Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin

Where the Watermelons Grow

Cindy Baldwin, Author

HarperCollins, Fiction, Jul. 3, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Schizophrenia, Mental Illness, Family Relationships, Guilt, Courage, Farm Life, Friendship

Publisher’s Synopsis: When twelve-year-old Della Kelly finds her mother furiously digging black seeds from a watermelon in the middle of the night and talking to people who aren’t there, Della worries that it’s happening again—that the sickness that put her mama in the hospital four years ago is back. That her mama is going to be hospitalized for months like she was last time.

With her daddy struggling to save the farm and her mama in denial about what’s happening, it’s up to Della to heal her mama for good. And she knows just how she’ll do it: with a jar of the Bee Lady’s magic honey, which has mended the wounds and woes of Maryville, North Carolina, for generations.

But when the Bee Lady says that the solution might have less to do with fixing Mama’s brain and more to do with healing her own heart, Della must learn that love means accepting her mama just as she is.

Why I like this book:

Cindy Baldwin has penned a timely and important debut novel that will appeal to a large range of readers, especially teens who cope with a family member who has a mental illness. It will tug at readers’ hearts, but it’s an excellent portrayal of schizophrenia. And it is a good southern read about farm life in North Carolina. It reminds me a bit of The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.

Della’s story is timely, realistic and will resonate with teens who have parents or siblings with a mental illness. It will also promote understanding and compassion for other readers who may be their friends. It is nice to see a spotlight shown on schizophrenia and the toll it takes on a family because of its unpredictable nature.

Della’s first-person narrative is powerful and pulls no punches. When dealing with her schizophrenic mother, she never really knows who her mama is going to be. Will she be the loving mama who laughs, sings and tells stories? Or will she be the mama who leaves baby Mylie soaked, soiled and screaming in her crib? As her mother’s illness rapidly declines, Della realizes that no sickness in the world could make her mama’s love for her less real.

Like many youth in Della’s situation, she’s forced to grow up too quickly. She becomes the adult caring for her baby sister, cleaning the house, cooking and helping her father with the family produce stand. She blames herself for her mother’s “sickness.” It is her fault and she wants to fix her mama. She keeps secrets to protect her mother. And Della worries if she will inherit schizophrenia.

Baldwin has created a strong sense of community for Della and her family. There is her best friend Arden, her grandparents and a host of mother figures who love and support Della through the chaos. Other  “mamas” appear when she needs them the most.

Where the Watermelons Grow is richly textured, lyrical and impeccably researched. The theme may seem heavy, but it doesn’t overwhelm its targeted audience. I highly recommend this novel for middle grade teens and adults. To learn more about Cindy Baldwin, visit her website.

Resources: There is a Teacher’s Guide available on the publisher’s website that includes classroom discussion questions about mental illness, family relationships, guilt and personal responsibility. There also are extension activities related to things that occur in the book.

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.

The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman

The Length of a String

Elissa Brent Weissman, Author

Dial Books for Young Readers, Fiction, May 1, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Themes: Adoption, Identity, Family relationships, Jews, African Americans, Holocaust

Synopsis:

Imani is adopted by a Jewish family. Now that she’s turning 13, she knows exactly what she wants as her big bat mitzvah gift: to find her birth parents. She loves her family and her Jewish community in Baltimore, but she has always wondered where she came from, especially since she’s black and almost everyone she knows is white.

When her mom’s grandmother–Imani’s great-grandma Anna–passes away, Imani discovers an old journal among her books. It’s Anna’s diary from 1941, the year she was twelve and fled Nazi-occupied Luxembourg alone, sent by her parents to seek refuge in Brooklyn, New York. Imani keeps the diary a secret for a while, only sharing it with her best friend, Madeline. Anna’s diary chronicles her escape from Holocaust-era Europe and her journey to America and her new life with a Jewish adoptive family. She continues to write to her sister Belle about the tall New York sky scrapers, shopping in supermarkets, eating Chinese food, modeling fur coats, and playing Chinese checkers, until news about her family stops. She fears the worst and puts down her pen.

