Just Dance by Patricia MacLachlan

Just Dance

Patricia MacLachlan, Author

Margaret K. McElderry Books, Fiction, Sep, 12,  2017

Suitable for Ages: 7 and up (Grades 3-5)

Themes: Families, Country life, Singer, Reporter, Newspaper writing

Book Synopsis:

Sylvie Bloom does not understand her mother. She used to be a famous opera singer and Sylvie can’t figure out why she would give up her singing career in front of thousands of people for life on their small Casper, Wyoming farm. Sylvie wants something more exciting than that for herself this summer. She wants an adventure.

Sylvie’s teacher, Mrs. Ludolf, notices her writing talent and suggests that Sylvie take over Sheriff Ludolf’s   local newspaper column. Her job will be to report on the local happenings and follow the sheriff on his rounds. But even as she starts writing about town events, Sylvie can’t help but wonder if she and her younger brother, Nate, have been holding their mother back from doing the same. Nate is more philosophical and tells Sylvie she has “too many preconceived notions.” And when her mother’s old duet partner James Grayson writes that he’s coming to perform nearby, will she be tempted to return to the stage, without them?

Why I like this story:

Just Dance is a cozy book and a perfect summer read. MacLachlan has written a heartfelt and lyrical story about family love, community and music, in her signature minimal style. The setting is so vivid that it makes you want to go live on the prairie near Sylvie’s small town.

Throughout the story, Sylvie’s mother’s beautiful voice is heard in the background — a mystery for Sylvie. Her mother sings in the shower, while her family gathers outside the door to listen and name the music. Her mother sings a different song to the cattle, sheep and chickens and they stop to listen. As do the passing neighbors who hear her lilting voice across the fields — even the crows.

MacLachlan’s characters are memorable with emotional depth. Sylvie, like her mother, has her own talents. As she travels about town with the local sheriff reporting the daily news, she admires his wisdom and compassionate approach to solving problems. She meets a kindred spirit in Tinker, who lives very simply with his wolf, Bernie. Tinker is a poet, artist and observer of life and encourages Sylvie, who writes her columns in free verse or as a Haiku poem. Here’s a sample of Sylvie’s artistic way of reporting for the paper, which the community enjoys:

Sheep in the meadow

Blue-eyed man and a sweet friend

A good day of peace. (Meeting Tinker)

_____________

Boys too young to say

Build a fire on windswept day

Sent home, ponder deeds.  (Boys playing with fire)

________________

Wily crowd of crows

Back to plunder Elmer’s corn

Maybe try sweet song?

Just Dance is a quiet novel to savor. It’s about how Sylvie finds a way to express her own unique voice, while she tries to understand her mother’s choice to leave the lime light for a prairie. This is a good book for kids moving into middle grade books. With short chapters, it can also be read out loud to young children.

Patricia MacLachlan is the celebrated author of many timeless novels for young readers, including Newbery Medal winner Sarah, Plain and Tall; Word After Word After Word; Kindred Souls; The Truth of Me; The Poet’s Dog; and My Father’s Words. She is also the author of countless 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 link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Earth Day, April 22, 2019
Theme for Earth Day — Protect our Species

Song for a Whale

Lynne Kelly, Author

Delacorte Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Feb. 5, 2019

Suitable for Ages: 8-12 (adults will enjoy)

Pages: 299

Themes: Deaf girl, School, Whales, Grandmother, Communication, Hope, Travel

Synopsis:

From fixing the class computer to repairing old radios, twelve-year-old Iris is a tech genius. But she’s the only deaf person in her school, so people often treat her like she’s not very smart. If you’ve ever felt like no one was listening to you, then you know how hard that can be.

When she learns about Blue 55, a hybrid whale (his mother a blue whale, his father a fin whale) who is unable to communicate with other whales, Iris understands how he must feel. Most whales call out at frequencies of 35 hertz and lower, but Blue 55 sings at 55 hertz. His unique voice isn’t understood by the other whales. He has swum alone for decades with little contact with other whale pods or his family.

