Connecting Dots

Connecting Dots516dZBPfoUL__SX348_BO1,204,203,200_Connecting Dots

Sharon Jennings, Author

Second Story Press, Mar. 1, 2015

A Gutsy Girl Book (4): 197 pages

Suitable for Ages: 9-13; Grades 6-8

Themes: Self-Esteem, Family Relationships, Loss, Abuse, Coming of Age, Friendship

Opening: Until I was five, I thought my grandmother was my mother. In kindergarten, I found out the truth.

Book Synopsis: My name is Cassandra. Some people think I’m an orphan.  They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and in my case that’s definitely true. My best friend, Leanna, keeps bugging me to write my life story. She loves writing. Me, I’d rather be an actress. But telling the truth for once about my life could feel good. You see, I always thought my grandma raised me because I was an orphan. But when she died, I found out that was a lie. It’s hard to find out that nobody wants you. For a long time I didn’t have a real home, or any real friends. But things can change, and now I’m sitting here at my desk in my room, writing my story so you can read it, strange or not.

Why I like this book:

Sharon Jennings has written a heartbreaking and heartwarming coming of age story about a 12-year-old girl who is shipped off to the homes of many cruel relatives who treat her with disdain. Cassandra suffers abuse, hardship and finds little love. All she really wants is to find a family and a home where she feels she belongs.

Connecting Dots is a richly textured story narrated by Cassandra.  Cassandra’s character is memorable, strong, resilient, fearless and wise. In the face of such adversity and unimaginable abuse, she finds a bosom buddy in Leanna Mets, who encourages her to write her life story. As Cassandra shares her pages with Leanna, she finds writing cathartic, empowering and healing. Acting in school plays and with a kid’s theater company strengthens her resolve to never lose sight of her dream to become an actress.

The plot is strong, honest, tough and clever, with many twists and turns.  When you finish, you’ll want to cheer Cassandra for connecting the dots in her life. This third installment lives up to the “Gutsy Girls” book. Connecting Dots is definitely a companion book to Home Free, where Cassandra’s friend Leanna is the protagonist.

Note to Parents: There is a mention of Cassandra being sexually abused by an uncle Ernie and punished by an aunt with an enema and beatings. Although the book is for readers 9-12, parents may want to judge their child’s maturity level.

Other Gutsy Girl Books: Finding Grace, by Becky Citra; The Contest, by Caroline Stellings; Home Free, by Sharon Jennings; and Connecting Dots, by Sharon Jennings.

Sharon Jennings has written over 60 books for young people, many of them award winners and nominees. Home Free, the prequel to Connecting Dots, was nominated for a Governor General’s Award, the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, and the Silver Birch Award. Visit Sharon Jennings at her website.

Check out the Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books reviewed and listed on author Shannon Messenger’s blog.


Where Are My Books? by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Where Are My BooksWAMBCover-300Where Are My Books?

Debbie Ridpath Ohi, Author and Illustrator

Simon & Schuster, Fiction, May 12, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-7

Themes: Books and reading, Lost and found possessions, Squirrels

Opening: “Spencer loved books. His favorite bedtime book was Night-Night, Narwhal. Sometimes he read it aloud. Every night, Spencer put the book back where it belonged. That way he’d always be able to find it.”

Synopsis: Spencer’s beloved books are disappearing. Each night he reads a book and places it on the shelf and in the morning his book is missing. In each empty space, he finds a tulip petal, screw or different object. He suspects his sister, but she isn’t the thief. He must find the culprit before his book shelves are empty. Spencer devises a plan. When he solves the mystery, he comes up with a great idea that will satisfy readers.

Why I like this book:

  • The cover of shaggy-haired Spencer is so appealing that children will snatch it off the shelf. Debbie Ridpath Ohi has hit a home run with this realistic and highly entertaining story.
  • The simple and precise narrative is a perfect springboard for the delightfully bold and colorful illustrations. Readers will love the detail, especially Spencer’s red Narwhal pajamas and stuffed animal.
  • Spencer’s memorable character is artfully crafted. He’s likable and persistent. Children will easily identify with Spencer and see themselves in similar situations like missing books and toys, accusing siblings of taking prized possessions, solving problems.
  • When Spencer traps the real culprits, readers hearts will melt at his discovery and his clever solution.  Who would have thought…. (no I won’t spoil the ending.) This is a great book for classrooms and school libraries.

