Written in the Stars

Written in the Stars9780399171703_p0_v2_s192x300Written in the Stars

Aisha Saeed, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction,  Mar. 24, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 14-17

Themes: Forced Marriages, Pakistani-American teen, Diversity,

Synopsis: Naila is a responsible and trustworthy daughter to her immigrant Pakistani parents. Steeped in cultural tradition, her parents allow her to attend a Florida high school, study subjects she likes, wear her hair how she wishes, dress like the other students and choose her career path in college. The only thing she is not allowed to do is date boys or choose a husband. Naila falls in love with Sajf, a Pakistani-American boy, during her senior year. She keeps her secret and meets Saif for lunch everyday. When Naila disobeys her parents and sneaks to the senior prom with Saif, her parents are outraged at her betrayal of trust and humiliated by their close-knit community. In attempt to help Naila understand her heritage, they pull her out of school, travel to Pakistan to visit relatives. Naila enjoys meeting so many family members and bonding with her cousin, Selma. Her vacation turns into a nightmare when her parents betray her, force her into an arranged marriage with Amin, and then leave Pakistan. She is alone living with a strange family, who see her as their ticket to America. Is this Naila’s destiny or is there any hope for escape?

What I love about Written in the Stars:

  • Aisha Saeed has masterfully written a bold, heart wrenching and complex cross-cultural novel that will be an eye-opener for many young readers. It is also beautiful love story between two Pakistani-American teens.
  • The setting is culturally rich for teens reading Written in the Stars. It is about Pakistani traditions, extended families living together, food preparations, small villages, the landscape, neighbors knowing everyone’s business, and shopping in local markets.
  • The first-person narrative with Naila offers greater depth into her character. Naila is a strong and determined protagonist. Her anger and pain are palpable, as is her desire to escape. All of the characters are well-developed, memorable and stay with you after you finish. The plot is suspenseful and brutal at times. The author shows much of the action, which is more powerful than words. The reader experiences Naila’s prison. Written in the Stars is a page-turner and I could not put it down. The ending is unexpected.
  • The author shares that although her own marriage was arranged by her parents, she wrote the book to shed light on the many arranged forced marriages.  I have never read anything like this powerful book, and I mean that as a compliment. Saeed sheds so much light on the problem of forced marriages in America and around the world. Although her characters are American-Pakistani, Saeed points out that “the issue is not limited to one particular culture or religion.”

Resources: There is a lovely Author’s Note at the end, along with resources for individuals needing advice, and a glossary. Visit Aisha Saeed at her website.

Aisha Saeed is a Pakistani American writer, teacher and attorney. Written in the Stars is her debut novel. She is on of the founding members of the We Need Diverse Books Campaign.

Whispers of the Wolf

Native American Heritage Month 2015

Whispers of Wolf12019923_1153634834665819_1090367024691818742_nWhispers of the Wolf

Pauline Ts’o, Author and Illustrator

Wisdom Tales Press, Fiction, Oct. 7, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-8 years

Themes: Pueblo Indians, Southwest, Wolves, Human-animal relationships, Wildlife Rescue

Opening: “Over five hundred years ago, a Pueblo boy and his grandfather were looking for medicine plants high above their village.”

Synopsis: Two Birds, a shy Pueblo boy living in the desert southwest, discovers a whimpering wolf pup in a deep hole. The cub is weak and hardly moves. He asks Grandfather if he may rescue the pup. Two Birds nurses the wolf pup back to health. The wolf goes with Two Birds and his friend, Gray Bear, on hunting trips. A bond forms between Two Birds and his wolf as they explore the natural world together. He hears the wolf’s thoughts in “whispers” of the wind, sun and rain. He shares these  “whisper” stories with Gray Bear. Word spreads through the village and children come to listen to Two Birds’ stories. One night the wild wolves begin calling from a distance and Two Birds’ wolf responds. The wolf yearns to be free and Two Birds will have a decision to make.