Iris has an idea to invent a way to “sing” to him. She uses her tech skills, works with the school musicians to record a song at Blue 55’s frequency, and mixes it with his own song. She sends it to a marine biologist from  an Alaskan sanctuary trying to tag Blue 55.  Iris hopes that sanctuaries will play it as he migrates along the west coast, so he can hear his song. The marine biologist responds enthusiastically and says she will play the recording. Iris wants to be there, but Blue 55 and the sanctuary are three thousand miles away. How will she play her song for him? How will she see him?

Why I LOVE this book:

Lynn Kelly’s Song for a Whale is a captivating story about the connection between a deaf girl and a whale. Kelly is a remarkable storyteller who weaves together the parallel lives of these two unlikely characters, who are lonely and want to be heard. With Iris narrating, readers will gain insight into what it’s like to be deaf in a hearing world.

Iris’s quest to help Blue 55 hear his own song will melt your heart. It is so refreshing to read a novel about a spunky and determined deaf girl who uses her smarts and unique technical talents to improve the life and well-being of a whale that is lonely. Iris is a perfect role model for young people, who have their own struggles. She is also a reminder to readers that we each have our own inner strengths and abilities to make a difference in the world.

Iris’s bond with her deaf grandmother is the most interesting in the story — and I love intergenerational relationships. Her grandmother is a recent widow, who is dealing with her grief. It was exciting to watch her grandmother’s growth in the story as she begins to live again and heal. It adds a lot of lightness and humor to the story. Most important she understands and believes in Iris. There are many other memorable, lovable, quirky and flawed characters in the story, but my favorite was the grandmother.

The plot is fast-paced and engages readers from the first chapter. Time is of the essence for Iris, because Blue 55 could appear at any time, any where. When Iris’s parents tell her she can’t go to Alaska, her deaf grandmother steps in and secretly arranges the trip. Their trip to “the beach,” turns out to be to Alaska, unbeknownst to her parents. Iris and her karaoke-loving grandmother have a grand time together and new friendships are made. But when and where will Blue 55 surface. The suspense and the unexpected twists in the plot will have readers rapidly turning pages.

Resources: Make sure you read the information from the author about “Whale Communications and the 52-Hertz Whale’ at the end of the book  She also includes information about “Deafness and Sign Language.” This book is a timely share for Earth Day — Protect our Species.

Lynne Kelly’s work as a sign language interpreter has taken her everywhere from classrooms to hospitals to Alaskan cruises. Her first novel, the award-winning Chained, was named to seven state reading lists and won the SCBWI’S Crystal Kite Award. She liver near Houston, Texas, with her adorable dog, Holly. Visit Lynne Kelly at her website.

Favorite Quote:

“I was the one who was lonely, and I’d wanted the whale to hear me,” said Iris. Page 261

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

*Reviewed from a library copy.

Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord

Because of the Rabbit

Cynthia Lord, Author

Scholastic Press, Fiction, Mar. 26, 2019

Pages: 192

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Rabbit, Rescue, New school, Feeling different, Special Needs, Friendship

Book Synopsis:

It is a powerful thing to rescue something. It changes both of you.

On the last night of summer vacation, Emma tags along with her game warden father on a call. They expect to rescue a wild rabbit that’s stuck in a picket fence, but instead they find a honey-colored little bunny, maybe someone’s pet. Emma convinces her father to bring him home for the night. She knows that rabbits can be lucky — and she needs all the luck she can get.

Because the next day, Emma starts public school for the very first time. After years of being homeschooled, she’s ready to ride the bus and eat in a cafeteria as a brand new fifth grader. More than anything, Emma wants a best friend, someone who’s always on her side.

But things don’t go as planned. On the first day of school, she’s paired with a boy named Jack for a project. He can’t stay on topic, he speaks out of turn, and he’s obsessed with animals. Jack does not fit in.

As Emma and Jack bond over her rescue rabbit, she worries that being seen with Jack will mean that’s she’s different, too. Will their friendship keep Emma from finding the best friend she’s meant to have?

Why I like this book:

A heart warming story about the bond between Emma and a rabbit that helps her face some major changes in her life. This sweet honey-colored rabbit nuzzles her neck and her worries melt away. She names him Monsieur Lapin, after a rabbit character in her deceased grandfather’s magical stories. Perhaps Pépère (grandfather) may be sending some rabbit magic and her life will be okay.