Imani decides to make Anna’s story her bat mitzvah research project. She uncovers some important information about the war and Luxembourg. As Imani reads Anna’s diary, she begins to see her own family and her place in it in a new way.

Why I like this book:

The author skillfully weaves two stories, one from the present and another from the past, using characters that you will feel like you know intimately. This is a very different holocaust story because it focuses on the identity of Jewish and African-American girls (70 years a part) and their search for self, something that readers will find relevant. The setting, the unforgettable characters, and the plot create an engaging reading experience. The ending is unexpected and very satisfying.

You learn about Anna Kirsch and the painful decision her family makes in deciding which of their seven children to smuggle to America as the Nazi’s begin to occupy Luxembourg.  Anna is selected and separated from her identical twin sister, Belle, the other half of her heart. On the ship she begins to write Belle daily letters daily chronicling her journey so that she keeps their connection alive. Anna lives with  loving strangers, Hannah and Max, a Jewish family who open their hearts and home to her. Anna is essentially adopted, like Imani. She continues to write to Belle about her adventures until news about her family stops.

My children are adopted, each responding differently like Imani and her adopted El Salvadoran brother. Like Imani, my daughter had so many questions about her past. What were her ethnic roots? Who did she look like? Why was she adopted? Like Imani’s family, we ran a genetic DNA test for our daughter so she had a sense of her heritage. This eventually led to her finding two biological sisters this past year.  Now she has answers and it has brought her peace as an adult. We need more MG and YA books for adopted children who are trying to figure out who they are and need to see themselves in stories.

Elissa Brent Weismann’s novel is a captivating story that is a departure from her humorous Nerd Camp series. Her website includes teacher resources and curriculum for all of her books.

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.

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Amal Unbound

Aisha Saeed, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction, May 8, 2018

Suitable for ages: 10-13

Themes: Indentured servants, Pakistan, Family Life, Dreams, Courage

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Amal’s dream of becoming a teacher one day is dashed in an instant when she accidentally insults a member of her Pakistani village’s ruling family. As punishment for her behavior, she is forced to leave her heartbroken family behind and go work at their grand estate, surrounded by a high brick wall and gate guards.

Amal is distraught but has faced setbacks before. So  she summons her courage and begins navigating the complex rules of life as a servant, with all its attendant jealousies and pecking-order woes. Most troubling is Amal’s increasing awareness of the deadly measures the Khan family will go to in order to stay in control. It’s clear that their hold over her village will never loosen as long as everyone is too afraid to challenge them — so if Amal is to have any chance of ensuring her loved ones’ safety and winning back her freedom, she must find a way to work with the other servants to make it happen.

Why I like this book:

Fans of Aisha Saeed’s Written in the Stars, will eagerly devour Amal Unbound, a heartbreaking and hopeful story about believing in yourself and finding courage in the midst of danger. Saeed’s bold and skillfully penned novel creates an exceptional reading experience that will  touch your soul.

The setting is culturally rich as it is about Pakistani traditions, village schools, small villages, shopping in local markets, food preparations, the landscape, neighbors knowing everyone’s business, and the pressure on mothers to birth baby boys.

The first-person narrative with Amal offers greater depth into her character. Amal is a strong, determined and clever protagonist who loves school and dreams of going to the university and becoming a teacher one day. When her mother suffers postpartum depression after the birth of a fifth daughter, her father makes Amal quit school to care for her siblings. Not one to give up, she manages to find a creative way to keep up with her school work. When Amal stands up to the wealthy Kahn son, Jawad Sahib, at the market and refuses to give him her purchases, her world begins to crumble. As a punishment, he makes her a servant at the Khan family home.  The characters are well-developed, memorable and despicable. They will stay with you after you finish.

The plot is suspenseful and dangerous at times. The author shows much of the action, which is more powerful than words. Even though Amal is living in luxury serving the kind mother of the brutal landlord, it will always be a prison for Amal. But Amal is smart and resourceful and she uses it to her advantage.  Amal Unbound is a page-turner and I could not put it down. The author manages to surprise me with the unexpected ending. Readers will be cheering.

