Severn and the Day She Silenced the World by Janet Wilson

United Nations: International Day of the Girl Child, October 11

Severn and the Day She Silenced the World

Janet Wilson, Author

Second Story Press, Nonfiction, Mar. 14, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 9-13

Themes: Severn Cullis-Suzuki, Child Environmental Activist, UN Earth Summit in Rio, Speech

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki was one of a handful of children given the chance to speak at the closing of the very first Earth Summit in Rio d Janeiro, Brazil, in June of 1992.  It was a day that the media, world leaders and the world took notice. U.S. Vice President Al Gore was famously quoted as saying: “That was the best speech I heard all week!”

Politicians and environmentalists had gathered at the Summit to find solutions to problems such as air pollution and the shrinking rainforests. But for all their talk, they could find little to agree on. It took Severn’s clear, bright voice — challenging the adults of the world to take action — to bring home what was at stake.

As the daughter of environmentalists David Suzuki and Tara Cullis, Severn Suzuki loved that natural world. At age nine, she traveled with her parents to the Amazon and saw the terrible consequences of rainforest destruction on the land and for the indigenous tribes. Back home in Vancouver, she and her  friends were inspired to start the Environmental Children’s Organization (ECO). They raised money to buy water filters to clean the polluted drinking water for children in the rainforest. When they learned about the Earth Summit in Rio, they began a serious fund-raising campaign. They faced obstacles, but they also had a lot of community support. ECO wanted world leaders to hear from children about their concerns for their future — an auspicious goal for three of the ECO members attending.

Why I like this book:

Janet Wilson’s writes empowering and timely books about young people who see injustices around them and take action. Wilson focuses on ordinary children who are making major contributions in their communities and in their world. Severn and her four friends show kids that they don’t have to be adults to make a difference.

Although Severn’s story is nonfiction, it reads like a story. There are photos, the ECO newsletters, newspaper articles, Severn’s diary entries and the recorded seven-minute speech before the Earth Summit. Wilson worked closely with Severn to recreate her time in history.

Severn and her friends are passionate about their work with ECO. They learn how to work as a team  which contributes to ECO’s success. They set goals, choose their projects, develop plans, target key audiences with their message, and raise funds. These girls are committed to telling adults a truth they need to hear — a truth that flows directly from their hearts.

Most important, their work fuels their future environmental interests in high school and shapes their future career paths as activists in many different ways. Severn received the UN Environment Program’s Global 500 Award in Beijing and continued her role as an environmental activist speaking around the world. At Yale University she received her degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and from the University of Victoria in British Columbia she studied Ethnoecology. Her sister, Sarika, became a marine biologist. The other members of ECO also followed similar service paths.

Severn’s riveting seven-minute speech touched the hearts of the world leaders. Her message in 1992 is even more relevant today and continues to receive thousands of hits on YouTube 25 years later.

Resources: This is an excellent classroom book as it humanizes child activism. Make sure you read the Epilogue, Severn Says, Where Are They Now?, Useful Links, and a Glossary at the end of the book. “Today, youth all over the world continue to stand up and speak out for environmental, social, and intergenerational justice. They still want adults to listen and to change their way,” says Janet Wilson. Check out the United Nation’s International Day of the Girl Child website for resources, activities and events.

Janet Wilson is an author and illustrator of many children’s books. Severn and the Day She Silenced the World is part of Wilson’s “Kid’s Power” series. Her first book Shannen and the Dream for a School, won the First Nation Communities Read and was nominated for the Silver Birch Award. Wilson has also written a series picture book series about child activism: Our Earth: How Kids are Saving the Planet; Our Rights: How Kids are Changing the World; and Our Heroes: How Kids are Making a Difference.

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

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Refugee

Alan Gratz, Author

Scholastic Press, Historical Fiction, Jul. 25, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Themes: Child Refugees, Immigrants, Germany, Cuba, Syria, Courage, Bravery

Synopsis: Josef is a Jewish boy living in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board the MS St. Louis, a ship bound from Germany to Cuba with 937 passengers. Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994, with riots and unrest plaguing her country. She and her family set out on a home-made metal boat, hoping to find safety in America. Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by war, violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek through Europe to find “home.”

