Lord of the Mountain by Ronald Kidd

Lord of the Mountain

Ronald Kidd, Author

Albert Whitman & Company, Fiction, Sep. 1, 2018

Suitable for ages: 9-12

Pages: 296

Themes: Family Secrets, Grief, Family Relationships,  Mountain Music, Self-discovery

Synopsis:

Nate’s family has a secret. And it’s wrapped up in a song. Ever Since Nate Owens saw a needle glide across a 78-rpm record, he’s been fascinated by the science and beauty of music. Before long, he is devouring Popular Science magazines and making his own crystal set radio.

It’s the summer of 1927 when Victor Records producer Ralph Peer comes to Nate’s hometown of Bristol,  Tennessee/Virginia, to audition “mountain music” singers and musicians. There’s no way Nate is going to miss the chance to get inside the studio and learn the mechanics of the recording business. He becomes friends with the technical team, the soon-to-become famous Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. The only problem is, Nate’s preacher father hates music and says it is evil — forbidding it in his home and his church. When he discovers that Nate’s been hanging around musicians and producers, he comes down hard. With nothing left for Nate at home, he decides to take off in search of answers to his family’s troubled past. He carries with him a picture of a grave site that says “Sweet Sister” on it.

Nate hops a train with the help of a man he meets, Bill. Bill quickly educates Nate about the rails — when to get on and off, how to  hide his possessions in his shoes, and the dangers he may encounter. He learns that the homeless are called “hoboes” and that they have “jungle” camps in towns near train routes. They offer a place to sleep, shared food, safety from the police and other thugs.

Nate ends up in Poor Valley, where the Carter Family lives. They welcome him into their home and Nate begins to work for the family. They travel around the mountains in search of songs they can record for Victor Records. Along the way Nate stumbles upon his own past and the secrets that have driven his father to religious fanaticism.

Set during the “big bang” of country music, this exciting historical novel tells of one boy’s journey of self-discovery at a moment when an entire region was finding its voice for the first time.

Why I like this book:

Ronald Kidd has written a captivating novel that cleverly weaves together a 13-year-old boy’s journey to discover the deep wounds that grip his father/family, and pursue his love of music and the science behind the recording industry. Wow, this novel is a treasure for readers who like historical fiction. I learned so much about  the birth of country music, which was known in the late 1920s as “mountain music!” A lot of research went into this novel.

The main characters and minor ones are multi-layered and unforgettable. You get a real feel for the musical details of the period and the fabric of the community –the Carters and hoboes included. Nate is a strong and determined character, not willing to accept his father’s fanatic rantings to his tent congregation. He’s driven by his passion for science and learning. His younger brother, Arnie, wants to be his father. Nate’s mother is gentle and seems to understand Nate’s father for reasons he can’t understand. His best friend Sue Dean, is a lovely balance to Nate, but she also has her secrets. Both their families are dysfunctional.

The setting is vivid and realistic. The plot is bold and adventurous with an ending readers won’t forget.  Readers looking for something new and creative will enjoy this book. This is a perfect book for school libraries.

What a pleasure it was to read Ronald Kidd’s novel. I look forward to catching up with his other novels.  As other’s have mentioned, this novel reminds you of Vince Vawter’s work.

Ronald Kidd is the author of 13 novels for young readers, including the highly acclaimed “Night on Fire” and “Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial.” His novels of adventure, comedy, mystery, and American history have received the Children’s Choice Award, an Edgar Award nomination, and honors from the American Library Association, the International Reading Association, the Library of Congress, and the New York Public Library. He is a two-time O’Neill playwright who lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

Greg Pattridge hosts the 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 publisher.

Hank Zipzer: The Cow Poop Treasure Hunt

Hank Zipzer: The Cow Poop Treasure Hunt

Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver, Authors

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Nov. 13, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 7-10

Pages: 144

Themes: Underachiever, Survival Camp, Comical, Adventure

Synopsis:

Underachiever Hank Zipzer goes on an unfortunate school camping trip in a comical, kid-friendly novelization of the popular BBC series based on Henry Winkler’s best-selling books.