It is so hard to imagine that indentured servitude is a problem that still exists for millions of people globally. It takes many forms and occurs in the United States. It is a corrupt and dangerous business. It is Saeed’s hope that Amal’s story will shine a light on the brave girls enduring servitude.

Favorite Quote:

“I balanced the tray in my hands and walked to the kitchen. I tried to pretend I didn’t care what the woman said, but I did.  I doubted I would every get used to being discussed like cattle at the market.” Page 109

Aisha Saeed is the author of Written in the Stars. As a Pakistani American and one of the founding members of the much-talked-about We Need Diverse Books Campaign, she is helping to change the conversation about diverse books. Visit her at her website.

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.

Bob by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead

Bob

Wendy Mass & Rebecca Stead, Authors

Nicholas Gannon, Illustrator

Feiwel and Friends Book, Fiction, May 1, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Family, Friends, Magic, Fantasy, Creature, Lost, Mystery

Synopsis:

It’s been five years since Livy and her family have visited Livy’s grandmother in Australia, which is under a severe drought. Now that she’s back, Livy has the feeling she’s forgotten something really, really important about Gran’s house.

It turns out she’s right.

Bob, a short, greenish creature dressed in a chicken suit, didn’t forget Livy, or her promise. He’s been waiting five years for her to come back, hiding in a closet like she told him to. During that time he learns to count to 987,654,321, six times; build a Lego pirate ship, 63 times; and reads and memorizes the dictionary. But Bob can’t remember who—or what—he is, where he came from, or if he even has a family. But five years ago Livy promised she would help him find his way back home. Now it’s time to keep that promise.

Clue by clue, Livy and Bob will unravel the mystery of where Bob comes from, solve a community problem, and discover the kind of magic that lasts forever.

Why I like this book:

Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead work their magic to create an enchanting and heartwarming story about a girl, Livy, and a little green creature, Bob. This will be a popular summer read inviting teens on an adventure to solve the mystery of Bob.

Livy is on a quest to discover exactly who and what Bob is, where he  comes from and how she returns him to his home and family. The story is told by Livy and Bob in alternating chapters. Stead wrote Livy and Mass wrote Bob. The storytelling is seamless with the tone of the text wistful and wandering, with a sense of urgency that there is much to discover.

The characters are lovable and relatable. Livy is a sweet 10-year-old girl struggling to feel comfortable in Gran’s home, a place she barely even remembers. She is troubled that she has forgotten Bob. How could she forget a little green zombie-creature? Bob is a kind-hearted and jovial and patient friend who tells  stories about the “old 5-year-old Livy” who wasn’t curious and took risks. He often refers to the “old” and the “new” Livy, when he wants to nudge her. There are many other memorable characters in this story, especially young Danny who has made his own discoveries about green creatures.

The plot is one big mystery with many subplots. Livy discovers that something peculiar happens to her whenever she leaves Bob for the afternoon to go with Gran into town — her memory of Bob fades. So she carries around Bob’s chipped chess piece in her pocket she can stroke and remember him. She also discovers that not everyone can see Bob.

I enjoyed the collaboration of these two celebrated middle grade authors, along with the entertaining illustrations of Nicholas Gannon, which contribute significantly to the story. It’s easy to lose yourself in Livy and Bob’s world because it is an inspiring story about the importance of family and friendship, with a sprinkle of magic. Even thought this story is rated for middle grade students, I believe it is a perfect read for fourth and fifth graders.

Resources: Visit Wendy Mass’ website, where readers will find a Book Club Guide, an Educator’s Guide and book trailers.

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.

Lost! Survivor Diaries by Terry Lynn Johnson

Lost! Survivor Diaries 

Terry Lynn Johnson, Author

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fiction, Jul. 3, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 7-10

Themes: Lost, Jungle, Costa Rica, Extreme elements, Survival skills, Courage

Synopsis:

Eleven-year-old Carter and his parents are interested in birding and travel to the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, to observe over 400 species of birds. At the resort where they are staying, Carter meets Anna who is 12, and vacationing with her parents. While they wait to go to dinner with their parents, they decide to explore a well-marked jungle trail to see an ancient monkey statue and a waterfall.

