All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boy’s Soccer team

Christina Soontornvat, Author

Candlewick Press, Nonfiction, Oct. 13, 2020

Suitable for ages: 8-12 (teens and adults)

Themes: Thailand, Tham Luang, Soccer Team, Entrapment, Flooding, Cave divers, Rescue workers, International teamwork, Culture

Book Jacket Synopsis:

On June 23, 2018, twelve young players of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach enter a cave in northern Thailand seeking an afternoon’s adventure. But when they turn to leave, rising floodwaters block their path out. The boys are trapped! Before long, news of the missing team spreads, launching a seventeen-day rescue operation involving thousands of rescuers from around the globe. As the world sits vigil, people begin to wonder: how long can a group of ordinary kids survive in complete darkness, with no food or clean water? Luckily, the Wild Boars are a very extraordinary “ordinary” group.

Combining firsthand interviews of rescue workers with in-depth science and details of the region’s culture and religion, author Christina Soontornvat—who was visiting family in Northern Thailand when the Wild Boars went missing—masterfully shows how both the complex engineering operation above ground and the mental struggles of the thirteen young people below proved critical in the life-or-death mission. Meticulously researched and generously illustrated with photographs, this page-turner includes an author’s note describing her experience meeting the team, detailed source notes, and a bibliography to fully immerse readers in the most ambitious cave rescue in history.

What to love about this book:

Christina Soontornvat has adeptly written a story about the rescue of the Thai Soccer team that is riveting and heart-pounding. Most readers know the ending of the boys’ rescue. What they don’t know is the herculean international effort (10,000 people) it takes to bring the team out safely, against all odds they won’t survive. Soontornvat has readers sitting on the edge of their seats as they absorb the details of their harrowing rescue, and the power of the human spirit to survive. The story is suspenseful to the end.  All Thirteen is the best nonfiction I’ve read in a long time.

Soonornvat watches the search for the boys on Thai television. When she returns to the U.S. and sees the media coverage of the rescue, she realizes that “she didn’t see any Thai faces.” The media focuses much of their attention on the expert British and other western divers involved in the ultimate rescue. With her Thai background, she feels she can bring the Thai culture into the story that others miss — a story that “lets the country and culture shine.” Her goal is to showcase the relentless work of the Thai Seals, the military, rescuers, the Get-It-Done-Crew and ordinary volunteers who work day and night to feed everyone and do what ever is needed.

All Thirteen is painstakingly researched. Soontornvat returns to Thailand in October 2018 with only one interview scheduled with Vern Unsworth, a British “cave man” living in Mae Sai. He’s spent many years exploring all the cave passages of Tham Luang and knows it better than anyone. This is a lucky break for Soontornvat because everyone knows and respects him. The two connect and she finds herself booked solid with interviews. It is also important to note that Soontornvat’s mechanical engineering background helps her take scientific information and make it understandable for readers.

The book is beautifully designed and easy to read. There is a narrative that flows throughout the story that draws readers into the center of the action and holds them spellbound. Gorgeous photographs adorn every page chronicling the rescue and diving efforts, the caverns inside of Tham Luang, the boys, the volunteers and the water-diversion teams working to lower the flood levels inside the cave.  Readers are also treated to inserts about the beautiful country of Thailand, the culture, Buddhism, temples, maps of the cave system, diving rules, and information on oxygen concentrations and hypothermia.

Important to the story is the strong relationship between the boys and Coach Ek, the 25-year-old Buddhist soccer coach. He is a major reason the boys survive. He teaches the boys meditation as part of their soccer training. The cave is damp and chilly. The boys are wet, cold, starving and living in complete darkness, except for necessary times when Coach Ek turns on a flashlight. They do have clean drinking water. Coach Ek is determined to keep the boys from panicking or falling into despair before the divers find them on Day 10. He urges them to rest and conserve energy. The boys meditate. They scratch “help” messages into the cave walls. They make promises to look after one another forever. They dream and talk about seeing their families. When divers find them, they are surprised by the boys morale.