All three kids go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers — from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, shocking connections will tie their stories together in the end.

Why I LOVE this book:

Alan Gratz had me sitting on the edge of my seat swiftly turning the pages of his powerful and heart-breaking story about three young refugees seeking safety from dangerous and life-threatening conditions in their countries. No matter what their country or culture, these three heroes share a desire for safety and a place they can call home. This is a difficult novel told with brutal honesty and sensitivity.

His storytelling is masterful as Gratz tackles past and current refugee stories and skillfully weaves them together to show their relevancy today. Each character’s story is told sequentially in alternating chapters. Gratz keeps readers turning pages because of powerful cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter. Readers won’t want to miss a moment of the story.

The characters are brave, courageous and resilient 11- and 12-year-olds, who are forced to grow up quickly and make life and death decisions that help their families survive. Josef becomes the man of the family when his father returns from a concentration camp emotionally damaged. Isabel sacrifices her beloved trumpet to purchase the gas needed to power their boat from Cuba to Florida, and she saves the boat captain when he falls out of the boat. When the raft Mahmoud and his family are riding in crashes into a rock and sinks, he makes the painful decision to save his infant sister by handing her to a woman in passing raft. He knows he may never see her again. Courage!

Refugee is well-documented. Even though the three main characters are fictional, their tales are based on true stories. The MS St. Louis was a real ship not allowed to dock in Cuba. The captain, the crew and many passengers mentioned were real. With food shortages in Cuba in 1994, Cuban president Fidel Castro did allow unhappy and starving to leave Cuba for five weeks without being thrown into jail. Many lost their lives at sea, while others call America their home. After six years of war, Syrians continue to flee their decimated country and their chapter in history is still being written on the world stage.

Refugee comes to a resounding conclusion, with the fates of the three protagonists revealed. It’s emotional and there are some unexpected reveals. This timely book can’t help but stir empathy among young readers and help them grasp their role as global citizens. Some readers may see their own family stories among the pages. Verdict: Refugee is a winner that should be required reading in school.

Resources: Make sure you read the Author’s Note at the end of the book that gives detailed information  about the research for each character.  There is also information about What You Can Do and maps that chart the routes of each child’s journey.

Alan Gratz is the acclaimed author of several books for young readers, including Refugee, Projekt 1065, Prisoner B-3087, Code of Honor, and The Brooklyn Nine. Visit Gratz at his website.

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

Wish by Barbara O’Connor

Wish

Barbara O’Connor, Author

Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Aug. 30, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Separation, Dogs, Family Relationships, Friendship, Social Issues, Hope

Synopsis: Charlemagne (Charlie) Reese has been making the same secret wish every day since fourth grade. Charlie knows all the ways to make a wish, like looking at a clock at exactly 11:11, finding a four-leaf clover, spotting a shiny penny in the dirt, observing a black cat cross the road or blowing on a dandelion. But when she is sent to live with and aunt and uncle she barely knows in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, it seems unlikely that her wish will ever come true. That is until she meets Wishbone, a skinny stray dog who captures her heart, and Howard a neighbor boy who proves surprising in lots of ways. Suddenly Charlie is in danger of discovering that what she though she wanted may not be at all what she needs.

Why I like this book:

Wish is a richly textured an emotionally honest story about separation. Charlie’s father is in jail. Her mother is depressed and unable to care for her. Barbara O’Connor weaves together a moving story about friendship, belonging and finding family.

Wish is told from Charlie’s viewpoint. The narrative is seamless and the plot is well-paced with just the right amount of adventure and tension to keep readers turning pages.  It is also a beautiful story that is filled with heart and teaches the power and bond of community. Add a dog and you have the perfect read for teens.

