A Month of Mondays by Joëlle Anthony

A Month of Mondays

Joëlle Anthony, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Mar. 7, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Abandonment, Family Relationships, Courage, Self-confidence, Healing

Opening: I have three women who think they’re my mom. My sister Tracie has mothered me since I was three, when ours left us. Aunt Jenny steps in when an authority figure is needed and she thinks my dad’s being a slacker. Caroline, the one who gave birth to me? She sends the checks.

Book Jacket Synopsis: This can’t be good! Suddenly Suze’s mom wants back into her life and her teacher wants her to “try harder”?”

As if middle school wasn’t hard enough, Suze Tamaki’s life gets turned upside down where her mother reappears after a ten-year absence. Once Suze gets over her shock, she thinks it might be cool to get to know her mom. But her older sister Tracie is determined not to let her back into their lives, after she walked away without an explanation.

At school things aren’t much better. One of her teachers decides the way to cure Suze’s lack of motivation is to move her into Honors English — a development Suze finds both inspiring and distressing. When she’s paired with straight-A student Amanda on an English assignment, she finds herself caring about people’s expectations like she’s never done before.

Why I like this book:

Joëlle Anthony’s has written a complex and heartwarming story that focuses on the impact of parental abandonment, complicated family relationships and healing.

There is a great cast of quirky characters, who are believable and well-crafted. Suze, is an engaging and edgy narrator. She perceives herself as an underdog at school. But she is smart, curious, and determined character who takes risks that often land her in detention. Her older sister, Tracie, is protective and makes Suze sign a contract to never have contact with their mother. No one in the family talks about her mother, Caroline, including her father, or aunt and uncle. Her friends Jessica and Amanda provide some normalcy in her life. Readers will relate to Suze and her quest to know her mother.

The plot is realistic, the tension is palpable, and the solutions flow organically.  Suze wants to get to know her mother, but is a conflicted. Their first contacts are awkward. Caroline is late, leaves to make phone calls, or has to work late. She sends gifts that aren’t appropriate.  But they work at their relationship and Suze begins to find answers to her questions. The pacing is a bit slow in the beginning, but it picks and keeps the reader turning pages. The ending is unexpected and very satisfying.

Joëlle Anthony is the author of Restoring Harmony, The Right & the Real, and Speed of Life (writing as J. M. Kelly). Visit Anthony at her website.

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

*I was provided with a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

There’s a Cat in Our Class! by Jeanie Franz Ransom

There’s a Cat in Our Class!: A Tale About Getting Along

Jeanie Franz Ransom, Author

Bryan Langdo, Illustrator

Magination Press, Fiction, Aug. 15, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: Animals, Dogs, Cats, Diversity, Embracing differences, Tolerance

Opening: “There were eighteen students in Miss Biscuit’s class. Until…”

Synopsis: Just before lunch, Miss Biscuit shared the exciting news that there would be a new student joining the classroom — Samantha. Max, Rusty, Ginger, and Tanner assume that their new classmate will be just like them … a  DOG.  But Samantha is a cat! “But cats make me nervous,” Rusty said. Me, too! Ginger said. “I’m going to start shedding any minute.”  How does that make Samantha feel? That leads to some hilarious acting out and a heap of questions among the classmates.  When Samantha saves the ball game at recess, the other dogs thinks she’s a pretty cool cat. Then Miss Biscuit announces that there will be another new student arriving tomorrow…

Why I like this story:

Jeanie Franz Ransom has written a clever and humorous story for young children about embracing the differences in each other. With the growing diversity in our country, this is a very timely book.  The students in this story are curious and brutally honest with their questions to their new classmate, Samantha. They want to know if she eats mice, walks on a leash, wags her tail and uses a litter box or goes outside. The  cast of characters are lively and learn about acceptance, tolerance and how to get along. Bryan Langdo’s illustrations are colorful, expressive and tickle the imagination! I love the book cover.

Reading this book to children will help them discover how they are more alike than different, no matter their skin color, ethnicity, language, LGBT issues or disability.  There’s a Cat in Our Class emphasizes compassion and connectivity with our beautiful diverse human family. Although their lives may vary, children enjoy learning, playing games and sharing feelings of joy and sadness. This book fosters acceptance of others.

Resources: This book includes A Note Readers written by Gayle E. Pitman, PhD, that discusses how parents, teachers, and other adults can talk with children about diversity in a way that’s meaningful and effective.

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.

Undiscovered Country by Jennifer Gold

Undiscovered Country

Jennifer Gold, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Apr. 4,2017

Suitable for Ages: 13-18

Themes: Grief, Coming of age, South America, Humanitarian work, War, Mental Illness, Ethnic Minorities

Book Jacket Synopsis: You can run from grief, but it will follow…

Cat’s life is divided. There is the time Before her mom died, and After. When her mom got sick, Cat still did her homework and got accepted into a prestigious college, while her father slowly shut down. Now, everything seems meaningless.