Lord writes characters with depth. I really enjoyed Emma’s relationship with her brother, Owen, and the clever banter between them that runs throughout the story. For example on Emma’s first day of school, Owen asks her, “So who’s ahead. Scared or Excited?” Emma responds, “excited has been training all summer for this day. Scared forgot to eat breakfast.”  Owen slides a rock into her hand that says, “Be Yourself,” and tells her to look at it when she needs it most. Their sibling relationship sealed Lord’s story for me, because it is such special and unusual. And Emma’s relationship with a classmate, Jack, who is on the on the autism spectrum, took time to develop and was well worth the outcome. Jack knows a lot of facts about rabbits and their relationship is sealed with their love of animals.

Each chapter of the book starts with a torn piece of notebook paper with a rabbit fact: “If a rabbit refuses food, it can quickly become an emergency,” or “Rabbits are the third-most surrendered pets to animals shelters, behind dogs and cats.” Fun tidbits readers will enjoy.

I enjoyed learning about at the end how Lord explains how her books begin from a tiny  “seed” of her real life and allows it to percolate over time until a story begins to form. And yes, she has rabbits.  Many of the characters in this story are based on family members, including her son who has a sensory issues. She beautifully weaves them into her story.

Cynthia Lord is the award-winning author of Rules, a Newbery Honor Book and a Schneider Family Book Award winner, as well as the critically acclaimed Half a Chance and A Handful of Stars. She made her picture-book debut with Hot Rod Hamster, which won several awards, including the Parents’ Choice Award, and is the author of the Shelter Pet Squad chapter book series. She lives in Maine with her family. Visit her at her website.

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

*Reviewed from a library copy.

The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu

The Lost Girl

Anne Ursu, Author

Erin McGuire, Drawings

Walden Pond Press, Fiction, Feb. 12, 2019

Pages: 356

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Twin sisters, Differences, Bond, Magical realism, Mystery, Friendship

Opening: “The two sisters were alike in every way, except for all the ways that they were different.”

Synopsis: When you’re an identical twin, your story always starts with someone else. For Iris, that means her story starts with Lark. Iris has always been the grounded, capable, and rational one; Lark is inventive, dreamy, and brilliant — and from their first moments in the world together, they’ve never left each other’s side. Everyone around them realized early on what the two sisters already knew: they had better outcomes when they were together.

When fifth grade arrives, it is decided that Iris and Lark Maguire should be split into different classrooms. Something breaks in them both. Iris is no longer so confident and acts out at school. Lark retreats into herself as she deals with challenges at school.

At the same time, something strange is happening in the city around them when things both great and small go missing without a trace. And a peculiar store, “Treasure Hunters,” opens across the street from the Maguire home. The sisters are intrigued with the odd messages that appear on sign outside the shop –“We Are Here,” “We Are Hunters,” “We Can Find Anything.” While Lark focuses on redecorating a doll house, Iris is secretly trying to uncover the mystery of what is hiding behind the walls of this unusual shop with its very peculiar owner and a crow perched outside. Iris begins to understand that anything can be lost in the blink of an eye in her neighborhood. She decides it’s up to her to find a way to keep her sister safe.

Why I like this book:

Anne Ursu has written an exhilarating, multi-layered and complex novel that touches on magic and realism. The Lost Girl is a coming-of-age story about the magic of sisterhood. The magic of friendships you least expect. The magic of losing yourself, but discovering you are stronger than you imagine. But there is another mysterious magic lurking nearby that is morphing into something that is far more sinister and dangerous.  Fans will find her plot twist suspenseful and gripping and cheer for the sisters “when the monsters really come.”

Ursu is a lyrical writer, so readers will experience many poetic turns of phrases. The storytelling is exceptional, because a mysterious narrator tells the twins’ story, adding another layer of meaning and wonder. I will admit it did drive me crazy trying to identify the narrator. But, never fear. All is revealed at the end. McGuire’s beautiful pen and ink drawings compliment the story and draw readers deeply into the mystery.

Ursu’s character development is outstanding as she aptly captures how teen girls express themselves. In the beginning Iris and Lark appear to be normal girls, who are different in the way they dress and see the world. But they perfectly balance each other with their strengths and weaknesses. Iris is practical and Lark sees beyond the story. The twin bond is powerful and the story revolves around their relationship. Readers really begin to understand the twins when they are separated at school and join different afterschool clubs. Lark retreats into herself and Iris acts out. And I would be remiss in not mentioning Iris’s gang of capable girlfriends who appear to help the twins defeat the darkness in an unusual turn of fate.