Why I like this story:

Whispers of the Wolf is a gratifying portrayal of the community life of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico and Arizona before the arrival of the Spanish explorers. Pauline Ts’o spent over ten years visiting with Pueblo families in their homes and learning about their strong sense of community. Read the “Author’s Note” at the beginning of the book to learn about her impressive research for this work of historical fiction.

The result is a heartwarming story about a shy boy trying to find his voice and place among his Pueblo community. When Two Birds finds the wolf pup, his unlikely relationship with the wolf helps him gain self-confidence and develop reverence and respect for the natural world. The characters are memorable and the storytelling will appeal to children and adults of all ages. Ts’o has written a beautiful tale about Native Americans tribes of the southwest. She captures the warmth and beauty of the Pueblo culture in her rich and lively illustrations.

Resources: There are “Notes on the Illustrations” that include fascinating details about the Pueblo culture, family life, adobe houses and living spaces, language, storytelling, traditions and wolves. There is also a map showing the tribal regions in North America. Visit Wisdom Tales Press for resources on American Indians and the Native American Heritage Month website for other resources.

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. 

I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives

I Will Always Write Back9780316241311_p0_v5_s192x300I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives

Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda with Liz Welch, Authors

Little Brown and Company, Memoir, Apr. 14, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 12 and up

Themes: Pen Pals, Teenagers, U.S. and Zimbabwe, Friendship, Poverty, Friendship

Book Jacket Synopsis: It started as an assignment. Everyone in Caitlin’s class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. Martin was lucky to even receive a pen-pal letter. There were only ten letters, and forty kids in his class. But he was the top student, so he got the first one. That letter was the beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.

Why I like this book:

  • This is an inspirational  story about a true friendship that begins between two 12-year-old students in 1997 — Caitlin lives in Pennsylvania and Martin lives in the slums of Zimbabwe. They make a pen pal pact that they “will always write back.” Their story is about similarities and contrasts. Their friendship transforms both of their lives and makes them better people.
  • The dual memoir is told in first person with alternating chapters that keep readers turning pages. It also adds more depth to the story because readers have immediate access to their intimate thoughts and feelings as they exchange letters and build trust with one another. Caitlin’s early letters detail arguments with friends, boyfriends, shopping, and family. Martin quickly realizes that Caitlin’s life is one of privilege, so it takes a crisis before Martin finally opens up and reveals his difficult life.
  • Martin is a serious and determined teen who is wants to be the first in his family to get and education. He is at the top of his class and scores very high on national exams. He is a whiz at math and wants to go to college and major in mathematics and finances. He works hard at his studies, but also has a side job to help his family. His story is the most compelling because of all the obstacles he has to overcome to pursue his dreams.
  • I enjoyed watching Caitlin’s growth and change when she realizes the full impact of Martin’s poverty-stricken life. She begins to look at her own life and what matters. She stops hanging with the friends who tease her about her pen pal. She begins to focus on finding ways to help Martin realize his dreams. She turns to her family for help.
  • Caitlin’s parents are amazing. They play a significant role in finding ways to send money to Martin’s family after his father loses his job. They pay for Martin and his sibling’s schooling, help his parents with rent and food, and send care packages. Helping Martin pursue higher education in Zimbabwe and attend a university in America, becomes a family project. Caitlin’s mother is a gem! She works tirelessly with American universities to find a full scholarship for Martin. She and Caitlin work with embassies in both countries. This is a family to admire.
  • I Will Always Write Back is a powerful story about how one person (and family) can make a difference. It is a story about connecting the dots with others less fortunate and realizing that we all have the power to help others less fortunate, whether it is locally or globally. Both Caitlin and Martin opened each other’s eyes to a bigger and better world. Their memoir is an eye-opener and an excellent choice for students in the classroom. Teachers can use their story to discuss the contrast in cultures and encourage students to get involved in service.

Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda are still best friends today. Caitlin, an ER nurse, is married and has young daughters. Martin earned dual degrees in mathematics and economics for Villanova University and an MBA in finance from Duke University.  Over time he saved and purchased a new home for his parents with indoor plumbing, a toilet and their own beds.  His sister is planning to attend college in America.

