Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Black Brother, Black Brother

Jewell Parker Rhodes, Author

Little Brown and Company, Fiction, Mar. 3, 2020

Suitable for ages:

Themes: Fencing, African Americans, Brothers, Racism, Preparatory schools, Family life, Friendship

Opening: I wish I were invisible. Wearing Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak or Frodo Baggins’s Elvish ring. Whether shrouded in fabric or slipping on gold, it wouldn’t matter to me. I’d be gone. Disappeared.”

Book Jacket Synopsis:

“Framed. Bullied. Disliked. But I know I can still be the best.”

Sometimes, 12-year-old Donte wishes he were invisible. As one of the few black boys at Middlefield Prep, most of the students don’t look like him. They don’t like him either. Dubbing him “Black Brother,” Donte’s teachers and classmates make it clear they wish he were more like his lighter-skinned brother, Trey.

When he’s bullied and framed by the captain of the fencing team, “King” Alan, he’s suspended from school, arrested and taken to jail for something he didn’t do. Just because he is black.

Terrified, searching for a place where he belongs, Donte joins a local youth center and meets former Olympic fencer Arden Jones. With Arden’s help, he begins training as a competitive fencer, setting his sights on taking down the fencing team captain, no matter what.

As Donte hones his fencing skills and grows closer to achieving his goal, he learns the fight for justice is far from over. Now Donte must confront his bullies, racism, and the corrupt systems of power that led to his arrest.

Powerful and emotionally gripping, Black Brother, Black Brother is a careful examination of the school-to-prison pipeline and follows one boy’s fight against racism and his empowering path to finding his voice.

Why I like this book:

Jewell Park Rhodes’s Black Brother, Black Brother is a timely, intelligent and well-executed novel for children and adults. Rhodes masterfully captures the pain of racial injustice for a 12-year-old black boy attending an all-white prep school outside of Boston. It is also a story about hope, believing in yourself, and choosing a higher path.

The characters are multi-layered and complex. The bond between brothers Donte and Trey is strong. Donte’s skin is like their African-American mother, and Trey’s is like their Norwegian father. Trey is a star athlete at school; Donte is not.  But what really stands out is the love and support they share as brothers. Their bond is unbreakable. And their parents are right there with them. Then there is a privileged  Middlefield Prep student, Alan, who punishes Donte for being darker than his brother. Alan is filled with so much hate and taunts Donte by calling him “Black Brother.”

Black Brother, Black Brother is also an engaging sports story. Readers will find fencing fascinating, as it requires skill, focus, honor, respect, patience and intuition.  Learning the sport from Arden Jones, an African-American national fencing champion, helps Donte find his voice and embrace who he is. For me, Donte’s relationship with “Coach” is the best part of the story. And it becomes clear that both coach and student need each other. They practice at the Boston Boys and Girls Club along with black twins, Zion and Zarra. Trey joins their small team in support his brother and learn the sport.

This is a compelling book to use to jump start the discussion about racism, privilege, and bias in our country — especially at school. Readers will be able to gain insight into the everyday experiences of their friends of color. It will help them develop empathy for others and hopefully encourage them to stand up for fairness and respect when they observe injustice at school and in their communities. If you are reading this book, it means you can make a difference! I hope this book becomes required reading in middle schools because it offers an opportunity for important dialogue among students.

*This book hit home for me, because we adopted a 13-year-old son from India in the 1985. He was darker than many black people and had shiny black hair. Everyday he dealt with questions like, “What are you?” Fortunately some white neighbor boys his age befriended him and had his back with school bullies. They remain his best friends today. As a successful adult, he still deals with racial profiling.

Jewell Parker Rhodes is the author of Ninth Ward, winner of a Coretta Scott King Honor, Sugar, winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and the New York Times bestselling Ghost Boys, as well as Bayou Magic and Towers Falling.  She has also written many award-winning novels for adults. When she’s not writing, Jewell visits schools to talk about her books and teaches writing at Arizona State University.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the MMGM link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for a review.

