Written in the Stars

Written in the Stars9780399171703_p0_v2_s192x300Written in the Stars

Aisha Saeed, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction,  Mar. 24, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 14-17

Themes: Forced Marriages, Pakistani-American teen, Diversity,

Synopsis: Naila is a responsible and trustworthy daughter to her immigrant Pakistani parents. Steeped in cultural tradition, her parents allow her to attend a Florida high school, study subjects she likes, wear her hair how she wishes, dress like the other students and choose her career path in college. The only thing she is not allowed to do is date boys or choose a husband. Naila falls in love with Sajf, a Pakistani-American boy, during her senior year. She keeps her secret and meets Saif for lunch everyday. When Naila disobeys her parents and sneaks to the senior prom with Saif, her parents are outraged at her betrayal of trust and humiliated by their close-knit community. In attempt to help Naila understand her heritage, they pull her out of school, travel to Pakistan to visit relatives. Naila enjoys meeting so many family members and bonding with her cousin, Selma. Her vacation turns into a nightmare when her parents betray her, force her into an arranged marriage with Amin, and then leave Pakistan. She is alone living with a strange family, who see her as their ticket to America. Is this Naila’s destiny or is there any hope for escape?

What I love about Written in the Stars:

  • Aisha Saeed has masterfully written a bold, heart wrenching and complex cross-cultural novel that will be an eye-opener for many young readers. It is also beautiful love story between two Pakistani-American teens.
  • The setting is culturally rich for teens reading Written in the Stars. It is about Pakistani traditions, extended families living together, food preparations, small villages, the landscape, neighbors knowing everyone’s business, and shopping in local markets.
  • The first-person narrative with Naila offers greater depth into her character. Naila is a strong and determined protagonist. Her anger and pain are palpable, as is her desire to escape. All of the characters are well-developed, memorable and stay with you after you finish. The plot is suspenseful and brutal at times. The author shows much of the action, which is more powerful than words. The reader experiences Naila’s prison. Written in the Stars is a page-turner and I could not put it down. The ending is unexpected.
  • The author shares that although her own marriage was arranged by her parents, she wrote the book to shed light on the many arranged forced marriages.  I have never read anything like this powerful book, and I mean that as a compliment. Saeed sheds so much light on the problem of forced marriages in America and around the world. Although her characters are American-Pakistani, Saeed points out that “the issue is not limited to one particular culture or religion.”

Resources: There is a lovely Author’s Note at the end, along with resources for individuals needing advice, and a glossary. Visit Aisha Saeed at her website.

Aisha Saeed is a Pakistani American writer, teacher and attorney. Written in the Stars is her debut novel. She is on of the founding members of the We Need Diverse Books Campaign.

Connecting Dots

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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.


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.

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.

Bayou Magic

Bayou Magic9780316224840_p0_v2_s192x300Bayou Magic

Jewell Parker Rhodes

Little, Brown and Company, Fiction, May 12, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Pages: 256

Themes: Bayous, Magic, Environment, African-Americans, Louisiana, Grandmothers, Friendship, Hope

Synopsis: At home, she’s just plain Maddy to her four older sisters. It is 10-year-old Maddy’s turn to spend the summer alone with her grandmother in the Louisiana bayou. Her sisters tease and frighten her about Grandmère Lavalier, who they claim is a witch. But after a few days in the bayou, Maddy begins to feel a kindred spirit in Grandmère and at home in the enchanted beauty of her surroundings. She learns about healing herbs, wisdom, and listens to stories about her ancestors and the Lavalier magic. Maddy begins to wonder if she is the only one in her family to carry family’s magical legacy.

Maddy finds a good friend, in “Bear,” a shaggy-haired boy who takes her on great adventures into the bayou. The bayou becomes her playground and she’s having the time of her life exploring its wonders and secrets. Everything speaks to Maddy, including the fireflies and a face she sees deep within the water. Could it be a mermaid, the legendary Mami Wata? When there is an explosion on an offshore oil rig and the leak threatens her beautiful bayou, Maddy knows that she may be the only one who can help save the Bons Temp bayou.

