The Mask that Sang by Susan Currie

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Susan Currie, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Sep. 6, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Themes: Bullying, Native American heritage, Family Relationships, Orphans, Residential Schools

Opening: Faster, faster! Cass kept scrambling past garbage cans and over cracked pavement, although her legs were dead stumps and her lungs screamed. The boys were close behind her, the same four who chased her home every day.

Book Synopsis: When Cass Foster’s estranged grandmother unexpectedly leaves her house and savings to Cass and her mom, it’s just the thing they need to change their lives. Cass is being bullied at school, and her mom just lost her job—again—so they pack up and move in. With the gift come more questions than answers for Cass.  Why is her mom reluctant to live there? Why was this relative kept so secret? Why won’t her mother read the sealed letter from her own mother?

While exploring her new room, Cass finds an intriguing and powerful mask in a drawer and she is inexplicably drawn to it. A strange relationship grows between Cass and the mask; it sings her songs, shows her visions of past traumas and encourages her to be brave when facing bullies. When Cass finds the mask gone, her quest to get it back leads to an unexpected discovery about her family’s Cayuga heritage that will bring her and her mother into the arms of a community that’s been waiting for them.

Why I like this book:

Susan Currie works magic in this multi-layered novel, that culminates in a touching and spiritual tale about Cass and her mother finding their roots in a Native American community. It is a journey of discovery that is richly textured with themes of bullying, family relationships and finding “home” in a very tight and loving community.

The characters are diverse, believable, and memorable. Cass is spunky 12-year-old, who sprints home from school dodging bullies that shout insults about her shoes and clothing, call her names, throw objects at her and knock her to the pavement. She’s not sorry to say goodbye to her old school and apartment and move to her very own home and a start fresh at school. Mom is an orphan who never knew her mother.  She’s resentful and reluctant to accept the house and money her “mother” leaves her. Cass quickly makes friends with a boy named Degan Hill, who is a talented artist in her class. She discovers that Degan is Native American, when Ellis, a classroom bully, makes racial slurs. Cass finds a kindred spirit in Degan. She confides to Degan about the mask singing and telling her things. Degan tells Cass that the mask she finds is a “false face” that can have a good or evil spirits running through it. Their friendship grows and a trust forms between them. Change comes for all the characters.

Readers will find themselves richly rewarded by this satisfying tale. The plot is engaging and well-paced with the right amount of tension to keep readers interested. It sheds light on a dark past in Canadian history. Cass is drawn to the mask she finds in her drawer. She is distraught when it is missing from her drawer. Even though the mask is gone, it continues to sing to her, encourages her to be brave, shows her visions of a past she doesn’t understand and leads her to its hiding place.  I like how the author brings the story full circle. This is an emotionally honest story filled with heart.

I urge you to check out a picture book I reviewed Oct. 21, I Am Not A Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer. The story focuses on the Indigenous children who were taken from their families in the 1920s and put in “residential schools” where they were forced to forget their heritage.  It is a good companion book for The Mask that Sang.

Susan Currie is a winner of Second Story Press’ Aboriginal Writing Contest, resulting in this, her second book. Her first book was Basket of Beethoven, published in 2001. She has an MA in children’s literature and has been an elementary teacher for 17 years. Susan is adopted and after discovering a birth aunt a few years ago, she subsequently learned about her Cayuga heritage. The Mask that Sang grew out of her experience of discovering her roots.

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

I Am Not a Number

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Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, Authors

Gillian Newland, Illustrator

Second Story Press, Fiction, Oct. 4, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 7-11

Themes: Native people, Indigenous children, Residential schools, First Nation, Canada

Opening: The dark figure, backlit by the sun, filled the doorway of our home on Nipissing Reserve Number 10. “I’m here for the children,” the shadowy giant said, point a long finger at me. “You! How old?”

Synopsis: Eight-year-old Irene and her family live together on Nipissing First Nation, until the day a government agent arrives and takes Irene and her two brothers away to live at a residential school, far from home.  Her parents have no choice, or they will sent to jail. As the kids are put in a car, her mother tells Irene, “Never forget home or our ways. Never forget who you are.”

