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.

A Monster Calls – Grief

A Monster Calls9780763680817_p0_v1_s260x420A Monster Calls

Patrick Ness, Author

Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd

Jim Kay, Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Fiction, 2011; Reprint Aug. 4, 2015

Motion Picture Release: October 2016

Suitable for Ages: 14 -17

Themes: Grief, Loss, Monsters, Mothers and sons, Breast cancer,  Single-parent families, Bullying, School

Book Jacket Synopsis: The Monster Showed up after midnight. As they do. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster, though, is something different. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor. It wants the truth.

What I like about this story:

Patrick Ness has written a powerful and haunting story about a 13-year-old boy trying to deal with grief and loss. This beautifully crafted story is also filled with dark humor, vivid imagery, fear, rage, and courage.

The characters are realistic and fleshed out. Conor O’Malley is dealing with the nightly visits of a monster at precisely 12:07 a.m., but it’s not the monster that frightens him. It is the recurrent nightmare “that is filled with darkness, screaming and a hand slipping from his grasp.”  The dream begins when his mother starts chemotherapy and is so terrifying that he hasn’t told anyone. His father is remarried and living in America, his grandmother is cold and doesn’t understand him, and the kids bully him at school. Conor is totally alone. Ness brilliantly creates a monster that resembles a nearby ancient Yew tree to act as a catalyst to help Conor face his greatest fear. The monster shares three tales with him and tells Conor that he will tell the fourth story which will be his truth.

The plot is distinctly realistic and the tension is palpable. Readers will ride Conor’s roller coaster as his world spins out of control. In confronting his fear and releasing his rage, Conor destroys his grandmother’s living room — all important steps that will lead him to face the final truth and heal.

Jack Kay liberally uses his pen and ink drawings to illustrate the darkness and intensity of Conor’s fears and rage on each page, heightening the emotion and the scary truth that lies ahead. The total package is a beautiful collaboration between author and illustrator.

Note: In his introduction,  Patrick Ness says he never met Siobhan Dowd. She had a final story idea, but her premature death from cancer prevented her from writing this story herself. This would have been her fifth book.  According to Ness, “she had an idea, the characters, a premise, and a beginning.” With some hesitation, Ness undertook the project and decided from the start that “he would not write a novel that mimicked her voice.” Visit Patrick Ness at his website.

A Time fo Dance

A Time to Dance9780399257100_p0_v2_s260x420A time to Dance

Padma Venkatraman, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction, May 2014

Suitable for ages: 12-16

Themes: Dance, India, Amputee, Disabilities, Abilities

Book Jacket Synopsis: Veda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance–so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown up used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling. But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.

Why I like this book: This inspirational novel is lyrically written in verse. Padma Venkatraman has woven together a story about loss and resilience of a girl determined to dance once again her beloved Bharatanatyam.  This is not a story about disability, but one of ability. It is about finding the deeper spiritual meaning of the dance over the applause. “For my invisible audience of the One I begin to dance./ Colors blur into whiteness and a lilting tune that is and is not of the world resonates within and without me./ My body feels whole./In the beat of my heart I hear again the eternal rhythm of Shiva’s feet.” Reading Venkatraman’s novel is an experience of India in all its beauty, cultural traditions, senses and sounds. If you listen closely you can hear the faint echo of a dancing rhythm.  Thaiya thai. Thaiya thai.  I highly recommend this beautiful novel for tweens and teens who have faced challenges in their lives. This book is a treasure on my bookshelf.

Padma Venkatraman is an oceanographer by training and a writer by choice. She is the author of Climbing the Stairs and Island’s End, both multi-award winners.  Padma was born in India, but is now an American citizen. Visit Padma at her website. It has discussion questions and teaching resources.

Kindred Souls

Kindred Souls9780060522995_p0_v2_s260x420Kindred Souls

Patricia MacLachlan, Author

Katherine Tegen Books, Fiction, 2012

Suitable for ages: 6-10

Themes: Aging Grandfathers, Sod houses, Prairies, Family Life, , Dogs, Loss

Book Synopsis: Jake’s grandfather, Billy, hears the talk of birds, is eighty-eight years old, and is going to live forever. Even when Billy gets sick, Jake knows that everything will go on as always. But there’s one thing Billy wants: to rebuild the sod house where he grew up. Can Jake give him this one special thing? 

What I like about this book: Patricia MacLachlan’s book is a heartwarming story about a bond between a boy and his grandfather (kindred souls), their shared love of nature, and what Jake does to fulfill his grandfather’s wish.  The story is set on the family’s prairie farm. The story has a lovely rhythm about it. The plot is paced well for young readers with short chapters and an air of adventure in building the sod house, from research to recruiting the entire family to help after Billy becomes ill. Even the sudden appearance of Lucy, the stray “angel dog,” who never leaves Billy’s side, adds to the love and grace that permeates this story about family and letting go. This is a beautiful story.

Patricia MacLachlan is a Newberry Medalist for her book Sarah, Plain and Tall. I reviewed her powerful 2013 picture book about grief and renewal, Snowflakes Fall, which was dedicated to the families of Newtown and Sandy Hook, CT. I also reviewed Fly Away and The Truth of Me,  both middle grade novels about complicated family relationships.


Always By My Side

Always by my Side9781595723376_p0_v1_s260x420Always By My Side

Susan Kerner, Author

Ian P. Benfold Haywood, Illustrator

Star Bright Books, Fiction, 2013

Suitable for Ages: 5-8 years

Themes: Absence of a father, Loss, Love, Families

Opening: “If you ask me where my daddy is, this is what I’ll say: He’s in me and around me, never far away.”

Synopsis: This is a story that will help children understand that a dad’s love is forever. Even if they grow up without his presence in their lives. He’s in the trees, the waves, in the wind and in the sunshine’s rays. And when they sing or move their hands in a certain way, Mama is there to say, “You’re a lot like your daddy.”