On their way Carter spots a red-bellied quetzal. He has already identified 308 different endangered bird species and is especially excited to see a quetzal. The quetzal jumps off the branch and flies down the path, with Carter trailing. They reach the waterfall and realize that is getting dark. Then they hear a very terrifying noise — howler monkeys shrieking and leaping in the branches all around them. Anna screams and sprints off the trail into the jungle dodging trees and branches as the monkeys follow. Carter yells at her at her to stop. When he finally catches up to her they try to find their way back to the familiar path, but the tangle of vines and trees all look the same. They are…lost.

Carter suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. As part of his therapy, he studies survival techniques and is prepared for his Costa Rica trip. He tells Anna they have to stay put — S.T.O.P, which means to stop, think observe and plan.  Carter tells Anna their parents and rescuers will be able to track them. The humidity in the rainforest is so intense they are soaked and are forced to stop. They are dehydrated and need water. Carter pulls an emergency kit he’s made and carries in a Ziploc bag in his pocket. It has a fire starter, whistle, aluminum foil, ground tarp, flashlight, bandages and water purification tablets. As they begin to clear the area to start a fire, build shelter and look for a water source, a troop of White-faced monkeys leap from above trees and steal Carter’s emergency kit. Sobbing he sits on a log and is stung by a scorpion.

Their journey is only beginning and will test Carter’s ability to stay calm and focused and use what ever is available in the jungle to stay alive. They only have a machete, a rope and a large garbage bag. Will they find a water source? What will they eat? What about the dangerous animals, snakes and spiders lurking nearby? Should they stay or try to find their way out. How will they mark a path so rescuers can follow them? Carter knows that the difference between staying and leaving could mean life or death.

Why I like this book/series:

Lost! is another thrilling chapter book in Terry Lynn Johnson’s Survivor Diaries series. It is inspired by true stories of hikers lost in the rainforests of Costa Rica. The plot is riveting,  exciting and fast-paced. I like how it makes kids think about what it would take to survive a difficult situation.

It would be challenging to stay calm when you know you may not make it out alive. I like how Johnson pushes the envelope a little and creates Carter, who already has a problem with anxiety and panic attacks, as the main character. His anxiety is a major reason Carter has become such an expert about survival in the jungle. It may seem obsessive, but in Carter’s case it is empowering because he prepares for every “what if” situation he encounters. When his emergency kit is stolen he learns to learn to trust himself and use the tools he knows to survive. If he can survive a scorpion bite, he can survive anything.  Anna is a nice balance to Carter. She’s a year older, taller, stronger, bossy and wants to control the situation. But she is out of her element when it comes to survival and has to depend on Carter.

The Lost! Survivor Diaries will have huge kid-appeal because the element of danger and the universal need to know what to do if you are unexpectedly caught in a situation where your life depends upon what you know. Johnson’s words of real-life advice echo loud and clear: Stay calm. Stay Smart. Survive. After reading this book, you’ll be better prepared for surviving a real-life disaster. It is an important story for families, who are birdwatchers and hikers, to read together. It is also an excellent book that belongs in every school library.

Resources: Make sure you check out the Author’s Note and tips from the Canadian Red Cross on Building Your Own Safety Kit at the end of the book. Do you have what it takes to survive? Check out Johnson’s Online Survival Game to see if what you’ve learned from Carter and Anna will help you survive.

Terry Lynn Johnson, author of the acclaimed Ice Dogs, Sled Dog School, Falcon Wild, and the Survivor Diaries, writes adventures based on her 17 years of experiences and training in the wilds of northern Ontario. Her next sequel, Dust Storm! will be published in November. She has been dragged on her face by her dog team, been lost in the bush more than once, and even chased a bear with a chainsaw. She owned a team of eighteen sled dogs for many years and currently works as a conservation officer. Visit her at her website.