Favorite quote: “Breath by breath they each became master of the one thing they can control inside Tham Luang: their own minds.” Page 55

All Thirteen is written for middle grade students, but is also appropriate for teens and adults. The deliberate pacing keeps readers fully engaged and wondering what will happen next. This compelling discussion book belongs in every school library. It’s a perfect Christmas gift for readers who love survival stories.

*Note:  My enthusiasm for All Thirteen was enhanced by attending a virtual zoom book launch October 18 with Christina Soontornvat. It was moderated by author Kate Messner and sponsored by the Book People. If you have a similar opportunity to attend a virtual event, it is worth your time.

Christina Soontornvat is the author of several books for young readers, including the middle-grade fantasy novel, A Wish in the Dark. She holds both a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in science education and lives with her husband and two children in Austin, Texas. Visit Christina at her website.

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

*Review copy is provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Zora and Me: The Summoner by Victoria Bond

Zora & Me: The Summoner

Victoria Bond, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Oct. 13, 2020

Suitable for ages: 10-14

Themes: Zora Neale Hurston, Storyteller, African-American, Racism, Jim Crow South, Community, Loss, Grief

Synopsis:

For Carrie and her best friend, Zora, Eatonville—America’s first incorporated Black township—has been an idyllic place to live out their childhoods. But when a lynch mob crosses the town’s border to pursue a fugitive and a grave robbery resuscitates the ugly sins of the past, the safe ground beneath them seems to shift. Not only has Zora’s own father—the showboating preacher John Hurston—decided to run against the town’s trusted mayor, but there are other unsettling things afoot, including a heartbreaking family loss, a friend’s sudden illness, and the suggestion of voodoo and zombie-ism in the air, which a curious and grieving Zora becomes all too willing to entertain.

In this fictionalized tale, award-winning author Victoria Bond explores the end of childhood and the bittersweet goodbye to Eatonville by preeminent author Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960). In so doing, she brings to a satisfying conclusion the story begun in the award-winning Zora and Me and its sequel, Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground, sparking inquisitive readers to explore Hurston’s own seminal work.

Why I like this book:

Victoria Bond captures the untamed spirit of the famous writer Zora Neale Hurston in this daunting story of her fictionalized childhood. In this final contribution to her celebrated trilogy, Bond deftly confronts the harsh realities of racism in Jim Crow’s south in 1905. Bond’s narrative is rich and poetic and the dialogue is suspenseful and humorous. The plot is haunting, gripping, and dangerous.

The story is set in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black township in the United States in 1887. The historical facts about the town, with the only black mayor, is fascinating. It is out in the middle of nowhere. The black community lives peacefully together for many years enjoying their freedom, owning their own businesses, and farming their own land. They have a church and pastor, a doctor, and a post office. All the children are enrolled in school. When trouble begins in 1905 with the lynching of a black fugitive followed by a series of other unsettling events, and the town of Eatonville is on edge.

The story is narrated by Zora’s best friend, Carrie, who knows that what ever problem or mystery the two friends may be chasing, always means trouble. Zora is a rambunctious and strong-willed character with a wild imagination. She loves telling stories and eventually begins to writing them down. Her sight, as Carrie notes, “is always set on the horizon.”

Other memorable characters include Old Lady Bronson, who is the town midwife, healer and wise woman.  Joe Clarke, who’s been Eatonville’s mayor for 18 years and also owns the general store, is anxious to expand the town.  Zora’s father, the boisterous Rev. John Thurston, pastor of the church, decides to run against the mayor. Zora’s mother, Lucy, is very ill and poor Chester Cools, a troubled soul. Mr. Calhoun is the kind school teacher who helps Zora during turbulent times. And Zora and Carrie’s friend Teddy Baker, is training to be a doctor with Dr. Brazzle.  All of the characters add intrigue to the story.

Zora & Me: The Summoner is both heart wrenching and inspiring. Bond’s deliberate pacing and tension will keep readers fully engaged. There are many surprises for readers. It is an exceptional story, that gives readers a “hint” of the famous author’s life. She inspired many black female authors, like Alice Walker, with her courage and strength, but didn’t benefit monetarily from all her writings.

Resources: Make sure you check out the biography of the remarkable Zora Neale Hurston and a timeline that chronicles her life, which are at the end of the story. And, read Carrie’s letter to her granddaughter at the beginning, as it will give you a snapshot of 1905 and her thoughts about Zora.