Before, Cat was happy and had momentum. After, she feels stuck. And angry. There might be five stages of grief, but Cat can’t get past stage two. She’s so filled with rage, her doctor tries to medicate her. A pill to make her feel like a zombie? No thanks.

When Cat finds a brochure for Students Without Boundaries – a volunteer program that will send her to South America — she grabs it. It’s her escape from the memories of her mother and the reality of her absence. But life as a “voluntourist” is not an escape. The new people and places Cat meets bring new perspectives and challenges she never expected. Life may still have meaning after all.

Why I like this book:

Jennifer Gold has written a compelling coming of age story about Cat, who is trying to find meaning and purpose in her life after the death of her mother. Gold’s story is carefully crafted with skill and depth.

The story is written in first person with alternating chapters. The “Before” story focuses on Cat’s close bond with her mother throughout her battle with cancer and final moments of death. It is powerful and it carries secrets that will give readers insight into Cat’s choices to leave. “After,” shows Cat’s journey to the jungles of South America, the extreme hardships, poverty, violence, and danger she encounters and her important work in the Infirmary. The alternating chapters work because of the strong “Before” storyline.

The characters are authentic and vulnerable. Cat is a strong and convincing character that readers will connect with and like from the start. She knows that doing humanitarian work in of a war-torn country is a way for her to not dwell on her mother’s absence in her life. She meets other volunteers in the program, like Taylor, Margo, and Melody, who are running away from their own demons in a similar manner. Rafael is a local, who captures Cat’s heart. He heads up a local  resistance movement against the corrupt government and makes deals with some dark figures. Cat’s relationship with him is tricky and will challenge her to make grown-up decisions.

Readers will find the plot is courageous with complicated and multi-layered themes I haven’t even mentioned. The jungle setting is so realistic that readers will feel like they are dripping in sweat, slapping huge mosquitoes, and checking their boots every morning for snakes. It is not a safe place to be with danger an ever-present concern.  The tension is palpable and will keep readers engaged.

Jennifer Gold is a lawyer and mother of two. She is the author of the YA novel Soldier Doll. A history buff, she also has degrees in psychology, law, and public health. She lives in Toronto. Visit Gold online at her website.

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

*I was provided with a copy of this book from the publisher in turn for a fair and honest review.

When Jackie Saved Grand Central by Natasha Wing

When Jackie Saved Grand Central: The True Story of Jacqueline Kennedy’s Fight for an American Icon

Natasha Wing, Author

Alexandra Boiger, Illustrator

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Narrative Nonfiction, Mar. 7, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 6-9

Themes: Jacqueline Kennedy, Grand Central Station, Conservation and Restoration, New York City

Opening: “When Jackie became First Lady of the United States in 1961, she moved into the White House and restored the dreary mansion into a stately home that made Americans proud… Fourteen years later, another famous landmark, this time in New York City, needed Jackie Kennedy’s help…”

Book Jacket Synopsis: First Lady. American legend. New Yorker.

Jacqueline Kennedy loved everything about her home city, from the beauty of the parks to the grandeur of the buildings. Grand Central Terminal was one of the grandest buildings of all — but in 1968, it was in danger of destruction. Jackie couldn’t imagine changing New York’s famous train station! So the former First Lady of the United States and other passionate Americans came together to save the iconic landmark, embarking on a journey that went all the way to the Supreme Court. And as they fought to preserve the past, those who love Grand Central made history.

Why I like this book:

Natasha Wing has skillfully written an inspiring story about how former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy led the effort to save and restore Grand Central. It’s owners wanted to build a skyscraper right on top of this historic site, which opened in 1913.  For Jackie and many others who loved this landmark, “destroying Grand Central would be architectural mutilation.”

Convincingly written and impeccably researched, Wing’s picture book shares a lot of detail about this little-known story for many Americans. In a last-ditch effort to gather support, Jackie and 300 supporters joined aboard the Landmark Express, and traveled from New York to Washington, D.C., to garner public support and attention for their cause before the Supreme Court. Jackie’s comment to the press upon arrival, “If Grand Central Station goes, all the landmarks in this country will go as well.”

This book is a classroom gem that shows children how important it is to get involved in a cause they believe and connect their voices with others in order to create change in their communities and world. They too can make a difference.

Alexandra Boiger’s beautiful illustrations are expressive, inspirational and highlight this important story. Make sure you read her Illustrator’s Note at the end. Boiger shares how she uses different colors and symbols to highlight the emotional story line. For example, during the fight, Jackie wears a bright red coat which depicts her anger.