At the residential school the girls and boys are separated. Sister Mary tells Irene that she is not to use her name and she is assigned a number. She is 759. Sister Mary cuts her long locks of hair and gives her a grey uniform to wear. Irene is confused, frightened and homesick. There are so many rules. When she speaks to another girl in her native language she is punished. Every day at the school is gloomy and filled with routines: prayers, breakfast, chores and studies. When summer break arrives, Irene and her brothers are sent home. When she shares how they have been treated with her parents, they vow never to send their children back to the residential school. Will they be able devise a plan to keep their children from returning?  Where will the siblings go?

Why I like this book:

I am Not a Number is based on the true story of co-author Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis’ grandmother, Irene Couchie Dupuis, an Anishinaabe women who was born into a First Nation community in Northern Ontario. It is profound story that offers a penetrating look at how Indigenous children were taken away from their families and put into residential schools run by religious groups and forced to forget about their language, customs and heritage. It isn’t an easy subject to broach, but the story is told with sensitivity and the language is age-appropriate for children. The authors have written an important teaching tool for both Canadian and American children about this injustice. This happened to Dr. Dupuis’ grandmother in 1928 — not so long ago. Gillian Newland’s illustrations are beautiful and moving. Her tones are subdued and elicit a lot of emotion. Excellent collaboration among the authors and illustrator.

Resources: There is a special section at the end about the real-life Irene and her family with photos. There is information about the Residential Schools System with photos. This is an excellent book to teach children about the history of residential schools in the 1920s.

Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis is of Anishinaabe/Ojibway ancestry and a proud member of Nipissing First Nation. She is an educator, researcher, artist, and speaker who works full-time supporting the advancement of Indigenous education.  Jenny’s interest in her family’s history drew her to co-write I am Not a Number.

Kathy Kacer is well-known for her children’s books about the Holocaust, including The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser and The Magician of Auschwitz.

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 Adventures of a Girl and Her Dog by Dagny McKinley

The Adventures of a Girl & Her Dog

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Dagny McKinley, Author

Ostap Stetsiv, Illustrator

Brigham Distributing,  Fiction, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: A girl and her dog explore nature

Opening: These are the adventures of a girl and her dog / That played together in rain, snow and fog / Nature was their home / high in the mountains / Away from / cities, subway, planes, cars and trains.

Synopsis: A girl and her dog explore the mountains with abandonment. With no adults to restrict their explorations, they can roam through fields full of flowers, cross streams, climb trees, dig in the earth, splash in streams, watch bears, dodge bee hives, laugh, scream, and get dirty. When the girl and her dog visit the city, they have to look hard for natures’ beauty in the flowers living in the cracks of the sidewalks and in the bird’s nests sitting in gutters.

Favorite Verse: “The girl’s soul lived in the mountains / where trees grow into the clouds / Where there are rocks, there are birds / but nothing loud.”

Adventures-snow…in the Snow

Brigham Distributing, Fiction, 2015

Opening: These are the adventures of a girl and her dog / Who play together in the snow, sleet and fog / Who love to wander where no one else goes / In temperatures of five, ten, even twenty below.

Synopsis: A girl explores the winter wonderland with her dog.  As the snow begins to fall, they relish the possibilities all around them. They watch the clouds transform the landscape and find stories in the tracks left by cougars, foxes, and rabbits. While the temperatures dip, bears, marmots and chipmunks, hibernate in dens. The girl and her dog dance in the snow, run without a care, dig caves in the snow, make snow and dog angels, and watch the sun set. The world changes around them, each day they explore.

Favorite Verse: “Together they set off through the white / as light as a feather / That dances around their feet / like sugar and glitter.

Why I like this series: Dagny McKinley has written a charming series about the joy found in the changing seasons. Children will love the delicious rhyming and words choices. They will delight in romping through the natural world with the girl and dog, feel the peace and tranquility as they explore the mountains and navigate the quiet, winter snow-covered woodlands. The author is clever not to name the girl or dog, as it allows children to imagine that they are the ones having this grand adventure. Ostap Stetsiv’s illustrations are colorful, whimsical and show the wonder on the girl’s face.  The warm, bright colors of summer and cool colors of winter, highlight the different seasons. Exquisite images! Nice collaborative work on this heartwarming series for children and adults.

