Minna’s Patchwork Coat

Minna's Patchwork Coat51a3s9oMphL__SX340_BO1,204,203,200_Minna’s Patchwork Coat

Lauren A. Mills, Author and Illustrator

Little Brown and Company, Fiction, Nov. 3, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Pages: 288

Themes: Children of coal miners, Appalachian Region, Coats, Quilting, Family life, School, Community, Prejudice

Book Jacket Synopsis: Minna and her family don’t have much in their small Appalachian cabin, but “people only need people,” Papa always says. Unable to afford a warm winter coat, Minna is forced to give up her dream of going to school — until her neighbors work tirelessly to create a quilted coat out of old fabric scraps. But even that might not be enough to cut through the long-held prejudices of Minna’s new classmates. Can she make them see beyond the rags to the girl with a special story inside?

Why I like this book:

Author and artist Lauren A. Mills lovingly reimagines her 1991  picture book, The Rag Coat, into a middle grade historical novel with 50 delicate and expressive black and white illustrations and an expanded story about a remarkable girl, a patchwork coat and how the two stitch the community together through scraps of stories that touch all of their lives.

The story is set in the Appalachian Region in West Virginia during in 1908. Most of the men work as coal miners deep beneath the earth. Many become sick with black lung disease. Poverty and loss are real. Prejudice for minorities is real and children of color aren’t permitted to attend school. Yet, families help each other when times are tough. They barely have enough money to feed and clothe their families, but they are rich in love, storytelling, music and dance. And the beauty of nature is the canopy they all share,

The characters are colorful and memorable. Minna is a resilient and feisty girl. Even though Minna is disappointed she can’t go to school, she spends her days helping her mama and watching her brother, Clemmie.  She also learns about the curative power of plants from “Aunt” Nora, a wise Cherokee healer. And Minna teaches Nora’s mixed-race grandson, Lester, to read and write. Mama keeps the family’s songs and stories alive. Papa is unable to work because of black lung disease. He’s a fiddler and teaches Lester how to play.

Minna’s Patchwork Coat is a richly textured story with many layers and a charming narrative. The plot is engaging. Sadly Minna’s father passes, but his spirit and memories help ease her grief. In order to earn money for the family, her mama joins the Quilting Mothers to stitch beautiful quilts to sell in the larger cities. When the mothers work on a colorful pattern called Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors, Minna longs for such a beautiful coat so she can go to school. The mothers work tirelessly to create a quilted coat out of old fabric scraps. Minna picks the scraps which carry a story about many of the students at school who tease her. Hearing their mothers share their stories helps Minna get to know each one better, including the bullies. The coat is finally finished and she proudly wears it to school on “sharing day.” She is teased by the other children about her coat of rags, until they realize that those rags carry bits of their own history. A beautiful tale that teaches children about the bond of community and their connection to each other.

Check other Middle Grade review links on Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

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Lost in the Sun

Lost in the Sun9780399164064_p0_v1_s192x300Lost in the Sun

Lisa Graff, Author

Philomel Books, Fiction, May 26, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 10 and up

Themes: Friendship, Loss, Guilt, Disfigured persons, Brothers, Remarriage

Book Jacket Synopsis: Everyone says that middle school is awful, but Trent knows nothing could be worse than the year he had in fifth grade, when he accidentally hit Jared Richards in the chest with a hockey puck out on Cedar Lake. (Who knew that Jared had a heart defect? And that one little hockey puck could be deadly?) Trent’s pretty positive his entire town hates him now, and can’t blame them. So for Trent, middle school feels like a fresh start. He may even join the baseball team, if he wants to.

If only Trent could make the fresh start happen. It isn’t until Trent gets caught up in the whirlwind that is Fallon Little — the girl with the mysterious scar across her face — that things begin to change. Because fresh starts aren’t always easy. Even in baseball, when a fly ball get lost in the sun, you have to remember to shift your position to find it.

Why I like Lost in the Sun:

Lisa Graff has written a compelling coming of age story about Trent, a sixth-grader who blames himself for Jared’s death, is wracked with guilt and doesn’t know how to handle the nightmares from the accident and the rage that burns inside him.

This novel speaks powerfully about deep emotional pain. The plot is complex, realistic and skillfully executed. It digs deeply into many themes that include recovery from a tragedy, a father’s remarriage and a new baby, the relationships between three brothers who play pranks on each other, and Trent’s friendship with Fallon, who also shares a different kind of scar.

The first-person narration by Trent is raw and honest. The characters are believable, vulnerable and memorable. It’s hard not to become attached to the characters in this story. Trent is sarcastic, moody, angry, sensitive and funny. Fallon is taunted by other kids at school about her scar, but is upbeat, wise and strives to be herself. In a way she is fragile like Trent, but her demeanor is opposite. They bond through watching baseball movies and searching for “continuity errors” in the movies. Trent and Fallon are an unlikely pairing, but they support each other on their journey towards healing in unusual ways. Trent’s brothers, Aaron and Doug, are pranksters and provide comic relief.

Although Graff’s novel is written for middle graders, young adults will be drawn to this authentic and emotionally driven story from a boy’s perspective. Visit Lisa Graff at her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.

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Edward’s Eyes

Edward's Eyes41gicCObHuL._SX371_BO1,204,203,200_Edward’s Eyes

Patricia MacLachlan, Author

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Fiction, 2007

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Family relationships, Baseball, Death, Donation of Organs

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Jake is part of an extraordinary family. He has a life filled with art, music, and long summer nights on the Cape. He has hours and days and months of baseball. But, more than anything in this world, Jake knows he has Edward. From the moment he was born, Jake knew Edward was destined for something. Edward could make anyone laugh and everyone think. During one special year, he became the only one in the neighborhood who could throw a perfect knuckleball. It was a pitch you could not hit. That same year, Jake learned there are also some things you cannot hold.”

Why I liked Edward’s Eyes:

  • Patricia MacLachlan’s unforgettable story is about family relationships, love, laughter and loss. It is a well-written story that is uplifting from the start. It may be about a loss, but is also realistic and inspiring. Some may feel the story is sad, but I experienced it with wonder and awe.
  • Edward’s Eyes is narrated by Jake, who is the youngest until Edward is born. From the first moment Jake looks into baby Edward’s beautiful dark blue eyes, he knows his brother is special. Jake becomes his brother’s teacher. Through Jake we get a sense of a very strong family (five children) that love, play, and raise each other. Edward grows into a a kind, friendly and thoughtful old soul. He seems to know things before anyone else, like his mother is going to have a baby girl and she’ll be named Sabine.
  • The characters are all memorable and well-developed. The pacing is perfect for this short novel and it has the right amount of tension, especially when tragedy unexpectedly strikes the family and community.
  • MacLachlan succeeds in creating an experience for young readers. The language is simple and not complicated. I love the emphasis on a family that supports and treats each other with respect. It’s also a good baseball story that includes community and Edward’s famous knuckleball pitch. And MacLachlan knows how to pack an emotional punch. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but this heartfelt story will tug at your heart, put a smile on your face, and fill you with hope.

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.

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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.

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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.