Ice Dogs by Terry Lynn Johnson

IIce Doge9780547899268_p0_v1_s260x420ce Dogs

Terry Lynn Johnson

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fiction, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Themes: Sled dogs, Alaska, Wilderness, Survival, Grief

Opening: All eight of my dogs are stretched in front of me in pairs along the gangline. They claw the ground in frustration as the loudspeaker blares. “Here’s team number five. Our hometown girl, fourteen-year-old Victoria Secord!”

Synopsis:  Victoria is a dogsled racer in Alaska. Since the recent death of her father, who taught her everything she knows about being a musher, she pours herself into training her dogs and preparing for the White Wolf Classic. On a routine run, she comes across Chris who is injured in a snowmobile accident. A fast-approaching blizzard catches Victoria by surprise and covers her sled trails. She finds herself lost in the frozen wilderness with little food or protection. Her real race becomes one of survival against time. Will she be able to save Chris and herself?

Why I like this book: This inspiring and gripping story by Terry Lynn Johnson, is a page turner. Johnson, who once owned  and raced 18 Alaskan huskies, knows how beautiful, peaceful and unforgiving the wilderness can be. Reading a novel based on Johnson’s knowledge and experience makes for great realistic fiction and a very vivid setting. Her plot is fast-paced with high-adventure, danger, courage and hope. Her main characters, Victoria and Chris, are well-developed. The story is narrated by Victoria, a fiercely independent, strong, brave, and smart teen coping with the tragic death of her father in the wilderness. She is determined to carry on his legacy as a musher. Chris, a city boy from Toronto, offers a bit of comic relief. Their relationship is full of tension, emotion and complexity. He steps up to the plate and works with Victoria in a race for their survival. Ice Dogs is a spellbinding story that will appeal to young readers. Visit Terry Lynn Johnson at her website where you can view a video, read interesting information, and check out her blog.  Johnson is a conservation officer in Whitefish Falls, Ontario, Canada.

A special thank you to Amanda at Born Bookish, who first introduced me to Ice Dogs. Click on her blog to read her review.

Missing Mommy by Rebecca Cobb

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Rebecca Cobb, Author and Illustrator

Henry Holt and Company, Fiction, April 2013

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Theme:  Death, Grief, Mother, Family Support

Opening“Some time ago we said good-bye to Mommy. I am not sure where she has gone. I have tried looking for her.”

Synopsis:  A young boy’s mother dies. He doesn’t understand what has happened or where she has gone. He searches for her and finds some of her clothing hanging in the closet. He feels scared and angry because he doesn’t think she is coming back. He worries that she left because he was naughty.  Daddy finds a way to help the boy and his sister keep their mother’s memory alive.

Why I like this book:  I really like that this story because  it is told from the boy’s viewpoint with a lot of simplicity and honesty. It is a touching and loving debut picture book written and illustrated by Rebecca Cobb. I am always searching for good grief books for children.  Missing Mommy deals with the pain, fear, and anger of the losing a parent, but is balanced with the loving support from family.  The artwork is childlike, as Cobb uses watercolors and crayons to create childlike simplicity for her young readers.

Resources: Missing Mommy will help spark a discussion about death and grief between children and parents.  It’s never too early to talk about death with children because they may first experience the death of a pet or grandparent. For further information visit Rebecca Cobb 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 with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.

While You Were Out

While You Were Out9780142406281_p0_v1_s260x420While You Were Out

J. Irvin Kuns, Author

Dutton Children’s Books, Fiction, 2006

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes:  Loss of a friend, Grief, Family, Hope, Healing, School

Synopsis: Penelope is about to start fifth grade without her best friend, Tim, who died of cancer during the summer. Not only is she dealing with the grief of losing Tim, she is also dealing with the fact that her quirky father will be the new school janitor. And her irritating next door neighbor, Diane, thinks she can replace Tim as her best friend.  Memories of Tim are everywhere, including the empty desk right next to her and their favorite oak tree near the playground. Finding a way to cope with her loneliness, she begins to write notes to Tim on her pink While You Were Out notepad, folds them and puts them inside Tim’s empty desk — “I hugged our tree today. I think it hugged me back.”  After receiving a mysterious note with a poem about grief on her desk one day, she realizes someone else misses Tim as much as she does.  Perhaps she will be able to survive fifth grade without Tim.

