Wish by Barbara O’Connor

Wish

Barbara O’Connor, Author

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

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

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

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

Why I like this book:

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

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

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

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

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

Saved by the Boats by Julie Gassman

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

Julie Gassman, Author

Steve Moors, Illustrator

Capstone Press, Nonfiction, Aug. 16, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

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

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

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

Why I like this book:

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Treehouse War by Lisa Graff

The Great Treehouse War

Lisa Graff, Author

Philomel Books, Fiction, May 16, 2017

Suitable for Ages : 8-12

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

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

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

Why I like this book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Jump Coins By Susan May Olson

Time Jump Coins: An Adventure in Historic Philadelphia

Susan May Olson, Author & Publisher

Fiction, May 17, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

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

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

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

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

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

Why I like this book:

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

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

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

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

Favorite entry from Joey’s Journal:

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

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

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

The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

       World Refugee Day, June 20, 2017

The Only Road

Alexandra Diaz, Author

Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Book, Fiction, Oct. 4, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Child Refugees, Immigration, Guatemala, Courage, Hope, Freedom, Multicultural

Awards: Pura Belpre Honor Book and ALA Notable Book

Book Synopsis: Jaime is sitting on his bed drawing when he hears a scream. Instantly he knows Miguel, his cousin and best friend is dead.

Everyone in Jaime’s small town in Guatemala knows someone who has been killed by the Alphas, a  powerful gang that’s known for violence and drug trafficking. Anyone who refuses to work for them is hurt or killed — like Miguel. With Miguel gone, Jaime fears that he is next. There’s only one choice. Accompanied by his cousin Ángela, Jaime must flee his home to live with his older brother, Tomas, in the United States.

Inspired by true incidents, The Only Road tells an individual story of a boy who feels that leaving his home and risking everything is his only chance for a better Life. It is a story of fear and bravery, love and loss, strangers becoming family, and one boy’s treacherous and life-changing journey.

Why I like this book:

Alexandra Diaz’s novel is powerful and timely. It is about two cousins fleeing from dangerous drug  trafficking gangs in Guatemala and making the treacherous journey north to the United States. There are no guarantees that they will survive. Their story is heartbreaking, but it underscores the problem of why many Central American children illegally immigrate to America.

The richly textured Latino text is peppered with Spanish words and expressions, which contribute to the reader’s experience. At the end of book, there is a glossary of words and expressions used throughout the story.

The story is distinctly character-driven. Jaime’s third person narrative will move readers. Twelve-year-old Jaime is driven by his grief over the death of his cousin. Jaime is brave and compassionate. He’s also a talented artist and sketches his journey. Fifteen-year-old Ángela is  a mother figure for Jaime and to other younger children they meet along their trip. She’s smart, cautious and reminds Jaime they can’t trust anyone. She’s particularly adept at changing her Guatemalan accent to a Mexican accent so she can fool immigration officers (la migra) and town locals. When they need more money for safe passage across the border, Jaime draws portraits and Ángela alters clothing for women.

The plot is multilayered, gripping and complicated. The trip is long and hazardous, which Diaz handles with care. Jaime and Ángela dodge brutal gangs, bandits, and immigration officers. Food and water is scarce. They are herded into a freight car heading north and nearly suffocate from the heat. They rest at safe houses and make friends with other teens who teach them survival techniques. They learn how to hop freight trains (la bestia) and ride on top the cars as they travel north through Mexico to the border of New Mexico. Their final challenge will be to find the right smuggler (coyote) who will help them safely cross the Rio Grande.

Immigration is a hot topic today. The UN reports there are 10 million refugees world-wide. This is an important book for middle school libraries to help students gain a better understanding of refugees, immigration and the reasons they risk their lives to find freedom.

Alexandra Diaz is the author of When We Were, which was an ALA Rainbow List book and a New Mexico Book Award finalist. Alexandra is the daughter of Cuban immigrants and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Make sure you read her Author’s Note at the end of the book that will give you further insight into immigration. Visit Diaz at her website.

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

A Month of Mondays by Joëlle Anthony

A Month of Mondays

Joëlle Anthony, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Mar. 7, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Abandonment, Family Relationships, Courage, Self-confidence, Healing

Opening: I have three women who think they’re my mom. My sister Tracie has mothered me since I was three, when ours left us. Aunt Jenny steps in when an authority figure is needed and she thinks my dad’s being a slacker. Caroline, the one who gave birth to me? She sends the checks.

