Frankel, Author

Paula Heaphy, Illustrator

Free Spirit Publishing, Fiction, May 15, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 5-9

Themes: Bullying, Differences, Accountability, Relational Aggression, Self-confidence

Opening: I used to like school. But that was before somebody decided to make my life miserable. Before somebody named Kyle made me feel like a NOBODY!

Publisher Synopsis: Thomas feels like no matter what he does, he can’t escape Kyle’s persistent bullying. At school, at soccer—nowhere feels safe! “Mom said Kyle would grow over the summer and stop picking on me, but he didn’t grow up, he just grew.” With support from friends, classmates, and adults, Thomas starts to feel more confident in himself and his hobbies, while Kyle learns the importance of kindness to others.

What I love about this book:

  • Erin Frankel and Paula Heaphy, who created the popular Weird series, have published a powerful stand-alone picture book for boys about bullying. Many of the beloved characters in the Weird, Dare and Tough, appear in the background of Nobody! 
  • Readers will identify with the name-calling, insults, threats, fear, and anger. The characters are realistic and the language is simple, but edgy.
  • Thomas narrates the story. We watch him grow from the victim who doesn’t like feeling like a nobody to a more self-confident somebody. I like how his narrative is accompanied with “bubble comments” from all the characters on each page. This allows the reader to be more engaged in the story dynamics as they hear from Thomas, the bully, siblings, parents, teachers and bystanders. The bully, Kyle, also learns a few lessons.
  • Nobody! is an excellent resource for teaching school-age children good emotional techniques to stand-up for what is right, to survive and grow beyond bullying. This is another book that belongs in every school library.
  • Paula Heaphy’s stand-out illustrations are pen and ink drawings with splashes of color. They are bold, expressive, emotive and capture the action in the story. I also like her use of white space. Children will find her illustrations especially appealing.

Resources: The book concludes with “activity club” pages for kids, as well as information to help parents, teachers, counselors, and other adults foster dialogue with children about ways to stop bullying. I would pair this book with the first three books, Weird, Dare and Tough.  Visit  Erin Frankel at her website.

The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake

The Case of Missing Carrot9781939547170_p0_v2_s260x420The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake

Robin Newman, Author

Deborah Zemke, Illustrator

Creston Books, Fiction, May 12, 2015

Pages: 40

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Theme: Mystery, Detectives, Thieves, Stolen Cake, Farm Animals

Synopsis: The carrot cake Miss Rabbit bakes for her party goes missing on Ed’s Farm. With over 100 animals, all are suspect including the owl, dog and pig. Enter Detectives Wilcox, a policemouse and his boss, Captain Griswold. They are Missing Food Investigators (MFLs) and their job is to investigate food crimes. Has the cake been eaten or stolen? Who is the thief? What is the motive?

What I like about this book:

  • Debut author Robin Newman introduces young readers to the world of police work and solving mysteries and crimes in her deliciously entertaining chapter book. Each of the six chapters highlight detective work: investigation of the crime scene, interviewing of suspects, setting up video surveillance and stakeouts.
  • The characters are funny and memorable. Miss Rabbit is in a tizzy donning PJs covered in frosting. Owl offers wise advice. Porcini Pig is the best corn thief in town. Hot Dog is my favorite character, as he shows true doggie friendship when he bakes Miss Rabbit another carrot cake.
  • Wilcox and Griswold are hard-nosed, seasoned professionals keenly focused on the facts and evidence. They take their work seriously, but with no more suspects they are pacing, chewing on cheese donuts and trying to come up with a plan.
  • The text is funny and the vocabulary is rich and jam-packed with food-based puns. Newman creates the right amount of suspense that will keep kids engaged and turning pages to figure out the cake culprit. There is a surprise turn-of-events. If readers are still hungry for more, there is a recipe for a carrot cake at the end.
  • Deborah Zemke’s colorful cartoon-like illustrations fill each page and contribute to the hilarity and silliness of this perfect mystery about “who dunnit.” Great collaborative work between the author and illustrator. Here’s hoping for more Wilcox and Griswold cases to solve. Visit Robin Newman and Deborah Zemke at their websites.

Drum Dream Girl

Drum Dream Girl9780544102293_p0_v4_s260x420Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music

Margarita Engle, Author

Rafael Lopez, Illustrator

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Mar. 31, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-9

Themes: Drummers, Music, Cuba, Gender equality, Diversity

Opening: “On and island of music / in a city of drumbeats / the drum dream girl / dreamed…”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Girls cannot be drummers. Long ago on an island filled with music and rhythm, no one questioned that rule — until the drum dream girl. She longed to play tall congas and small bongos and silvery, moon-bright timbales. She had to keep her dream quiet. She had to practice in secret. But when at last her music was heard, everyone sang and danced and decided that boys and girls should be free to drum and dream.

Why I like this book: Margarita Engle’s Drum Dream Girl is an inspirational and beautiful work of free-verse historical fiction. As you read this melodic poem out loud, you are drawn to the rhythmic beat of the text about a girl who made a difference. Millo Castro Zaldarriaga is so infused by the music and sounds around her, she can’t help herself.  When she walked under / wind-wavy palm trees / in a flower-bright park / she heard the whir of parrot wings / the clack of woodpeckers breaks / the dancing tap / of her own footsteps / and the comforting pat / of her own / heartbeat. When her sisters hear her drumming, they invite her to join their dance band. Her father says only boys can play drums, but relents and takes her to a teacher.

I applaud Engle for focusing on Zaldarriaga’s young life instead of her career. It is important for children to see how a 10-year-old girl dares to make a difference in 1932 and paves the way for Cuban women to become drummers. There is a historical note about Zaldarriaga and her musical career at the end of the book. Rafael Lopez’s creates his own magic with his vibrant, colorful and dreamy illustrations. His artwork beautifully compliments the story.

