One Good Thing About America by Ruth Freeman

One Good Thing About America

Ruth Freeman, Author

Holiday House Books, Fiction,  Mar. 21, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Pages: 160

Themes: Refugee, Immigration, Africa, Differences, Fitting in, New customs, Language, Foods, Friendships

Synopsis: Back home in Africa, Anais was the best English student in her class. Here in Crazy America she is placed in fourth grade and feels like she doesn’t know English at all.  Nothing makes sense. For example, how can you eat chicken fingers? Anais misses her family: Papa and grandmother Oma and big brother Olivier. Here in Crazy America she has only little Jean-Claude and Mama. So Anais writes lots of letters to Oma — in English because Oma insists. Oma has a friend who translate the letters and writes letters back to Anais.

Anais tells Oma how she misses her and that she hopes the fighting is over soon in the Congo. She worries about her father who is being tracked by government soldiers or rebels as he makes his way to a refugee camp in Kenya, and Olivier who is injured in a skirmish.

She tells Oma about Halloween, snow, mac ‘n’ cheese dinners and princess sleepovers. She tells her about the weird things Crazy Americans do, and how she just might be turning into a Crazy American herself. Over the school year, Anais begins to make friends, feel like she’s part of a community, and finds many good things about America.

Why I like this book:

It is always hard to be the new student in a new school, especially when you come from another country and struggle with the language, look different, eat strange foods, celebrate different holidays and leave  loved ones left behind. Ruth Freeman’s compelling and hopeful book explores differences and common grounds among cultures. She humorously captures Anais’ angst through first person narrative. The story is told in a series of letters that Anais writes to her grandmother, Oma.

After much whining about Crazy America, Anais promises Oma she will try to find one good thing she likes about America daily, whether it is sledding, tasting hot chocolate, backpacks, helpful school teachers, a close group of immigrant friends, and Christmas trees decorated with pictures. This is a good classroom or home practice for youth everywhere. Find something you like in your life daily and be grateful.

As Anais becomes more comfortable in her surroundings, readers will see her growth as she takes the lead and helps newly arriving immigrant children from Iraq, Libya and Somalia adjust to America. This is a timely story for readers as it reminds us that America is a nation of immigrants, where we must learn about each other and celebrate our differences.

Ruth Freeman grew up in rural Pennsylvania but now lives in Maine where she teaches students who are English language learners, including many newly arrived immigrants. She is the author of several nonfiction picture books and this is her first novel.

Greg Pattridge is the host for 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.

Copy: Library book.

Islandborn by Junot Diaz


Islandborn

Junot Díaz, Author

Leo Espinosa, Illustrator

Dial Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Mar. 18, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: Immigration, Community, Culture, Memory, Diversity, Imagination, Belonging

OpeningEvery kid in Lola’s school was from somewhere else. Hers was a school of faraway places.

Synopsis: When Lola’s teacher asks the students to draw a picture of where their families emigrated from, all the kids are excited. Except Lola. She can’t remember the Island she left when she was just a baby. But with the help of her family and friends, and their memories — joyous, fantastical, heartbreaking, and frightening — Lola’s imagination takes her on an extraordinary journey back to the Island. As she draws closer to the heart of her family’s story, Lola comes to understand the truth of her abuela’s words: “Just because you don’t remember a place doesn’t mean it’s not in you.”

Why I like this book:

Junot Díaz has written a poetic and nostalgic story about Lola’s family immigrating from their home on the Island (likely the Dominican Republic) to build a new life in New York City.  Lola’s lively and exuberant curiosity leads her on an enchanting journey of discovery of self-discovery. She relies upon the memories of her family, friends and neighbors to help her imagine an Island and a culture that has bats the size of blankets, music, dancing, bright colors, sweet mangoes, beautiful beaches, tropical sunsets, hurricanes and a terrifying monster (dictator) who hurts the people. Leo Espinosa’s dazzling illustrations bring Lola’s Island to life. They are a beautiful celebration of creativity and diversity. Brown children will see themselves in the many different skin-tones. Beautiful collaborative effort between the author and illustrator. This book belongs in school libraries.

