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.

Drum Dream Girl

Drum Dream Girl9780544102293_p0_v4_s260x420Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music

Margarita Engle, Author

Rafael Lopez, Illustrator

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Mar. 31, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-9

Themes: Drummers, Music, Cuba, Gender equality, Diversity

Opening: “On and island of music / in a city of drumbeats / the drum dream girl / dreamed…”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Girls cannot be drummers. Long ago on an island filled with music and rhythm, no one questioned that rule — until the drum dream girl. She longed to play tall congas and small bongos and silvery, moon-bright timbales. She had to keep her dream quiet. She had to practice in secret. But when at last her music was heard, everyone sang and danced and decided that boys and girls should be free to drum and dream.

Why I like this book: Margarita Engle’s Drum Dream Girl is an inspirational and beautiful work of free-verse historical fiction. As you read this melodic poem out loud, you are drawn to the rhythmic beat of the text about a girl who made a difference. Millo Castro Zaldarriaga is so infused by the music and sounds around her, she can’t help herself.  When she walked under / wind-wavy palm trees / in a flower-bright park / she heard the whir of parrot wings / the clack of woodpeckers breaks / the dancing tap / of her own footsteps / and the comforting pat / of her own / heartbeat. When her sisters hear her drumming, they invite her to join their dance band. Her father says only boys can play drums, but relents and takes her to a teacher.

I applaud Engle for focusing on Zaldarriaga’s young life instead of her career. It is important for children to see how a 10-year-old girl dares to make a difference in 1932 and paves the way for Cuban women to become drummers. There is a historical note about Zaldarriaga and her musical career at the end of the book. Rafael Lopez’s creates his own magic with his vibrant, colorful and dreamy illustrations. His artwork beautifully compliments the story.

Resources: Children love music as much as they enjoy making things.  Make a drum or other musical instruments to encourage creativity and play. Visit the Kinder Art site for steps to make a variety of easy homemade drums.

Author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books (PPB) Fridays will be on hiatus this summer. This will be the last PPB review until September, although you will still be able to visit the link. I will continue to review books throughout the summer.

Peace, Bugs, and Understanding

Peace, Bugs9781937006631_p0_v3_s260x420Peace, Bugs, and Understanding: An Adventure in Sibling Harmony

Gail Silver, Author

Youme Nguyen Ly, Illustrator

Parallax Press, Fiction, Dec. 9, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Anger, Sibling Rivalry, Mindfulness

Opening: Lily was having a picnic with her father and her little sister, Ruby, but it wasn’t much fun. Ruby was lying on the checkerboard.

Book Jacket Synopsis: Lily and her sister are having a picnic when Ruby spoils their game of checkers. Lily lashes out but soon gets absorbed in a wonderful book, the story of her great-grandfather Lahn’s encounter with a strong-looking frog-like creature called Anger. The precious old journal teaches Lily about Metta, a technique that has helped people transform anger into loving kindness for thousands of years.

Why I like this book:

  • Gail Silver, author of Ahn’s Anger, has written a positive and resourceful book for children and adults about transforming negative feelings. This book focuses on anger, but I believe it can be used with feelings of jealousy, frustration, anxiety, disappointment or any negative feeling that causes disharmony. It’s a book children and parents will want to read together.
  • Peace, Bugs and Understanding, introduces its readers to a very simple calming technique called “Metta,” which means loving kindness. Silver suggests “that when you practice Metta,  sit quietly and become aware of your own breath.” Once you calm yourself, you focus on the person you are angry with and wish for them “to be happy, be strong, be safe and live with peace.” 
  • This is a wonderful tool for children and adults to cultivate forgiveness towards others and even themselves. How can you be angry at someone when you are sending them kind, happy and loving thoughts?
  • The book is a story within a story. Therefore, Youme Nguyen Ly’s illustrations are colorful and warm watercolors in Lily’s world, but are gray and white pen and ink for Lahn’s journal.  The illustrations project a sense of calm that fits beautifully with the theme. This is a lovely collaboration between author and illustrator.