What will it take for Mom and Dad to trust Hank to go to the mall unsupervised with his friends? Cooking a family dinner — er, disaster — doesn’t exactly say “responsible.” But what if Hank signs up for the school’s legendary survival camp and makes it through the whole weekend? Maybe he should factor in being teamed up with his nemesis, McKelty, in a leaky tent, not to mention a desperate search for a cell phone in a field of cow pies. . . . The amiable character originated by Henry Winkler — inspired by his own childhood — comes to life in a humorous adventure set in a font designed to boost readability for kids with dyslexia.

Why I recommend this book:

The title is a sure giveaway that this book is a hilarious adventure for reluctant readers. Many kids will identify with Hank, who really wants to prove that he is responsible and gain the trust of his helicopter parents, but somehow he can’t stay on task. He really tries, but is easily distracted. He also can’t resist a good prank and his antics get him in trouble. Hank is a well-developed character that readers will cheer because he is so real and lovable. This story has heart!

Hank’s best friends, Frankie and Ashley, accept Hank for who he is — you never know what’s going to happen when they are together. They are also a nice balance for Hank, even though he convinces them to sign up for the survival camp.  Papa Pete is the only one who seems to understand Hank and encourages his parents to “let go.”

This series offers hope to children who learn differently. Based on Henry Winkler’s own struggle with dyslexia as a child and teen, he has taken special care to make sure that the book has been set in a OpenDyslexic font that has been created to increase readability for readers with dyslexia.  He continues to invite readers to comment on the font so that improvements can be made. What a gift for children!

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 publisher.

Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo

Louisiana’s Way Home

Kate DiCamillo, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Oct. 2, 2018

Pages: 240

Suitable for Ages: 10-12

Themes: Grandmother, Curses, Abandonment, Forgiveness, Friendship, Humor, Hope

Synopsis:

When Louisiana Elefante’s overbearing granny wakes her up in the middle of the night to tell her that the day of reckoning has arrived and they have to leave their Florida home immediately, Louisiana isn’t overly worried. After all, Granny has many middle-of-the-night ideas. Granny has told Louisiana about the family curse and how it has been passed down through generations of her family.

But this time, things are different. Granny never intends for them to return and says they have a “date with destiny.” Separated from her cat and best friends, Raymie and Beverly, Louisiana struggles to oppose the winds of fate (and Granny) and find a way home. Once they cross the line into Georgia, Granny isn’t feeling well and Louisiana has to drive the car, with a minor mishap. With Granny howling in the back seat about her teeth, Louisiana is desperate  to find a dentist and takes an exit to Richford, Georgia.

After Granny’s teeth are all removed, Louisiana finds a place for Granny to recuperate. She is feverish and can’t eat. Louisiana finagles a room at a motel called the Good Night, Sleep Tight. While Granny heals, Louisiana’s life becomes entwined with the lives of the people of this small Georgia town — including a surly motel owner, a walrus-like minister, and a mysterious boy (Burke) with a crow on his shoulder. One day, Granny deserts Louisiana and drives out of her life. She leaves behind a letter that explains difficult truths about Louisiana’s life, making her wonder, “Who am I?” She worries that she is destined only for good-byes, but she is hopeful that maybe this town can break that curse.

Why I like this book:

Fans of Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale, will be thrilled with her latest novel about Louisiana Elfante’s story. It is gripping and haunting, heartbreaking and humorous. The plot is intriguing, especially the mystery about the terrible family curse. Readers will get to know Louisiana in a gentle and tender way. They will learn about her secrets and of her abandonment. Where there is pain, there is an opportunity for Louisiana to grow and find love. She is a resilient and spunky character worth getting to know and love.

I like DiCamillo’s first person narrative. Louisiana’s voice is strong and determined. She begins the first chapter with “I am going to write it all down, so that what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, My goodness, whatever happened to Louisiana Elefante? Where did she go? They will know.” It was a joy to experience the story narrative through Louisiana’s vulnerable and wise character.

