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.

The Last Christmas Tree

The Last Christmas Tree9780803737570_p0_v1_s260x420The Last Christmas Tree

Stephen Krensky, Author

Pascal Campion, Illustrator

Dial Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Oct. 16, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 3-7

Themes: Christmas trees, Empathy, Hope, Spirit of Christmas

Opening: “Almost exactly a month before Christmas, the trees arrived for the holiday. On the day before, the lot had been empty.”

Book Synopsis: Among the grand balsams and firs at the Christmas tree lot is a little hunched tree that is missing several branches. Still, no tree is more filled with the spirit of Christmas. As the weeks go by, many others are selected but the little tree holds onto its hope of finding a home. On Christmas Eve, now alone in the lot, the little tree receives a special visitor who might just give it what it wants most of all.

Why I like this book: This is such a heartwarming and moving Christmas story by Stephen Krensky that will delight young children for years to come. His story will certainly create empathy among children as the little tree endures snickers and rejection by families searching for the perfect tree. But this little tree has spunk.  It is filled with hope that it will be selected until it is the last tree standing in the lot. Yet Krensky’s little tree is a very upbeat with an unwavering faith and personality. The plot will keep children turning pages and guessing what will happen to the last tree. Pascal Campion’s digital illustrations are colorful, inviting and show the loneliness and joy in the story. Beautiful book with a surprise ending.

Resources: Take your children to a Christmas tree farm or tree lot and let them select the family tree. Encourage them to make their own ornaments and decorate your tree together.

Stephen Krensky is the author of more than one hundred fiction and nonfiction books for children, including How Santa Got His Job, How Santa Lost His Job, Chaucer’s First Winter, The Great Moon Hoax, Big Bad Wolves, Ghosts, Paul Bunyan, and Casey Jones. Visit Krensky’s website.

Pascal Campion is a French American illustrator and animator. Visit Campion’s website.

Positive

Positive9780062342515_p0_v4_s260x420Positive

Paige Rawl with Ali Benjamin, Authors

Harper Collins, Memoir, Aug. 26, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 12-16

Themes: Paige Rawl, HIV-positive children, AIDS in adolescence, Bullying, Suicide, Hope

Book Synopsis: Cheerleader, soccer player, honor roll student. One of the good kids at her middle school. Then on an unremarkable day, Paige disclosed the one thing that made her “different”: her HIV-positive status. Within hours, the bullying began.  They called her PAIDS. Left cruel notes on her locker. Talked in whispers about her and mocked her openly. She turned to school administrators for help. Instead of assisting her, they ignored her urgent pleas…and told her to stop the drama. She had never felt more alone. One night, desperate for escape, Paige found herself in front of the medicine cabinet, staring at a bottle of sleeping pills. That could have been the end of her story. Instead, it was only the beginning.

Why I like this book: Paige Rawl and Ali Benjamin have written a realistic, raw, brave and powerful memoir about a teen living with HIV since birth. Although Paige is stable on medications, HIV is such a sensitive subject and tough diagnosis for a teen to deal with — especially when her best friend betrays her. Once Paige’s secret spreads like wildfire at school, the bullying begins. This is one of the best memoirs I’ve read this year. It is a real page turner that I could not put down. Although what happens to Paige is heartbreaking, her courage to reclaim herself and move forward is inspiring. You will find yourself rooting for Paige as she finds a voice she didn’t know she had. Her memoir is written in short chapters and is well-paced. Her voice is strong and determined. In sharing her story, she encourages other teens to find their inner strength in the midst of any storm. And her experience has made a difference for others.

Resources: There is extensive information and facts about HIV, bullying and suicide.  She shares information on programs for kids who are touched by HIV/AIDS, a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and programs to stop bullying.

Rachel’s Hope

Rachel's Hope9781927583425_p0_v1_s260x420Rachel’s Hope (The Rachel Trilogy)

Shelly Sanders, Author

Second Story Press, Historical Fiction, September 1, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 12 and up

Themes: Russian Jews, Persecution, Separation, Immigration. Family, Love, Hope

Synopsis: Rachel Paskar flees the antisemitic violence and persecution against Jews in her Russian village and makes the long journey by train across Siberia with her family to a refugee camp in Shanghai. Rachel makes a name for herself as a journalist. After her mother dies in Shanghai, she and her surviving family members save enough money to sail to San Francisco in 1905. Rachel also leaves behind her boyfriend, Sergei, in St. Petersburg. He becomes involved in the revolution against the Tsarist Russians.