Greg Pattridge is the permanent 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.

Carnival Magic by Amy Ephron

Carnival Magic

Amy Ephron, Author

Philomel Books, Fiction, May 1, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Siblings, Carnival, Fantasy, Magic, Adventure, Family relationships, Vacation

Synopsis:

This companion to Castle In the Mist features a mysterious carnival, an ominous psychic, and a wind that whisks Tess and Max away from their vacation in South Devon, England. Which fantastical world will they find this time?

Tess and Max are back in England for another summer with their Aunt Evie–this time by the seashore in South Devon. And they’re incredibly excited about the travelling carnival that’s come to town. There are rides, games, acrobats, The House of Mirrors–and even a psychic, with a beautiful wagon all her own.

In a visit to the psychic’s wagon, while Tess is being hypnotized, the wagon seems to move. Before Tess can shake herself out of the hypnosis, before Max can do anything, they seem to be travelling–along with the rest of the carnival–too quickly for the two of them to jump out. But where are they going and what awaits them? Will they be caught in a world different from their own? And do the Baranova twins, acrobats who miss their sister almost as much as Tess and Max miss their family, hold the keys to the mystery?

Why I like this book:

Amy Ephron returns with a companion novel to The Castle in the Mist and creates a magical tale filled with adventure, mystery, fantasy, family, and fun. Readers will feel like they’re in the middle of the action and find Carnival Magic the perfect summer read.

The fun carnival setting will appeal to readers. Who doesn’t like cotton candy, a baby tiger, a Ferris wheel, a Hall of Mirrors, psychics, and acrobats. The chapters are short and fast-paced, propelling readers forward into this magical ride.

The plot is one adventure after another, as the brother-sister duo literally work themselves through a magical maze of adventures that are not of their world. Tess saves a baby tiger, rescues a child dangling from a stuck Ferris wheel, stands in as an acrobat, and tries to reunite three siblings, while Max figures out the mystery of the Hall Mirrors and navigating worlds.

Tess is a smart, strong and independent female protagonist, following in the footsteps of her mother and Aunt Evie.  Max is the logical and sensible of the two. He has a way of looking to the future and finding the positive, which Tess envies. Tess tends to jump in and not worry about where she’s jumping until later. She’s good at making snap decisions that lead her into some very hair-raising moments. Tess and Max are a nice balance to one another, especially when they enter another worldly dimension. Both siblings are resourceful and supportive in their attempts to right some wrongs and get back to South Devon — or did they really ever really leave it? A question readers will ponder.

The novel is entertaining, imaginative and filled with unexpected twists from beginning to end.

Amy Ephron is the author of The Castle in the Mist, which was her first middle grade novel. It was nominated for a SCIBA Award and selected as a February 2017 Barnes and Noble Best Book for Young Readers and Amazon Best Book of the Month. She has also written several adult books. A Cup of Tea was an international bestseller. Visit Ephron at her website.

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.

When We Were Shadows by Janet Wees

When We Were Shadows: A Holocaust Remembrance Book for Young Readers

Janet Wees, Author

Second Story Press, Biography, Apr. 18, 2018

Suitable for ages: 9-12

Pages: 157

Themes: Jewish children, Family relationships, Holocaust, Netherlands, Underground Resistance, Heroes

Synopsis:

It is 1937. Walter is five years old when his parents decide to flee their home in Germany and start a new life in the Netherlands. As Jews, they know they are not safe with the Nazi party in power. For nearly three years Walter and his family is relatively carefree. His father opens a small tea and coffee shop.  Walter and Hannah are able to attend school, learn Dutch, and play with other children.

When Germany invades the Netherlands in 1940, Walter’s world changes from safe and predictable to one full of uncertainty. He hears his parents talking in whispers.  He is too young to appreciate the danger he is in, and everything seems like a great adventure. He has to change his name. His family leaves their home and shop. But as the war progresses, his family is forced to move again and again, from city to countryside, to eventually, the Hidden Village deep in the Dutch woods.