*Reviewed from a library book.

Wondrous Rex by Patricia MacLachlan

Wondrous Rex

Patricia MacLachlan, Author

Emilia Dzubiak, Illustrator

Katherine Tegen Books, Mar. 17, 2020

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Dog, Animals, Words, Imagination, Stories, Writing, Friendship, Magic

Opening: “I am seven years old, and my life is soon to be full of “wondrous” happenings. “Wondrous” is a word I learned from my aunt Lily, a writer of books.”

Synopsis:

Grace’s aunt is a writer. She works with words every day and teaches Grace interesting words like “melancholy” and “delirious.” But Lily is often “flummoxed” by her writing. Her stories don’t go anywhere, her desk is a mess, and her writer’s group can’t help.

So Lily posts an ad for an assistant: A writer of books needs an assistant, a coach, a helper, for inspiration and some magic!

The next day, Grace opens the door, and there is Rex: a Labrador retriever who will change Grace’s life, and Lily’s. The word “amazing” is an everyday word for Rex, who inspires Lily, and helps Grace find the words to write her own story.

Newbery Medal-winning author Patricia MacLachlan has written a magical and funny tale about the joy found in using words, sharing stories, and loving a wondrous dog named Rex.

Why I like this book:

Patricia MacLachlan has written a magical and charming story about seven-year-old girl, Grace, who loves big words but isn’t sure how to use them to write a story. However, her teacher has confidence in her. What fun it would be to be Grace who has an Aunt Lily, who is a writer. But Grace quickly discovers that even writers have their moments coming up with story ideas.

And then there is Rex, a smart dog, who knows things and can keeps very good secrets. He appears to inspire Aunt Lily and Grace. Readers will fall in love with Rex, as does everyone in the story. Rex is central to the story. (*No Spoilers)

Wondrous Rex introduces children to the process of writing stories and poetry. They also get a peek at how author’s interact and support each other in their “writer’s groups.”  The story is also peppered with a few large words like, “flummoxed and wondrous.” I would have just loved this story as an eight-year-old,  because I was always writing poems, stories and plays, with no one to guide me.

The book has twelve chapters with 88 pages, perfect for older elementary students learning to tackle early middle grade books or reluctant readers.

Emilia Dzubiak’s pen and ink illustrations are lively, entertaining and perfect for text.

Patricia MacLachlan is the celebrated author of many timeless books for young readers, including Sarah, Plain and Tall, winner of the Newbery Medal. Her novels for young readers include My Father’s Words, The Poet’s Dog, Word After Word After Word, Kindred Souls, and The Truth of Me.  She is also the author of many beloved picture books, a number of which she cowrote with her daughter, Emily. She lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the MMGM link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for a review.

*Reviewed from a library book.

Making Their Voices Heard by Vivian Kirkfield

Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe

Vivian Kirkfield, Author

Alleanna Harris, Illustrator

Little Bee Books, Biography, Jan. 28, 2020

Suitable for ages: 4-8

Themes:  Ella Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe, Biography, Jazz musician, Actress, Singers, Friendship

Opening: “Ella and Marilyn. On the outside, you couldn’t find two girls who looked more different. But on the inside, they were alike — full of hope and dreams, and plans of what might be.”

Bookjacket Synopsis:

Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. On the outside, you couldn’t find two girls who looked more different. But on the inside, they were alike–full of hopes and dreams and plans of what might be.

Ella Fitzgerald’s velvety tones and shube-doobie-doos captivated audiences. Jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington couldn’t wait to share the stage with her, but still, Ella could not book a performance at one of the biggest clubs in town–one she knew would give her career its biggest break yet.

Marilyn Monroe dazzled on the silver screen with her baby blue eyes and breathy boo-boo-be-doos. But when she asked for better scripts, a choice in who she worked with, and a higher salary, studio bosses refused.