DiCamillo is a gifted storyteller who challenges readers with big questions about what is home, family, forgiveness and belonging. There is so much to love about Louisiana’s story. It’s a winner! You can visit DiCamillo at her website.

Kate DiCamillo is the author of many books for young readers. Her books have been awarded the Newbery Medal (Flora & Ulysses in 2014 and The Tale of Despereaux in 2004); the Newbery Honor (Because of Winn-Dixie, 2001), the Boston Globe Horn Book Award (The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, 2006), and the Theodor Geisel Medal and honor (Bink and Gollie, co-author Alison McGhee, 2011; Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride, 2007). She is a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Emerita, appointed by the Library of Congress.

Greg Pattridge hosts 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.

*Advanced reading copy provided by publisher.

My Father’s Words by Patricia MacLachlan

My Father’s Words

Patricia MacLachlan, Author

Katherine Tegen Books, Fiction, Oct. 2, 2018

Pages: 133

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Loss, Grief, Love, Healing, Family relationships, Shelter dogs

Synopsis:

Declan O’Brien always had a gentle word to share, odd phrases he liked to repeat, and songs to sing while he played basketball. His favorite song was “Dona Nobis Pacem,” “Grant Us Peace.” His family loved him deeply and always knew they were loved in return.

But a terrible accident one day changes their lives forever, and Fiona and Finn O’Brien are left without a father. Their mother is at a loss. What words are there to guide them through such overwhelming grief?

At the suggestion of their friend Luke, Fiona and Finn volunteer at an animal rescue shelter where they meet two sweet dogs, Emma and Jenny, who are in need of comfort, too. Perhaps with time, patience, and their father’s gentle words in their hearts, hope will spark once more.

Why I like this book

Patricia MacLachlan’s captivating and unforgettable story is about a tragic loss, family relationships, love, laughter and healing. It is a well-written story that is realistic, inspiring and hopeful. Her narrative is gentle and heartfelt. The text is spare and powerful. Some may feel the story is sad, but I experienced it with wonder and awe.

Fiona and Finn are working through their grief following their father’s untimely death. Fiona looks out for her younger brother, but she’s searching for memories of her time with her dad. Finn is a sensitive and gentle boy. He is quiet and thoughtful like his father. Their best friend, Luke, suggests they all volunteer at a local animal shelter. They each connect with and walk a dog. Finn reads, talks and sings “Dona Nobis Pacem” to Emma, who is depressed and faces a wall. Fiona takes Jenny for long walks in the park. The siblings learn that while you comfort a shelter dog, the dog is also comforting you.

This is perfect story for dog lovers. The plot is engaging, but the beautiful ending sneaks up on you. I thought I knew how it would end, but the author surprises me. Make sure you have tissues nearby. My Father’s Words is a refreshingly quiet book that gives readers time to ponder big questions and explore underlying truths and memories. It will make an excellent classroom read-aloud and discussion book.

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 Skylark, Caleb’s Story, More Perfect than the Moon, Grandfather’s Dance, Word After Word After Word, Kindred Souls, The Truth of Me, and The Poet’s Dog; 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 link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Library Copy

Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno

Just Under the Clouds

Melissa Sarno, Author

Knopf Books for Young Readers, Jun. 5, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-11

Pages: 225

Themes: Siblings, Family relationships, Loss, Homelessness, Shelter life, Belonging, Difference, Nature

Book Synopsis:

Always think in threes and you’ll never fall, Cora’s father told her when she was a little girl. Two feet, one hand. Two hands, one foot. That was all Cora needed to know to climb the trees of Brooklyn.

But now Cora is a middle schooler, a big sister, and homeless. Her mother is trying to hold the family together after her father’s death, but they are evicted from their home. Cora must look after her sister, Adare, who’s just different, their mother insists. Quick to smile, Adare hates wearing shoes, rarely speaks, and appears untroubled by the question Cora can’t help but ask: How will she find a place to call home?

After their room at the shelter is ransacked, Cora’s mother looks to an old friend for help, and Cora finally finds what she’s been looking for: Ailanthus altissima, the “tree of heaven,” which can grow in even the worst conditions. It sets her on a path to discover a deeper truth about where she really belongs.