Liz Welch is an award-winning journalist and memoirist whose critically acclaimed first book, The Kids Are All Right, won an ALA Alex Award. She worked with Caitlin and Martin to bring their story to life.

The Way to School

WTS_backcover.inddThe Way to School

Rosemary McCarney with Plan International, Author

Second Story Press, Nonfiction, Sept. 1, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 6-9

Themes: How children from around the world travel to school

Opening: “You probably enjoy going to school. Even if you have a bad day now and then, wouldn’t you miss it if you could never go? Did you know that lots and lots of kids around the world would love to go to school, but can’t?”

Synopsis: As the new school year begins, many children eagerly prepare for school. In America and Canada, most ride school buses, travel by car or walk.  But, children all over the world don’t have a yellow school bus picking them up each day. For many children, the journey to school is not very easy. It can be long, arduous and dangerous. They travel though earthquake and tsunami areas, wade or paddle across rivers, climb mountains and slippery cliffs, cling to ziplines that dangle over gorges, and ride dog sleds.

Why I like this book:

Rosemary McCarney has once again written a beautiful and remarkable book that will be an eye-opener for many children. I was surprised at the extreme dangers children face daily because they are so determined to attend school. They want to improve their lives and help their communities.

I like McCarney’s minimal use of text and her emphasis on the beautiful photographs that speak more than words ever could. Every photograph in this stunning picture book shows the commitment children are willing to make to go to school. This is a magnificent book for teachers to use in the classroom at the start of a new school year. It will jump-start many interesting discussions about extreme modes of transportation for children in third world countries.  It will also help children appreciate what they have. This book belongs in every school library.


Photo Courtesy of Second Story Press

Resources/Activities: After reading the book and showing children each detailed photograph, ask them some lively questions: “What would you do to get to school?” “How important is school to you? Why do children in poor villages want to go to school?” Ask kids to choose one of modes of transportation in the book, draw a picture and write a paragraph about going to school by boat, dog sled or ziplines. Today is a National Day of Service. How will you be involved?

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.

Water Is Water

Water is Water9781596439849_p0_v1_s192x300Water Is Water

Miranda Paul, Author

Jason Chin, Illustrator

Roaring Brook Press, Nonfiction, May 26, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Water cycles, Seasons, Rhyming, Diversity

Opening: “Drip. Sip. Pour me a cup. Water is water unless…it heats up.”

Synopsis: Two children explore the different phases of the water cycle during the year. They experience rain turning into fog, snow, and ice, as each season brings with it the mystique of this life-giving element.

Why I like this book:

Miranda Paul’s engaging brief and lyrical text sings off the pages. The rhyming is very clever. Children will relate to the brother and sister as they experience water in its many forms throughout the year. I especially like that the brother and sister in the story are biracial with a diverse group of children joining them as they splash in puddles, glide on ice, build snowmen, throw snowballs, squish in mud after snow melts, pick apples, press apple cider and jump into ponds. This is a fascinating introduction to the water cycle for young children. Jason Chin’s lively and expressive watercolors contribute significantly to the beauty of Water Is Water. This is an exceptional pairing of text with illustrations.

Resources: Paul includes extensive backmatter about the movement and change of water from liquid to vapor and fog, to precipitation, to ice and so on. This information will compliment classroom lesson plans.

Miranda Paul has traveled to Gambia as a volunteer teacher, a fair-trade and literacy advocate, and freelance journalist.  She is also the author of One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia  (read my review) and Water is Water, both of which were named Junior Library Guild selections. Visit Miranda Paul at her website.

Imani’s Moon

Imani's Moon9781934133576_p0_v1_s260x420Imani’s Moon

JaNay Brown-Wood, Author

Hazel Mitchell, Illustrator

Charlesbridge Publishing, Fiction, Oct. 14, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Maasai tribe, Maasai mythology, Moon, Belief and doubt, Self-confidence, Determination

Opening: “Imani was the smallest child in her village.”