Junot Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to New Jersey. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Drown; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and This is How you Lose Her, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award Finalist. Visit him at his 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 website.

Ali’s Bees by Bruce Olav Solheim

Ali’s Bees

Bruce Olav Solheim, Author

Gabby Untermayerova, Illustrations

CreateSpace, Fiction, Jul. 14, 2017

Pages: 142

Suitable for Ages: 7-12

Themes: Immigration, Iraq, Loss, PTSD, Bees, Intergenerational relationships, Tolerance, Friendship

Publisher Synopsis: There is a lot you can learn from bees. They may look aggressive, but they won’t sting you if you keep your cool and make them comfortable around you.

Ali wishes he could feel comfortable in his new home in Los Angeles, California. He loves living with his beekeeper grandfather, but he desperately misses his parents. They were killed in a terrorist attack in Iraq, and Ali was sent halfway across the world to live with his grandfather. In addition to the deep grief Ali faces, he is also struggling with post traumatic stress disorder from the attack.

Ali’s wise grandfather knows that working with the bees will help. Ali enjoys working with the bees so much that he announces he will do his science project on bees, their place in the world, and the dangers of colony collapse disorder. His work attracts the attention of Lupe, a friendly classmate with problems of her own, and Jenks, an angry bully who cares for his disabled father. The three form an unlikely connection through a funny bee dance and a cherished Mickey Mantle baseball card. Will it be enough to overcome their differences and the challenges each one faces?

Why I like this book:

Bruce Olav Solheim has written a sensitive and realistic story about an Iraqi teen boy who has lost his family to the horrors of war and comes to live with his grandfather in California. It is a positive story that challenges readers to understand the effects of war and to show compassion and tolerance towards immigrants as they learn new customs.

The characters are memorable.  Ali has been emotionally scarred by the loss of his parents during bombings.  He is grieving and suffers from PTSD. Sirens and loud noises remind him of war. His wise and patient grandfather, Jady, is a beekeeper. He has a steady and calming influence on Ali as he teaches him how to love and care for bees.  Ali makes friends with Lupe, who has her own family immigration problems, and Jenks who is a bully, but knows how to build things. They are unlikely and diverse threesome, yet perfect partners for Ali’s science project on bees.

The bees not only play a role in Ali’s emotional healing, but also promote the idea of teamwork as the students work together on their bee science project. Learning about bees also encourages readers to become interested in the plight of bees and the natural world.

The language is easy for  elementary students and teens to understand. Solheim’s pacing makes his engaging story a quick read. Pen and ink illustrations are scattered throughout the book and contribute to the story. Ali’s Bees would be a good book for families to read and discuss together and a great classroom book.

Bruce Olav Solheim served for six years in the US Army as a jail guard and helicopter pilot during the war. He has written five books and seven plays. He is a distinguished professor of history at Citrus College in Glendora, California. Solheim founded the Veterans Program at Citrus College and cofounded the Boots to Books transition course, which is the first college course for returning veterans. Solheim was born in Seattle, Washington, to Norwegian immigrant parents

*The author provided me with an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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

Happy Dreamer by Peter H. Reynolds

Happy Dreamer

Peter H. Reynolds, Author and Illustrator

Orchard Books, Fiction, Mar. 28, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Imagination, Inspiration, Creativity, Day dreamer

Opening: “I am a Happy Dreamer. I’m really good at dreaming. Daydreams. Big Dreams. Little dreams. Creative Dreams.”

Publisher Synopsis: “While the world tells us to sit still, to follow the rules, and to color inside the lines, Happy Dreamer celebrates all those moments in between when the mind and spirit soar and we are free to become our own true dreamer maximus! In Peter’s signature voice and style, this empowering picture book reminds children of how much their dreams matter, and while life will have ups and downs, he enlists readers to stay true to who they are, to tap into their most creative inner selves, and to never ever forget to dream big!”