Resources: You can find bonus activities and a teacher’s guide at Debbie Ohi’s website.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi: Where Are My Books? is the first picture book that Ohi has both written and illustrated. She illustrated the New York Times Notable Children’s Book I’m Bored and Naked, written by Michael Ian Black.

I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives

I Will Always Write Back9780316241311_p0_v5_s192x300I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives

Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda with Liz Welch, Authors

Little Brown and Company, Memoir, Apr. 14, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 12 and up

Themes: Pen Pals, Teenagers, U.S. and Zimbabwe, Friendship, Poverty, Friendship

Book Jacket Synopsis: It started as an assignment. Everyone in Caitlin’s class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. Martin was lucky to even receive a pen-pal letter. There were only ten letters, and forty kids in his class. But he was the top student, so he got the first one. That letter was the beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.

Why I like this book:

  • This is an inspirational  story about a true friendship that begins between two 12-year-old students in 1997 — Caitlin lives in Pennsylvania and Martin lives in the slums of Zimbabwe. They make a pen pal pact that they “will always write back.” Their story is about similarities and contrasts. Their friendship transforms both of their lives and makes them better people.
  • The dual memoir is told in first person with alternating chapters that keep readers turning pages. It also adds more depth to the story because readers have immediate access to their intimate thoughts and feelings as they exchange letters and build trust with one another. Caitlin’s early letters detail arguments with friends, boyfriends, shopping, and family. Martin quickly realizes that Caitlin’s life is one of privilege, so it takes a crisis before Martin finally opens up and reveals his difficult life.
  • Martin is a serious and determined teen who is wants to be the first in his family to get and education. He is at the top of his class and scores very high on national exams. He is a whiz at math and wants to go to college and major in mathematics and finances. He works hard at his studies, but also has a side job to help his family. His story is the most compelling because of all the obstacles he has to overcome to pursue his dreams.
  • I enjoyed watching Caitlin’s growth and change when she realizes the full impact of Martin’s poverty-stricken life. She begins to look at her own life and what matters. She stops hanging with the friends who tease her about her pen pal. She begins to focus on finding ways to help Martin realize his dreams. She turns to her family for help.
  • Caitlin’s parents are amazing. They play a significant role in finding ways to send money to Martin’s family after his father loses his job. They pay for Martin and his sibling’s schooling, help his parents with rent and food, and send care packages. Helping Martin pursue higher education in Zimbabwe and attend a university in America, becomes a family project. Caitlin’s mother is a gem! She works tirelessly with American universities to find a full scholarship for Martin. She and Caitlin work with embassies in both countries. This is a family to admire.
  • I Will Always Write Back is a powerful story about how one person (and family) can make a difference. It is a story about connecting the dots with others less fortunate and realizing that we all have the power to help others less fortunate, whether it is locally or globally. Both Caitlin and Martin opened each other’s eyes to a bigger and better world. Their memoir is an eye-opener and an excellent choice for students in the classroom. Teachers can use their story to discuss the contrast in cultures and encourage students to get involved in service.

Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda are still best friends today. Caitlin, an ER nurse, is married and has young daughters. Martin earned dual degrees in mathematics and economics for Villanova University and an MBA in finance from Duke University.  Over time he saved and purchased a new home for his parents with indoor plumbing, a toilet and their own beds.  His sister is planning to attend college in America.

Liz Welch is an award-winning journalist and memoirist whose critically acclaimed first book, The Kids Are All Right, won an ALA Alex Award. She worked with Caitlin and Martin to bring their story to life.

Billy’s Booger

billys-booger-9781442473515Billy’s Booger: A Memoir (sorta)

William Joyce (and his younger self) Author and Illustrator

Athenum Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Jun. 2, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 5-9

Themes: Imagination, Books and reading, Authorship, Memoir, School, Contest

Opening:Once upon a time, when TV was in black and white, and there were only three channels, and when kids didn’t have playdates — they just roamed free in the “out-of-doors” — there lived a kid named Billy.”

Synopsis: Billy has a huge imagination and thinks about class rooms in tree houses, gravity shoes, jet packs and automatic page turners. He likes to draw on his math tests and homework, read comic books, study the newspaper “funnies,” watch monster movies and invents his own sports. His teacher and principal find Billy the most challenging student — ever. The librarian announces a contest to see which student can create the best book. Billy is excited and researches, writes and illustrates his masterpiece. He is living his dream! Perhaps this will be Billy’s chance to show his talent.

Why I like this book:

This inspiring and highly entertaining picture book is about the young William (Billy) Joyce. Readers are given a peek at the man Billy will someday be. Joyce’s richly painted and expressive illustrations give readers a sense of life in the 1960s.