Amazon Review: “In the third and final volume of Zora and Me, readers are treated to a lustrous look at several facets of the anthropologist, folklorist, and novelist Zora Neale Hurston. . . . I sing the praises of what Victoria Bond has imagined and crafted here, both in deference to my aunt and as a way of honoring Zora’s legacy.” — Lucy Hurston, niece of Zora Neale Hurston

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.

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

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

Prairie Lotus

Linda Sue Park, Author

Clarion Books,  Fiction, Mar. 3, 2020

Suitable for ages: 10-12

Themes: Fathers and daughters, Chinese Americans, Racially mixed people, Bullying, Frontier and pioneer life, Dakota Territory, Dressmaking

Synopsis:

When Hanna arrives in the town of LaForge (Dakota Territory) in 1880, she sees possibilities. Her father could open a shop on the main street. She could go to school, if there is a school, and even realize her dream of becoming a dresmaker — provided she can convince Papa, that is. She and Papa could make a home here.

But Hanna is half-Chinese, and she knows from experience that most white people don’t want neighbors who aren’t white themselves. The people of LaForge have never seen an Asian person before; most are unwelcoming and unfriendly — they don’t even know her! Hanna is determined to stay in LaForge and persuade them to see beyond her surface.

In a setting that will be recognized by fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, this compelling story of resolution and persistence, told with humor, insight, and charm, offers a fresh look at a long-established view of history.

What I like about this book:

Linda Sue Park has penned an insightful and  beautifully poignant novel about a Chinese American girl, traveling from California to the Midwest with her widowed white father. The author has placed Hanna in the middle of America’s heartland, where most white people have never seen Asian Americans, but hold an unwavering prejudice against anyone of color, including Native Americans.

I enjoyed Hanna meeting some women and children from the Ihanktonwan tribe and sharing a meal with them before she and her father arrive in LaForge. They grace her with a string of prairie turnips. This scene sets the stage for how people of color were displaced and treated in 1880. Hanna meets them again later in the story when she’s looking for prairie rose bushes and they are digging turnips. (Park includes some of the Native dialogue, during the encounters.) Hanna wonders why it isn’t possible for whites and Ihanktonwan tribe to share the land together, a reflection of her own situation.

Hanna is a memorable, likable, determined and courageous character with a strong voice. She has big dreams of going to school and graduating and becoming a dressmaker, like her mother. She hopes to make one best friend. Hanna has experienced prejudice her entire life,  But It’s still hard for Hanna to deal with the stares, cruel comments, racist attitudes, parents pulling their kids out of school in protest and outward physical abuse. But her Chinese mother’s words are always there to remind her of who she really is.

Park says she intended to write a version of her favorite Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books that speaks the truth for Asians, Native Americans and people of color, who were involved in the settling of America, but were treated second class. Her research is impeccable and furthers the understanding of our country’s long history of prejudice. She visited the town of DeSmit, and some reservations.

Make sure you check out the lengthy “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, which deals with her love and struggle with the Little House books. This is a perfect class discussion book.

Linda Sue Park is the author of Newbery Medal winner A Single Shard and best-selling novel A Long Walk to Water, along with numerous novels and picture books. Ms. Park has been a gymnast, a food journalist, an advertising copywriter, and an ESL teacher, and now writes full time. As an advisory board member of We Need Diverse Books and a board member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, she is a well-known advocate for diversity, inclusiveness, and reading. She lives in Rochester, New York, with her family. Visit her website or on Twitter @LindaSuePark

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

*Reviewed from a library book.

Trowbridge Road by Marcella Pixley

Trowbridge Road

Marcella Pixley, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Oct. 6, 2020

Suitable for ages: 10 and up

Themes: Mother and daughter, Family relationships, Aids, Grief, Mental illness, Bullying, Domestic Abuse, Friendship, Community, Hope, Magic

Book Jacket Synopsis:

It’s the summer of ’83 on Trowbridge Road, and June Bug Jordan is hungry. Months after her father’s death from complications from AIDS, her mother has stopped cooking and refuses to leave the house, instead locking herself away to scour at the germs she believes are everywhere. June Bug threatens this precarious existence by going out into the neighborhood, gradually befriending Ziggy, an imaginative boy who is living with his Nana Jean after experiencing troubles of his own. But as June Bug’s connection to the world grows stronger, her mother’s grows more distant — even dangerous — pushing June Bug to choose between truth and healing and the only home she has ever known.