Resources: Children love music as much as they enjoy making things.  Make a drum or other musical instruments to encourage creativity and play. Visit the Kinder Art site for steps to make a variety of easy homemade drums.

Author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books (PPB) Fridays will be on hiatus this summer. This will be the last PPB review until September, although you will still be able to visit the link. I will continue to review books throughout the summer.

Ella Wood by Michelle Isenhoff

Ella Wood2940151472746_p0_v1_s260x420Ella Wood

Michelle Isenhoff, Author

Michelle Isenhoff, Publisher, Historical Fiction, May 10, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 12-16

Themes: Morality, Civil War, Slavery, Family relationships, Love

Opening: The sight of blood had a powerful effect on Emily Preston. It was merely a trickle of red oozing from a black woman’s finger, but it rocked the very foundation of her upbringing.

Synopsis: After spending a year living with her abolitionist uncle in Detroit, Emily Preston is no longer a spoiled Southern belle, but a thoughtful 16-year-old whose views about slavery have been dramatically altered. Her heart wants to believe that the slaves living at her beloved Ella Wood are treated well, but she sees signs that things are amiss. Emily has changed in many other ways. She’s really not interested in social parties, suitors and marriage proposals. Although she is drawn to some brief romantic encounters with suitors Thad and Jovie, she harbors a secret dream of attending university like her brother, Jack. This wish creates conflict between Emily and her traditional and controlling father. With the war looming between the North and South and her father’s involvement in politics, Emily’s independent spirit begins to take flight.

What I like about Ella Wood:

Michelle Isenhoff proves her skill as an outstanding literary author in her recent YA novel Ella Wood, a sequel to her MG novel, The Candle Star. Taking Emily’s story to a more mature level is an ambitious undertaking for Isenhoff, who is responding to her readers’ request to know more about Emily’s journey. Ella Wood is the first novel in this new trilogy.

Ella Wood is bold and profound, and heartbreaking and breathtaking all at once. Highly researched, this captivating work of historical fiction offers a penetrating look into South Carolina’s role in the civil war, the elite plantation owners, the customs and culture, and the horrific treatment of slaves.

Readers will care about her distinct and memorable characters. Emily is strong-willed and determined to fight for what she believes, unlike her mother, a proper Southern lady who bows to her husband’s demands. Brother Jack has top grades at the university, but runs with the wrong crowd. Suitor Thad is dashing, exciting, and mysterious, while Jovie is a solid Southern gentleman and supports Emily’s ambitions. Emily’s loyal slave and friend, Lizzie, carries many sorrows and deep-seated secrets.

Isenhoff’s plot is realistic, gripping and full of tension. Her deliberate pacing keeps readers fully engaged. I am completely invested in this book and enjoyed every moment I spent with Ella Wood. The ending is unexpected and feels a bit rushed for me. It left me with many questions. I look forward to the second book in the Ella Wood Trilogy, which will be published in 2016. I highly recommend Ella Wood!

Michelle Isenhoff is the author of the The Candle Star, Blood of Pioneers and Beneath the Slashings (Divided Decade Collection); Song of the Mountain and Fire on the Mountain (Mountain Trilogy); Taylor Davis and the Flame of Findul, Taylor Davis and the Clash of Kingdoms; The Color of Freedom; and The Quill Pen. Visit Michelle Isenhoff at her website.

Tilt Your Head, Rosie the Red

Tilt Your Head Rosie9781927583593_p0_v1_s260x420Tilt Your Head, Rosie the Red

Rosemary McCarney, Author

Yvonne Cathcart, Illustrator

Second Story Press, Fiction, Apr. 1, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-9

Themes: Bullying, Standing up for what is right, Differences, Friendship, Self-confidence, Diversity, Tolerance

Opening: Every night at bedtime, Rosie took off her special red cape and hung in on the bedpost. And every morning, she tied it over her shoulders before leaping out of bed to start the day.

Synopsis: Rosie arrives at school wearing her red cape and is stunned to see kids on the playground teasing the new girl Fadimata, who is Muslim and wears a hijab. Not all her classmates are being mean, but they seem afraid to stop the bullying. Before Rosie can say anything, the bell rings. She comes up with a plan to help her friend feel welcome. Rosie asks Fadimata if she will make her cape into a headscarf and wears it all day amidst the whisper of the other students. When Rosie arrives at school the next day, she realizes her solution proves that anything is possible and that differences can be celebrated.

Why I like this book:

Rosie is an optimistic, self-confident and strong role model for girls. She’s not afraid to stand up for what is right. If she sees something wrong, she tilts her head, looks at the situation from every angle before she takes action. She’s a superhero for girls. The character Rosie, is based on author Rosemary McCarney, who as a child had and “amazing sense of social justice.” Tilt Your Head, Rosie the Red, is the first of a three picture books starring Rosie the Red. Yvonne Cathcart’s illustrations are colorful and vibrant. They beautifully capture Rosie’s positive and expressive character. This is an inspiring book for home and school.

Resources: This is a great character book to use in the classroom. It addresses diversity, bullying, tolerance and the courage to do what is right. Do some role-playing and ask children to walk in Fadimata’s shoes? How would they feel if they looked different and were teased? Have they been teased and why? Have they ever been a bystander and afraid to help someone being teased? How did that make them feel? Is it hard to stand up to their friends? Did they like how Rosie stood up for Fadimata?

Rosemary McCarney is President and CEO of the Toronto-based Plan Canada, where she spearheads the Because I am a Girl Movement. She is the author of Every Day is Malala Day and Because I am a Girl: I Can Change the World.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.