The Lost Girl is an excellent book for school libraries and for group discussions. It is an exciting mystery, a tribute to family, sisterhood and new friendships, and finding yourself when you feel lost.

Anne Ursu is the author of Breadcrumbs, named one of the best books of 2011 by School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Amazon.com., and the Chicago Public Library, and The Real Boy, which was long listed for the National Book Award and chosen as one of the New York Public Library’s “One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing.” You can visit her at her website.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday (MMGM) 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.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

A Case for Buffy (Detective Gordon) by Ulf Nilsson

A Case for Buffy (Detective Gordon)

Ulf Nilsson, Author

Gitte Spee, Illustrator

Gekko Press, Fiction, Aug. 1, 2018

Pages: 105

Suitable for Ages: 6-10

Themes: Animals, Forest, Police Station, Detectives, Mystery, Adventure

Opening: In the forest was a small police station. Any animal with a problem could go there for help. It was painted red with white windowsills and had smoke coiling up from the chimney to the sky.  There was a garden too, and a lawn and currant bushes.

Synopsis:

Two police officers, Detective Gordon is snoozing while Detective Buffy is busy reviewing police reports — a missing blue scarf, a naughty child littering in the meadow, a lost hedgehog, and an angry grandfather badger who bullies a little mouse. Buffy organizes the cases and takes care of ordering new cakes — coconut, banana, nougat, and mint chip for the office cake tins.

When a small baby toad (Sune) and a little baby mouse (Gertrude) from the local kindergarten hop into the police station and ask to be police helpers, Detective Gordon sees an opportunity to interact positively with the younger members of the forest. He teaches them about policing, the law, saluting, creeping quietly around the forest, and investigating deep crannies. They are rewarded with paper police hats.

Detective Buffy remembers the day she came to the police station, but she can’t remember why. Her memories slowly begin to return and she remembers she lost her mother and siblings in a catastrophe involving a fox on Cave Island. The two detectives and two baby police set out to investigate their biggest case ever. What happened to Buffy’s mother and 15 siblings? Will they outsmart a fox?

Why I like this book:

Swedish author Ulf Nilsson has written an enchanting and heartwarming animal detective adventure for children. A Case for Buffy is the fourth and final volume in the series. It is an early reader mystery that is humorous with age-appropriate police action. Spees’ colorful pastels fill the chapters and compliment the story with many expressive and touching moments. This book can be read as a stand-alone story.

The animal characters are endearing. Detective Gordon is an old toad (19 years) and brings professionalism, wisdom and compassion to the story. He also likes to snooze. Detective Buffy is a young mouse who shows up at the station one night. She is so happy about having a job and a home, that she’s suppressed some memories about her past. Detective Gordon makes her his assistant. She is organized and thoughtful. Fox is sneaky and can cause a lot of damage — the reason Detective Gordon has driven Fox out of his own police district.  Gordon realizes later, “If you simply drive your danger away, it becomes someone else’s danger.” Sweet nuggets of wisdom like this one are shared throughout the story.

A Case for Buffy has classic appeal and reminds me of books I read as a child. It is charming read-aloud to younger children, but is designed for more advanced readers who like adventure and action. Children don’t need to read the first books, to understand the story. Although I highly recommend reading the entire series, which will be a hit at home.

Ulf Nilsson is a celebrated Swedish children’s writer who has written over twenty books for all ages. He has written this series, Detective Gordon: The First Case, A Complicated Case (Detective Gordon), and A Case in Any Case (Detective Gordon). He has received the prestigious August award and the American Batchelder Award.

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

*Reviewed from a library copy.

Over the Moon by Natalie Lloyd

Over the Moon

Natalie Lloyd, Author

Scholastic Press, Fiction, Mar. 26, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Coal miners, Servants, Disability, Courage, Friendship, Competition, Magic, Legends

Opening: Dustflights are trained to sense explosions in the Down Below. Honeysuckle is my papa’s Dustflight, a tiny yellow bird they give every miner in Coal Top. 