Resources: My favorite part of the book is a “Reader’s Guide” at the end that helps parents teach “Metta” to their children. There is also a page of discussion questions to use with children. This is also a book to pair with Ahn’s Anger, which I reviewed in 2013. You can visit Gail Silver and Youme Nguyen Ly at their websites.

Gail Silver is the founder of Yoga Child, a program that develops curriculum for school-based yoga and mindfulness programs. She is the author of Anh’s Anger and its sequel Steps and Stones.

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.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

Yaqui Delgado 9780763671648_p0_v3_s260x420Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

Meg Medina, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, 2013

Awards:  2014 Pura Belpré Author Award; ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults; International Latino Best Books Awards – Young Adult Fiction; and  Kirkus Reviews Best Books for 2013

Suitable for Ages: 14-17

Themes: New Girl, Latin Americans, Bullying, High School, Family Relationships, Friendships

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass.” That’s what some girl tells Piddy Sanchez one morning before school. Too bad Piddy doesn’t even know who Yaqui Delgado is, let alone what she’s done to piss her off.  All Piddy knows is that Yaqui hates her — and she better watch her back because Yaqui isn’t kidding around.

At first Piddy just focuses on trying to find out more about the father she’s never met and how to balance honors courses with her weekend job at the neighborhood hair salon. But as the harassment escalates, avoiding Yaqui and her gang starts to take over Piddy’s life.  Is there any way for Piddy to survive without closing herself off and running away from her problems?

Why I like this book:

  • Meg Medina focuses on the paralyzing impact of bullying in this raw, emotional and honest novel. The theme is timely and based on the author’s own experience with a bully as a teen, which adds depth and credibility to the story.
  •  The richly textured Latino story is set in Queens, New York, where Medina grew up.  The story is peppered with Spanish expressions, which contributes to the reader’s experience.
  • The characters are diverse and memorable. Piddy is an outgoing, smart and attractive Latina girl who wants to be a scientist. Yaqui is a jealous and threatening adversary who hates Piddy simply because she’s the “new” girl at school. Piddy’s Mama is strong and protective. Lila, her Mama’s best friend, is Piddy’s only confidant.  She works at the hair salon with Piddy, sells Avon and adds some comic relief.
  • Medina’s first-person narrative is extremely effective. The reader feels Piddy’s growing panic as the harassment increases and Yaqui and her gang stalk and close around her. Piddy is trapped and knows that if she tells school authorities or her mama, she will be “digging her grave.” Her grades dive, she isolates herself, skips school and her personality changes.
  • The plot is multi-layered, courageous and complicated. Medina delves deeply into the loneliness, fear and trauma of a bullied teen trying to handle the situation alone and the realistic mother-daughter relationship with family secrets.  The pacing is fast, engaging and keeps the reader turning pages. There are unexpected surprises and a realistic ending.  I had a hard time letting go of the story and characters.
  • Older teens will identify with Piddy and relate to the theme and plot.  Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass belongs in every school library because it is such an excellent work of fiction and a great discussion book.

Meg Medina is an award-winning Cuban-American author who writes picture books, middle grade, and YA fiction. She is the 2014 recipient of the Pura Belpré medal and the 2013 CYBILS Fiction winner for her young adult novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. She is also the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writers medal winner for her picture book Tia Isa Wants a Car.  Visit Meg Medina at her website.

Never Say a Mean Word Again

Never Say Mean Word9781937786205_p0_v2_s260x420Never Say A Mean Word Again: A Tale from Medieval Spain

Jaqueline Jules, Author

Durga Yael Bernhard, Illustrator

Wisdom Tales, Fiction, May 7, 2014

Awards: 2015 Sydney Taylor Honor Books Award; 2014 National Jewish Books Award Finalist; 2014 Middle East Book Awards Honorable Mention

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Conflict Resolution, Justice, Fathers and sons, Friendship, Historical Spain

Opening: Samuel, the son of the grand vizier, walked into the castle courtyard wearing a flowing purple robe. His eyes were on the flowers and the fountains, not where he was walking. “OUCH!” Too late. 