Walter and his parents are separated from his seriously ill sister, who is hidden in a hospital, and his grandmother, who is hidden in other safe houses. He writes letters on napkins, scraps of paper, and book pages, describing his life, his fears, and his hopes. Walter’s eyes are opened to the threat that surrounds them every day and to the network of people who are risking their lives to help them stay hidden. This true story shines a light on a little-known part of WWII history and the heroes of the Dutch resistance—particularly those involved in the Hidden Village—without whose protection, Walter, his family, and hundreds of others would not have survived.

Why I like this book:

This is a moving and sensitive true story about the strength of the human spirit to survive. It is story about the power of a family determined to stay together. It is a story about the compassion and kindness of ordinary individuals who put their lives in danger because they know it is the right thing to do.

I like the format of Janet Wees book as it reads like a story. The author uses the letters Walter writes to his granddaughter, Jenny, as the background for the story. He waits until Jenny is old enough to share his entire story of fleeing Germany in 1937 as a young child and the fear and horror around him.  The rest of the story is told in the letters Walter writes to his oma (grandmother.)  After Oma’s death, Walter found the letters wrapped in a bundle in a trunk. They are in the voice of young Walter, who is able to sneak the letters to Oma through the Underground.

When We Were Shadows is a vivid and realistic story that will make readers remember so that this kind of atrocity doesn’t happen again. There are photographs throughout the book of Walter and Hannah, homes where they were hidden, dense forest camouflaged hide-outs and a rebuilt Hidden Village, that add undeniable authenticity to the story.

Resources: Make sure you read the Prologue, the Epilogue about the liberation and the Author’s Note at the beginning and end. This is another excellent book for middle grade teachers to add to their Holocaust collection.

Janet Wees has written since she was nine years old. A retired teacher, she spends her time creating children’s picture books, reading, walking, writing letters, cycling, volunteering and traveling. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.

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.

The publisher provided me with an advanced copy of the book.

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

The Stars Beneath Our Feet

David Barclay Moore, Author

Knopf Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Sep. 19, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 12 and up

Awards: Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent

Themes: African-American, Family relationships, Harlem, Gangs, Grief, Self-discovery, Friendship

Book Synopsis: It all started with two garbage bags full of Legos. Or not, maybe it started with the two thugs following 12-year-old Lolly down 125th that night.

Or maybe it was Jermaine’s dying. Or that fight they had before ‘Maine got shot. Yeah, probably it was that.

Lolly’s having a hard time knowing how to be without his older brother around. Seems like he’s either sad or mad. The thing that helps most is building. His mom’s girlfriend, Yvonne, gave him two huge bags of Legos for Christmas, and Lolly’s working on an epic city — a project so big it outgrows his apartment. The community center lets him work on his magical Lego city in a storage room which provides Lolly with an escape—and an unexpected bridge back to the world from his grief.

But there are dangers outside that persist. There are older guys who harass, beat up and rob Lolly and his friend Vega on the street. They pressure the boys to join a crew (gang), like his brother Jermaine. What would Jermaine want him to do? Get with a crew and take revenge? Or build a different kind of world for himself. Lolly’s going to have to figure this one out on his own.

Why this book is on my shelf:

David Barclay Moore has penned a powerful debut novel with a gripping plot and timely, real-life issues for young people of color. He opens readers eyes to how 12-year-old boys are easily targeted and drawn into gangs/crews as a way to survive. They don’t want to be part of gangs, but they are beaten, robbed, threatened and bullied into submission. It’s a way of life in many inner city neighborhoods where opportunities are limited. They believe that having the protection of a gang can save their lives, but it can also kill them, like Lolly’s brother, Jermaine.

I like how the author helps Lolly deal with his brother’s loss through imagination, creativity, and his love of architecture. Lolly builds epic cities with fantastic stories. He doesn’t realize that he is a gifted artist and storyteller headed for great things.