Synopsis:

Twelve-year-old Mallie Ramble knows better than to dream. In Coal Top, you live the story you’re given: boys toil in the mines in the Down Below and girls work as servants. Mallie can’t bear the idea of that kind of life, but her family is counting on her wages to survive. Her father is injured in the mines.

It wasn’t always this way. Before the Dust came, the people of Coal Top could weave starlight into cloth. They’d wear these dreaming clothes to sleep and wake up with the courage to seek adventure . . . or the peace to heal a broken heart. But now nothing can penetrate Coal Top’s blanket of sorrow.

So when Mallie is chosen for a dangerous competition in which daring (and ideally, orphaned) children train flying horses, she jumps at the chance. Maybe she’ll change her story. Maybe she’ll even find the magic she needs to dream again. Maybe she will help her community to heal.

But the situation proves even more dangerous when Mallie uncovers a sinister mystery at the heart of Coal Top’s struggles — a mystery some powerful people, like Mortimer Good and his Guardians, will do anything to protect.

Why I like this book:

Over the Moon is an enchanting tale that will transport readers to Coal Top, a community that has lost its joy and is blanketed in sadness. And there is a girl, Mallie, who is pure of heart and brave enough to dream of flying among the stars. Natalie Lloyd creates a magical experience with a touch of realism. Her storytelling and literary style sets her apart as an original voice in children’s literature.

The characters are complex and unforgettable. Mallie is the loveable narrator who is wild and brave on the inside, “a fire-popper in a glass jar.” She has a short right arm and wears a fake orange “Popsnap,” that attaches at her elbow. She is her family’s breadwinner. She’s spirited and determined to keep her younger brother, Denver out of the mines. Adam is Mallie’s best friend and only sees her abilities. Together they make a good team. Honor and his friends are bullies. Iggy is a three-foot tall woman who cares for the flying horses. She is a tough trainer with a tender heart. Mortimer Good, is a beguiling and evil manipulator who wields a lot of control over Coal Top.

The plot is courageous, thrilling, and dangerous, with a sinister twist. Seeking “riches untold,” Mallie, Adam, Honor and other mountain kids show up for Mortimer Good’s competition. But they must prove themselves by capturing a magical flying horse (Starbirds) in the dangerous West Woods, which is full of monsters. There is adventure in training their horses, wonder in flying, danger in collecting riches from the mountains, and mystery in the origins of the dust.

Over the Moon is a labor of love for Natalie Lloyd, as she draws upon her own experience with a physical disability to create her main character, Mallie. In doing so, Lloyd shows her own source of courage as she pours her heart into brave, adventurous and kind-hearted Mallie.   

The heavy Dust that blankets Coal Top and snuffs out the light, becomes a powerful metaphor for the “dust” in our daily lives. Mallie is a reminder for readers that they need to push through their own challenges and darkness to find their inner light.

Over the Moon will touch your heart and soul. It is a tale of love, friendship, hope and courage. Lloyd’s fans will be “over the moon” with her new novel.

‘Mountain girl, lift up your eyes,

The stars are shining bright for thee.

Reach out and take the silver chord,

Braid beauty there for all to see.”

Natalie Lloyd is the New York Times bestselling author of A Snicker of Magic, which has been optioned for television by Sony TriStar. Lloyd’s other novels include The Key to Extraordinary, and The Problim Children series. Lloyd lives in Tennessee with her husband, Justin and her dogs Samson and Biscuit. Visit Lloyd at her website.

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

*Review copy provided by the publisher.

Dust Storm! (Survivor Diaries) by Terry Lynn Johnson

Dust Storm! (Survivor Diaries #4)

Terry Lynn Johnson, Author

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fiction, Nov. 6, 2018

Pages: 128

Suitable for Ages: 7-10

Themes: Dust Storm, Desert, New Mexico, Lost, Knowledge, Survival Skills, Courage

Synopsis:

Sixth-graders Jen Chiu and Martin Diaz are geared up to participate in one of the most exciting geocaching field trips ever in New Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert.  Former best friends, Jen wants to find all of the caches before Martin does. When their van gets a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, the students help the teacher pass out water bottles and set up a tarp next to the bus for shade. Jen returns her backpack to the bus and discovers Martin peeking into the teacher’s briefcase to get the latitudes and longitudes for the upcoming competition. He darts from the bus to the trailer and grabs his mountain bike and takes off. Jen grabs her bike from the trailer and races after him.

