Fort by Cynthia DeFelice

Fort

Cynthia DeFelice, Author

 Square Fish; Reprint edition May 17, 2016, Fiction

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Building a fort, Friendship, Bullies, Standing up for yourself

Opening/Prologue: This is the 100 percent true story of the summer I — Wyatt Jones — was eleven and built a fort in the woods with my friend Augie Valerio.  It isn’t the story I handed in to my teacher about how I spent my summer vacation. See, there’s stuff that happened that you can’t really talk about in school. Not unless you want to get in trouble…

Synopsis: Wyatt and his friend Augie aren’t looking for a fight. They’re having the time of their lives hanging out in the fort they built in the woods, fishing and hunting, cooking over a campfire, and sleeping out. But when two older boys mess with the fort — and with a kid who can’t fight back — the friends are forced to launch Operation Doom, with unexpected results for all concerned.

Why I like this book:

This is a fast-paced adventure story for boys and a terrific summer read! It’s summer boys would dream of having. It is set in the woods of upstate New York and reminds me of a different time period. Wyatt and his dad visit every summer, where his father teaches at a college. Wyatt hangs out with his best friend, Augie who lives there. Wyatt’s father gives him the trust and freedom to just be a boy and enjoy his summer, which is opposite from his mother’s parenting style.

Wyatt and Augie are very different characters. Wyatt is more tech savvy and strategic and Augie is smart about nature, hunting, fishing and survival in the woods. Both boys have a healthy respect for each other’s differences. As a result, their joint talents contribute to the best summer vacation both boys have ever had. There are other interesting characters there to support the boys when needed. But this is really a kids story.

I was pleased that Wyatt and Augie do the right thing when they realize Gerard, who is differently abled, has been mistreated and threatened by the bullies. They befriend Gerard, draw him into their plan, and help him find his voice.

The plot is believable, thrilling, tense and action-packed. It will keep readers quickly turning pages. When Augie and Wyatt discover two older bullies have messed with their fort, it’s time to act. Together they devise the most awesome strategic plan to teach two bullies a valuable lesson. It isn’t mean-spirited, but will make readers chuckle!

Cynthia DeFelice is the author of many popular books, including Wild Life, The Ghost of Fossil Glen, Signal, and the Missing Manatee. Her novels have been nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award and listed as American Library Association Notable Children’s Books. Visit DeFelice at her website.

**I won Fort in drawing on Greg Pattridge’s popular website, Always in the Middle. He reviews interesting and entertaining middle grade books. Please check it out!

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

Loving Vs. Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell

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Loving Vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case

Patricia Hruby Powell, Author

Shadra Strickland, Artist

Chronicle Books, Historical Fiction, Jan. 31, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Interracial Marriage, Race Relations, Prejudice, African-Americans, Civil Rights, Social Justice, Virginia, Supreme Court

Synopsis: This is the story about Mildred Jeters, an African-American girl, and Richard Loving, a Caucasian boy, who live near one another, are childhood friends, and fall in love.  Mildred becomes pregnant in 1957 and delivers their first son. and a second son in 1958. They want to get married, but in Virginia, interracial marriages are against the law. They decide they won’t allow Sheriff Brooks and the government to tell them who they can marry. They travel to Washington D.C. and are married by a preacher. When they return home to Caroline County, Virginia, they have to be careful. They are arrested and put in jail. They are released as long as Mildred lives with her parents and Richard lives with his family. Even though they hire an attorney and go to court, they are not allowed to be seen together. They move to Washington D.C. to live with family. Richard continues to work as a brick layer in Caroline County and drives the 90 miles back Washington D.C. to spend the weekends with his wife  and children. After living in Washington D.C. for five years, Mildred hates the noise and crowded city and longs to raise her children in rural Virginia. After being arrested sneaking home, they contact the American Civil Liberties Union and meet an attorney, Mr. Cohen. He is eager to help the Loving’s face each stage of the legal system and takes their discrimination case to the highest court, the U.S. Supreme Court.

What I like about this book:

Patricia Powell chose to write the narrative of this powerful story in free verse, alternating the voices of Mildred and Richard. It effectively achieves a balance between the Loving’s beautiful love story and their determination to fight the discrimination to live as husband and wife and win. The last thing the wanted was publicity. They wanted to raise their growing family at home in Virginia, where their children could run barefoot through the grass, see the stars at night and be near grandparents.

The author and artist craftily weave factual information, photographs and illustrations around the lyrical narrative, which lends itself to “visual journalism,” says Strickland. There are page inserts about court rulings on school segregation; the Virginia state, federal and supreme courts refusal of interracial marriages; and the U.S. Supreme Court final ruling in 1967 to uphold the 14th Amendment. There are news clippings from former Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a 1958 map showing the 24 states that banned interracial marriage. There are photographs showing the contrasts between white schools and black schools, protest marches for and against integration and equality.