The restoration work took 20 years and Jacqueline Kennedy died four years before it was dedicated in 1998.

Resources/Activities:  Encourage children to identify historic buildings in their local communities. Visit them. Have buildings been restored and taken care of? If you live in New York City visit Grand Central Station. Both Wing and Boiger urge visitors to walk into the Main Concourse and look up — where the stars shine from the cerulean ceiling. There is also a lengthy Author’s Note at the end that gives a lot more background about Jackie and the restoration work.

Natasha Wing is the author of many picture books, including an acclaimed biography of artist Josef Albers and the best-selling Night Before series. Visit Wing 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.

*I was provided with a copy of this book in turn for a fair and honest review.

The Big Adventures of Tiny House by Susan Schaefer Bernardo

The Big Adventures of Tiny House

Susan Schaefer Bernardo, Author

Courtenay Fletcher, Illustrator

Inner Flower Child Books, Fiction, Apr. 25, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Tiny Houses, Salvaged, Recycled, Travel, Home, Community

Opening: Once there was a farmhouse in a field of hay, / but while it lay sleeping, the acres gave way / to a bustling city whose bright, shiny towers / edged out the farmhouse, the fields and flowers.

Synopsis: An old farmhouse finds its once peaceful setting surrounded by a big city. People pitch in and dismantle the house, salvage the windows and doors, and build a Tiny House on wheels. It has a tiny front porch, a kitchen with cabinets, a loft for sleeping and a nook for reading. When Tiny is hooked up to Big Truck they can travel where ever they want. Tiny heads west to see the world and discover if he’s a real home.

They drive past farmlands, visit the big silver arch in St. Louis, join a parade in New Orleans, camp near the Grand Canyon, drive through the desert and wind through the Rocky Mountains. Traveling can be fun, but Tiny becomes lonely.  They meet friends like Shiny (an Airstream) and Buster (a converted school bus) who invite Tiny to the Tiny House Jamboree. Back on the road Tiny discovers Harmony, a village of tiny houses, and learns a very important lessons about the meaning of home.

Illustrations Courtesy of Courtenay Fletcher

Why I like this book:

Susan Schaefer Bernardo and Courtenay Fletcher have outdone themselves with The Big Adventures of Tiny House, which captures the spirit and heart of the tiny house movement in America. Tiny homes and communities offer an alternative for those seeking a simpler and less costly lifestyle change, friendship and community. And yes, there is a big annual jamboree.

There is a lot energy and playfulness in Bernardo’s rhyming text. “If you’re looking for adventure, just follow me / to the axle-hoppin’, wheel-stompin’ Tiny House Jamboree. / We’ll raise the roof with our ruckus! All our kin will be coming! / There’ll be ringing and singing and dancing and drumming!” The story has a rhythm to it and is fun to read out loud along with the “Beep! Beep! Honk! Honk!” The pacing is perfect and the storytelling is clever. The ending is satisfying and carries a very important message for children about the meaning of “home.”

There is a richness and charm in Fletcher’s bold and colorful illustrations that make this a beautiful book to read. If you look real closely at all the illustrations, kids will discover eyes peering out the windows as Tiny rolls along the road, celebrates the jamboree or is content in his new community. The author and illustrator team up to once again produce another winning book for children.

Resources: Have kids draw or design their own tiny house. What would they put inside the their house? How big would they make it? The Tiny House website also has a template of a tiny house that kids can construct and coloring pages.

Susan Schafer Bernardo and Courtney Fletcher have collaborated on Sun Kisses and Moon Hugs and  The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm, which was read aloud by First Lady Michelle Obama and sent to the International Space Station as part of Storytime in Space!  They hope that Tiny Makes his dream come true and finds his ways to Mars.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers share a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.

*I was provided with a copy of  The Big Adventures of Tiny House in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Amina’s Voice

Hena Khan, Author

Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Fiction,  Mar. 14, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Pakistani and Asian Americans, Friendship, Peer Pressure, Family, Muslim Culture, Community, Prejudice, Racism

Opening: Something sharp pokes me in the rib. “You should totally sign up for a solo,” Soojin whispers from the seat behind me in music class. I shake my head. The mere thought of singing in front of a crowd makes my stomach twist into knots.

Book Jacket SynopsisAmina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American,” now that she is to become a citizen. Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with  these questions, her local mosque is vandalized, and she is devastated.

Why I like this book:

Hena Khan has written a timely and empowering novel about a young Muslim American girl, who finds her voice with the help of friends, family, and community.

Khan’s novel is multi-layered with many themes. The central theme of Khan’s book is about what it’s like to be a Muslim girl growing up in America. She takes her readers into a loving and strict Muslim family, where cultural traditions are at the center of their lives, from praying, studying the Quran and meal preparation, to the respect shown to visitors and the value of community.