Why I like this story: J. Irvin Kuns has written a very sensitive and realistic story about grief, loneliness, hope, healing and the power of words that help a child move forward again.  Written in first person, Penelope is authentic, smart and beautifully expresses her feelings, mixed with some sarcasm and humor. Her overactive father is imperfect and embarrassing when he jumps rope and plays marbles on the playground. He acts more like a student than the janitor. The book does show how Penelope finds a way of moving forward after losing her best friend and schoolmate.  This is a very moving story that would help children deal with loss.

A Dog Called Homeless by Sarah Lean

Dog Called Homeless9780062122209_p0_v2_s260x420A Dog Called Homeless

Sarah Lean

Katherine Tegen Books, Fiction, 2012

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes:  Death of Parent, Grief, Dog, Hearing and Visual Impairment, Single-parent family

Awards: The 2013 Schneider Family Middle School Book Award

Book Jacket Synopsis:  When Cally Fisher says she sees her dead mother, no one believers her.  The only other living soul who sees Cally’s mom is a mysterious wolfhound who always seems to be there when her mom appears.  And when Cally stops talking — what’s the point if no one is listening — how will she convince anyone that her mom is still with them or persuade her dad that the huge silver-gray dog is their last link with her.

Why I like this book:  Sarah Lean has written a very sensitive and moving story about a girl dealing with the death of her mother.  She writes with a very clear, natural and empathetic voice.  Her story is about hope, friendship, determination and courage.  Her plot is strong with an unexpected twist at the end.  Lean does an outstanding job of developing the heart and soul of her characters.  When Cally stops talking for 31 days, this determined girl has her reasons.  She wants to remember and talk about her mother, who died in a car accident.  But her father wants to forget and move on.  Cally makes herself heard through her silence in a very unusual way.  Dog lovers will cheer for the wolfhound Homeless, who is very loveable.  This is a beautiful story for any child who has lost a loved one.   You may visit Sarah Lean at her website.

Snowflakes Fall

Snowflakes Fall 9780385376938_p0_v2_s260x420Snowflakes Fall

Patricia MacLachlan, Author

Steven Kellogg, Illustrator

Random House Children’s Books, Fiction, 2013

Suitable for Ages: 3-7

Themes: Snowflakes,  Grief, Renewal, Memory

Opening: “After the flowers are gone/ Snowflakes fall./ Flake/After flake/After flake/Each one a pattern/ All its own–/No two the same–/All beautiful.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: In Snowflakes Fall, Newbery Medalist Patricia MacLachlan and award-winning artist Steven Kellogg, portray life’s natural cycle: its beauty, its joy, and its sorrow.  Her simple but powerful words gently convey the impact of loss and the healing power of memory.  This book is a tribute to the qualities that make each individual unique.

Why I like this book:  Patricia MacLachlan and  Steven Kellogg collaborate to create this beautiful, lyrical and inspirational book to honor and remember the community of Sandy Hook and Newtown, CT, who lost family members during the school shooting in Dec. 14, 2012.  In opening remarks, Kellogg, a former resident of the community,  says he hopes “to celebrate the laughter, the playful high spirits, and the uniqueness of the children of Sandy Hook and children everywhere.”  There is no mention in the story about the Sandy Hook incident. Instead, the book celebrates the individuality of children and compares them to snowflakes, with no two being alike.  It offers hope that when the world is dark, in the morning the “world shines” and the children will romp in the snow, build forts, go sledding, leave their footprints and make snow angels.  Kellogg’s illustrations are colorful, magical and uplifting.  Make sure you check out both the front and end pages because they add to the story.  Random House has made a donation to the Sandy Hook School Support Fund and donated 25,000 new books to the national literacy organization First Book in the community’s honor and in support of children everywhere.

Resources: Parents and teachers can use this book as a quiet book about the natural life cycles of birth and renewal.   It is an excellent book to help children work through grief and healing.  With winter quickly approaching,  it is a perfect time to encourage children to play in the snow, catch snow flakes on their tongues, follow animal tracks and make snow angels.  Visit Random House for a special list of activities, coloring pages and a teacher’s guide for Snowflakes Fall.