I’m in awe of the massive amount of research that went into this masterful book. Strickland’s  artwork of Richard and Mildred and their family throughout their story is a light and moving  tribute to their deeply moving journey that lasted about 10 years. She used photographs from  LIFE magazine to create her lively and brush and pen illustrations, which compliment the conversational text between Richard and Mildred.

Middle Grade students will find this oversized book a page-turner. Because it is in verse, it is a quick read. It belongs in every school library. It is a beautiful love story and a book full of resources with historical timelines and more information about the Loving family.

June 12 will be the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling by Chief Justice Warren on Loving Vs. Virginia.

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

Every Falling Star: How I Survived and Escaped North Korea

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Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea

Sungju Lee and Susan McClelland, Authors

Amulet Books, Memoir, Sep. 13, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 11 – 14

Themes: Life in North Korea, History, Family Relationships, Homeless Boys, Street Children, Gangs, Poverty, Loss, Survival, Escape,  Multicultural, Hope

Prologue Opening: My toy soldier peers over a mound of dirt not far from where my father, abeoji, my mother, eomeoni, and I have just finished our picnic, near the Daedong River in Pyongyang.

Synopsis: Every Falling Star is the memoir of Sungju Lee, a North Korean (Joseon) boy who grows up in a privileged military family in Pyongyang.  He dreams of becoming a general in the army. His father is an important military leader, his mother a teacher and his grandfather a doctor. Sungju plays with his toy soldiers and his father joins him to teach him war strategies. His favorite television cartoon is Boy General. His loving  family lives in a large apartment near Kim Il-sung Square. Life is normal and there is plenty of food. Sungju attends school where he listens to the stories about the eternal leader, Kim Il-Sung, studies regular subjects, and learns about the monsters that want to attack his country — the Americans, the Japanese and the South Koreans. He takes taekwondo lessons, attends birthday parties, and goes to the amusement park.

One day Sungju’s father is asked to leave his job because of something he’s done. The family is sent north to Gyeong-seong, where they are to work as laborers in the countryside. Sungju is shocked by his new life and the starvation and death around him. He attends school where he makes friends, but attending is not worth his time. Eventually the family’s money (won) runs out and they fall upon hard times like everyone else. His parents hunt for wild vegetables, roots, small animals in the forests to survive. Sungju sells his books in the market. When his father goes to China to sell valuables and his mother heads to an aunt’s home for food, Sungju is alone. They never return and he is homeless. The twelve-year-old is forced to live in the streets and fend for himself. He survives for four years by joining a gang (kotjebi) and creates a new family with these brothers. Eventually he leads his own gang. Life is dangerous, brutal, and unforgiving. Sungju learns to steal, lie, and fight-to-kill. Everyday he fears arrest, imprisonment and even execution. It is the hope of finding his parents that keeps him alive.

Why I like this book:

  • Sungju Lee’s brave memoir captivated me from start to finish. I know so little about life in contemporary North Korea, and his gripping and powerfully haunting story touched me in a way I won’t forget. This is a true story that humanizes history for readers.
  • Lee and author Susan McClelland vividly depict the sharp contrast between life for the privileged families living in Pyongyang and the grim, deplorable and brutal life for the poor living through the famine outside the city in the 1990s. You understand how children in Pyongyang are brainwashed with propaganda based on myths from birth. You feel the anger, hopelessness and despair of those starving in the countryside and wonder how you would survive an authoritarian government where censorship is rampant and your freedoms are taken away.
  • Readers will observe Sungju’s transformation from a naïve child, loving and dutiful son in Pyongyang, to a resilient, fearless and notorious street gang leader. He uses the military tactics his father teaches him as a child to outsmart his street enemies, merchants and the police. He has rules his gang all agree to live by, like never stealing food from a child. He develops strategies, secret codes and hideouts. He is a leader and becomes hardened. The only heart he shows is towards his loyal gang brothers: Young-bum, Chulho, Min-gook, Unsik, Myeongchul, and Sangchul. They are his family.
  • The story is a page turner, reads like a novel and is packed with action. The pacing is fierce with most of the storytelling focused on Sungju’s street survival. He and his gang are always on the move. They hop trains to other cities, fight with different gangs for control over markets, manipulate merchants, and are chased out-of-town by police. They move on to other cities and repeat their activities. They also suffer personal injury and loss of two of their brothers.
  • Readers will have to wait until the very last chapter to discover how Sungju leaves his street life and is reunited with his family. The ending feels rushed and I wanted to know more about his big escape. After all, it is a risky event. Thankfully, there is an Epilogue at the end that fills in the gaps. Verdict: Teens will find this powerful memoir about adversity and hope, engaging and satisfying.  Every Falling Star belongs in school libraries. Although the publisher lists the book for ages 12-14, the School Library Journal recommends it for middle grade readers, ages 8 -12. Because of the drinking, drugs, stealing and violence in the book, parents should make that call for tweens.