When Jen catches up with Martin, she sees a wall of dirt rise high into the air.  A dust storm. They ride as fast as they can to stay ahead of it, but the blinding dust storm overpowers them. They are knocked off their bikes when they ride off a cliff they can’t see. Nothing looks familiar. The dust burns their eyes and skin, and is gritty in their mouths. They are far from their group and in the desert alone. They don’t have water, food, tools, proper clothing, sunglasses, and survival gear. They left their backpacks on the bus. Jen and Martin are lost. Night is falling, coyotes are calling, and small critters are crawling. They will have to use all of their knowledge and grit to survive.

Why I like this book:

Dust Storm! Survivor Diaries is a great adventure series that will get kids, especially reluctant readers, interested in reading. Terry Lynn Johnson has written a fast-paced series that is authentic and fun to read. Pen and ink drawings add to the drama of what is unfolding in the story.

The plot is engaging and the tension palpable. Dust Storm! focuses on Jen and Martin using skills they know after they get caught in a desert dust storm and become disoriented. What do they do first? How much time do they have before they become dehydrated? How do they  stay calm? What skills do they need most?

Dust Storm! is the fourth book in the Survivor Diaries. This series will have huge kid-appeal because the element of danger and the universal need to know what to do if you are unexpectedly caught in a situation where your life depends upon what you know. Johnson’s words of real-life advice are clear: Stay calm. Stay Smart. Survive. This is an important story for kids and families who like to hike to read together. It is also an excellent classroom book that belongs in every school library.

Johnson stories are inspired by true events. She began researching this desert story after she learning about two separate tragedies involving tourists who both died from dehydration after trying to walk for help after a car became stuck on a back road.

Resources: The best part of Johnson’s Survivor Diaries is that backmatter she includes: Survival Tips if you get you get lost and the bare essentials you need to carry while hiking a wilderness trail. After you’ve read the book, readers can visit her website to play the interactive Game – Will You Survive? 

Terry Lynn Johnson, author of Ice Dogs, Sled Dog School, and the Survivor Diaries (Overboard, Avalanche, Lost and Dust Storm) series, has lived in northern Ontario, Canada, for more than forty years. Before becoming a conservation officer, she worked for twelve years as a canoe-ranger warden in a large wilderness park. Visit Johnson at her website.

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

*Purchased Copy.

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman

The Bridge Home

Padma Venkatraman, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction, Feb. 5, 2019

Suitable for Ages: 10 and up

Themes: Runaways, Homelessness, Survival, India, Friendship, Social issues, Hope

Opening: Talking to you was always easy, Rukku. But writing’s hard.

Synopsis:

Life is tough on the teeming streets of Chennai, India, as runaway sisters Viji and Rukku quickly discover. For cautious-minded Viji, this is not a surprise — but she hadn’t realized just how vulnerable she and her sister would actually feel in this uncaring, dangerous world.

Fortunately, the girls find shelter — and friendship — on an abandoned bridge that’s also the hideout of Muthi and Arul, two homeless boys. The four of them soon form a family of sorts, sharing food and supplies and laughing together about the absurdities of life. And while making their living scavenging the city’s trash heaps is the pits, the kids find plenty to take pride in, too. After all, they are now the bosses of themselves — and are truly hoping to keep it that way…

Padma Venkatraman’s moving survival story brings to light the obstacles faced by young people in many parts of the world, and is inspired by children she met during her years in India. Her heroic characters will touch readers with their perseverance and unwavering love for each other.

Why I love this book:

Padma Venkatraman’s passionate, heartbreaking and hopeful novel sheds light on the extreme poverty of four homeless children in India. Her powerful storytelling and vivid imagery, draws readers into their extraordinary journey. The setting is culturally rich. Venkatraman is a lyrical writer and there are many poetic turns of phrase. The novel is a beautiful love letter written by Viji to her sister, Rukku.

The four heroic children in the story are homeless for different reasons and will touch reader’s hearts. Viji and Rukku bravely flee an abusive and alcoholic father.  Arul’s parents are killed in accident. Muthu’s stepbrother sells him into child labor. Other street children are abandoned on streets or dumped in orphanages. Viji is protective of Rukku, her developmentally challenged sister.