Resources: Take children on a nature walk to explore the many wonders found in the fields, forests and streams.  Since autumn is here look at the colorful leaves on trees and talk about the life cycles.  Take along a camera and a journal and encourage kids to record birds and animals they see. In the winter, kids can track animal footprints in the snow, make snow angels and build a snowman.

Dagny McKinley has lived many places, but found a home in the expansive granite landscape of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. McKinley stays current on environmental issues, women’s issues and is an avid animal rights supporter. She believes all lives are interconnected and each person, landscape and insect has something to offer and teach.  She is the author of The Springs of Steamboat: Healing Waters, Mysterious Cave and Sparkling Soda, and  Wild Hearts: Dog Sledding the Rockies – written while working as a dog sled tour guide for three years. Visit Dagny McKinley at her website.

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.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

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Lauren Wolk, Author

Dutton Children’s Books, Fiction, May 3, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 10-13

Themes: Bullying, Mean girls, Lies, Courage, Family relationships, Community, Tolerance

Prologue: “The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.  I don’t mean the small fibs that children tell. I mean real lies fed by real fears — things I said and did that took me out of the life I’d always known and put me down hard into a new one.”

Synopsis: It is 1943. Eleven-year-old Annabelle McBride lives on a farm in a small, western Pennsylvania town, with her parents, two brothers, grandparents and Aunt Lily.  Annabelle leads a quiet, ordinary and carefree life, going to school everyday, doing her farm chores, supervising her younger brothers, and helping her mother cook meals in the kitchen. Then one fall morning a very mean-spirited girl named Betty Glengarry moves to Wolf Hollow and changes everything for Annabelle and the community. Betty is cruel and manipulative and easily spots the victims of her bullying through their weaknesses. For Annabelle, Betty threatens to harm her brothers if she doesn’t comply with her demands. Annabelle suffers many beatings on the path to school, until a quiet WW I veteran, Toby intervenes. Betty turns her vengeance on the kind-hearted recluse, and Toby becomes a target of her heartless and ruthless attacks. There are other victims too. As tensions mount, Annabelle’s goodness is her inner strength to do what is right.

Why I like this book:

Lauren Wolk’s debut novel, Wolf Hollow, is gripping and haunting, heartbreaking and beautiful. The setting, the characters, the plot and the gorgeous imagery are so brilliantly intertwined that they create an extraordinary experience for readers. One that you will remember for a long time. You learn about Wolf Hollow and its history of capturing and killing wolves. You feel the silence as you walk the path with Annabelle and ponder its darkness. You experience an extended family living under one roof preparing meals together, canning peaches and baking fresh bread in the oven. And you see contradictions in people who are frightening and neighbors who spread gossip at lightening speed.

The characters are multi-layered and complex. Annabelle is kind-hearted to her very core. She is resilient and courageous. I loved experiencing the story narrative through her innocent and wise character.  She learns how to lie to protects others. Betty Glengarry is vicious and cruel. She knows how to use her charm to manipulate an entire community. Annabelle, who knows Betty’s contradictions, wants her to leave. I want her gone. Yet, as a reader I hope for her redemption and wonder about her vulnerabilities.  What made her so ruthless that she could break a quail’s neck, throw a rock and blind another student, string wire across the road to hurt Annabelle’s brother, and falsely accuse Toby of throwing her in a well?  Was she bullied herself? Even though she’s a bad apple, you worry for her safety. Toby is my favorite character. He’s a gentle man who goes to war, struggles with the atrocities he’s seen, becomes a recluse and wanders into Wolf Hollow. Toby is a quiet presence and his words are few.  He lives in a smoke house and walks the hollows. People think he’s odd, but he is a rare soul who is decent to his very core.

Wolk refrains from sharing all the detail about her characters leaving the reader to decide some things for themselves. The plot is riveting and full of tension. Her deliberate pacing keeps readers fully engaged and wondering what will happen next. Like Annabelle, I found myself contemplating different scenarios. It is a story that will haunt you because of its depth, contradictions and unspoken truths. When I completed the Wolf Hollow, I was convinced I had been there. It is a story that will stay with you because of the profoundly human characters and the untidy ending.

This is an excellent discussion book for teachers to use with middle grade students. There are so many themes that can be explored.