The relationship between two very unlikely friends, Lolly, who doesn’t know what to do with his anger and grief, and Big Rose, who is on the autism spectrum, is my favorite part of the story. Lolly is furious about the center’s director giving Rose permission to build Lego cities in the storage room with Lolly. But, then he begins to see her talent and speed at building. They end up traipsing all over New York City studying, photographing and drawing its unique architecture. They need each other and are important to each other’s growth healing.

A major reason the author wanted to write this novel is because he feels “there aren’t enough books that speak with the voices of the characters in his story.” For instance a slang word in one Harlem neighborhood may not even be used in another neighborhood a few blocks away. So the narrative is richly textured and thought-provoking, and offers hope and an opportunity for self-discovery.

This novel belongs in the hands of every teenager and middle grade and high school. It offers students the opportunity to engage in important discussions about real life and modern social issues.

David Barclay Moore was born and raised in Missouri. After studying creative writing at Iowa State University, film at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and language studies at l’Université de Montpellier in France, David moved to New York City, where he has served as communications coordinator for Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone and communications manager for Quality Services for the Autism Community. He has received grants from the Ford Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, Yaddo, and the Wellspring Foundation. He was also a semi-finalist for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. David now lives, works, and explores in Brooklyn, N.Y.  You can follow him at his website.

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.

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar


Lucky Broken Girl

Ruth Behar, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction, April 2017; Puffin Books reprint April 2018

2018 Pura Belpré Award

Suitable for Ages: 10-12

Themes: Cuban-Americans, Immigration, Second languages, Injury, Trauma, Family relationships, Friendships, Multicultural

OpeningWhen we lived in Cuba, I was smart. But when we got to Queens, in New York City, in the United States of America, I became dumb, just because I couldn’t speak English. So I got put in the dumb class in fifth grade at P.S. 117. It’s the class for the bobos, the kids who failed at math and reading.

Synopsis: When Ruthie Mizrahi moves with her family from her homeland of Cuba to the bustling streets of New York, it’s a lot to take in. There are new sights, new sound, and a new language. But Ruthie is adjusting. She’s already mastering English and has made some new friends. In her neighborhood, she is  known as the Hopscotch Queen. And she dreams of getting a pair of “go-go” boots, like her friend Danielle.

After she and her family spend the day with old friends on Staten Island, Ruthie and her family are in a car accident on the way home. Ruthie’s leg is broken in several places and she ends up in a body cast that stretches all the way from her chest to her toes. Just when she was starting to feel like life in New York would be okay, she’ll have to lie in bed for eight months and be treated like a baby again. As Ruthie’s world shrinks because of her inability to move, her powers of observation and her heart grows larger and she comes to understand how fragile life is, how vulnerable we all are as human beings, and how a diverse group of friends, neighbors, and the power of the arts can sweeten even the worst of times.

Why I like this book:

This novel has heart, courage and hope. It’s uniquely diverse community of family, friends, neighbors, teachers, doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers will restore your faith in humanity. And readers will cheer Ruthie as she overcomes her fears and learns to walk again.

I especially like how Ruthie turns her anger and hate towards the boy who injured her into forgiveness and hope. She is relieved her parents won’t sue the boy’s family, because she realizes that they lost their son and are suffering. Ruthie concludes that people makes mistakes, but that doesn’t mean their bad.

It is a perfect book for readers recovering from a trauma or injury. As an adult I endured two traumatic injuries, so I understand how frightening this would be for a child. When Ruthie’s cast is removed after eight months, the real recovery begins on both physical and emotional levels. Ruthie is fearful and doesn’t feel safe outside of her bed.  She has to find her personal power again in a most remarkable way with the creative help and laughter of many memorable characters supporting her.

Lucky Broken Girl is based on the author’s childhood in the 1960s, as a young Cuban-Jewish immigrant girl who is adjusting to her new life in New York City when her American dream is suddenly derailed by a car accident that leaves her in a body cast. The interview with Ruth Behar at the end of the book is a must read. It will give readers greater insight into the story. Visit Behar at her website. There is a short video with the author. This is a great summer read!