The plot is dangerous and suspenseful, making this story a page turner. Life may be harsh for this four-some as they scale the garbage heaps, but it also shows their resilience, sense of adventure, deep friendship and hope. The richness of their close relationship makes this story shine brightly, even in the face of adversity. They are brothers and sisters. “We’re not just friends, we’re family,” says Arul. 

There are lighter moments when Rukku befriends a stray puppy, she names Kutti. Rukku doesn’t like sifting through garbage and sits beneath a tree stringing beads into intricate necklaces. Her jewelry brings a nice profit in the local markets and helps feed their family. Viji also begins to see what her sister can do, rather than what she can’t do. I love these uplifting moments.

Growing up in India, Venkatraman’s memories of starving children provide the inspiration for her novel, The Bridge Home.  Her story is well-researched and she draws her story from the tales of the children she meets while doing volunteer work with her mother at respectable children’s homes and schools. Most important, I love that she writes about a culture she knows so well. I hope we see more uplifting novels from her in the future.

Padma Venkatraman was born in India and became an American after living in five countries and working as an oceanographer. She is also the author of A Time to Dance, Island’s End, and Climbing the Stairs. Visit her at her website. I highly recommend her other novels.

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

*Purchased copy.

The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie

The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair

Amy Makechnie, Author

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Jun. 12, 2018

Pages: 336

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Brain injury, Memory, Family relationships, Moving, Farm life, Missing persons, Mystery, Friendship

Opening: “I was ten when Gaysie Cutter tried to kill me. It was just like her too — always leaving a bad first impression. Her idea of a welcome wagon came in the middle of July, during my first Iowa heat wave, which was as hot as you know what.”

Synopsis:

Ten-year-old Guinevere St. Clair is going to be a lawyer. She is the fastest girl in New York City. She knows everything there is to about the brain. And she wants to ride into her first day at her new school on a cow named Willowdale Princess Deon Dawn. Gwyn is definitely not the kind of girl you forget.

But that’s just what her mother has done — forgotten. Gwyn’s mother, Vienna, hasn’t been able to remember anything past the age of 13, since she suffered a hypoxic brain injury. Gwyn and her little sister, Bitty, don’t exist in Vienna’s mind. As Gwyn tells Vienna’s new nurse, “we’re practically orphans.”

Gwyn’s father is obsessed with solving the mystery of Vienna’s brain.  He moves his family from New York to Crow, Iowa, where he and Vienna lived as children. He hopes that going home to Crow and surrounding Vienna with familiar friends and family, will jog her memory and help in her recovery.

As soon as they arrive in Crow, Gwyn is hot on the trail of a different case — one she thinks can actually be solved. Farmer Wilbur Truesdale is missing and there’s only one person who could know what happened to him: her brand new next-door archenemy, Gaysie Cutter.

The more Gwyn goes looking for answers, through, the more questions she encounters — about Wilbur, about Gaysie, but also about the mother she’s never gotten the chance to know. Gwyn’s determined to hunt down the truth about everything, but what if the truth isn’t as simple as pointing the blame at someone? What if sometimes the most terrible things that happen aren’t actually anyone’s fault at all?

Why I liked this book:

Amy Makechnie’s debut novel is complex, heartbreaking and hopeful. Her great opening immediately draws readers into the story. The vivid setting, poignant narrative, suspenseful plot and extraordinary characters create and unforgettable experience for readers. Her storytelling is richly crafted and heartwarming.

Gwyn is a genuine and unique character with whom you feel an immediate emotional bond. She is smart, curious, imaginative and jumps to conclusions a little too quickly. Her mother’s hypoxic brain injury impacts Gwyn and forces her to grow up too quickly. The author beautifully weaves Vienna’s injury into the story as a part of Gwyn’s life experience — it’s hard to “not exist” in your mother’s eyes. In her pursuit to solve the mystery about Wilbur’s disappearance, Gwyn uncovers her mother’s past and realizes how much she is like her.