This book is about Billy’s childhood.  Children will fall in love with Billy’s overactive imagination, unconventional antics and his determination to march to his own drum beat. It is also a story about Billy’s first attempts to write his first book, Billy’s Booger: The Memoir of a Little Green Nose Buddy. Who would have ever thought that his journey as an author would begin with a quirky book about a booger.

The original fourth grade book is inserted inside the book on manila paper. Billy’s story is packed with spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors which adds a certain charm to reading about the super booger that gives Billy amazing super powers in math. Children are going to cheer Billy’s wacky imagination and pour over the details of his book.

Joyce’s book carries a very strong message for children not to give up on their dreams and be true to themselves. It also emphasizes that not everyone will like your work (especially teachers and librarians,) but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an audience out there. There’s a great ending to this story, but you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Resources: Parents and teachers check out the suggestions and Activity Sheets for using Billy’s Booger in the classroom. I’d love to see this book in every school library.  I hope teachers and librarians use Joyce’s book in their lesson plans to encourage students to write a book about anything that inspires them. What a wonderful way to encourage children to dream big.

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.

The Hugging Tree by Jill Neimark

hugging-tree-coverThe Hugging Tree: A Story of Resilience

Jill Neimark, Author

Nicole Wong, Illustrator

Magination Press, Sep. 22, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Trees, Nature, Determination, Resilience, Hope, Compassion

Opening: “On a bleak and lonely rock / by a vast and mighty sea / grew a lonely little tree / where no tree should ever be.”

Synopsis: This is a story about a lonely little tree planting its roots on a high cliff above a beautiful and unforgiving sea. The tree basks in the spring and summer sunbeams and endures the raging storms and the cold winters. It thrives with the ebbs and flows of the sea.  It provides a home for a loon family. Over time the harsh environment begins to tear its exposed roots and weakens the tree. One day a boy discovers the tree high on the cliff. Everyday he brings rich soil and tends to the tree until it one day it fulfills its greatness.

Why I like this book:

The Hugging Tree is an inspiring story about a tree’s resilience to thrive and survive the harsh challenges of being the only tree at the top of a cliff. Jill Neimark’s poetic and rhythmic text sings off the pages as we follow a tree through its many seasons. The story is a beautiful metaphor of the natural world that children will understand and embrace as they face challenges in their daily lives.  It will introduce them to themes of resilience, determination and standing tall during difficult times.

The story is also a triumphant reminder of the inescapable connection between people’s actions and nature. The boy shows love and compassion in his tender care for the tree so that it begins to thrive and realize its full potential. It is also reminds children that they too can make a difference.

Nicole Wong’s watercolors are exquisite, lively and expressive and contribute significantly to the story. There is power in her illustrations of the stormy sea and windy coast, and sensitivity when the tree is ragged and barely standing. This is an exceptional pairing of art and text.

My Favorite Lines:

Soft gold sunbeams / kissed her crown, / warm as honey pouring down. / At night she raised her branches high / to greet the moon up in the sky.

“Mighty cliff, hold me tight. / Don’t let me blow away.” / “Little tree, with all my might, ‘ I’ll hold you close, / night and day.”

Now every day new people stop / to rest beneath the little tree / and dream the things we all dream of. / To love, to share, to give, to dare / to grow just where we are. /

And to this very day they come. / For on a splendid sunny rock / by a warm and bright blue sea / a great big hugging tree / grows just where she was meant to be.

Resources: There is A Note to Parents and Caregivers in the back pages, which is a perfect resource for parents, teachers and counselors helping children build resilience. It provides suggestions to help children talk about the challenges they face daily (i.e. bullying, disappointments, loss, etc.) and tools to cope. Make sure you also read Neimark’s remarks at the beginning of the book about the conception of The Hugging Tree. Visit Jill Neimark at her website.

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.

*Please Note: My website will be on hiatus until October 19.

The Honest Truth

September 2015 is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

The Honest Truth415Wpdo3ejL__SX341_BO1,204,203,200_The Honest Truth

Dan Gemeinhart, Author

Scholastic Press, Fiction, Jan. 27,  2015

Suitable for Grades: 4 – 7

Pages: 229

Themes: Boy with cancer, Choices, Goals, Self-confidence, Dog, Friendship, Mount Rainier

Opening: “The mountain was calling me. I had to run away. I had to. And, I didn’t need anyone to go with me.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: In all the ways that matter, Mark is a normal kid. He’s got a dog named Beau and a best friend, Jessie. He likes to take photos and write haiku poems in his notebook. He dreams of climbing a mountain one day. But, in one important way, Mark is not like other kids at all. Mark is sick. The kind of sick that means hospitals. And treatments. The kind of sick some people never get better from. So Mark runs away. He leaves home with his camera, his notebook, his dog, and a plan. A plan to reach the top of Mount Rainier. Even if it’s the last thing he ever does.