Two women whose voices weren’t being heard. Two women chasing after their dreams and each helping the other to achieve them. This is the inspiring, true story of two incredibly talented women who came together to help each other shine like the stars that they’d forever be known as.

Why I like this book:

There is so much beauty, sensitivity and heart in Vivian Kirkfield’s picture book about two female iconic performers, Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe.  I was mesmerized. Alleanna Harris’ artwork  is colorful and compliments the story. Look at that fabulous book cover!

The narrative is lyrical and richly-textured. “Wrapping herself in Ella’s voice…” and “velvety shube-doobie-doos wowed auidences…” And there are moments where the text is sparse, yet powerful. “Marilyn swayed to the melody…Ella swayed to the rhythem…Marilyn held her breath… Ella filled her lungs…” So beautiful!

Ella and Marilyn were on the outside, an unlikely pairing. Alternating stories about each woman mirror their humble beginnings, inner struggles, similarities and differences.  But on the inside they shared the same hopes and big dreams of performing. They were destined to meet, support each other and form a lifetime friendship.

Kirkfield did a remarkable amount of research on both women. She shares little-known stories that many adults are unfamiliar with.

Resources:  Make sure you read the “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, where more information is shared about Ella and Marilyn’s relationship. Adults will find it interesting. Visit Kirkfield at her website.

Vivian Kirkfield’s career path is paved with picture books. From shelving them in a children’s library and reading them with her kindergarteners, to writing them, her goal has always been to help kids become lovers of books and reading. She is the author of many picture books including: Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting BookPippa’s Passover PlateFrom Here to There: Inventions that Changed the Way the World Moves; and Sweet Dreams, Sarah. Her parent-teacher guide, Show Me How! Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem Through Reading, Crafting and Cooking is a valuable resource for child-care facilitators. Vivian lives in the quaint New England village of Amherst, New Hampshire, where the old stone library is her favorite hangout and her ten-year-old grandson is her favorite Monopoly partner.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

The Summer We Found Baby by Amy Hest

The Summer We Found Baby

Amy Hest, Author

Candlewick Press, Aug. 4, 2020

Suitable for ages: 9 and up

Themes: Family, Friendship, Community, WWII, Secrets, Mystery

Synopsis:

On the morning of the dedication of the new children’s library in Belle Beach, Long Island, eleven-year-old Julie Sweet and her six-year-old sister, Martha, find a baby in a basket on the library steps. At the same time, twelve-year-old Bruno Ben-Eli is on his way to the train station to catch the 9:15 train into New York City. He is on an important errand for his brother, who is a soldier overseas in World War II. But when Bruno spies Julie, the same Julie who hasn’t spoken to him for sixteen days, heading away from the library with a baby in her arms, he has to follow her. Holy everything, he thinks. Julie Sweet is a kidnapper.

Of course, the truth is much more complicated than the children know in this heartwarming and beautifully textured family story by award-winning author Amy Hest.  The novel captures the moments and emotions of a life-changing summer — a summer in which a baby gives a family hope and brings a community together.

Why I like this book:

The Summer We Found Baby is heartfelt and genuine, especially as Amy Hest explores the idea of family, friendship and community. Set during World War II in a cozy little town on Long Island, it’s a short novel with a fast-paced plot that will keep readers happily engaged.

The narrative is told from three different viewpoints: Bruno Ben-Eli is a resident of Belle Beach, and Julie and Martha Sweet, the “summer people” who are visiting with their widowed father who seeks a place to finish his book.  The three-some each have their own unique spin on things, which makes solving the baby mystery even more interesting.

The characters are memorable. Bruno is worried about his brother and hasn’t quite figured out girls yet. Julie refuses to talk with Bruno because he reads a letter she’s written. Martha feels Julie is too bossy and finds a doating mother figure in Mrs. Ben-Eli, who happens to live next door.

And there is the big grand opening of the new Children’s Library, which Bruno’s mom is in charge of. Julie takes it upon herself to send an invitation of the library opening to a famous woman she admires. Will she accept the invite? This is a perfect summer read for teens.