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

For the Right to Learn: Malala Yousafzai’s Story

UN International Day of the Girl, Oct. 11, 2016

For the Right to Learn untitledFor the Right to Learn: Malala Yousafzai’s Story

Rebecca Langston-George, Author

Janna Bock, Illustrator

Capstone Young Readers, Nonfiction PB, Aug. 1, 2015

Suitable for ages: 8-11

Pages: 40

Themes: Malala Yousafzai, Educating girls, Children’s rights, Pakistan, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Courage, Hope

Forward: “This award is not just for me. It is for those forgotten children who want education. It is for those frightened children who want peace. It is for those voiceless children who want change….” Dec. 14, 2014, Oslo, Norway

Opening: “Malala’s own education started early. Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, ran a school in Mingora, a town surrounded by snowcapped mountains in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. From the time she could walk she visited classes. She even pretended to teach. Malala loved school.”

Synopsis: Few Pakistani families can afford to pay for the children’s education.  Others only paid for their sons’ educations. Mala grew up in a world where women were supposed to be quiet. Many parents believed their daughters should cook and keep house. Mala’s parents believed that girls deserved the same education as boys. She studied hard, could speak and write her native Pashto language and fluent English and Urdu. The Taliban leaders were against educating girls, intimidated school leaders, and ordered her father to close his school. But Malala Yousafzai refused to be silent in Swat Valley. She defied the Taliban’s rules. She spoke out for education for every girl. When schools closed she wrote a blog for the BBC and gave interviews. She was almost killed for her beliefs. This powerful true story of how one brave girl named Malala changed the world proves that one person really can make a difference.

Why I like this book:

Rebecca Langston-George powerfully communicates the story of Mala Yousafzai through her careful choice of words so that students are not frightened by her story, but are inspired. Malala is the voice of the many silenced girls who want to attend school. She is a selfless role model for girls everywhere.

I especially like how the book begins on a positive note with Mala receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and with excerpts from her speech. Readers will immediately feel the power in her words and her commitment to be the voice for equal education.

The setting is very realistic with an emphasis on Pakistani culture, community, family life, and traditions. It gives readers a strong sense of what it is like to live in a country where the rights of women and girls are suppressed. It is a story that needs to be told and can be used as a springboard for students to talk about the inequalities for girls and women worldwide.  Hopefully, readers will appreciate their education and not take it for granted.

Janna Bock’s beautiful illustrations make this story soar. She captures the love of a supportive family, the beauty of the Swat Valley with its lush valleys and beautiful waterfalls, the joy of Mala and the other girls studying together at school, the growing fear as the Taliban force girls and women to wear garments to cover their entire bodies and faces, and the danger everywhere. Bock’s illustrations made this book an emotional story that is filled with courage and hope.

Resources: This book belongs in every school library.  It will spark many lively discussions among students about the education of all students globally. For older students there is a page, “More About Malala’s Story” at the end of the book. It is the perfect book the United Nation’s International Day of the Girl, Oct. 11, 2016. This year’s theme is: Girls’ Progress = Goals’ Progress: A Global Girl Data Movement. It’s just not a day, but a movement where girls get involved. Also check out Day of the Girl – US. And, today the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced.

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.

Deep Roots: How Trees Sustain Our Planet

Deep Roots 61SF7ypLrXL__SX424_BO1,204,203,200_Deep Roots: How Trees Sustain Our Planet

Nikki Tate, Author

Orca Book Publishers, Nonfiction, Feb. 9, 2016

Pages: 48

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Trees, Forests, Ecosystems, Green Lungs, Water Cycle, Fuel, Shelter

Opening: “No matter where you live, even if it’s in a big city, chances are you won’t be far from a tree or two. It’s a good thing we find trees all over the place.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Where is the tallest tree in the world? What is a corduroy road? What does a carbon sink do? Why is the baobab called the Tree of Life?

Trees provide us with everything from food, fuel and shelter to oxygen and filtered water. Deep Roots celebrates the central role trees play in our lives, no matter where we live. Each chapter in Deep Roots focuses on a basic element — water, air, fire and earth — and explores the many ways in which we need trees to keep us and our planet healthy and livable.

Why I like this book:

Nikki Tate has written a beautiful nonfiction photo journey for readers to learn about the role of trees in maintaining a vibrant ecosystem, as well as providing food, fuel and shelter.  The story is shown through gorgeous photography, personal stories and facts. The author explains “why trees just might be our best friends, barometers of how we are looking after our planet, and our partners as we move forward to create a healthier world.”