Charlie is a spunky and resilient character with a temper, which she believes she inherited. She later regrets the mean and hurtful things she says. At first she hates Colby, N.C., the hillbilly kids and the ugly house she lives in that sits on the edge of a cliff. But she also shows her compassion to people and animals who are worth caring about — even though they are different or may be a scrawny stray dog she names Wishbone.  Howard is a great balance for Charlie. He has one leg shorter than the other and has dealt with mean kids and teasing his whole life.  He is kindhearted and has learned to forgive and accept others for who they are — a big lesson for Charlie. She even tests Uncle Gus and Aunt Bertha with her outbursts, but their love and patience give Charlie a sense of belonging.

Barbara O’Connor was born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina. She has written many award-winning books for children, including How to Steal a Dog and The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester. Visit Barbara O’Connor at her website.

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

Saved by the Boats by Julie Gassman

Saved By The Boats: The Heroic Sea Evacuation of September 11

Julie Gassman, Author

Steve Moors, Illustrator

Capstone Press, Nonfiction, Aug. 16, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Terrorist Attack, September 11, Boats, Sea Evacuations, Civilians, Hope, Kindness

Opening: An arc of sky framed the city in brilliant blue. The bright, golden sun beamed with warmth. But just below, gray smoke swelled and snaked through the air. And, silently, white ash fell in a thick snowfall, coating the city.

Synopsis: September 11,  2011, was a dark day in U.S. history. Amid the chaos of the attacks, sea captains and crews raced by boat to the tragic scene. nearly 500,000 people on New York City’s Manhattan Island were rescued that day in what would later be called the largest sea evacuation in history. In this rarely told story of heroism, we come to understand that in our darkest hours, people shine brightly as a beacon of hope.

Why I like this book:

Julie Gassman’s powerful and inspiring story is based on her own personal experience of fleeing Manhattan by boat on September 11.  Impressively researched, the narrative is presented in a straightforward, honest and compassionate manner. This beautifully crafted story demonstrates the best of humanity during times of tragedy.

This is a little known story about how ordinary captains of tugboats, ferry boats and private boats responded to the Coast Guard call and sped to the harbor to help 500,000 people escape the suffocating blanket of ash and travel to safety in Jersey City. Their spectacular demonstration of heroism deserves recognition. Their biggest concern was the safety of the passengers even though they knew that on open water they could be easy targets. Yet they continued to sail back and forth rescuing people and then carrying rescue workers, water and other supplies on their return.

Steve Moors soulful illustrations capture the crush of people with bewildered and dazed facial expressions, which are contrasted by the busy rescue workers wrapping people in towels and washing faces. His pen and ink drawings of the people and city is shaded in an ashen color, with a bright blue sky in the background. Yet, his artwork conveys a sense of hope.

Most of the youth who will read this book weren’t even born yet. Saved by the Boats really demonstrates to readers that during times of tragedy, we come together as Americans to help each other. With the country dealing with two recent hurricanes, it is an excellent time to encourage children to look for the  acts of kindness and the heroic deeds of ordinary people as we help each other through a difficult time.  It is an important book for youth in Grades 3-6 to read.

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

A Time to Dance and a Book Giveaway

I reviewed A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman, when it was first released in 2014 by Nancy Paulsen Books.  It is a beautiful story written in free verse.  The author has sent me an autographed paperback copy (2015) to give away to one lucky reader. All you need to do is leave a comment below indicate your interest, follow my website, and be a resident of the US or Canada. I will announce the winner on September 13.  I have included part of my earlier review of this remarkable gem. The hardback copy is a permanent resident on my bookshelf.

Suitable for ages: 12 and up

Awards: ALA Notable Book, Booklist Editor’s Choice, Kirkus, other national and international awards

Themes: Dance, India, Amputee, Disabilities, Abilities, Loss, Courage, Recovery

Book Jacket SynopsisVeda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance–so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown up used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling.

But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.