Amy Hest is the author of many beloved books for young readers, including Remembering Mrs. Rossi, Letters to Leo, and the Katie Roberts novels. She is also the author of many picture books, indluing Kiss Good Night, When Jessie Came Across the Sea, and On the Night of the Shooting Star. She lives in New York City.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the MMGM link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for a review.

Efrén Divided by Ernestro Cisneros

Efrén Divided

Ernestro Cisneros, Author

Quill Tree Books, Fiction, Mar. 31, 2020

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Undocumented parents, Mexican Americans, Deportation, Family, Friendship, Culture

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Efrén Nava’s Amá is his Superwoman—or Soperwoman, named after the delicious Mexican sopes his mother often prepares. Both Amá and Apá work hard all day to provide for the family, making sure Efrén and his younger twin siblings, Max and Mia, feel safe and loved.

But Efrén worries about his parents; although he’s American-born, his parents are undocumented. And according to the neighborhood talk, or local chisme, families like his are in great danger. Sure enough, Efrén’s  worst nightmare comes true one day when Amá doesn’t return from work and is deported across the border to Tijuana, México.

Now it’s up to Efrén to be brave and figure out how to act soper himself. While Apá takes an extra job to earn the money needed to get Amá back, Efrén looks after the twins, washes laundry, fixes meals, and does his schoolwork. He helps his best friend’s probably-doomed campaign for school president, and worries about what might happen to his family next.

When disaster strikes, Efrén is faced with crossing the border alone to see Amá and deliver a special package. There is danger all around him. More than ever, he must channel his inner Soperboy to help reunite his family.

Why I like this book:

Ernestro Cisneros’s powerful and timely debut novel, Efrén Divided, captures the humanity of children of undocumented Mexican-American families living in the US.  I love that Cisneros wrote this novel for his children to show that Mexican Americans “are worth being written about.” Some of the book was taken from his own childhood.

The plot is both dangerous and heartwarming. The richly textured narrative is peppered with Spanish words and expressions, which are nicely woven into the story in a way that readers will grasp the translation. But there is a glossary of words and expressions at the end of the book. The diverse cast of characters are memorable, especially David, who adds for some fun comic relief.

Although parents immigrate to the US to provide a better life for their children, there is an underlying worry, pain, and fear for all family members. When Efrén’s mother is discovered by ICE, it forces him to grow up too quickly. Although he is a courageous and resilient teen, he carries a huge burden filled with responsibilities. He can’t confide in anyone — even his best friend David — because he puts his undocumented father and family at risk. 

When Efrén crosses the border alone into Tijuana to see his mom, he sees first-hand the reasons why his parents and others risk the trip north. There is danger lurking on every street corner and down every alley. He feels eyes watching him. There is poverty. Young kids are forced to work or beg for money instead of playing. Men and women of all ages sell handmade items along the curbs. He shudders at the US-built border fence where separated families meet with loved ones at a chain link fence.

There will be many teens who will relate to Efrén’s story, whether they have undocumented parents, family members, or know someone who does. This book should be at the top of the list in school classrooms because it is perfect for meaningful discussions.

The ending surprised me. It is realistic and hopeful. Perhaps there is a sequel in the works? Verdict: This book is a winner!

Ernesto Cisneros was born and raised in Santa Ana, California, where he still teaches. Efrén Divided is his first novel. He holds an English degree from the University of California, Irvine; a teaching credential from California State University, Long Beach; as well as a master of fine arts in creative writing from National University. As an author, he believes in providing today’s youth with an honest depiction of characters with whom they can identify. The real world is filled with amazing people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. His work strives to reflect that. You can visit him at his website.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the MMGM link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

Stella Endicott and the Anything-Is-Possible Poem by Kate DiCamillo

Stella Endicott and the Anything-Is-Possible Poem: Tales from Deckawoo Drive #5

Kate DiCamillo, Author

Chris Van Dusen, Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Jun. 9, 2020

Suitable for ages: 6 – 9

Themes: School, Poetry, Metaphors, Arguement, Friendship

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Stella Endicott loves her teacher, Miss Liliana, and she is thrilled when the class is assigned to write a poem. Stella crafts a beautiful poem about Mercy Watson, the pig who lives next door — a poem complete with a metaphor and full of curiosity and courage.

