Amanda in New Mexico by Darlene Foster

Amanda in New Mexico: Ghosts in the Wind

Darlene Foster, Author

Central Avenue Publishing, Fiction, Oct. 1, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Themes: Adventure, School trip, New Mexico, Haunted hotel, Ancient pueblo, Ghosts

Synopsis: Amanda Ross is on a school trip to Taos, New Mexico with several of her fellow creative students. She shares a room with Cleo, an anxious classmate who insists she see ghosts. Although Amanda is determined to prove there is no such things, she can’t seem to shake the feeling that something or someone is watching her.

Join Amanda, Cleo and their funny friend, Caleb, as they visit a rugged and beautiful landscape where a traditional hacienda, an ancient pueblo, and a haunted and spooky hotel all hold secrets to a wild and violent past.

Does Cleo really see ghosts? Can Amanda escape the eerie wind that follows her everywhere? Perhaps The Day of the Dead will reveal the mysteries of Taos in this latest and adventure of Amanda’s travels series.

Why I like this book:

Darlene Foster has written another lively adventure story for young readers who enjoy traveling, exploring and solving a good mystery. Fans of the Amanda Travels series won’t be disappointed with this fast-paced book which will keep them on edge with a spooky plot and unexplained events.

The story is character driven. Amanda is a fun, upbeat, curious, caring and memorable character that readers will want as a friend — especially since she has keen radar and is always ready to solve a good mystery.  And, Amanda can’t resist a good mystery — even if it involves ghosts, cold breezes brushing her shoulders and unexpected incidents. Her friend Cleo is more sensitive to the presences around and finds it safer to sketch the sites they visit instead of explore. Caleb is more pragmatic, the group photographer and a good balance for Amanda.

Readers will learn about history, geography, architecture, artifacts and shiver at the presence of ghosts that are rumored to be haunting many of the places they visit in Taos — the Mable Dodge Luhan house, the Governor Bent Museum, the Taos Pueblo, the Rio Grande Gorge and bridge, Ojo Caliente hot springs, the Palisade Sills, the St. James Hotel, and the Enchanted Circle Pottery. They will have an opportunity to attend the Day of the Dead celebration.

Amanda in New Mexico: Ghosts in the Wind is the sixth book in the Amanda Travels series: Amanda in Arabia: The Perfume Flask; Amanda in Spain: The Girl in the Painting; Amanda in England: The Missing Novel; Amanda in Alberta: The Writing on the Stone; and Amanda on the Danube: The Sounds of Music.  I recommend you start with the first book, but the Foster has written the books in such a manner that they can be read in any order.

Darlene Foster grew up on a ranch in southern Alberta. She dreamt of writing, travelling the world and meeting interesting people. She also believes everyone is capable of making their dreams come true. It’s no surprise that she’s now the award-winning author of a children’s adventure series about a travelling twelve-year-old-girl.  A world-traveler herself, Darlene spends her time in Vancouver, Canada and Costa Blanca in Spain. Visit her Darlene Foster at her website.

For the next few months Greg Pattridge will be hosting Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Thank you Greg for keeping MMGM active while author Shannon Messenger is on tour promoting her sixth book, Nightfall, in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, which was released November 7.

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Wishtree

Katherine Applegate, Author

Feiwel & Friends, Fiction, Sep. 26, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Trees, Wishes, Crows, Animals, Friendship, Tolerance

Opening: It’s hard to talk to trees. We’re not big on chitchat. That’s not to say we can’t do amazing things, things you’ll probably never do. Cradle downy owlets. Steady flimsy tree forts. Photosynthesize. But talk to people? Not so much.

Synopsis:

Red is an oak tree who is 216 rings old. Red is the neighborhood “wishtree.” Every May 1 people come from all over town to write their most private wishes on pieces of paper, cloth, and socks and tie them to Red’s branches. He holds their hopes and dreams in his limbs. Then, they whisper their wish. Red listens but never responds. It’s against the rules for a tree to speak to a human.