Just Under the Clouds will take root in your heart and blossom long after you’ve turned the last page.

Why I like this book:

I am always searching for books on homelessness.  And Melissa Sarno’s, Just Under the Clouds, offers readers a different perspective of how we view the homeless in a raw, heartbreaking, touching and hopeful way. Not all homeless people live on the streets. It’s a reminder that anyone can unexpectedly find themselves in a similar situation. When Cora’s father dies, her family is eventually evicted from their home.

The story is more character-driven than it is about the plot. Yes, the family moves from run-down apartments to homeless shelters where their safety is always an issue. But this beautiful lyrical story focuses a variety of relationships between family, friends and school. Cora is courageous and resilient and shoulders the responsibility of her sister, Adare, who is born special — her brain is deprived of oxygen at birth. Adare is my favorite character, because she has a unique perception of the world. She has a soft-song voice, says hello to everyone, stares endlessly at the sky, spins in the rain and befriends cats and crows.

Cora’s relationship with a quirky friend, Sabina, offers a happy balance to the story. Cora’s mother is an artist, who has to give up her talent to take low-paying jobs to support the family. When her mother’s childhood friend, Willa, invites them into her classy apartment, Cora is hopeful she can finally stay in one place. But how long will her mother accept Willa’s help?

The one constant in Cora’s life is her father’s “tree journal,” which he left her. He loved to map out trees in their community. Cora picks up where he has left off and it helps her feel close to her dad. She maps the trees around her, draws pictures and records seasonal information. There is a lot of symbolism for Cora ash she searches for her own “roots.”

Just Under the Clouds has a heartwarming message about understanding the struggle of others. It is a story that will create empathy among readers. It should be required reading for youth because the face of homelessness is changing.

Melissa Sarno is a freelance writer and editor with and MFA in screenwriting. She lives in the Lower Hudson Valley of New York with her family. Visit her at her website and follow her on Twitter at @melissasarno.

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.

*Copy: Library

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Harbor Me

Jacqueline Woodson, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction, Aug. 28, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 10 -12

Themes: School, Friendship, Diversity, Open-minded dialogue, Deportation, Racism, Loss, Empathy, Courage

Synopsis: It all starts when six kids are sent to a room for a weekly chat – by themselves, with no adults to listen in. At first they fear this new unfamiliar and wonder what on earth they’ll even talk about. But in the place they dub the ARTT (“A Room to Talk”), they discover it’s safe to discuss stuff they usually keep private.

A father has recently gone missing, and that starts a conversation about the things causing angst their lives, from racial profiling and fears of deportation to a deep yearning for family history and a sense of belonging. When the six of them are together, they find they can express the feelings and fears they usually hide from the world. And together, they can grow braver and more ready for the rest of their lives.

With her always honest, lyrical writing, acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson celebrates the power of friendship, open-minded dialogue and empathy. Harbor Me digs in deep to show how so many of America’s social issues affect today’s kids — and they creatively learn to forge their way in spite of them.

Why I like this book:

Jacqueline Woodson’s Harbor Me is a powerful and timely book that is soulful and moving. Her first-person narrative is intimate and perfect for this poetic story. The setting, the characters, the plot and the imagery are brilliantly intertwined to create an exceptional experience for readers. They will feel the awkward silence of being in an unfamiliar place with six diverse students with only one rule — to treat each other with respect. Otherwise, they can talk about anything.

Woodson’s focus on 5th and 6th graders is perfect, because it is such a transitional time in the lives of kids. They want to be cool, but still have an urge to play with Nerf water guns and American Girl dolls. The boys voices haven’t deepened. There are no boyfriend/girlfriend relationships. They are six students who develop a lasting bond because they are able to share their secrets, feelings and fears in an honest way. They become best friends.