Trowbridge Road paints an unwavering portrait of a girl and her family touched by mental illness and grief. Set in the Boston suburbs during the first years of the AIDS epidemic, the novel explores how a seemingly perfect neighborhood can contain restless ghosts and unspoken secrets. Written with deep insight and subtle lyricism by acclaimed author Marcella Pixley, Trowbridge Road demonstrates our power to rescue one another even when our hearts are broken.

Why I like this book:

Marcella Pixley has written a poignant novel, that is both heart wrenching and beautiful. Although it is set in the 80s, it is relevant because Pixley doesn’t side step heavy topics like mental illness, neglect, closet homosexuals, homophobia, AIDS, bullying and domestic abuse. Trowbridge Road will appeal to a large range of readers who are coping with secrets and family issues. And they will find hope, courage and love.

June Bug’s first-person narrative is powerful and pulls no punches. She is sad because she has lost her  father from AIDS, and her fragile mother is drifting further into depression, spending her days in bed. The only time her musical mother seems calm and peaceful is when she picks up her bow and plays her cello. When Uncle Toby brings June Bug food once a week, her mother goes into a cleaning frenzy and scours the house after he leaves with bleach — germs are the enemy. There is no one to care for June Bug. Her circumstances are heartbreaking, but she manages to remain a brave and resilient protagonist.

The relationship between June Bug and Ziggy is believable and unforgettable. Ziggy has his own problems. His mother is in an abusive relationship and he’s bullied by kids because of his long red hair, quirky clothing and his smelly, pet ferret perched on his head. He’s come to live with Nana Jean, who provides, love and stability for Ziggy — something June Bug desperately wants.  June Bug and Ziggy understand and accept each other unconditionally. They become best friends and create their own  imaginary world in the woods behind Nana Jean’s house — the ninth dimension — where they escape the pain of their lives. Pixley’s novel reminds me a bit of The Bridge to Terabithia.

Trowbridge Road is richly textured, lyrical and beautifully penned. I love June Bug’s description of Nana Jean’s kitchen the first time she’s invited to breakfast. “Nana Jean’s kitchen smelled like the gossip of garlic and bacon and oregano. It smelled like the laughter of sun-dried tomatoes and sausages and cheese. The recipes whispered to each other from the glazed windows to the spaces between floorboards to the countertops. We have fed the children and grandchildren in here. We meals. We blessed, blessed meals.  I entered like Alice on the threshold of Wonderland, or Dorothy taking her first steps into the Emerald City — the prickling feeling that I was about to enter something glorious.” (Pg. 185)  Verdict: This is a winner.

Make sure you check out the “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, where she discusses AIDS in 1983 and mental illness.

Marcella Pixley is the author of three critically acclaimed books for young adults, including Ready to Fall. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for poetry and holds a mast of letters from Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. She teaches writing to middle-schoolers in Massachusetts, where she lives with her family.

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

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

Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk

Echo Mountain

Lauren Wolk, Author

Dutton Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Apr. 21, 2020

Suitable for ages: 10-13

Themes: Great Depression, Family Relationships, Nature, Accident, Healing, Hope, Friendship

Opening: “The first person I saved was a dog.  My mother thought he was dead, but he was too young to die, just born, still wet and glossy, beautiful really, but not breathing.”

Book Jacket Synopsis:

When the Great Depression takes almost everything they own, Ellie’s family is forced to leave their home in town and start over in the untamed forests of nearby Echo Mountain. Her father was a tailor and her mother a teacher. Life is hard, but Ellie has found a welcome freedom, and a love of the natural world, in her new life on the mountain. But there is little joy, even for Ellie, as her family struggles with the aftermath of an accident that has left her father in a coma. An accident unfairly blamed on Ellie by her older sister, Esther.

Determined to help her father, Ellie will make her way to the top of the mountain in search of the healing secrets of a woman known only as “the hag.” But the hag, and the mountain, still have many untold stories left to reveal and, with them, a fresh chance at happiness.