Rachel and her family find freedom from persecution in San Francisco, but are challenged with learning a new language and strange American customs, while trying to hang on to their family’s Russian traditions. Rachel works as a maid, meets a group of women’s voter activists, and makes friends with a female journalist who encourages her writing and introduces her to newspaper editors. She meets a student, Alexander, who she cares about, but Sergei remains in her thoughts. What has happened to him and will she ever see him again? Then the great San Francisco earthquake strikes and Rachel and her family lose everything.  Starting over is hard, yet this determined young woman never loses sight of her dream to attend the university.

Why I  like this book:  Rachel’s Hope marks the culmination of the The Rachel Trilogy. You can read my reviews of  Rachel’s Secret and Rachel’s Promise here. Shelly Sanders’ fictionalized trilogy is based on a true story about her courageous grandmother who faces persecution as a Russian Jew, escapes from Russia and journeys to America, where she becomes the first Jewish woman accepted into the University of California, Berkeley’s science program.  Sanders masterfully reconstructs life in early 20th century Russia, Shanghai and America, weaving the personal with the historical into a compelling story that creates a rich reading experience. She is fastidious in her research of different cultural customs and details of every day life (i.e. food, clothing, dwellings, and work conditions). Her heroine is a strong and courageous character.  Her plot is moving as she brilliantly writes two parallel stories — Rachel’s changing life in America and Sergei’s hard life in revolutionary Russia — and gives the reader a clear and realistic portrayal of a period in history that few people know. Yet, Rachel’s Hope brings a positive conclusion to the story of a Russian family immigrating to America where possibilities are limitless. I highly recommend this important series to teachers for use in the classroom. Resources: Visit Sanders’ website for teachers guides on the trilogy and more information.

Shelly Sanders has worked as a freelance writer for almost 20 years. The Rachel Trilogy was an “intense three-year journey” for her. She learned about her grandmother’s story when she was 16 years old, after her grandmother had died. It wasn’t until after Sanders had a family, that she felt a compulsion to get to know her grandmother.

Knock Knock

Knock Knock9780316209175_p0_v1_s260x420Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream For Me

Daniel Beaty, Author

Bryan Collier, Illustrator

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Dec. 17, 2013

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Fatherless sons, Separation, Loss, Hope

Opening: Every morning, I play a game with my father. He goes KNOCK KNOCK on my door, and I pretend to be asleep till he gets right next to the bed. Then I get up and jump into his arms. “Good morning, Papa!” And my papa, he tells me, “I love you.” We share a game…KNOCK KNOCK.

Synopsis: Every morning a boy plays a game with his father. Then one day the knock doesn’t come. The boy’s father is gone and is not there to help him get ready for school, cook his breakfast or help him with homework. One day he finds a letter from is father on the desk in his room. His father is sorry that he won’t be coming home and gives hims advice “for every lesson I will not be there to teach you.” He encourages his son to “KNOCK KNOCK down the doors that I could not.”

Why I like this book: Daniel Beaty’s powerful storyline is based on his own experience as a child when his father is incarcerated. In writing this heart-wrenching story, Beaty doesn’t indicate where the father in KNOCK KNOCK has gone. Many children who have an absent father due to incarceration, divorce, abandonment, military deployments and death, will identify with this story. Even though the story is sad, it is also about love, survival, and hope. Beaty’s text is simple and lyrical. The plot is engaging and moving.  The last few pages are filled with inspirational words from the father. Bryan Collier’s stunning illustrations are done in watercolor and collage and support the sentiment of the text.

Daniel Beaty is an award-winning writer, performer, educator and empowerment expert. KNOCK KNOCK  has won the Huffington Post Best Picture Book of the Year, the Boston Globe-Horn Books Award Honor and the ALSC Notable Children’s Book Award.  You can visit Beaty’s website here.

Bryan Collier has illustrated more than 25 picture books, including the award-winning Dave the Potter and Fifty Cents and a Dream.  He  has received three Caldecott Honors and five Coretta Scott King Award, including the 2014 Coretta Scott King Award for KNOCK KNOCK. You can visit Collier’s website here.