The characters, two girls and four boys, are memorable. Their backgrounds differ, but each one has a story to share in a place with a group of friends where they feel safe and supported. Twelve-year-old Haley narrates. She is bi-racial and longs for a real family life. Her mother was killed in a car accident, her father is in prison and her uncle cares for her. Her best friend Holly is fidgety and has trouble censoring herself. Esteban’s father is an undocumented immigrant who is taken from his job. Esteban is desperate to find out news of his father’s whereabouts and what it means for his family. Ashton is the only Caucasian in the group and is bullied by older students who call him Ghostboy and Paleface. Amari hides behind his artwork, but shares his feelings about racial profiling. Tiago is from Puerto Rico and speaks Spanish and English. His puppy dies and he struggles with feeling at home in America.

This is a celebratory book of the human spirit for six young people coming of age. The plot is distinctly realistic, honest, brave and complicated. It tackles relevant topics young people deal with daily. During their Friday group discussions, they learn to be vulnerable, build trust, listen without judgement and be sensitive each others challenges — a recipe that allows kindness, empathy and freedom to blossom. I highly recommend this novel. It belongs in school libraries as it is an important classroom discussion book.

Jacqueline Woodson is the 2018-19 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. She received the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the 2018 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. Her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming won the 2014 National Book Award and was a NY Times Bestseller. Her adult novel, Another Brooklyn, was a National Book Award finalist and an Indie Pick in 2016. Jacqueline is the author of nearly thirty books for young people and adults including Each Kindness, If You Come Softly, Locomotion and I Hadn’t Meant To Tell You This.  She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.

Greg Pattridge hosts the 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.

Book: Library copy.

The Sky at Our Feet by Nadia Hashimi

The Sky at Our Feet

Nadia Hashimi, Author

Harper Collins, Fiction, Mar. 6, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Pages: 291

Themes: American-Afghani boy, Undocumented immigrant parent, Family Relationships, Runaways, Epilepsy, Courage, Friendship

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Twelve-year-old Jason has just learned that his Afghan mother has been living illegally in the United States since his father was killed in Afghanistan. Although Jason was born in the US, it’s hard to feel American now when he’s terrified that his mother will be discovered—and that they will be separated.

When he sees his mother being escorted from her workplace by two officers, Jason feels completely alone. He boards a train with the hope of finding his aunt in New York City, but as soon as he arrives in Penn Station, the bustling city makes him wonder if he’s overestimated what he can do.

After an accident lands him in the hospital, Jason finds an unlikely ally in a fellow patient. Max, a whip-smart girl who wants nothing more than to explore the world on her own terms, joins Jason in planning a daring escape out of the hospital and into the skyscraper jungle—even though they both know that no matter how big New York City is, they won’t be able to run forever.

Why I like this book:

Nadia Hashimi has skillfully penned a moving and sensitive tale about two brave teens on the run in New York City (NYC) when difficult circumstances uproot their lives. Their amusing adventure through the Big Apple showcases the city’s character with its subways, NYC Marathon, Central Park Zoo, food trucks, and police officers on horses.

The characters are authentic and believable. Jason’s strong narrative highlights/underscores the dilemma for children of undocumented immigrant families. He witnesses his mother being arrested by police at work because she didn’t renew her visa and is an illegal immigrant. What will happen to him? He sneaks into their apartment, packs his backpack, and embarks on a journey to find his Auntie Seema in NYC.

Jason blacks out in the train station and wakes up in a hospital with a head injury. There he meets Max, a girl who is smart and artful in helping Jason dodge a police officer’s questioning. She’s trapped like an inmate in her hospital prison and longs to experience a big adventure before she undergoes a major surgery. Together they plot an epic hospital escape and navigate the streets evading police officers.

The author sets aside the political aspects involved in deportation of decent immigrant parents and their American children. Instead she focuses on the emotional and physical impact on a teen like Jason. His fear that his mother may be sent back to Afghanistan forever, is daunting. How is a Muslim boy in America supposed to cope with something so big? His mother hasn’t created a plan for Jason if she’s arrested. He’s left to his own resources to find Auntie Seema.

The plot is original and courageous with moments of humor, action, danger, and suspense that will keep readers quickly turning pages. When Max has a seizure along the way, Jason is challenged to find the way on his own. This is an engaging read about current and thought-provoking issues. It is also heartwarming and hopeful and a good choice for classroom discussions.