But Horace Broom, Stella’s irritating classmate, insists that Stella’s poem is full of lies and that pigs do not live in houses. And when Stella and Horace get into a shouting match in the classroom, Miss Liliana banishes them to the principal’s office. Will the two of them find a way to turn this opposite-of-a-poem day around?

Why I like this book:

Kate DiCamillo’s sweetly satisfying chapter book speaks to children about everyday struggles that are inherhent with school and friendships. As the title eludes to, the theme in this story is anything is possible — even a pig that sleeps on a couch and a friendship with a boy, who metaphorically speaking, is an overblown balloon.

Stella is a spirited, imaginative and determined. She looks for the good in situations. Horace is smug and a know-it-all. When Stella and Horace are sent to principal’s office, Horace buckles in fear. Not Stella. She remembers that “in good stories, the characters face their fate with curiosity and courage” and leads the way. And throughout the story Stella reminds herself that surprises are everywhere and that anything is possible.

The story introduces children to writing poetry and using a metaphor in their poem. It becomes a game for Stella as she begins to see metaphors in everything around her.  The story is also peppered with a few large words like, absconder. The book has seven chapters with 85 pages, perfect for elementary students learning to read longer books.

Chris Van Dusen’s pen and ink illustrations are lively, expressive and entertaining. They are perfect for text.

Make sure you check out the first four books in the Deckawoo Drive series: Leroy Ninker Saddles Up,  Francine Poulet Meets the Ghost Raccoon, Where Are You Going, Baby Lincoln?, Eugenia Lincoln and the Unexpected Package.

Kate DiCamillo is the beloved author of many books for young readers, including the Mercy Watson and Tales from Deckawoo Drive series. Her books Flora & Ulysses, and The Tale of Despereaux both received Newbery Medals. Her first published middle grade novel, Because of Winn-Dixie, snapped up a Newbery Honor. The Tiger Rising, her second novel, also went on to become a National Book Award finalist.  She has almost 30 million books in print worldwide. She is a former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the MMGM link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy from the publisher in exchange for a review.

Most Likely by Sarah Watson

Most Likely

Sarah Watson, Author

Little, Brown and Company, Fiction,  Mar. 10, 2020

Suitable for ages: 12 and up

Themes: Best friends, Friendship, High School, Diversity, LGBT, Romance,  Mental Illness, President

Synopsis:

Four best friends. One future President. Who Will it be?

Ava, CJ, Jordan, and Martha (listed in alphabetical order out of fairness, of course) have been friends since kindergarten. Now they’re high school seniors, facing their biggest fears about growing up and growing apart. More than just college is on the horizon, though. One of these girls is destined to become the president of the United States.

But which one?

Is it Ava, the picture-perfect artist who’s secretly struggling to figure out where she belongs? Or could it be CJ, the one who’s got everything figured out…except how to fix her terrible SAT scores? Maybe it’s Jordan, the group’s resident journalist, who knows she’s ready for more than their small Ohio town can offer. And don’t overlook Martha, who will have to make it through all the obstacles that stand in the way of her dreams.

From Sarah Watson, the creator of the hit TV show The Bold Type, comes the story of four best friends who have one another’s backs through every new love, breakup, stumble, and triumph — proving that great friendships can help young women achieve anything…happiness, strength, success, even a seat in the Oval Office.

Why I like this book:

Most Likey is a timely, empowering and suspenseful political novel for teens and young adults. The story’s heart is rooted in strong female friendships and self-discovery that make this story soar. Sarah Watson’s writing is uplifting and her novel is the perfect summer escape!