Why I like The Honest Truth:

Debut author Dan Gemeinhart has written a powerful and inspiring novel about a 12-year-old boy who has cancer. Mark’s dealt with chemo treatments since he was five years old. His options are running out. He’s angry. He’s lost.  His parents and doctors are making decisions for him. Mark feels out of control and wants to make some choices about his life — and that may include how he dies. He confides his pain and secrets to his best friend, Jessie.

The setting is realistic to the Pacific Northwest and the unpredictable weather. The theme is raw and honest. The plot is fraught with danger and obstacles. Mark runs away with his dog, Beau, and embarks upon a journey to climb the summit of Mount Rainier — a dream he can focus on. His choice may seem selfish because of the pain and worry he causes his parents. He also creates a dilemma for his friend, Jessie –does she tell his parents or keep his secret. And he puts his dog and himself at risk during a dangerous snowstorm on the mountain.

Mark, Jessie and Beau are memorable characters. Beau is devoted and protective of Mark. The alternating chapters, with Jessie’s occasional half chapters, works well. You hear about Mark’s parents anxiety and pain through Jessie. But, you experience Jessie’s struggle to interpret what Mark wants her to do. Does she share her suspicions with his parents or honor her friend’s request.

It took Gemeinhart guts to write a book with such depth. It is a tough book to review, even though it grabbed me from the first page.  Mark grapples with life and death questions as he works through anger and fear. Which will he choose? The Honest Truth will make readers think. It is an excellent classroom discussion book for teens.

Thank you Greg Pattridge! I won The Honest Truth in a giveaway on Greg’s website, Always in the Middle.

Daniel and His Starry Night Blanket

September 2015 is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Daniel and Starry Blanket 51fb4nqSz3L__SX384_BO1,204,203,200_Daniel and His Starry Night Blanket: A Story of Illness and Sibling Love

Sally Loughridge, Author and Illustrator

Maine Authors Publishing, Fiction, Aug. 1, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 5-8, Parents

Themes: Children with a seriously ill sibling, Cancer, Exploring feelings, Jealousy

Opening: “Just before Daniel was born, his grandmother made him a soft blanket that danced with brilliant stars. His mother wrapped him in the blanket when they brought him home from the hospital. It was just right, with room to grow. His father called it Daniel’s Starry Night Blanket.”

Synopsis: Daniel and His Starry Night Blanket is a story about a boy whose older sister, Kate, is diagnosed with cancer. He is sad and worried that Kate is so sick and not interested in playing with him anymore. His parents include him in the hospital visits for Kate’s chemotherapy, but he soon tires of going. Daniel is upset that his parents cook Kate’s favorite foods. When Kate receives cards and gifts, Daniel is angry that he doesn’t receive anything. His Dad takes Daniel to a ball game and spends “special” time with him. Daniel begins to find quiet projects that he and Kate can do together. Daniel wants to do something special for Kate and comes up with a secret plan and asks his grandmother to help.

Why I like this book:

Sally Loughridge has written a compassionate and sensitive story for families who are dealing with a child diagnosed with cancer and the challenges for siblings. Daniel is representative of all siblings dealing with confusing feelings of sadness, anger, fear and jealousy. For children like Daniel, it can be a roller coaster ride.

Daniel has the support of his parents and grandmother to help guide his journey through the highs and lows of a Kate’s cancer treatments. With their support Daniel is able to participate more fully in Kate’s care. It is significant when Daniel wants to share his special blanket with his sister forever– a signal of his own progress, growth and maturity. He asks his grandmother to help with his secret plan for Kate. I won’t spoil the secret. The soft watercolor illustrations are expressive, emotive and compliment the story. I highly recommend this book for families who have a seriously ill child.

Resources: The book can be used in many ways to support young children during a siblings illness. It is a valuable resource for parents, therapists and counselors working with children and families. Loughridge includes two pages of suggestions and activities about ways to use Daniel and His Starry Night Blanket. Visit Sally Loughridge at her website.

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.