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.

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.

The Olive Tree by Elsa Marston

Olive Tree9781937786298_p0_v1_s260x420The Olive Tree

Elsa Marston, Author

Claire Ewart, Illustrator

Wisdom Tales, Fiction, Nov. 1, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Olive Tree, Neighbors, Lebanon, Middle East, Sharing, Friendship, Peace, Multicultural

Opening: For many years the house next to Sameer’s had stood empty. “What a pity!” his mother often said. The family who lived there had gone away during the troubles, because they were different from most of the people in the village. But now, the long war was over, and they were coming back.

Synopsis:  Sameer leans on an old stone wall that divides the property between two families. Above him an ancient olive tree grows on the other side of the wall, but the best olives fall on his family’s property. He eagerly watches the family move back into their home and hopes that they have a boy with whom he  can play. But Muna doesn’t want to play with Sameer, or share her family’s olives. One night during a storm, lightning strikes the olive tree and it crashes to the ground. Even the stone wall is broken. Will the two children find a way to resolve their differences?

What I like about this book:

  • Elsa Marston’s The Olive Tree is a richly textured and realistic story about two Lebanese children who struggle to get along after a war, learn to share, and find friendship through adversity.
  • The narrative is simple and lyrical. There is tension between Sameer and Muna, who are from two different families with different backgrounds. When their beloved olive tree is struck by lightning, they work silently together to clear the broken branches from their yards. They move beyond their anger, reconcile and heal.
  • The symbolism is appropriate with the broken stone wall, the toppled tree, and the olive branch (a peace-offering.)
  • This book is a reminder that our actions toward peace and reconciliation are powerful and unifying. They do make an important difference in the lives of those around us.
  • Children will gain a glimpse into a contemporary Lebanon and its culture. Marston was in Lebanon at the outbreak of the war and after it was over.  She was moved to write this hopeful middle eastern story.
  • This healing multicultural book belongs in school libraries as it will encourage many interesting discussions among students.
  • Claire Ewart’s beautiful illustrations are warm and colorful watercolors that draw the reader into the story from the first page. Her artwork is expressive and supports the emotion and tension in the story.

Resources: Visit Elsa Marston’s website to learn more about The Olive Tree.  She has included some background information about Lebanon, the culture, the civil war and discussion questions for the classroom.  I especially like her role-playing suggestions.

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.

Taking Flight

TTaking Flight9780385755115_p0_v3_s260x420aking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina

Michaela DePrince with Elaine DePrince, authors

Alfred A. Knopf,  Memoir, Oct. 14, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 12-17

Themes: Michaela DePrince, Ballet, War orphan, Sierra Leone, Adoption, Vitiligo, Courage, Hope

Synopsis: Michaela DePrince was born in 1995 in war-torn Sierra Leone and named Mabinty Bangura.  She was born with Vitiligo, a medical condition that causes blotchy spots on her skin. To the villagers she was a curse and called a spotted leopard. However, she had loving parent who taught her to read, write and speak four different languages. When the rebels killed her father and her mother died, her uncle sold her to an orphanage, where she became #27 .  She was starved, abused, and faced incredible dangers from the rebels. One day she found a picture of a ballerina in a magazine which affected her life forever. At four, she and her best friend Mia were adopted by an American family. The family encouraged her love of dancing and made it possible for her to study at the Rock School for Dance Education and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre.  She is now a member of the world-famous Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam.

What I like about this book:

  • The heart of this story is the strong mother/daughter relationship which translates into a remarkable collaboration and a gripping memoir about Michaela’s journey from Mabinty Bangura, a war orphan in Sierra Leone, to a 17-year-old professional ballerina.
  • The story’s real strength lies in Michaela’s lifelong passion to become a ballerina and her remarkable determination to break through racial barriers to dance classical and neo-classical ballet with a professional company.  She shows great discipline and sacrifice to be the best.
  • The narrative about Michaela’s journey is compelling and unforgettable. Taking Flight is written in such a manner that young readers would be able to handle the details of war and be interested in learning some history about West Africa.
  • The story is simply told in prose, but is filled with satisfying detail. The pacing is perfect and the book is a page-turner.  This book is ideal for any reader, but young black ballet dancers will especially find hope in Michaela’s story.
  • I found Taking Flight a joy to read because of its authenticity and honesty. Michaela thought America was wonderful until she began to notice the bigotry she experienced while living with her white family, especially when they went out in public. But it took true grit to face the racial discrimination and profiling she encountered in the ballet world. She heard comments that “black women are too athletic for classical ballet…to muscular…and aren’t delicate enough to become  world-class dancers.” She still struggles with “the racial bias in the world of ballet.”
  • There is a section of photos in the middle of the book documenting her life — from the African orphanage, her new home and family, to her ballet training and dancing. These photos will help young readers better grasp her life.