Echo Mountain is celebration of finding your own path and becoming your truest self. Lauren Wolk, the Newbery Honor– and Scott O’Dell Award–winning author of Wolf Hollow and Beyond the Bright Sea weaves a stunning tale of resilience, persistence, and friendship across three generations of families, set against the rough and ragged beauty of the mountain they all call home.

Why I like this book:

Lauren Wolk is a beautiful storyteller and her writing is exquisite. Set in the Maine wilderness during the Great Depression, her imagery in Echo Mountain is rich and poetic. Her characters are well-developed, with 12-year-old Ellie the kind of girl readers will want to befriend. Wolk’s plot is courageous, gripping, and humorous at times. Her deliberate pacing keeps reader’s fully engaged and wondering what will happen next.

Ellie finds beauty in a wilderness that speaks to her. When her father is injured, Ellie is resilient, curious and eager to learn the secrets of healing from an “old hag” living high in the mountain. There is friendship with the hag’s grandson, Larkin, who reveals a talent of his own. There are secrets, unexpected surprises and harrowing moments for many of the characters, including Ellie’s mother and siblings, Esther and Samuel. They all learn lessons about their inner own inner strengths during a crisis –even the hag. (Sorry, no spoilers.)

Echo Mountain is definitely a stand-out novel and I highly recommend it for teens. The characters will remain with you long after you finish. Wolk’s novel captured my heart and I will eagerly read it again.

Favorite Quote “I myself was two opposite things at the same time. One: I was now an excellent woods-girl who could hunt and trap and fish and harvest as if I’d been born to it. Two: I was an echo-girl. When I clubbed a fish to death, my own head ached and shuddered. When I snared a rabbit, I knew what it meant to be trapped. And when I pulled a carrot from the sheath of its earth, I, too missed the darkness.” Page 16

Lauren Wolk is an award-winning poet, artist, and author of the adult novel Those Who Favor Fire, the Newbery Honor-winning novel Wolf Hollow, and the Scott O’Dell Award-winning novel Beyond the Bright Sea. She was born in Baltimore and has since lived in California, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Canada, and Ohio. She now lives with her family on Cape Cod.

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

*Reviewed from a purchased copy.

The Case of the Bad Apples by Robin Newman

The Case of the Bad Apples (A Wilcox and Griswold Mystery)

Robin Newman, Author

Deborah Zemke, Illustrator

Creston Books, Fiction, Sep. 1, 2020

Suitable for ages: 5-11

Themes: Animals, Pigs, Farm, Mystery, Detectives, Crime, Bad apples

Opening: “Boys and girls, this case is about some bad apples on Ed’s farm.”

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Detective Wilcox and Captain Griswold are on the case again, trying to discover who poisoned the apples Porcini pigged out on. Was it Sweet Pea, the piglet next door; Herman the Rat; or Hot Dog the nosy pooch? Who had motive, means, and no alibi? Follow the clues and figure out who was behind Porcini’s terrible tummy ache.

Why I like this book:

Robin Newman has penned a spirited and comical third chapter book in The Wilcox and Griswold Mystery series. Wilcox and Griswold (Missing Food Investigators or MFI’s) are called daily to solve a food problem on Ed’s Farm. This time a troublemaker has left a gift basket of poisoned Granny Smith apples for Porcini to hog down. And he’s hog sick.

No one hits the sweet spot with food- and animal-based wordplay like Newman. PIG-DIC-U-LOUS! She’s a master and her food-related crimes are hilarious! She had me chuckling from page one with “Porcini  pigged out” on apples.  Rushing to the scene, the MFI’s get caught in heavy rush hour traffic. “There are road hogs, squealing, oinking, and grunting, but they finally let us pass. Typical road hogs. Typical indeed.”

Everyone is suspect on Ed’s Farm for the attempted “hamslaughter.” Sweet Pea, the piglet; Herman, the rat; Fowler, the owl; and Hot Dog, the nosy pooch, who Porcini claims regularly steals his food. Will Dr. Alberta Einswine, from Whole Hog Emergency Care, be able to help the detectives get to the rotten core of this mystery?