Th narrative is written in third person with each chapter rotating four different viewpoints. It held me back a bit because I couldn’t keep the details of each of the teens lives straight until I reached the half-way point. By then I was hooked and I couldn’t put the book down.

The character-driven plot weaves together the realistic and complicated lives of the four seniors who are ethnically diverse and from different socioeconomic backgrounds. They tackle a variety of issues in their lives, ranging from depression, adoption, fears of not being good enough, sexual orientation, divorce and concerns about being able to afford college. And they have a male friend, Logan Diffenderfer, who has a unique relationship with each of the besties. Although Logan is not the story, he is a grounding force for the four teens.

The Prologue gives readers a peek into the future — Washington DC on Jan. 20, 2049, the day of the presidential innaugeration. Readers are only given one clue. The president-elects last name is Diffenderfer. The actual story is set in 2019 -2020 in Cleveland, Ohio, with the seniors focused on grades, relationships, work, SAT scores, college applications, loans and community service.  The Epilogue fast forwards to the innaugeration day, the big reveal and a satisfying ending about the other three  best friends, who are all present.  Sorry. I can’t give anything away.

Sarah Watson is the creator of the hit TV series The Bold Type (on Freeform), which the New York Times described as “Sex and the Single Girl for millennials.” Previously she was a writer and executive producer of the critically acclaimed NBC drama Parenthood. She lives in Santa Monica, California. Most Likely is her debut novel.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the MMGM link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

Don’t Feed the Bear by Kathleen Doherty

Don’t Feed the Bear

Kathleen Doherty, Author

Chip Wass, Illustrator

Sterling Children’s Books, Fiction, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 3 and up

Themes: Bear, Park, Ranger, Feeding, Battle, Sharing, Friendship

Opening: “Bear loved when campers left him grub. Mac and cheese…carrot cake…meatball stew!”

Synopsis:

Bear had a perfectly great life…until Park Ranger put up a sign that read DON’T FEED THE BEAR.

Well, Bear isn’t about to let Park Ranger get away with claiming all the picnickers’ goodies for herself. Crafty Bear puts up a sign of his own and the battle for yummy grub is on! Each worthy (and hungry) competitor tries to persuade parkgoers to their side. At stake: delicious chow, like juicy burgers and cookies. Who will win this war of words?

Why I like this book:

Kathleen Doherty has penned a delightful and humorous story about a bear and a park ranger battling over the food left behind by parkgoers. Her text is simple and snappy and encourages children to read on their own. Doherty uses clever word play and words that are fun to read aloud to kids — SMACKITY! SMACK! WHOMP! and STOMPITY, STOMP, GRRRRRR!

The book theme can be translated into many real life situations like sibling squabbles over food, territory and possessions. Kids will learn about compromising and reconciliation. Somewhere the bear and ranger must meet. Perhaps they can become a team and work together.

Couple Doherty’s lively story with Chip Wass’s rip-roaring and cheerful cartoon-like illustrations, and kids will beg to read this story repeatedly at bedtime. Make sure you give kids enough time to study each page — it’s worth it! Who knows what they may add to the story. With summer fast approaching, this is a perfect read!

Resources: Time to pull out the paper, markers and crayons. Ask children who are the rooting for: Bear or Park Ranger. Let them choose a  favorite scene or encounter in the story and draw their own version. If they are focused on the many signs that Bear and Park Ranger post, ask them what they may want to add.

Kathleen Doherty is a reading specialist who has taught elementary school for over thirty years. She loves writing humorous stories and read aloud to kids — that is,  when she’s not having a scrumptious picnic and chowing down on s’mores.

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 website.

Gold Rush Girl by Avi

Gold Rush Girl

Avi, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Mar. 10, 2020

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Themes: Gold Rush, San Francisco, Tent City, Danger, Independence, Freedom, Friendship

Opening: “Have you ever been struck by lightning?
I have.
I write not of the sparkling that bolts from the sky, but of gold, the yellow metal buried in the earth and the shatter-wit world of those who seek it. That world turned me topsy-turvy, so that I did things I never dreamed I would or could do.”