Tate’s book is an inspiring environmental treasure for tree-loving middle grade students who want to plant, study and celebrate their tall green friends.  Every page has a suggestion for youth to “Try This!” activities. There are four chapters that show how trees interact with the four forces of nature — earth, air, water and fire — and how important this relationship is to the balance of the entire planet.

Deep Roots is a welcomed addition to any school library as educators are looking to provide current resources for students about climate change and environmental issues. The Orca Footprints series, has created an exceptional library of books for students.  See other titles below.

Interesting facts from Deep Roots:

  • Earth: Sometimes called the lungs of the planet, trees are critical for producing oxygen, cleansing both air and runoff water of pollutants and feeding the soil when they die.  They also provide food for both humans, animals and insects. Their roots loosen soil and allow water to penetrate the ground, where it can be stored for drier weather.
  • Air: Trees are very busy. Through their leaves and needles they breathe in carbon dioxide (CO2) that clean out car exhaust and other pollutants. Then they breathe out life-sustaining oxygen for human and animal species.
  • Water: When trees suck up water from the soil they release the extra water in the atmosphere.  When enough water has been “breathed out” by the trees, it condenses into clouds and then falls as rain around the planet.
  • Fire: Forest fires can be terrifying,  but they are a normal part of the life cycle of some types of forest. The ash provides nutrients to the soil. It thins out forests so surviving trees grow taller and seedlings can sprout.

Nikki Tate is the author of more than thirty books, most of which are for children and teenagers. She splits her time between Canmore, Alberta, and Victoria, British Columbia. For more information visit Nikki Tate.

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

Jenny and Her Dog Both Fight Cancer by Jewel Kats

jenny-her-dog-51pjkmhaixl__sy498_bo1204203200_Jenny and Her Dog Both Fight Cancer: A Tale of Chemotherapy and Caring

Jewel Kats, Author

Claudia Marie Lenart, Illustrator

Loving Healing Press, Fiction, Mar. 21, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 6-9

Themes: Childhood cancer, Pets with cancer, Friendship, Courage, Loss

Opening: “Your dog, Dolly, has cancer of the lungs.” I can’t believe my ears. This can’t be happening. I know the “C-word” all to well. I glare at my mom. “This must be a real bad joke.”

Synopsis: When the veterinarian tells Jenny her dog has cancer, memories of her own diagnosis come flooding into her mind. Dolly is her best friend and has been there to support Jenny during very tough times of chemotherapy when she loses her hair and is sick. Jenny promises to love and support Dolly.  As Jenny gets stronger, Dolly slows down, doesn’t want to eat and tires from walks. The loving bond between them grows.

Why I like this book:

Jewell Kats has written a heartwarming and honest story about a girl and her dog both receiving a cancer diagnosis. This is a refreshing angle on a story. The bond between Jenny and her dog is realistic. Even though Jenny is still receiving chemo and feels sick many days, she bravely accompanies Dolly to her treatments. Together they love and support one another through many tough times. Jenny is a very courageous character. And Dolly is the best medicine for Jenny’s healing process. But the prognosis is not always good for dogs with cancer. As Jenny gets better, Dolly begins to weaken.

I like the simplicity of Kats’ narrative, which is told in Jenny’s voice. Her picture book would be helpful to children who are dealing with cancer, whether their own, a family member or a pet.  Claudia Marie Lenart’s beautifully illustrates the story with her hand-made fiber artwork. Her soft wool sculptures are magical and really make this story special.

Jewel Kats is the author of about a dozen “Fairy Ability Tales, which feature protagonist’s who have a disability or chronic illness. Kats also dealt with a disability and wrote books that helped kids see themselves in stories.  She wanted to be known for her work as an advocate for individuals with disabilities.  Unfortunately, Jewel Kats passed away Jan. 7, 2016. Her last book with Lenart will be published this fall.  Visit Kats’ website.  Check out Claudia Marie Lenart’s  fiber artwork process on her website.

Resources: The book alone is a perfect resource for parents and families. Her picture book would be helpful to children who are dealing with cancer, whether their own, a family member or a pet.  September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month.

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.