Quote: “But I hadn’t lost everything. I had hope that I would meet my parents again. With this hope, I made a wish whenever I saw a falling star.”

Resources: There is a Brief History of Korea and Prologue at the beginning of the book. There is an Epilogue and Glossary of Korean words at the end.

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

The Thing About Leftovers by C.C. Payne

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The Thing About Leftovers

C.C. Payne, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction, Jul. 19, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 10 and up

Themes: Divorce, Family Relationships, Cooking Contest, Friendships

Synopsis: 12-year-old Fizzy is dealing with a lot of change in her life since her parents divorce, including a new stepmother. She’s moved to a new town, Lush Valley, where yards are manicured and the girls at school dress like models. Fizzy doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere — at home with her mother’s new boyfriend or her father’s perfect wife. She also is on the wrong side of the principal and her math teacher because she’s always tardy; her mother always runs late. Fizzy’s life seems to focus around constantly packing and unpacking her suitcase as she is shuffled back and forth between her parents homes every week. She feels like a leftover, no matter how hard she tries to be perfect.

Fizzy is luck to have her Aunt Liz, who shares Fizzy’s passion for southern cooking. When her aunt tells her about the Southern Living Cook-Off, Fizzy is fired up. Cooking is a distraction for Fizzy. So she and her aunt begin sorting through possible family recipes. Fizzy is talented at taking a recipe and making it her own.  She’s excited about the famous cooking contest, her new friendships with Miyoko and Zach, and her dream of winning. If she succeeds, maybe her parents will notice and love her.

Why I like this book:

C.C. Bell has written a novel that will have universal appeal for teens dealing with the complexities of divorce, separation, parental loss, step-parents and blended families. Payne’s skillfully weaves the metaphor of left-overs throughout the story to depict Fizzy’s predicament. People aren’t crazy about eating left-overs, just as Fizzy feels like she’s “the left-over kid from a marriage and a family that no longer exists.” Her parents are so preoccupied with their own lives, she feels invisible and not appreciated.

The book is character-driven and the plot is realistic. It is an entertaining read about a tough topic. Fizzy narrates the story. Payne nails Fizzy’s dramatic, sarcastic, and witty voice. She digs deeply into Fizzy’s turmoil and her tendency to internalize her hurt feelings, which is a big problem for her. Instead of talking over her worries with her parents, aunt  or a school counselor, she lets everything simmer until her pain reaches a boiling point. Perhaps readers will learn from Fizzy and make different choices about their own lives. Others will cheer for Fizzy. Verdict: Be ready to both cry and laugh as you read The Thing About Leftovers! It’s a winner!

For teens who enjoy cooking, this book would pair nicely with the Baking Life of Amelie Day, about a girl with Cystic Fibrosis who competes in a cooking contest. Each protagonist has a different challenge, but the cooking themes link these two novels and makes them satisfying reads.

C.C. Payne is the author of Something to Sing About, Lula Bell on Geekdom, Freakdom & the Challenges of Bad Hair.  Visit C.C. Payne at her website.

Note: A special thank you to Rosi Hollinbeck. I won the copy of this novel on her blog, The Write Stuff,  last September. I really enjoyed spending my evenings with Fizzy in The Thing About Leftovers.

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

The Ship to Nowhere: On Board the Exodus by Rona Arato

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Rona Arato, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Oct. 6, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Pages: 155

Themes: Jewish Refugees, Escape by Ship, Exodus 1947 (Ship), Holocaust Remembrance,

Book Synopsis: World War II is over and 11-year-old Rachel Landesman and her family are determined to find a country where they can build a new life. They have decided to leave Europe on board the Exodus, a dilapidated ship smuggling 4,500 Jewish refugees to their biblical homeland, known as Palestine.

Despite having just survived the Holocaust, the refugees are willing to risk their lives again for a home free from hatred and oppression. But as war ships and soldiers quickly surround the Exodus, they realize their journey will not be easy. While Rachel, like the other children on board, plays games and makes friends, she also struggles to understand the politics and setbacks that plague their voyage. At times, it seems they will never be allowed to reach their new home. Nonetheless, the passengers refuse to give up hope. Their fight to find a place to live in peace will influence history.