Along with her crow friend Bongo and other animals who seek refuge in Red’s hollows, this “wishtree” watches over the neighborhood. Red has seen a lot of change over 200 years.

When a Muslim family moves in, Red observes how Samar and her family are treated by neighbors. Not everyone is welcoming.  Nasty threats are carved on his trunk, eggs are thrown, and ugly words shouted from passing cars.  More than ever, Red wants to fulfill Samar’s wish to find a friend. When Red learns the property owner may have some plans for him, he breaks some rules and ask his friends for help.

Why I like this book:

Katherine Applegate’s heartwarming middle grade novel is magical and conveys a message that is relevant today. It also reminds us of our common humanity.

The story is narrated by Red, a red oak tree, with compassion, concern, wisdom, and a sense of humor; no easy task for an author. Red’s branches and hollows are home to a birds and a furry cast of comical characters (owls, raccoons, opossums, skunks, cats and a crow) who live to together in harmony — most of the time. Red and his residents communicate openly with each other, but not with humans. Once a year Red is a wishtree for the town. Red’s world is vibrant and harbors a secret that needs to be shared.

Wishtree is a quiet and thoughtful read aloud with the entire family or in the classroom. It has a strong plot that with themes the encourage readers think about diversity, inclusion, acceptance, kindness and the true nature of friendship. It is a delightful mix that will keep readers turning pages. The story has Common Core connections.

For the next few months Greg Pattridge will be hosting Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Thank you Greg for keeping MMGM active while author Shannon Messenger is on tour promoting her sixth book, Nightfall, in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, which was released November 7.

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War I Finally Won

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Author

Dial Books for Young Readers, Historical Fiction, Oct. 3, 2017

Suitable for ages: 9-12

Themes: Overcoming a disability, WW II, Great Britain, Bombings, Rationing, Family relationships, Prejudice

Book Jacket Synopsis: When 11-year-old Ada’s clubfoot has been fixed at last, and she knows now that she’s not what her mother said she was — damaged and deranged. But soon Ada learns that she’s not a daughter anymore either. Who is she now?

World War II rages on, and Ada and her brother move with their guardian, Susan, into a cottage with the iron-faced Lady Thorton and her daughter. Life in the crowded home is tense. Then Ruth moves in. Ruth a Jewish girl from Germany.  A German? Could Ruth be a spy?

As the fallout from war intensifies, calamity creeps closer, and life during wartime grows even more complicated. Who will Ada decide to be? How can she keep fighting? And who will she struggle to save?

Ada’s first story, The War that Saved My Life, was a #1 New York Times bestseller and won a Newbery Honor, the Schneider Family Book Award, and the Josette Frank Award, in addition to appearing on multiple best-of-the-year lists. The War I Finally Won continues Ada’s journey of family, faith, and identity, showing us that real freedom is not just the ability to choose, but the courage to make the right choice.

Why I like this book:

Fans of The War that Saved My Life, will be thrilled with Bradley’s captivating and satisfying sequel. The setting, the characters, the plot and the imagery are beautifully intertwined and create and extraordinary experience of how WW II changed British family life amidst the blackouts, midnight fire-watching, air raids, bombings, rationing and loss.

The narrative is in Ada’s voice. She is smart and resourceful, strong-willed and spirited, like the horses she trains. Ada continues her journey of triumph over the demons of her past, learns to trust her guardian, Susan, and discovers a new and stronger inner identity.  There are new experiences, things to learn and healing. Her brother Jamie happily accepts Susan as “mum” and all of her affection.

Lady Thorton is aristocratic and an unlikely character who helps Ada face her past. But my favorite relationship is Ada’s interaction with Ruth, a Jewish girl who escapes Germany and moves into the cottage to study higher mathematics with Susan. She faces a lot of discrimination, especially from Lady Thorton and other adults. Ada stands up for Ruth, who ends up playing an important role in the war.