Publisher Synopsis:

Thirteen-year-old Victoria (Tory) Blaisdell longs for independence and adventure, and she yearns to accompany her father as he sails west in search of real gold! But it is 1848, and Tory isn’t even allowed to go to school, much less travel all the way from Rhode Island to California. Determined to take control of her own destiny, Tory stows away on the ship.

Though San Francisco is frenzied and full of wild and dangerous men, Tory finds freedom and friendship there. Until one day, when Father is in the gold fields, her younger brother, Jacob, is kidnapped. And so Tory is spurred on a treacherous search for him in Rotten Row, a part of San Francisco Bay crowded with hundreds of abandoned ships.

Beloved storyteller Avi is at the top of his form as he ushers us back to an extraordinary time of hope and risk, brought to life by a heroine readers will cheer for. Spot-on details and high suspense make this a vivid, absorbing historical adventure.

Why I like this book:

Avi’s story is electrifying — pun intended! His storytelling is rich and visual and will stimulate your senses. Readers will smell the stench of San Francisco — the rotting boats,  street sewage, drunken and sweaty men, and soaked sailcloth tents. They will feel what it’s like to trudge through thick mud and dense fog. “The land of glittering gold revealed itself as mostly rich in rubbish.” 

What a joy it is to journey with Tory (13) and experience the gold rush through her point of view. With gold fever high, the plot is brimming with excitement, trickery, risks and danger. The research that went into every detail of this story, really gives readers insight into this historical time period. When Tory and her family arrive in San Francisco Bay, she is shocked to see hundreds of ships that were deserted in what was called the Rotten Row. Sea captains and their crews headed towards the gold fields. Make sure you read Avi’s note and map about the shipsof Rotten Row at the end, because it is fascinating!

The characters are multi-layered, but memorable. Tory is a spunky and determined heroine. When her father leaves for the gold fields, Tory is left to care for her young brother, Jacob (9), who is sullen, worries and waits on the beach for his mother to arrive. Because of the high cost of food and supplies, their money runs out. Tory buys men’s clothing and finds work rowing arriving passengers ashore, working construction and doing other jobs. She’s paid in grains of gold and is delighted that she is gaining more wealth in the city than her father is laboring in the fields. Tory is living the freedom and independence that’s she’s longed for. She’s happy, physically and mentally strong.

There many colorful characters in the story. Tory develops a friendship with Thad, who works at a local store and helps her improve her rowing skills. Thad is a calm and quiet and a nice balance for Tory. But he also enjoys taking risks, drinking and gambling. Across the street from her tent, is Senor Rosales, a Mexican café owner. He is a kind “uncle” and does his best to keep an eye on both Jacob and Tory. She also befriends a black boy, Sam, who plays his bugle at a shady saloon owned by an evil man, Mr. Kassel. When Jacob suddenly disappears, it is Sam who tells Tory about seeing Jacob at the Mercury and fears he’s been kidnapped and is being held on a vacant ship. The threesome jump into action to save Jacob’s life. Tory must rescue Jacob before her father returns from and gold fields and her mother arrives from Providence.

Avi leaves the story open-ended. There is so much more he could write about Tory and her friends. After all, San Francisco exists as a tent city. I hope there is a sequel. This book belongs in every school library. Verdict: This book is a winner!

Avi is one of the most celebrated authors writing for children today. He has written published over 70 books. Among his most popular books are Crispin: The Cross of Lead, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Nothing but the Truth, the Poppy books, Midnight Magic, The Fighting Ground and the City of Orphans. having received two Boston-Globe – Horn Book Awards, a Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, a Christopher Award, a Newbery Medal, and two Newbery Honors. He lives in Colorado.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided fee by the publisher in exchange for a review.