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.

Book: Library copy.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suárez Changes Gears

Meg Medina, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Sept. 4 2018

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Pages: 346

Themes: Cuban-American, Bullying, Aging grandparents, Alzheimer, Friendship

Synopsis:

Eleven-year-old Mercedes (Merci) Suárez knew that sixth grade would be different, but she has no idea just how different. Merci has never felt like she fits in with the other kids at her private Florida school because she and her brother, Roli, are scholarship students. They don’t live in a big house, and they have to do community service to make up for their tuition. Roli adjusts because he loves science and is a stellar student. When Merci is assigned to be a Sunshine Buddy with the new boy at school, bossy Edna Santos is jealous.

Things aren’t going well at home, either. Merci’s grandfather, Lolo, has acted differently lately. He forgets his glasses, falls off his bike, tries to pick up the wrong twin grandsons at school, wanders off and gets angry over nothing. No one in her family will tell Merci what’s going on, so she’s left to her own worries, while also feeling all on her own at school. In a coming-of-age tale full of humor and wisdom, award-winning author Meg Medina gets to the heart of the confusion and constant change that defines middle school — and the steadfast connection that defines family.

Why I like this book:

Meg Medina skillfully writes a heartwarming and engaging novel that tackles several big topics. There is a mean, rich-girl bully theme at school, due to the differences in social status and culture. While the rich kids show up in expensive SUVs, Merci arrives in the old truck Papi drives for his painting business. Instead of expensive vacations, Merci is stuck watching her twin cousins. And there is her grandfather’s Alzheimer diagnosis, which her parents shield Merci from until the end of the novel. Her concerns for Lolo turn into anger when she discovers that she is being lied to and treated like a child. After all, the Suárez family prides itself in being truthful.

This richly textured Latino story is peppered with Spanish expressions from her Cuban-American family. Medina uses humor in this true-to-life story that is topsy-turvy and filled with heart. The Suárez family is a large multigenerational family that live in a group of three pink houses where all family members come and go, regardless of who lives where. The three identical houses are affectionately called Las Casitas. Needless to say there is a lot of chaos. The Suárez family is a close-knit family that work, cook and eat together, share childcare, and support each other, even if money is tight.

The characters are memorable. Medina uses authentic voices to create a story about a tween girl who has worries, frustrations and angst about her looks. Merci is a strong-willed, but it  takes her a long time to realize that she is genuinely liked by many of her classmates and forms connections with ease as long as she is herself. This is a winning and completely satisfying coming-of-age story.

Meg Medina is the author of the YA novels Burn Baby Burn; Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, for which she won the Pura Belpre Author Award; and The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind. She lives in Richmond Virginia. Visit Meg Medina at her website.

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

*Review copy provided by publisher.

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground by T.R. Simon

Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground

T.R. Simon, Author

Candlewick Press , Fiction, Sep. 11, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Themes: Zora Neale Hurston, Jim Crow south, Slavery, African-Americans, Community, Friendship

Synopsis:

A powerful fictionalized account of Zora Neale Hurston’s childhood adventures explores the idea of collective memory and the lingering effects of slavery and the Jim Crow south.

“History ain’t in a book, especially when it comes to folks like us. History is in the lives we lived and the stories we tell each other about those lives.”

When Zora Neale Hurston and her best friend, Carrie Brown, discover that the town mute can speak after all, they think they’ve uncovered a big secret. But Mr. Polk’s silence is just one piece of a larger puzzle that stretches back half a century to the tragic story of an enslaved girl named Lucia. As Zora’s curiosity leads a reluctant Carrie deeper into the mystery, the story unfolds through alternating narratives. Lucia’s struggle for freedom resonates through the years, threatening the future of America’s first incorporated black township — the hometown of author Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960). In a riveting coming-of-age tale, award-winning author T. R. Simon champions the strength of people to stand up for justice.