What I like this book: This is a beautiful and heartwarming story for children experiencing the loss or absence of a father.  Susan Kerner gives no specific reason for a loss in her lovely rhyming text. Fathers may be absent for many reasons like work, military deployments, divorce, incarceration, and death.  Through comforting verse, Kerner’s shows that their fathers are still part of them, whether it’s in their mannerisms and likeness to him or in everyday activities and nature. This book can be read to any child experiencing a father’s absence and help them know they are still loved.  And Mama is there to remind them,“No matter the day, the month, the year, the weather, the tears, or smiles…Daddy is always by your side, guiding you all the while.” Haywood’s illustrations are lively, colorful and ethnically diverse. Families coping with loss will find Always By My Side a helpful grief book.

Susan Kerner: Shortly after marrying the love of her life, her husband died of cancer before their first child was born. Her book is inspired by her own experiences. According to Kerner, Always By My Side has become popular among military families.

Rachel’s Promise

Rachel's Promise9781927583142_p0_v1_s260x420Rachel’s Promise (The Rachel Trilogy)

Shelly Sanders, Author

Second Story Press, Historical Fiction, Sept. 23, 2013

Suitable for Ages: 12 and up

Themes:  Persecution, Russian Jews,  Family, Love, Loss, Separation

SynopsisRachel’s Promise is set in pre-revolutionary Russia, where tensions run high between the Jewish and Christian populations. Vicious riots break out in Kishinev in 1903.  Rachel’s father is killed and her home and Jewish community destroyed.   Her Christian friend Sergei turns against his police chief father, to help 15-year-old Rachel.  (Read my review of Rachel’s Secret here.) Rachel, her mother, sister Nucia, and an adopted brother, Menahem, flee Russia and the brutal riots.  They travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway to the coast where they board a ship to Shanghai, China.  The journey is hard on her mother and she dies in a Shanghai medical facility.  Now it is up to Rachel and her siblings to earn enough money to travel to America.  Although her life becomes one of daily survival, she never gives up her dream of going to school and becoming a journalist.   She discovers a Jewish newspaper in Shanghai and submits articles, earning extra money for the voyage.

Meanwhile, as Rachel flees Russia, Sergei leaves home for a factory job in St. Petersburg to help support his family and earn money to attend the university.  Work in the Russian factories is deplorable and dangerous.  Sergei is injured.  His dream of becoming an architect fades as he realizes the harsh reality of his life.  He joins the growing number of factory workers who are rebelling against the government.  Although separated, Sergei and Rachael continue to communicate through letters and hang on to hope they will be together again.

Why I like this book:  This is the second book in the Rachel Trilogy written by Shelly Sanders.  The trilogy is inspired by the lives of her maternal grandmother, Rachel Talan Geary, and her sister Anna “Nucia” Rodkin, who lived in Kishinev and survived the massacres in 1903.  Sanders has once again written a gripping story set against real historical events.  She tells the story of the Russian Jews who managed to escape Russia under incredible odds to new lives filled with hardship in Shanghai.  Many of the characters in this story did exist.  I learned so much about a period of Russian history I knew little about.  Sanders beautifully balances the alternating stories of Sergei and Rachel, who are mere teenagers caught in the cross-fire of persecution during extreme political upheaval.  Her main characters are authentic, with each having a very distinct voice.  The book is a page-turner.

Visit Shelly Sander’s at her website.  I look forward to her third upcoming novel in the trilogy, Rachel’s Hope.  After two years in Shanghai, Rachael and her family save enough money to pay for passage on a ship sailing to San Francisco.  Follow her journey and new life in America.

America’s White Table

America's White 9781585362165_p0_v2_s260x420America’s White Table

Margot Theis Raven, Author

Mike Benny, Illustrator

Sleeping Bear Press, Fiction, 2005

Suitable for Ages: 5-10

Themes: Veterans Day, Remembering our fallen soldiers, Symbolism

Synopsis:  It is Veterans Day and Katie’s mother has invited her Uncle John for dinner.  She explains to Katie and her two sisters that they will  be setting a separate little table,  just like the ones that will be set in  Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy dining halls across America to honor the men and women who have served their country.  Mama gets out a white table-cloth,  a single empty  chair, a white plate, silver ware, a black napkin, an overturned glass, a white candle and a red rose in a vase tied with a red ribbon.  She explains the significance of each item on the table, and what it will mean to Uncle John.

Much to Katie and her sister’s surprise, they learn a special story about their favorite uncle from their mother.  Uncle John was on a rescue mission in Vietnam when his helicopter was shot down over enemy territory.  He was taken as a Prisoner of War (POW).  Uncle John found an opportunity to escape and carried his wounded friend on his back to safety.  He was a hero.

Katie and her sisters are in awe when they hear the story.  Katie stares at the little white table and feels there is something missing.  The girls come up with a special idea and surprise their uncle at dinner.  Uncle John is moved beyond words by their loving gesture.

Why I like this book:  Once again I am sharing a book I reviewed several years ago before I had following.  This is an outstanding book that will touch the hearts of young and old alike.  It is a time to remember and honor those who are not with us.  I was delighted to find a book about this very simple, but deeply meaningful tradition observed by service members for over 35 years.  Few civilians are familiar with the symbolism.  It seemed the perfect book to share again on Veterans Day.  Raven tells a moving story, and at the end  provides a detailed history of the origin of the White Table and how it became a symbol of caring for our MIA and POW service members after the Vietnam War.  Benny’s subdued pastel paintings add to the mood of the solemn occasion that transcends generations.

Resource:  Click here to lean how to set America’s White Table.  Also visit Margot Theis Raven at her website.