Why I like this book: This inspirational and courageous novel is lyrical with each word carefully chosen.  Verse is the perfect medium. Padma Venkatraman weaves together a story about loss and resilience of a girl determined to dance once again her beloved Indian Bharatanatyam. This is not a story about disability, but one of ability. It is about finding the deeper spiritual meaning of the dance over the applause. “For my invisible audience of the One I begin to dance./ Colors blur into whiteness and a lilting tune that is and is not of the world resonates within and without me./ My body feels whole./In the beat of my heart I hear again the eternal rhythm of Shiva’s feet.”

Reading Venkatraman’s novel is an experience of India in all its beauty, cultural traditions, senses and sounds. If you listen closely you can hear the faint echo of a dancing rhythm. Thaiya thai. Thaiya thai.  I highly recommend this beautiful novel for tweens and teens who have faced challenges in their lives.  This book is a treasure!

Padma Venkatraman is a chief scientist and oceanographer by training and a writer by choice. She is the author of Climbing the Stairs and Island’s End, both multi-award winners.  Padma was born in India, but is now an American citizen. Visit Padma at her website. It has discussion questions and teaching resources.

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

The Great Treehouse War by Lisa Graff

The Great Treehouse War

Lisa Graff, Author

Philomel Books, Fiction, May 16, 2017

Suitable for Ages : 8-12

Themes: Parents, Divorce, Interpersonal relationships, Friendship, Tree houses, Humor

Synopsis: On the last day of fourth grade, everything in Winnie’s world changed. That was the day Winnie’s parents got divorced and decided that Winnie would live three days a week with each of them and spend Wednesdays by herself in a treehouse smack between their houses, to divide her time  evenly. Before the divorce, her parents didn’t care much about holidays except Thanksgiving. When her mother realized she was never going to celebrate Thanksgiving with Winnie because it fell on Thursday, she decided to pick a new holiday and celebrate it better. The competition began and soon every day was a special holiday, as each parent tried to outdo the other: Ice Cream Sandwich Day, Underwear Day, National Slinky Day, Talk Like Shakespeare Day, and so on. Winnie was kept so busy, she couldn’t study or finish her homework. Wednesdays in the Treehouse became a sanctuary with her cat, Buttons. When her teacher warned her she was at risk of  not passing fifth grade, Winnie had enough. That’s when Winnie’s seed of frustration with her parents was planted.  That seed  grew until it felt like it was as big as a tree itself.

By the end of fifth grade, Winnie decided that the only way to change things was to barricade herself in her treehouse until her parents come to their senses.  Her friends ,who have their own parent issues,  decided to join her. It’s kids versus grown-ups, and no one wants to back down first. But with ten demanding kids in one treehouse, Winnie discovered that things can get pretty complicated pretty fast!

Why I like this book:

Lisa Graff’s witty storytelling makes The Great Treehouse War a superb summer read for kids. And it will fulfill any child’s dream of wanting to live in a treehouse — especially a two-story treehouse built 15 feet off the ground.  It is equipped with a bathroom, art station, skylights, bookshelves, a toaster oven, shelves full of fruit loops and a zip line escape to Winnie’s Uncle Huck’s house.

It is a cleverly designed book by Graff for kids who are in fifth grade and preparing to move on to middle school. It offers readers both tantalizing prose and humorous drawings and doodles, maps, sticky note comments, how-to instructions, plans, and treehouse rules. It has a comic book appeal to it and is perfect for the intended age group.

There are 10 Tulip Street kids with 10 very distinct and quirky personalities, which add to the fun and mayhem. Their diversity is uneventful, because the only way you know they are diverse is by their names like Winifred Malladi-Maraj (aka Winnie). Winnie is a spunky, creative, compassionate and courageous heroine.  She possesses what she and Uncle Huck describe at “artist vision,” where she is able to intuitively observe the needs of others. Her cat, Buttons, is the greatest cat in the world.  Other memorable characters include: Lyle and his tooth collection; Jolee the scrabble champ; Greta and her friendship bracelets; the twins Brogan the acrobat and Logan the jokester; and Tabitha and her lizards.