Don’t miss the fun details on every page: Porcini looking pretty green with his tummy ache, hoof prints left on the remaining apples, and other gathered evidence. And make sure you check out the endpapers for the detective details, case report, and evidence folder. Dr. Einswine’s report is not to be missed! And there is a recipe for Apple Pockets that kids can make at home, with supervision.

Deborah Zemke‘s colorful and expressive illustrations fill each page and contribute to the silliness of this perfect mystery about “who done it.” Another exceptional collaboration between the author and illustrator. Here’s hopping for more Wilcox and Griswold cases to solve.

Resources: Check out Robin Newman’s website. She has a wonder Teacher’s Guide to use with student that covers this puzzling mystery about who wanted to make pork chops out of Porcini. Wanna be detectives will delight in going through all of the steps of solving a crime.

Robin Newman was raised in New York City (a/k/a the Big Apple) and Paris where she was a practicing attorney and legal editor, but she now prefers to write about witches, mice, pigs, and peacocks. She lives
in New York with her husband, son, two English Cocker Spaniels, and one French Bulldog. Visit her at her website.

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

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

Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Black Brother, Black Brother

Jewell Parker Rhodes, Author

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

Suitable for ages:

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

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

Book Jacket Synopsis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I like this book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Reviewed from a library book.

Wondrous Rex by Patricia MacLachlan

Wondrous Rex

Patricia MacLachlan, Author

Emilia Dzubiak, Illustrator

Katherine Tegen Books, Mar. 17, 2020

Suitable for ages: 8-12

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

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

Synopsis:

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

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

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

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

Why I like this book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Reviewed from a library book.

The Elephant’s Girl by Celesta Rimington

The Elephant’s Girl

Celesta Rimington, Author

Crown Books for Young Readers, Fiction, May 19, 2020

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Elephants, Zoo, Tornado, Ghosts, Adventure, Mystery

Opening: “The wind and I have a complicated relationship. Because of the wind, I’m the girl without a birthday, without a name, without a beginning to my story. See, the wind took my family away when I was small, and I don’t remember them or where I came from.”

Book Jacket Synopsis:

An elephant never forgets, but Lexington Willow can’t remember what happened before an EF5 tornado swept her away when she was a toddler. All she knows is that it landed her near an enclosure in a Nebraska zoo; and there an elephant named Nyah protected her from the storm. With no trace of her birth family, Lex grew up at the zoo with Nyah and her elephant family; her foster father, Roger; her best friend, Fisher; and the wind whispering in her ear.

Now that she’s twelve, Lex is finally old enough to help with the elephants. But during their first training session, Nyah sends her a telepathic image of the woods outside the zoo. Despite the wind’s protests, Lex decides to investigate Nyah’s message and gets wrapped up in an adventure involving ghosts, lost treasure, and a puzzle that might be the key to finding her family. As she hunts for answers, Lex must summon the courage to leave the secure borders of her zoo to discover who she really is–and why the tornado brought her here all those years ago?

Why I like this book:

Celesta Rimington’s debut novel about Lexington’s mission to discover her true identity is full of heart, family, and friendship. Rimington’s writing is graceful and filled with vivid imagery and details. Readers will find themselves lured into Lex’s story from the first chapter.

This is a magical adventure about Lex’s unique relationship with the African elephant, Nyah, and a mysterious ghost, who both save her life on the night the tornado that sweeps through the zoo. Lex feels a connection to Nyah, who communicates with her telepathically. Nyah leads Lex to find Miss Amanda, who insists she’s a “misplaced spirit,” who has some unfinished business to attend to that involves a hidden treasure.

The characters are authentic and well developed. Lex is curious and determined to learn about her past. She loves Roger Marsh, the zoo’s train engineer, who becomes her legal guardian, when her family isn’t found. They live on the zoo grounds in his home. And for Lex, the zoo is home. When Lex starts school, kids are mean and call her “the elephant girl.” So she is home schooled by Mrs. Leigh, the zoo keeper’s wife and mother of her best friend, Fisher. Lex can always count on Fisher. Their summer involves searching for ghosts, chasing a lost treasure, mischief and danger. But because they live at the zoo, there are chores and many things to do. Readers are going to want to live at a zoo.