Why I like this book: Another original and inspiring story by Peter H. Reynolds that celebrates individuality and encourages readers to dream big and fulfil their potential.  Skillfully penned and illustrated, Happy Dreamer will delight readers of all ages. His text is lyrical and entertaining. His illustrations are energetic, joyful and transport readers into their creative inner selves. Reynolds’ urges children to be forward thinkers, believe, show the world who they are and dream with abandonment.  Midway through their book there is a magical four-page surprise to help children identify the type of dreamer they are.

Reynolds calls himself a dreamer. He was inspired to write Happy Dreamer after he discovered he could identify with many symptoms associated with ADHD. His original title for the book was Amazing Delightful Happy Dreamer (ADHD), which he shortened to Happy Dreamer. Reynolds doesn’t label the character, but shows his unique abilities.

Resources: The book is a beautiful resource for parents and teachers to use in the classroom.  It will lead to many interesting discussions as children identify their inner dreamer. Encourage children to share their dreams, write a paragraph or draw a picture about their big dreams. Make sure you check out the front and end pages for all of the wonderful detail.

Peter H. Reynolds is a New York Times-bestselling author and illustrator of many books, including The Dot, Ish, The North Star, Playing from the Heart, and Sky Color.  Around September 15th-ish, nearly 9 million children from 168 countries will celebrate creativity, courage and collaboration as they participate in the 9th year of International Dot Day. Visit the website to see how you and your classroom can get involved.

Rachel’s Hope

Rachel's Hope9781927583425_p0_v1_s260x420Rachel’s Hope (The Rachel Trilogy)

Shelly Sanders, Author

Second Story Press, Historical Fiction, September 1, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 12 and up

Themes: Russian Jews, Persecution, Separation, Immigration. Family, Love, Hope

Synopsis: Rachel Paskar flees the antisemitic violence and persecution against Jews in her Russian village and makes the long journey by train across Siberia with her family to a refugee camp in Shanghai. Rachel makes a name for herself as a journalist. After her mother dies in Shanghai, she and her surviving family members save enough money to sail to San Francisco in 1905. Rachel also leaves behind her boyfriend, Sergei, in St. Petersburg. He becomes involved in the revolution against the Tsarist Russians.

Rachel and her family find freedom from persecution in San Francisco, but are challenged with learning a new language and strange American customs, while trying to hang on to their family’s Russian traditions. Rachel works as a maid, meets a group of women’s voter activists, and makes friends with a female journalist who encourages her writing and introduces her to newspaper editors. She meets a student, Alexander, who she cares about, but Sergei remains in her thoughts. What has happened to him and will she ever see him again? Then the great San Francisco earthquake strikes and Rachel and her family lose everything.  Starting over is hard, yet this determined young woman never loses sight of her dream to attend the university.

Why I  like this book:  Rachel’s Hope marks the culmination of the The Rachel Trilogy. You can read my reviews of  Rachel’s Secret and Rachel’s Promise here. Shelly Sanders’ fictionalized trilogy is based on a true story about her courageous grandmother who faces persecution as a Russian Jew, escapes from Russia and journeys to America, where she becomes the first Jewish woman accepted into the University of California, Berkeley’s science program.  Sanders masterfully reconstructs life in early 20th century Russia, Shanghai and America, weaving the personal with the historical into a compelling story that creates a rich reading experience. She is fastidious in her research of different cultural customs and details of every day life (i.e. food, clothing, dwellings, and work conditions). Her heroine is a strong and courageous character.  Her plot is moving as she brilliantly writes two parallel stories — Rachel’s changing life in America and Sergei’s hard life in revolutionary Russia — and gives the reader a clear and realistic portrayal of a period in history that few people know. Yet, Rachel’s Hope brings a positive conclusion to the story of a Russian family immigrating to America where possibilities are limitless. I highly recommend this important series to teachers for use in the classroom. Resources: Visit Sanders’ website for teachers guides on the trilogy and more information.

Shelly Sanders has worked as a freelance writer for almost 20 years. The Rachel Trilogy was an “intense three-year journey” for her. She learned about her grandmother’s story when she was 16 years old, after her grandmother had died. It wasn’t until after Sanders had a family, that she felt a compulsion to get to know her grandmother.