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

Navigating Early

Navigating Early9780385742092_p0_v1_s260x420Navigating Early

Clare Vanderpool, Author

Delacourte Press, MG Fiction, 2013

Suitable for Ages: 10-14 (5-8 grades)

Themes:  Adventure, Journey, Appalachian Trail, Boarding Schools, Eccentricity, Loss

Synopsis:  When Jack Baker’s mother dies, his father, a WW II Navy captain, boxes up their lives in Kansas and moves them to Maine.  Jack is enrolled in the Morton Hill Academy and his father returns to his military job.  Jack struggles with making friends until he meets Early Auden, a strange but curious boy.  Jack and Early share two things in common — the loss of loved ones and distant fathers. Early is a gifted mathematical genius and is obsessed with the Pi =3.14. Early sees numbers in colors, images and creates a spellbinding story about Pi.  Early is certain that Pi is lost and the boys embark upon the journey of their life to find Pi on the Appalachian Trail.  Jack knows the constellations and navigates their trip as they encounter sea, pirates, timber rattle snakes, an old woman, lost souls, buried secrets, deep forests, caves and catacombs, and a Big Black bear.  Early’s gift of taking information and seeing what others miss keep the boys one-step ahead of danger.  The ending is unexpected but more than satisfying.

Why I like this book: This is one of the most complex books I’ve reviewed for middle graders.  Clare Vanderpool (Moon Over Manifest) has written a very emotional and compelling novel that tugs at her reader’s heartstrings and has them glued to their seats.  It is a story playing out within a story, and sometimes the lines of reality become blurred for both the boys when their hearts are involved.  This is a story about two boys searching for someone who is lost while trying to find themselves along the way.  Early would probably be diagnosed on the autism spectrum and a savant today, but the author doesn’t want to label him — so I haven’t labeled him in my tags.  Navigating Early is definitely a stand-out novel and I highly recommend it for middle graders and young adults.

Resources:  You may want to visit Clare Vanderpool at her website where readers can learn more about Navigating Early.  Teacher resources are also available.  Clare Vanderpool won the Newberry Award for her novel Moon Over Manifest.

Personal Effects

Personal Effects9780763655273_p0_v1_s260x420Personal Effects

E. M. Kokie

Candlewick Press, Fiction,  Sept. 12, 2012

Suitable for Ages: 14-17

Themes:  War, Deployments, Dealing with Loss, Grief, Redemption

Synopsis:  Matt Foster is drowning in grief after his older brother, T.J., is killed in Iraq.   Matt has a rocky relationship with his father who is stoic and doesn’t know how to deal with his own feelings about T.J.’s death, let alone help Matt with his loss.  Matt has  a minefield of problems like failing classes,  getting into serious fights with kids, and expulsion from school.  When T.J.’s personal items are delivered by the military, his father stashes them away, daring Matt to go near them.   Shauna, his best friend, is the only person Matt confides in.  He fears his bully father, but knows that the only way he can understand what has happened to T.J. is by opening the sealed trunks without getting caught.  Matt finds stacks of letters T.J. has written to Celia Carson and photos.  At the very bottom is a letter sealed in an envelope to “Celia” that T.J. never got to send.  After reading each letter over and over, Matt decides he must travel from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin to deliver the letter and photos to Celia.   Together with Shauna, they plot his trip, calculate the cost, find where Celia lives and her place of employment, and find a cheap place for Matt to stay.  Shauna loans Matt her car.  In searching for answers about his brother in Wisconsin, Matt discovers he doesn’t know T.J. at all.

Why I like this book:  E. M. Kokie has written a courageous and beautiful debut novel that is complicated and compelling.  She delves deeply into the anger, pain, and grief of a 17-year-old trying to make sense of his brother’s death.  Matt wants to know the truth so he can find closure.  It leads him on a journey where he uncovers shocking truths about his brother he never imagined.  What Matt learns challenges him to honor T.J.’s memory, stand up to his volatile father, and take charge of his own life.  In many ways it is also a coming of age book that includes his relationship with Shauna.  There is no tidy ending and this book is as real as it gets.  You won’t easily forget Matt.  It is definitely a book for kids in high school and young adults.   Visit E.M. Kokie at her website and learn more about this author who writes “about teens on the cusp of life-changing moments, exploring issues of identity and self-determination.”

SPOILER ALERT:  Thought it important to include a quote from the author E.M. Kokie: “I think it is important to note that many LGBTQ service members  who served under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” policy, including over 13,000 military personnel who were discharged.” Matt’s story about how his brother lived a secret life is not uncommon.  Yet, T.J.  was deployed three times, served honorably and was killed in an explosion.  Make sure you read the author’s note at the end of the book.