Ruth Behar is an acclaimed author of fiction and nonfiction. Lucky Broken Girl, is her first book for young readers. She was born in Havana, Cuba, grew up in New York City, and has also lived in Spain and Mexico. An anthropology professor at the University of Michigan, she is the author of The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart, An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba, and Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in between Journeys, and other books about her travels, as well as a bilingual book of poetry, Everything I Kept/Todo lo que guardé. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and travels often to Miami and Havana.

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

Abduction by Michelle Isenhoff (Recompense Book 4)

Abduction (Recompense Series Book 4)

Michelle Isenhoff, Author

CreateSpace Independent Publishing/Amazon Digital Services, Fiction, May 15, 2018

Pages: 350

Suitable for Ages: 14 and up

Themes: Abduction, Ruby Parnell’s story, World-building, Future Earth

Synopsis:

If you’ve read the first three novels in the gripping Recompense Trilogy, you’ve read Jaclyn’s (Jack’s) story. You know the important role her grandmother Ruby Parnell played in escaping from Brunay, turning evidence against the Bruelim and initiating the Axis investigation at the end of the Provocation. Now its time to read Ruby’s full story about her abduction.

Ruby’s story is set 47 years before her granddaughter Jaclyn’s (Jack) begins.  Readers will find her world more relatable to their own. She is entirely focused on her upcoming high school graduation and her escape from her Tidbury Bay, a warm  community of seafarers, a beautiful harbor and beaches and the safety and isolation it has offered her. She has given little thought to the disappearances that are taking place all over the North American Republic, because they haven’t touched her town. But Ruby is a restless and lively soul who sees no reason to attend college, even though she is intelligent. Ruby dreams of traveling the world and experiencing life in real-time. She and a friend are talking about getting their teaching accreditation and traveling to Europe to teach English.

Ruby has another reason for wanting to leave — her older sister Opal. The two may be related by blood, but they have opposite personalities.  The sisters live with their grandfather and Opal works at the local cannery. Opal loves nature and wandering through the woods. She is quiet and cares and cooks for the family without complaint. She’s such a model of perfection that Ruby never sees Opal’s betrayal coming the night of her graduation.  In a moment of emotional recklessness, Ruby flees to the woods alone. She awakens a captive of a cruel race in a land she’s never heard of before, Brunay. She will soon discover what happens to the missing girls.

What I like about this book:

Michelle Isenhoff is a prolific author and a skilled storyteller. Her world-building is imaginative and intelligent, with a strong elements of realism. She makes her readers think, ask questions and look at the world around them. Her execution of cliffhangers at the end of each chapter propels the reader into the next one, making Abduction and her other books addictive reads. And her characters stay with you. I’m already plotting out her final book in my head. I would love to be a cell in her brain, because she writes with such ambition.

It is Ruby’s risk-taking and thrill-seeking nature and her stubborn determination that allows her to fight for what she believes and return. She plans a massive escape for all of the women in her compound, but fails. She endures unbelievable punishment and brutality by the heartless Bruelims, and experiences heart-wrenching loss. Yet she still manages to be the first of over 100,000 captives to escape Brunay and shed some light on the reason for the abductions (NO SPOILERS). It is a harrowing story of resilience.

After reading Ruby’s story, I understand the similar personality traits between Jack and her grandmother. They both are on the same unrelenting mission with stubborn abandon for their own safety so that others may be saved.

Fans of the Recompense series, will be thrilled with Abduction. It is a full-length prequel to the series, and is intended to be read at the completion of the main trilogy. There will be five books in the series: Recompense, Betrayal, Retribution, Abduction (full-length prequel), and Reprisal (full-length sequel coming Summer 2018.) Hooray! I still have one more opportunity to see how this series is brought to a resounding conclusion this summer.  Visit Michelle Isenhoff at her website to view all her published work.

Michelle Isenhoff  is a former teacher and longtime homeschooler. She has written extensively in the children’s genre, most notably her work in historical fiction: The Ella Wood series and the Divided Decade collection. She has been lauded by the education community for the literary quality of her work. These days, she writes full-time in the adult historical fiction and speculative fiction genres. Visit Michelle’s fabulous website.

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.