The plot is wacky and unique because Winnie’s divorced parents have her trapped in the middle of their selfish battle for equal access to their daughter. Any child being pulled in two different directions by divorced parents, will relate to the unfairness of it all.  Graff’s silly and sometimes outrageous approach to divorce is age appropriate and makes the topic easier to digest. There are other unusual subplots that make this book such a clever read, but I won’t spoil it for readers.

Lisa Graff is the critically acclaimed and award-winning author of A Clatter of Jars, Lost in the Sun, Absolutely Almost, A Tangle of Knots, Double Dog Dare, Sophie Simon Solves Them All, Umbrella Summer, The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower, and The Thing About Georgie. You can visit Lisa Graff at her website.

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

Time Jump Coins By Susan May Olson

Time Jump Coins: An Adventure in Historic Philadelphia

Susan May Olson, Author & Publisher

Fiction, May 17, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Time travel, Historic Philadelphia, Different Abilities, Diversity, Friendship

Synopsis (GoodReads): Imagine if you could time travel to the past just by rubbing the date on a penny!

Ten-year-olds Joey (Johanna) and Eli can time travel to any year between 1859 and 1909, simply by rubbing a coin from a set of Indian Head pennies! Old Philadelphia can be a lot of fun. They see the first phone and climb up the arm of the Statue of Liberty at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. They get to go on a sleigh ride through a Wissahickon winter wonderland.

In between trips, Hal, proprietor of Hal’s Coins and Collectibles, teaches them tons of interesting facts about coins. However, their adventures take a serious turn when they wind up in a textile mill in Manayunk. They are shocked by the conditions for children working in the mill. They get mistaken for workers and are forced to work. They’ll be lucky if they don’t fall into the dangerous gears of the machines!

Joey wants a friend more than anything. The fact that Eli is a super-smart history whiz should make him the ideal time travel partner. But Joey has a bad temper, and Eli has Asperger’s Syndrome. Will their quirks drive them apart, or worse, get them stranded in the past forever?

Why I like this book:

Susan May Olson’s debut novel is a whimsical time-travel adventure to historic Philadelphia for Joey (Johanna) and Eli. Olson has spun a story of pure magic around an inherited 50-coin collection of Indian Head Cents, that when rubbed can take the two fifth graders back to Philadelphia between 1859-1909,  and when pinched can return them home. What a clever way to travel back in time and experience history first-hand.

The main characters are memorable, but couldn’t be more opposite. Joey has a bad temper and Eli has different abilities and is socially awkward with people. But they share one thing in common — neither have friends. They are assigned to sit next to each other on the bus and they gain a respect for each other. Since Eli is a history buff, Joey shares her magic coin collection with him and its secret. Eli does much of the research for their coin jump leaps. Their growing friendship throughout the story is perhaps the highlight of the book for me.

The plot is clever, fast-paced and filled with adventure, wonder, mystery and danger — if you get lost, injured or lose the penny and don’t return in time.  There are some secrets and surprises in the story. This is a great summer read and I predict tweens will enjoy the Time Jump Coins.

I especially liked Joey and Eli’s interaction with Hal, the coin collector. I had no idea that each coin has a mint mark on it beneath “In God We Trust.”  P for Philadelphia, D for Denver, S for San Francisco and W for West Point.

Favorite entry from Joey’s Journal:

“The most popular kids are like a pop song you hear on the radio that everyone likes right away…And then there are other kids that are like a painting hanging on a wall that most people including you walk right by and never notice. But one day you walk by that painting and take a long look. You’re not even sure you like it at first, but you walk by slowly because you want to get to know it better. The more you get familiar with the painting, the more you realize how much there is to it and how cool it is. My friend Eli is that kind of painting.”

Susan May Olson is a former speech-language pathologist who lives with her family in Chapel Hill, N.C.  Time Jump Coins is her debut novel. Visit Susan at her website, where she’s reviewed over 150 time travel stories.

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