There is a cast of quirky secondary characters that add comic relief. There’s Gaysie, a giant woman who lives in a rundown house with a “backyard that looks like an art exhibit”and is known for burying dead things on her property. Gwyn become best friends with Jimmy, who is always up for an adventure, and Micah (Gaysie’s son), who likes to wear bright pink shorts, sparkling silver shoe laces and is a target for school bullies.  Gwyn’s dentist father, Jed, is devoted to his wife, and Nana, is protective and takes responsibility for everything that happens.

Teens looking for something new and creative, will find The Unforgettable Guinevere St Clair a suspenseful, powerful and entertaining read. The characters will stay with you long after you finish.

Makechnie’s story also touched me on a personal level. Like Gwyn’s mother, my brain was deprived of oxygen following an unfortunate mishap nearly 15 years ago. This is the first children’s novel I’ve read where a hypoxic brain injury is mentioned. It took me back to my injury and made me think about how difficult it was on my family, who was loving, patient and supportive during my years of recovery. Fortunately my children were grown. Brain injuries vary and each person has unique symptoms and outcomes.

Thank you Rosi Hollinbeck for reviewing and recommending this book to me on your wonderful website. 

Amy Makechnie grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, where shoe once tried to sail to the Mississippi River on a large piece of Styrofoam (she didn’t make it). The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair is her first novel. Amy nurtures her fascination with the brain and human body by teaching anatomy and physiology to high school students in a small New England town, where they dissect hearts and memorize long anatomical words. She is the mother of a wily flock of children, all of who provide daily inspiration for writing. You can visit her at her website.

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

*Reviewed from a library copy.

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Finding Langston

Lesa Cline-Ransome, Author

Holiday House, Fiction, Aug. 14, 2018

Pages: 108

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Loss, Single-parent families, Moving, Bullying, Poetry, the Great Migration, Chicago, History

Opening: “Never really thought much about Alabama’s red dirt roads, but now, all I can think about is kicking up their dust.”

Synopsis: Eleven-year-old Langston is a long way from Alabama. After his mother dies in 1946, and he and his father move to Chicago’s Bronzeville. Langston must leave behind everything that he cherishes — his family, friends, Grandma’s Sunday suppers, the red clay and the magnolia trees his mama loved so much. He misses the slow pace of life at home and how he could take his time walking home before he starts his chores.

Bronzeville is noisy. Their kitchenette apartment is just a lonely room with two beds, a table and chairs and a hot plate. Dinner is what daddy brings home and throws into a pot. At night, the sounds are loud. People talk loudly on stoops, music blares from radios, and huge rats run down the hallways. At school, Langston is teased for being too country and three boys bully him after school. But his new home has something his old home didn’t have: the George Cleveland Hall Library that welcomes the community, black and white.

The library becomes a refuge from the bullies and a place where Langston joyfully discovers another Langston, a poet whose words are powerful and speak to him of home. With the help of a kind librarian, he reads all of Langston Hughes’ poetry, discovers the power of words and is transported.  A neighbor, who is a teacher, also introduces Langston to other black poets. Through poetry Langston begins to understand his mother, uncovers one of her secrets and finds healing through his namesake.

Why I like this book:

There is so much beauty in Lesa Cline-Ransome’s coming of age novel. Langston will melt your heart as he deals with loss and loneliness, and struggles to find his voice through words and poetry. It is an inspiring story that is relevant today.

The story also gives readers insight into the Great Migration of black families in search of better jobs in larger cities, like Chicago and New York. They leave behind a slower-paced life and close family relationships, to live in sub-standard housing in noisy, concrete cities.

The chapters are short, the narrative is strong and the writing is lyrical. The plot is compelling and there are themes that will spark important discussions among teens and adults.  This is an important book to add to any classroom curriculum.

Favorite lines: Langston’s first visit to a public library.

I trace the letters on the covers of each and stop. One has my name. I pull it out and open to the first page.

I pick up my life

And take it with me

And I put it down in 

Chicago, Detroit,

Buffalo, Scranton.

Feels like reading words from my heart. (Pg. 21-22)

Lesa Cline-Ransome is best known for her award-winning picture books. Her most recent book, Before She Was Harriet, is illustrated by her husband, James Ransome, received six starred reviews, a Christopher Award, a Coretta Scott King Honor Award for illustration, and a nomination for a NAACP Image Award. Finding Langston is her first novel. Visit the author at her website.

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

*Reviewed from library copy.