Book Jacket Synopsis: This can’t be good! Suddenly Suze’s mom wants back into her life and her teacher wants her to “try harder”?”

As if middle school wasn’t hard enough, Suze Tamaki’s life gets turned upside down where her mother reappears after a ten-year absence. Once Suze gets over her shock, she thinks it might be cool to get to know her mom. But her older sister Tracie is determined not to let her back into their lives, after she walked away without an explanation.

At school things aren’t much better. One of her teachers decides the way to cure Suze’s lack of motivation is to move her into Honors English — a development Suze finds both inspiring and distressing. When she’s paired with straight-A student Amanda on an English assignment, she finds herself caring about people’s expectations like she’s never done before.

Why I like this book:

Joëlle Anthony’s has written a complex and heartwarming story that focuses on the impact of parental abandonment, complicated family relationships and healing.

There is a great cast of quirky characters, who are believable and well-crafted. Suze, is an engaging and edgy narrator. She perceives herself as an underdog at school. But she is smart, curious, and determined character who takes risks that often land her in detention. Her older sister, Tracie, is protective and makes Suze sign a contract to never have contact with their mother. No one in the family talks about her mother, Caroline, including her father, or aunt and uncle. Her friends Jessica and Amanda provide some normalcy in her life. Readers will relate to Suze and her quest to know her mother.

The plot is realistic, the tension is palpable, and the solutions flow organically.  Suze wants to get to know her mother, but is a conflicted. Their first contacts are awkward. Caroline is late, leaves to make phone calls, or has to work late. She sends gifts that aren’t appropriate.  But they work at their relationship and Suze begins to find answers to her questions. The pacing is a bit slow in the beginning, but it picks and keeps the reader turning pages. The ending is unexpected and very satisfying.

Joëlle Anthony is the author of Restoring Harmony, The Right & the Real, and Speed of Life (writing as J. M. Kelly). Visit Anthony at her website.

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

*I was provided with a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Amina’s Voice

Hena Khan, Author

Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Fiction,  Mar. 14, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Pakistani and Asian Americans, Friendship, Peer Pressure, Family, Muslim Culture, Community, Prejudice, Racism

Opening: Something sharp pokes me in the rib. “You should totally sign up for a solo,” Soojin whispers from the seat behind me in music class. I shake my head. The mere thought of singing in front of a crowd makes my stomach twist into knots.

Book Jacket SynopsisAmina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American,” now that she is to become a citizen. Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with  these questions, her local mosque is vandalized, and she is devastated.

Why I like this book:

Hena Khan has written a timely and empowering novel about a young Muslim American girl, who finds her voice with the help of friends, family, and community.

Khan’s novel is multi-layered with many themes. The central theme of Khan’s book is about what it’s like to be a Muslim girl growing up in America. She takes her readers into a loving and strict Muslim family, where cultural traditions are at the center of their lives, from praying, studying the Quran and meal preparation, to the respect shown to visitors and the value of community.

The main characters are multi-dimensional and diverse. Amina is a kind-hearted, shy, and talented pianist and vocalist. Her best friend, Soojin, is Chinese and wants to change her name because no one knows how to pronounce it. Bottom line, she wants to fit in. This raises important questions for Amina. Would the popular kids like her better if she changes her name? How does she be true to her Muslim values and still be American? Many readers will identify with the angst of middle school as they navigate through those sensitive years. Amina’s story will also resonate with children of immigrants.

The language is carefully crafted and uplifting. The plot is realistic and leaves readers with hope even after the Islamic Center is attacked and vandalized. It is heartwarming to see how the community rallies behind the Muslim community by inviting them to use their churches and providing labor to rebuild the center. It beautifully demonstrates to readers the meaning of our common humanity. I know my community would come to the rescue of our Muslim neighbors. Verdict: This book belong in every middle grade library. It’s a treasure!

Hena Khan is a Pakistani American who was born and raised in Maryland. She enjoys writing about her culture. She is the author of several books, including It’s Ramadan, Curious George, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, and Night of the Moon. You can learn more about Hena Khan by visiting her website.

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