Why I like this book:

T.R. Simon skillfully captures the spirit of famous writer Zora Neale Hurston in this gripping and haunting story of her fictionalized childhood. In alternating chapters, he addresses the harsh realities of race in Jim Crow’s south in 1903, and slavery in 1855. Both Zora and Lucia’s stories are masterfully woven together until they culminate into one profound story. The narrative is rich and poetic and the dialogue is suspenseful and humorous. The plot is gripping and dangerous. The book cover is stunning!

The story is set in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated all black township in the United States. 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, until trouble comes calling from some white men in a nearby town.

There are many multi-layered characters that are memorable. In the main story, Zora is bold, curious and an adventurous spirit. Her best friend Carrie knows that what ever problem or mystery they are chasing always “courts trouble.”  Old Lady Bronson, who wears soldier boots, lives in solitude, and is the town healer, seer, wise woman and “witch.” Mr. Polk is mute, but has a gentle spirit and a gift for working with horses. The 1855 story characters are very compelling. Prisca, the daughter of a plantation owner, who seems naïve to slavery at first. Prisca’s best friend is Lucia, who she treats as her sister, even though she is a slave. Lucia shares many of the same luxuries as Prisca and can read and write. The truth about Lucia is revealed when Prisca’s father suddenly dies, and she is torn away from Prisca to be sold. Lucia is angry and struggles to not lose herself in her hatred. Horatio is a kind stable boy who plays a significant role in the story.

Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground is stunning, heart wrenching and inspiring. Simon’s deliberate pacing and tension will keep readers fully engaged. There are many surprises for readers. It is an exceptional story, one I plan to read again.

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.

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 publisher.

One Good Thing About America by Ruth Freeman

One Good Thing About America

Ruth Freeman, Author

Holiday House Books, Fiction,  Mar. 21, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Pages: 160

Themes: Refugee, Immigration, Africa, Differences, Fitting in, New customs, Language, Foods, Friendships

Synopsis: Back home in Africa, Anais was the best English student in her class. Here in Crazy America she is placed in fourth grade and feels like she doesn’t know English at all.  Nothing makes sense. For example, how can you eat chicken fingers? Anais misses her family: Papa and grandmother Oma and big brother Olivier. Here in Crazy America she has only little Jean-Claude and Mama. So Anais writes lots of letters to Oma — in English because Oma insists. Oma has a friend who translate the letters and writes letters back to Anais.

Anais tells Oma how she misses her and that she hopes the fighting is over soon in the Congo. She worries about her father who is being tracked by government soldiers or rebels as he makes his way to a refugee camp in Kenya, and Olivier who is injured in a skirmish.

She tells Oma about Halloween, snow, mac ‘n’ cheese dinners and princess sleepovers. She tells her about the weird things Crazy Americans do, and how she just might be turning into a Crazy American herself. Over the school year, Anais begins to make friends, feel like she’s part of a community, and finds many good things about America.

Why I like this book:

It is always hard to be the new student in a new school, especially when you come from another country and struggle with the language, look different, eat strange foods, celebrate different holidays and leave  loved ones left behind. Ruth Freeman’s compelling and hopeful book explores differences and common grounds among cultures. She humorously captures Anais’ angst through first person narrative. The story is told in a series of letters that Anais writes to her grandmother, Oma.

After much whining about Crazy America, Anais promises Oma she will try to find one good thing she likes about America daily, whether it is sledding, tasting hot chocolate, backpacks, helpful school teachers, a close group of immigrant friends, and Christmas trees decorated with pictures. This is a good classroom or home practice for youth everywhere. Find something you like in your life daily and be grateful.

As Anais becomes more comfortable in her surroundings, readers will see her growth as she takes the lead and helps newly arriving immigrant children from Iraq, Libya and Somalia adjust to America. This is a timely story for readers as it reminds us that America is a nation of immigrants, where we must learn about each other and celebrate our differences.

Ruth Freeman grew up in rural Pennsylvania but now lives in Maine where she teaches students who are English language learners, including many newly arrived immigrants. She is the author of several nonfiction picture books and this is her first novel.

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Copy: Library book.