The plot is riveting and full of tension.  Bradley’s pacing will keep readers fully engaged and wondering what will happen next. It is a story that will stay with you because of the depth and the profoundly human characters.

This is an excellent discussion book for teachers to use with middle grade students. The author put a lot of research into this novel, so make sure you read her notes at the end about the historical facts woven into the story. You can learn more at Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s website.

For the next few months Greg Pattridge will be hosting Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Thank you Greg for keeping MMGM active while author Shannon Messenger is on tour promoting her sixth book, Nightfall, in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, which will be released November 7.

Ali’s Bees by Bruce Olav Solheim

Ali’s Bees

Bruce Olav Solheim, Author

Gabby Untermayerova, Illustrations

CreateSpace, Fiction, Jul. 14, 2017

Pages: 142

Suitable for Ages: 7-12

Themes: Immigration, Iraq, Loss, PTSD, Bees, Intergenerational relationships, Tolerance, Friendship

Publisher Synopsis: There is a lot you can learn from bees. They may look aggressive, but they won’t sting you if you keep your cool and make them comfortable around you.

Ali wishes he could feel comfortable in his new home in Los Angeles, California. He loves living with his beekeeper grandfather, but he desperately misses his parents. They were killed in a terrorist attack in Iraq, and Ali was sent halfway across the world to live with his grandfather. In addition to the deep grief Ali faces, he is also struggling with post traumatic stress disorder from the attack.

Ali’s wise grandfather knows that working with the bees will help. Ali enjoys working with the bees so much that he announces he will do his science project on bees, their place in the world, and the dangers of colony collapse disorder. His work attracts the attention of Lupe, a friendly classmate with problems of her own, and Jenks, an angry bully who cares for his disabled father. The three form an unlikely connection through a funny bee dance and a cherished Mickey Mantle baseball card. Will it be enough to overcome their differences and the challenges each one faces?

Why I like this book:

Bruce Olav Solheim has written a sensitive and realistic story about an Iraqi teen boy who has lost his family to the horrors of war and comes to live with his grandfather in California. It is a positive story that challenges readers to understand the effects of war and to show compassion and tolerance towards immigrants as they learn new customs.

The characters are memorable.  Ali has been emotionally scarred by the loss of his parents during bombings.  He is grieving and suffers from PTSD. Sirens and loud noises remind him of war. His wise and patient grandfather, Jady, is a beekeeper. He has a steady and calming influence on Ali as he teaches him how to love and care for bees.  Ali makes friends with Lupe, who has her own family immigration problems, and Jenks who is a bully, but knows how to build things. They are unlikely and diverse threesome, yet perfect partners for Ali’s science project on bees.

The bees not only play a role in Ali’s emotional healing, but also promote the idea of teamwork as the students work together on their bee science project. Learning about bees also encourages readers to become interested in the plight of bees and the natural world.

The language is easy for  elementary students and teens to understand. Solheim’s pacing makes his engaging story a quick read. Pen and ink illustrations are scattered throughout the book and contribute to the story. Ali’s Bees would be a good book for families to read and discuss together and a great classroom book.

Bruce Olav Solheim served for six years in the US Army as a jail guard and helicopter pilot during the war. He has written five books and seven plays. He is a distinguished professor of history at Citrus College in Glendora, California. Solheim founded the Veterans Program at Citrus College and cofounded the Boots to Books transition course, which is the first college course for returning veterans. Solheim was born in Seattle, Washington, to Norwegian immigrant parents

*The author provided me with an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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

Mari’s Hope by Sandy Brehl

Mari’s Hope (Book 3 in the Odin’s Promise Trilogy)

Sandy Brehl, Author

Crispin Book, Historical Fiction, Sep. 5, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Norwegians, WW II, Underground resistance, German occupation, Dogs, Bravery, Courage

Synopsis: Mari’s Hope is set in a small village in occupied western Norway during the final years of World War II.  Thirteen-year-old Mari has been assisting Dr. Olson for over a year, studying by day, and making home visits to treat villagers in the afternoons and evenings. She wears her hair in a long girlish braid so that the German soldiers ignore her activities. She also plays a role in her family’s efforts in the local resistance, despite ever-present dangers, especially from the a soldier named Goatman and from Leif, her one-time school friend, now a German collaborator.