The main characters are multi-dimensional and diverse. Amina is a kind-hearted, shy, and talented pianist and vocalist. Her best friend, Soojin, is Chinese and wants to change her name because no one knows how to pronounce it. Bottom line, she wants to fit in. This raises important questions for Amina. Would the popular kids like her better if she changes her name? How does she be true to her Muslim values and still be American? Many readers will identify with the angst of middle school as they navigate through those sensitive years. Amina’s story will also resonate with children of immigrants.

The language is carefully crafted and uplifting. The plot is realistic and leaves readers with hope even after the Islamic Center is attacked and vandalized. It is heartwarming to see how the community rallies behind the Muslim community by inviting them to use their churches and providing labor to rebuild the center. It beautifully demonstrates to readers the meaning of our common humanity. I know my community would come to the rescue of our Muslim neighbors. Verdict: This book belong in every middle grade library. It’s a treasure!

Hena Khan is a Pakistani American who was born and raised in Maryland. She enjoys writing about her culture. She is the author of several books, including It’s Ramadan, Curious George, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, and Night of the Moon. You can learn more about Hena Khan by visiting her website.

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

Tony and His Elephants by Cathleen Burnham

Earth Day, April 22, 2017

Tony and His Elephants: Best Friends Forever!

Cathleen Burnham, Author and Photographer

Crickhollow Books, Nonfiction, Apr. 22, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 7-12

Themes: Elephant Rescue, Sanctuary, Thailand, Environmental Conservation, Science, Nature, Kids Making a Difference

Opening: It was Songkran, Thailand’s New Year celebration. Crowds of cheering people waved flags. Songkran also was the hottest time of the year. All across Thailand, people celebrated with water fights. In the midst of the festivities were two little elephants: Baby Pumpuii and five-year-old Nam Cho. They were chained side by side.

Synopsis: Tony is an eight-year-old boy, whose family runs a small elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand. He becomes involved in the care of two young elephants, Baby Pumpuii and Nam Cho, rescued from an urban setting to a new life in the forests. But life in the wilds is not without its own drama and danger. Tony is quickly drawn into a deep and lasting relationship with these amazing and sensitive animals.

Why I like this book:

  • This is the third photodocumentary book by Cathleen Burnham featuring children involved in wild animal rescue activities. Her stories carry an inspiring and powerful message that you don’t have to be an adult to make a difference. Children like Tony are proof of how one small act of caring can have an important impact in helping wildlife in danger. It has become Burnham’s mission to share the stories of young environmental activists with other children.
  • Burnham’s book is a compassionate and well-crafted story. Her beautiful photographs document Tony’s life and work at the family elephant conservation center in northern Thailand. Tony mixes powdered elephant milk into a huge baby bottle and teaches Baby Pumpuii how to drink. He sleeps in a loft above the new elephants so that he can feed the baby four times a night. He climbs onto Nam Cho’s back and trains her in how to move forward, stop, and turn as he guides her along a dirt path into the jungle. They go for a swim in Mekong River. When a fire breaks out, Tony leads all the elephants to safety in the cool mountaintops, while his parents battle the fire.
  • Burnham’s book helps children understand and respect the interconnection between humans and all life. She introduces children to “cultural learning, language, animal facts, geography, and laws  intended to protect wild animals from black market trade or from being abused to serve human interests.” Like Tony, children worldwide will be inspired to do their part to make a difference in their communities.

Tony feeds Baby Pumpuii a bottle of milk.   Photo Courtesy of Cathleen Burnham

Favorite Lines: “These will be your elephants, Tony,” said his father. “Forever?” asked Tony. “Until the day you die, Tony, just like any mahout,” said his father.

It was the beginning of a lifelong bond. Tony, Nam Cho, and Baby Pumpuii would love and protect one another for the rest of their lives.

Resources:  Make sure you read the Author’s Note at the end of Tony and His Elephants. To learn more about the amazing things children are doing to protect wildlife around the globe, visit the World Association of Kids and Animals (WAKA) and get involved. Check out The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, to learn about the retired circus elephants living in this safe 2,700-acre refuge in companionship with other elephants. For more ideas about how you can make a difference in your community, visit the Earth Day website.

*View Joanna Marple’s inspiring review of Tony and His Elephants on her  website.

Cathleen Burnham is a journalist, writer and wildlife photographer. In addition to Tony and His Elephants, Burnham is the author of Doyli to the Rescue, and the Tortuga Squad. They are the first three books in a series of six books that profile wildlife preservation efforts being undertaken by kids around the globe.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers share a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.

**I was provided with a copy of Tony and His Elephants in exchange for a fair and honest review.