Why I like this book:

  • Rona Arato has written a moving story based on the true experiences of 11-year-old Rachel Landesman, her family and the 4,500 Jewish refugees being smuggled to their homeland, known as Palestine. Despite the extreme hardships and the constant threat of the British warships trailing their ship, Rachel remains strong and entertains the children with games and activities.
  • The setting is vivid and realistic. The refugees are packed like sardines on two decks meant for 300 passengers. Rachel and her family are lucky to get a bunk bed, while others sleep on the deck. There is lack of water and food at times, deplorable bathroom conditions, and unimaginable fear and suffering when the five British destroyers attack the ship as it nears Palestinian waters. It nearly sinks.
  • Readers will be captivated by Rachel’s spirit and strong will. The strength in the book is in the bravery, determination and resolve of the refugees to not give up on their dream. They fight the British with fists, sticks and canned goods as the soldiers board the badly damaged ship. When the refugees are turned away from Palestine and put on another ship sailing to France, they refuse to disembark in France.  Their spirit and refusal to give up on their dream is truly inspiring.
  • The author did a remarkable amount of research. Many of the characters in the book are real people who made the treacherous journey on the Exodus 1947 — Rachel, her mother and sister, Captain Ike, second officer Yossi Harel, American volunteer Bill Bernstein, newspaper reporter Ruth Gruber and the many Haganah men and women who organized and ran the movement of illegal ships that tried to carry Jewish refugees to Palestine. Their journey is documented with real photos, bringing the story to life. The plight of the passengers on board the Exodus gained worldwide attention. It influenced the UN to vote for the creation of the state of Israel.
  • In her Preface, Rona Arato, says “that the story Rachel and its brave passengers and crew is especially relevant today because of the world’s ongoing refugee crisis. Millions of refugees around the world continue to seek safe havens where they can live in dignity and freedom.”
  • The author has taken a difficult story and told it with sensitivity for middle grade readers. It is a “Holocaust Remembrance Book for Young Readers” and will be a welcomed addition to any school’s library.

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

Note: Watch for Multicultural Children’s Book Day, which will be celebrated on Jan. 27, 2017.  Hashtag: #ReadYourWorld.

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw

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Kathleen Burkinshaw, Author

Sky Pony Press, Historical Fiction, Aug. 2,  2016

Pages: 240

Suitable for Ages: 11-13

Themes: Hiroshima, Children of war, WW II, Love, Loss, Traditions

Opening: “Get under your desks — now!” Yakamura-sensei shouted above the lonesome wail of the air raid siren.

Book Synopsis:  Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her five-year-old cousin, Genji, are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage.  And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden from its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.

This is a story that offers young readers insight into how children lived during the war, while also introducing them to Japanese culture. Based loosely on author Kathleen Burkinshaw’s mother’s firsthand experience surviving the atomic bombings of Hiroshima, The Last Cherry Blossom hopes to warn readers of the immense damage nuclear war can bring, while reminding them that the “enemy” in any war is often not so different from ourselves.

Why I like this book:

Kathleen Burkinshaw’s debut novel is powerfully penned, authentic, emotionally raw and deeply personal. It is a captivating journey about life, love, secrets, pain, loss and hope that will tug at your heart long after you put the novel down.

Even though there are frequent air raid drills and black-out curtains, traditional Japanese life continues with a strong sense of community. The first half of the story focuses on family, cultural traditions, food preparation, ceremony, ritual, and the beautiful cherry blossom and New Year’s festivals. There are family secrets, the angst of adolescence and enduring friendships. Readers will easily fall in step with the pace of life in Japan before it begins to change.

The story is character-driven, with Yuriko narrating. Reader’s will be captivated by Yuriko’s curiosity, spirit, and strong will, which is nurtured by her papa, who publishes the newspaper. Their bond is tight and he tells her bedtime stories of their samurai ancestors and how they are the last branches of their family tree. Yuriko shares secrets and a love of jazz music with her best friend Machiko.

The plot picks up momentum as more soldiers are being sent to war and not returning home. Rumors spread that there isn’t enough scrap metal to build Japanese planes. The Emperor sends out propaganda that the Japanese are beating the Allies in the Pacific.  But, the Americans bomb Nagasaki.  Air raid sirens are going off many times daily. And in a blink of an eye there are war planes flying low overhead.  Sirens sound. There is an eruption of bright light and loud sounds. Yuriko’s world implodes that tragic day.

This is a dark period in humanity’s history 71 years ago. Children will learn that Japanese children shared the same fears as the children in Allied countries during World War II.  Her novel speaks to the enduring will to survive. It is my hope that Burkinshaw’s novel will help readers humanize historical events that have radically changed our world and take them more seriously as they become our future leaders.  The author’s mother shared her story because she felt “the use of nuclear weapons against any country or people, for any reason, is unacceptable.”

Resources: There is a very helpful glossary of Japanese words and expressions that are used throughout the novel, an Author’s Note, and Statistics About Hiroshima.

Kathleen Burkinshaw wrote The Last Cherry Blossom based on her mother’s story of growing up in Hiroshima during World War II. She was twelve years old when the bomb was dropped on Aug. 6, 1945. Visit Kathleen Burkinshaw at her website.

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

Note: Watch for Multicultural Children’s Book Day, which will be celebrated on Jan. 27, 2017. Hashtag: #ReadYourWorld.