Seed Savers: Lily (Book 2) by Sandra Smith

Seed Savers: Lily (Book 2)

Sandra Smith, Author

Flying Books House, Fiction, (2012)

Suitable for Ages:  9 and up

Themes: Futuristic adventure, Gardening, Government, Friendship, Trust, Betrayal

Synopsis:

When 13-year-old Lily hears that her best friend, Clare, and her brother, Dante, are missing and presumed runaways, she is confused. Then she learns their mother, Celia, is arrested by the Green Resource Investigation Machine (GRIM) on charges of illegal plant possession — a tomato. It all makes sense now to Lily. They ran to save the future and the present. Lily is left behind and wonders why they didn’t take her with them. But they entrust Lily with the bulk of their precious seed collection, given to them by an older woman, Ana, a seed saver.

The only thing that keeps Lily focused is tending to the banned vegetable seeds she planted in vacant lots scattered all over town before the disappearance. As she rides her bike all over town, she keeps a look out for GRIM. Is she being followed? Lily hides her gardening activities from her mother. She is happy to make friends with Rose, who becomes Lily’s alibi for tending to her illegal plants. She also meets a mysterious teen from California, Arturo, who knows what Lily is doing. Has he been spying on her? Lily doesn’t know who she can trust.

In attempt to find out what happened to her missing friends, Lily sneaks visits to Ana, who has taught  her everything  she knows about gardening. Not only does Lily learn about a seed saver network that may be protecting Clare and Dante, she unearths a disturbing secret from her own past.

Why I like this book:

Sandra Smith’s futuristic adventure (2077) series for teens is timely, compelling and skillfully crafted. I like the seamless transition from the first book Seed Savers: Treasure to the second book, Lily. From the start, Lily discovers her friends are missing and wonders why she is left behind. In Book 2, readers will learn about Lily and how she will advance the story — her undercover activities, covert meetings with Ana that reveal more about the underground Seed Saver network, new friendships, and family secrets that will make her question everything in her life.

The characters are realistic, courageous, and believable in their efforts to keep the cause alive. I also like the diverse cast of characters. Both Lily (part Japanese) and Arturo (Mexican) are relatable. Rose is curious about gardening, but her odd behavior of disappearing for days is disconcerting for Lily. Ana is the wise mentor that takes great risks to teach the younger generation about the past. They want to support a cause that is important to them and they want to better their world.

This engaging and fast-paced plot is an ideal read for teens who are environmentally conscious and may have concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It also raises some serious questions about the future of the food supply in our country.  It is a known fact that large corporations continue to control more of our food supply, put small farms out of business and use more GMO products. Smith says that “the historical political references in her Seed Savers series are factual,” although she’s changed the names of corporations.

Lily is the second book in the seed savers series and is told from Lily’s viewpoint, after Clare and Dante flee. It is followed by Heirloom, Keeper and Unbroken. Visit Sandra Smith at her website.

Resources:  Click here at Flying Books House for discussion questions on the first two books in the series. They are perfect for classroom or book club use. May there be a day when all our food is processed and comes in the form of Proteins, Sweeties, Vitees, Carobs and Snacks? And check out the author’s note at the end of the book.

Sandra Smith is the author of the award-winning Seed Savers series. She has a Master’s degree in Teaching English and spent over twenty years teaching students of all ages English as a Second Language. As a child, Sandra worked on her parents’ berry farm and enjoyed eating from her mother’s tremendously large garden. She maintains that if you can’t taste the soil on a carrot, it’s not fresh enough. Today, she lives in the city with her husband, cats, and backyard hens. She grows a small, urban garden every summer. When she’s not gardening or turning tomatoes into spaghetti sauce, Sandra writes poetry or novels inspired by her garden.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by author.

****Winner of Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, reviewed April 20 on my website, is Darelene Foster. Congratulations! I can see your address, so I will send you an e-mail and get your mailing address. Candlewick Press will send you the copy. Hope you enjoy the book!