Mari’s Hope delivers the dramatic conclusion to the middle-grade historical fiction trilogy begun with Odin’s Promise, awarded the 2014 Midwest Book Award for Children’s Fiction, and Bjorn’s Gift, published in 2016.

Why I like this book:

Sandy Brehl writes a powerful and authentic story about the harsh realities of Mari’s life in her village of Ytre Arna, under the watchful eyes of Germans. Brehl’s writing is a richly detailed and visual story of danger, bravery courage and hope. A lot of research went into this series.

The setting is realistic and readers will feel the bone-chilling cold as Mari trudges through snow and dark Norwegian nights to care for patients in their homes, dodges patrolling soldiers, maintains her strength on a daily diet of clear broth soup with a few bits of carrots or turnips, and makes some harrowing and risky trips for the resistance.

Great characters make a good story and Brehl has succeeded with Mari, a mature, intelligent, independent and caring character from the start. Her credibility grows as she proves her trustworthiness and takes on many dangerous missions. Leif, a childhood friend who joined the Germans, is a nice balance in the story. Leif watches out for Mari, but she doesn’t trust him. But who can you trust during war?

Brehl focuses on the strong sense of community that emerges among the Norwegian villagers as they stand strong against the invading Nazi troops, who have come as “Viking Brothers” claiming to protect their neutral Norway from the Allies. The plot is tense and dangerous as Mari’s parents, brothers and sister along with neighbors launch a very strong underground resistance to thwart the German plans — with some humor at times. They also help local Jewish members escape. There is also an overriding theme of love of family, love of community and love of country in this story.

New readers to this series will enjoy Mari’s Hope based on its merits. It is not necessary to read the first two books to understand the story. I know I will be catching up with the first two volumes of this exciting  trilogy. Below is a synopsis of the first two books.

Resources: Check out the Author’s Note at the end to learn how she beautifully weaves together fiction with historical and real-life events. There is also a glossary at the end the helps readers with Norwegian expressions. Visit Sandy Brehl on her website for more information about her trilogy.

Odin’s Promise is a story of the first year of German occupation of Norway in World War II as seen through the eyes of a young girl. Eleven-year-old Mari grew up tucked under the wings of her parents, grandma, and older siblings. After Hitler’s troops invades Norway in Spring 1940, she is forced to grow beyond her “little girl” nickname to deal with harsh new realities. At her side for support and protection is Odin, her faithful elkhound. As the year progresses, Mari, her family, and her neighbors are drawn into the activities of the Norwegian underground resistance.

Bjorn’s Gift is the second book in the trilogy and continues the exciting adventures of Mari, who faces growing hardships and dangers in her small village in a western fjord. German occupation troops and local Nazi supporters move closer to her family’s daily life, and her classmate Leif becomes active in the Norwegian Nazi youth party. Mari struggles to live up to her brother Bjorn’s faith in her, as she becomes more involved in risky resistance activities, trusting only her family and a few close friends. Across Norway, oppressive laws are imposed in the months from late 1941 to early 1943, with dire local consequences. Still, difficult decisions force Mari to admit that many things in life are not easily sorted into good or bad, and she begins to wonder if Hitler will ever be defeated and whether the occupation of Norway will ever end.

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

Severn and the Day She Silenced the World by Janet Wilson

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

Severn and the Day She Silenced the World

Janet Wilson, Author

Second Story Press, Nonfiction, Mar. 14, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 9-13

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

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

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

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

Why I like this book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Refugee

Alan Gratz, Author

Scholastic Press, Historical Fiction, Jul. 25, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

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

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

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

Why I LOVE this book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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