Synopsis:  Samuel accidentally bumps into Hamza, the tax collector’s son. Samuel apologizes, but Hamza doesn’t believe him. Later that day, they are seated beside each other for lunch.  Samuel’s goblet slips out of his hand and stains Hamza’s shirt. Hamza is angry, calls Samuel mean names and won’t accept his apology. Samuel asks his father, the vizier, if he will punish Hamza. Instead the vizier tells his Samuel to “make sure Hamza never says a mean word to you again.”  How will Samuel deal with Hamza so he isn’t insulted again?

Why I like this book:

  • It is an inspiring multicultural tale of two lively boys, one Jewish and one Muslim, trying to solve their differences.
  • Jules’ story is inspired by a medieval legend about the Jewish poet Samuel Ha-Nagid, (993-1056) who was the vizier in Muslim Granada, a city in Spain. 
  • It explores the challenges of friendship across cultures and social status.
  • The ending is unexpected. Without realizing it, Samuel finds himself playing with Hamza daily. Samuel’s attempt to obey his father turns into an unexpected quest to make a friend out of his enemy.
  • The message of Samuel’s attempts to find a peaceful resolution to his differences with Hamza, is relevant today. Children will resonate with this timeless issue of making a bully into a friend.
  • Bernhard’s colorful and vivid illustrations capture the culture of this Medieval period. They are lively and show the tension and humor in the story.

Resources: There is a beautiful history about the Medieval legend and the history of Spain at the end of the book. This is a great book for teachers to use in the classroom to discuss peaceful ways to resolve conflict. Visit Jacqueline Jules’ website for information, a teacher’s guide and other materials to use with Never Say a Mean Word Again.

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.

One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul

One Plastic Bag61EOyyzSCzLOne Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia

Miranda Paul, Author

Elizabeth Zunon, Illustrator

Millbrook Press, Nonfiction, Feb. 1, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Isatou Ceesay, Gambia, West Africa, Plastic bags, Pollution, Recycling

Opening: Isatou walks with her chin frozen. Fat raindrops pelt her bare arms. Her face hides in the shadow of  a palm-leaf basket, and her neck stings with every step.

Synopsis: As a girl, Isatou watches the people of her village carry items in plastic bags. When the bags tear, they toss them in the dirt.  The bags accumulate in heaps. They become a breeding ground for mosquitoes and disease. They impact the crops.  Goats rummage through the smelly bags for food. When her grandmother’s goats die from eating bags, Isatou knows she must do something. Now a woman, she begins to collect the dirty bags, washes them with omo soap and hangs them on a line to dry. Some of her friends begin to help. Others mock her. She comes up with an idea to recycle the bags into something useful. She and her friends crochet them into plastic purses, sell them in the market for a profit and help their community.

Why I like this book:

  • Miranda Paul skillfully captures this inspiring and true story of Isatou Ceesay and the women of Njau, Gambia, who are on a mission to recycle discarded and dangerous plastic bags to save their village.
  • The text is simple and lyrical. The story is character driven. The West African setting is realistic and the plot completely engaging for children. Children will grasp the importance of recycling and be intrigued by Ceesay’s solution.
  • It carries a strong message for children about how one person can see a problem, find a solution and make a difference in their community.
  • The story also shows how a group of women can create a product, make a profit, improve their own lives and help their village.
  • This is an excellent book for classrooms and youth groups, especially with Earth Day on April 22.
  • Elizabeth Zunon’s illustrations are warm and richly textured with cut-outs that form a collage of beauty. She also creates a colorful collage of plastic bags for the end papers of the book. Visit Zunon at her website.

Resources: There is a very informative Author’s Note from Miranda Paul, a timeline of events, a glossary of words, and suggested reading. Visit the One Plastic Bag website for worksheets and a teacher’s guide. There is a special 2015 Earth Day Contest for kids Pre-K through 8th grade. Entries must be received by May 7, 2015. The contest is now open.

Miranda Paul has traveled to Gambia as a volunteer teacher, a fair-trade and literacy advocate, and freelance journalist.  She has another book, Water is Water, due out in May 2015.

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.

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.