Book Synopsis: Imani may be the smallest child in her Maasai village, but she is big in heart. The more she hears the ancient stories of her people, the more she longs to do something great. Imani wants to touch the moon, like Olapa, the moon goddess of Maasai mythology. Despite the teasing from village children, Imani isn’t about to give up on her dream.

What I like about this book:

JaNay Brown-Wood’s heartwarming story is filled with hope, ambition and big dreams. Even though Imani is tiny, she is strong in spirit. She endures the teasing of the village children daily. But they don’t deter her. For Imani there are no limitations, only possibilities and dreams to touch the moon. This richly textured story is charming, magical and begs to be read repeatedly. Hazel Mitchell’s cover with Imani’s outstretched arms in front of the big moon is engaging and draws the reader into Imani’s story. Her vibrant watercolor and graphite artwork includes a lot of Maasai detail.  The night scenes of Imani and the moon are dazzling and magical. Great collaborative work between the author and illustrator.

Resource: There is a lovely Author’s Note about the culture of the Maasai people living on the plains of Tanzania and Kenya. Passing along stories and mythology is an important part of the culture. You may want to visit JaNay Brown-Wood at her website. She has a Teaching Guide available for teachers and parents.

Sharing Our Homeland

Sharing Our Homeland9781584302605_p0_v1_s260x420Sharing Our Homeland: Palestinian and Jewish Children at Summer Peace Camp

Trish Marx, Author

Cindy Karp, Photographer

Lee & Low Books Inc., Nonfiction, Jun. 1, 2010

Pages: 42

Suitable for Ages: 8 and up

Themes: Peace Camp, Friendships between Jewish and Arab children, Tolerance, Respect, Multicultural

Opening: “Summer is here, and Alya and Yuval are off to camp. They will swim and play games, sing and make crafts, go on field trips and spend a night sleeping in tents. They will have fun with their friends and make new ones.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Summer is here, and Alya, an Israeli Palestinian girl, and Yuval, and Israeli Jewish boy, are off to Peace Camp. They are excited, but their excitement is mixed with apprehension. The area in which they live has been fought over by Palestinians and Jews for a hundred years. What will campers from the “other side” be like? the children wonder.

At camp, Alya, Yuval, and the other campers enjoy two weeks of fun in close contact with one another. They participate in sports, create arts and crafts projects, and go on field trips. The children begin to understand what their homeland means to both sides. They learn not to be afraid and to respect one another.

What I like about this book:

  • Trish Marx has written a compelling and thought-provoking book for youth about a Peace Camp for children in one of the most complex parts of the world. It is heartwarming to know that there are both Jews and Muslims living in Israel who would like a peaceful coexistence.
  • The book focuses on a Muslim girl, Alya, and a Jewish boy,Yuval, who happen to live in neighboring settlements and probably would never meet, except through camp. Readers are introduced to their families, learn a little about their daily lives, occupations, culture and traditions.
  • The author gives a brief history about the Middle East and the context for the conflict in the region. As she does so, she explains how Alya and Yuval live in the midst of this ongoing conflict and the impact on their lives.
  • The goal of Givat Haviva’s Menashe Summer Peace Camp is to build “bridges and understanding among the campers.” It reaches out to children with the hopes of creating a foundation for peace, tolerance and respect for each other.
  • Cindy Karp’s vivid and colorful photographs are filled with laughter and chronicle the activity of the campers. The campers’ days are filled with swimming, water slides, a day at the beach, arts and crafts projects, climbing, and games. There are field trips to a kibbutz (Jewish settlement) and an Arab village where they learn to bake challah bread and taboon, a round flatbread. There is a sleepover the last night.
  • Readers will gain insight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and feel hope that solutions may come with younger generations. I highly recommend this book and hope that it has a home in every school library.

Resources: The author provides further reading, websites of interest, and a glossary at the end.  You may visit Trish Marx at her Lee  & Low website.