I was drawn to this story because of my love of elephants. And Rimington doesn’t disappoint with her extensive research into how these intelligent elephants communicate with each other over distances through the thumping of their feet. They create an “infrasonic sound” that is too low for humans to hear. In the story, Lex and the elephant trainer, Thomas, both detect the sound as a thumping in their temples. I didn’t know that elephants have 40,000 muscles in their trunks. And I am also impressed with her research into the steam locomotives and what it takes to run a zoo and care for the wildlife.

The Elephant’s Girl weaves together realistic fiction, mystery and magical realism that will create an extraordinary experience for readers. The ending is bittersweet and satisfying. Fans of Katherine Applegate, Jennifer Holmes and Kate DiCamillo will enjoy this novel. Make sure you read the “Author’s Note” at the end, where you will learn about these majestic elephants and find additional websites about elephant research and wildlife sanctuaries.

Celesta Rimington is an elephant advocate, a musical theater performer, and an active participant in her local writing community. As a teenager, she worked at a zoo in Omaha, which is part of the reason she set her story in Nebraska. She now lives in Utah with her husband and two children, where they have a miniature railroad with a rideable steam train. Visit Rimington at her website.

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

*Reviewed from a library copy.

Daring Darlene: Queen of the Screen by Anne Nesbet

Daring Darleen: Queen of the Screen

Anne Nesbet, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Apr. 14, 2020

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Silent films, Acting, Kidnappers, Villains, Danger, Adventure, Courage

Synopsis:

Lights! Camera! Kidnapping? When a publicity stunt goes terribly wrong, twelve-year-old Darleen Darling, star of the silent film era, must defeat villains both on screen and off in this edge-of-your-seat adventure.

It’s 1914, and Darleen Darling’s film adventures collide with reality when a fake kidnapping set up by her family studio becomes all too real. Suddenly Darleen finds herself in the hands of dastardly criminals who have just nabbed Miss Victorine Berryman, the poor-little-rich-girl heiress of one of America’s largest fortunes.

Soon real life starts to seem like a bona fide adventure serial, complete with dramatic escapes, murderous plots, and a runaway air balloon. Will Darleen and Victorine be able to engineer their own happily-ever-after, or will the villains be victorious?

Why I like this book:

Daring Darleen is a fascinating peek into early silent films. There is so much to love about Anne Nesbet’s latest piece of historical fiction about a daring 12-year-old heroine and her family of movie makers. Money is low in 1914, so Matchless Studios gives the gives the public what it wants, “chases, plunges, trains, and villains.” And Darling Darleen becomes Daring Darleen. This story is a page-turner with an engaging plot.

The authentic friendship that develops between Darlene and heiress Victorine Berryman, really gives the story its heart. Their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Darleen is a spunky, clever and resourceful heroine who is even more couragous in real life. After she and Victorine are kidnapped, she plots their escape from a seventh-story building window. Victorine is refined and elegant. She loves to read and is quite the world traveler. Telling the truth matters most to Victorine. The girls bond over the loss of Darlen’s mother and Victorine’s grandmother. They have a mystery to solve and together they are relentless. As the story progresses, readers will marvel at Victorine’s growth in self-confidence.

The girls also befriend the elegant French-speaking Madame Alice Guy Blaché, owner of Solax Studios, who helps them uncover a mystery regarding Victorine’s inheritance and cruel guardians. I was delighted that Nesbit includes Madame Blanché in her story, as a tribute to her real-life contribution in early film history. Blanché was the first filmmakers to “tell a story” in film and was the first woman to run a film studio.

Although the novel is a work of fiction, it is based on the “thrilling true story of the rise of the film industry.” And the story is set in Ft. Lee, NJ, where many of the “photoplays” were filmed. Make sure you read the Author’s Note at the end of the story to learn more about the history of film making, because Anne Nesbit is a Professor of Film and Media history at the University of California.

Anne Nesbet is the author of the historical middle-grade novels Cloud and Wallfish and The Orphan Band of Springdale, as well as three fantasy novels for middle-graders. Her books have received numerous accolades, including multiple starred reviews and appearances on many best book and notables lists. A professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Anne Nesbet lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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

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