What I love about Bayou Magic:

  • Jewell Parker Rhodes’ novel is a whimsical adventure into another life that feels more real to Madison Isabelle Lavalier Johnson, than her real home in New Orleans. Rhodes has spun a story of pure magic. Her writing style is very lyrical.
  • The setting is lush, believable and magical. Fireflies shimmer in the sky at night as residents of the Bons Temp swamp come together to contribute to the pot of jambalaya, eat, dance and tell stories well into the night.
  • The characters are colorful, eccentric and realistic. Maddy is a courageous and hopeful heroine who already has a sense of reverence and gratitude about her. She thanks the hen for laying eggs for breakfast, a fish for giving its life for lunch, and the fireflies that call her. Grandmère is eccentric, the Queen of the bayou who takes care of its residents with her natural medicines. Bear is a lively friend that coaxes Maddy to explore and teaches her about the fragility of the bayou ecosystem.
  • What a glorious plot, filled with adventure, wonder, mystery and danger. When her grandmère asks Maddy one day, “Who do you want to be?” Maddy shares her secret, “A hero. Like in my stories. I want to do good. Be brave.” Maddy is tested before the summer is over when a disastrous oil spill threatens the gulf and the Bons Temp bayou. Does Maddy really have what it takes to be a hero when bad things happen? A time of great tension for Maddy and the community.
  • There is a quiet theme of hope rippling through the novel. At the end, the author says that “In Maddy, I poured all of my love for young people who seek, each and every day, new and better ways to care for our earth’s natural resources.” I highly recommend this novel.

Jewell Parker Rhodes is the Coretta Scott King Honor Book award-winning author of Ninth Ward and A Jane Addams Children’s Book Award winner of  Sugar, her first novels for young readers.  You can visit Jewell Parker Rhodes at her website. She has a Teaching Resource for educators.

Not This Bear: A First Day of School Story

not this bear22718686Not This Bear: A First Day of School Story

Alyssa Satin Capucilli, Author

Lorna Hussey, Illustrator

Henry Holt and Company, Fiction, Jun. 23, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 2-6

Themes: First day at school jitters, Bears, Separation,  Friendship

Opening: “It was Bear’s first day of school. Mama gave Bear an extra big hug and extra big kiss. Bear held on to Mama tightly.”

Synopsis: Bear is unsure about his first day at school. He’d rather stay at home with Mama. Bear soon discovers that school can be fun. He paints, listens to stories, builds block towers, dresses up, gives a doll a bath, makes a new friend and plays on the playground. After school, Mama is waiting and Bear has a surprise for her.

Why I like this book:

Alyssa Satin Capucilli has written a charming book for children who may be reluctant to attend preschool or kindergarten for the first time. The book sweetly deals with separation anxiety from Mama and is comforting. As Bear hesitantly explores the new and exciting wonders of school, he makes a friend. What I appreciate most about this book is that Bear doesn’t choose gender specific toys and activities. He dresses up like a pirate, plays in the kitchen, and gives a doll a bath. When Bear goes to the playground he prefers to blow bubbles with another bear and make rainbows with chalk instead of swinging and climbing with the other cubs. This is an excellent book to help prepare little ones for school.  Lorna Hussey’s watercolor and ink illustrations are expressive, fun, and endearing. They really contribute to the cozy charm of the story.

Resources: Reading this book to your child is a good way to jump-start a conversation about going to school for the first time. Like Bear, encourage your little cub to paint or draw without coloring books, learn to put things away, play games to learn to take turns, or make a book together about school. Most important, attend an orientation or visit the school ahead of time.

Even though Perfect Picture Books is on vacation until September 11, you can still visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books to see a complete listing of all thePerfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources. 

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.