Resources:  Michaela DePrince starred in the ballet documentary First Position, which can be found in many libraries.  She hesitated to be featured but decided that it was something that she could do to help African-American children who dream of dancing.  She felt she had a responsibility to write a memoir and share the “hardy dose of hope” she had been blessed with.  Visit Michaela DePrince at her website.

Rain Reign – Middle Grade

Rain Reign9780312643003_p0_v2_s260x420Rain Reign

Ann M. Martin, Author

Feiwel and Friends, Fiction, Oct. 7, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Winner: 2015 Charlotte Huck Award Winner and the 2015 Schneider Family Book Award

Themes: Animals, Autism Spectrum, Homonyms, Separation, Friendship, Family Relationships, Bravery, Hope

Pages: 223

Opening: “I am Rose Howard and my first name has a homonym. To be accurate, it has a homophone, which is a word that’s pronounced the same as another word but spelled differently My homophone names is Rows.

Book Jacket Synopsis: Rose Howard is obsessed with homonyms. She’s thrilled that her own name is a homonym, and she purposely gave her dog Rain a name with two homonyms (Reign, Rein) which, according to Rose’s rules of homonyms, is very special. Not everyone understands Rose’s obsessions, her rules, or the other things that make her different–not her teachers, not other kids, and not her single father. When a storm hits their rural town, rivers overflow, roads are flooded, and Rain goes missing. Rose’s father should not have let Rain out. Now Rose has to find her dog, even if it means leaving her routines and safe places to search.

Why I like this book: Rain Reign is told from Rose’s point of view. Superb storytelling by Ann Martin who helps her readers experience Rose’s high-functioning mind as she navigates her autistic world. This is not a story about disability, or autism, but a story about a fifth grader who uses her unique abilities and strengths to break some of her rules and routines to search for her lost dog, Rain. Martin’s narrative is seamless and gripping.  Her characters are believable with strong personalities, characteristics and quirks. The story is as captivating and creative as it is heartbreaking. It is set in a small rural town that is ravaged by a hurricane. The plot is well-paced with just the right amount of tension to keep readers intrigued, engaged and guessing. This is a realistic story that is emotionally honest and filled with heart.

Ann M. Martin is the author of Ten Rules for Living with My Sister, Ten Good and Bad Things About My Life, and Everything for a Dog, all from Feiwel and Friends. She won a Newbery Honor Award for A Corner of the Universe, and is the author of the beloved Baby-sitters Club series.

Stella by Starlight

Stella by Starlight9781442494978_p0_v2_s260x420Stella by Starlight

Sharon M. Draper, Author

Atheneum Books for Young Readers,  Historical Fiction, Jan. 6, 2015, the official release date. Many bloggers will be reviewing Stella by Starlight today as part of its launch.

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Pages: 336

Themes: Segregation, Racism, the Ku Klux Klan, Family, Community, Hope

Synopsis: When 11-year-old Stella and her brother, Jojo, witness nine robed figures dressed in white, burning a cross on the other side of the pond near their home late one night, she knows that life in Bumblebee, North Carolina, is about to change. It is 1932, and “Every Negro family knew the unwritten rules — they had to take care of their own problems and take care of one another.” Stella and her community come together to find strength, courage and support as they face the injustices surrounding them in the segregated Jim Crow South.  Will Stella find her own voice in this coming of age story?

Why I like this book:  Sharon Draper’s book is a promise to her father that she would one day tell the story of her grandmother, Estelle Twitty Mills Davis. Draper’s compelling and powerful novel is inspired by her grandmother’s fifth-grade journal. It is a fictional account drawn from that journal. It is also a gift to her readers to share true stories of hatred and prejudice that ran so deep during the segregated South.

Draper works magic in her multi-layered storytelling that highlights the depression, segregation, racism, and a girl filled with hopes, dreams and ambitions during a time when such qualities are risky for a girl of color. Stella is a gutsy, resilient and compassionate hero with a strong and candid voice. Readers will benefit from meeting Stella and following her journey. The language in the story is true to the time period. The setting shows a caring and supportive African-American community at the height of the depression and segregation when families depend upon each other. The plot is packed with action, twists and a lot of tension — it is scary, heartbreaking, sobering, celebratory, and humorous. The pacing is spot-on throughout the story, keeping readers fully engaged. Readers will find themselves richly rewarded by this deeply realistic and satisfying tale. Draper has once again succeeded in creating a story that will ignite the passion of reading among students.

Resources: Visit Sharon Draper at her website for more information about Stella by Starlight and her other books.  There will be a study guide on the site for Stella.  Teachers and students may be interested in having their entire class read her book. Draper looks forward to communicating with students in their schools via Skype and Twitter. Visit her site for information and to follow directions.

Sharon Draper, a five-times Coretta Scott King Literary Award winner for Copper Sun and Forged by Fire, delivers another contender in Stella by Starlight. Her novel Out of My Mind has won over twenty state awards and has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year.  She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she taught high school English for 25 years and was named National Teacher of the Year.