The True Gift by Patricia MachLachlan

The True Gift

Patricia MacLachlan, Author

Brian Floca, Illustrator

Scholastic Books, Fiction, 2013

Pages: 81

Suitable for Ages: 7-11

Themes: Christmas, Farm, Animals, Cow, Gift, Family, Community

Synopsis:

Lily and Liam look forward to spending a few weeks alone at their grandparents’ farm during the holidays. Their parents arrive a few days before Christmas. The children save their money all year long to purchase gifts at the only store in town. Liam carries his money in an old sock, along with his stack of books. Lily has her stash too.  It’s always the perfect trip for Liam and Lily. They love their grandmother’s cooking, walking to the lilac library, trimming the tree, and giving gifts.

When they arrive, Liam notices that White Cow is standing alone near the fence in the pasture. The donkey is missing and Liam is worried that White Cow is lonely. He talks to his grandpa, who says “it’s hard to tell about cows.” When Liam visits the cow in the barn, the cow nudges him and almost knocks him off his feet. White Cow follows Liam around the barn. He watches and waits for Liam’s visits every day.

Liam goes to the library to research cows and discovers that they are social animals. He  may be right about cows feeling lonely. Liam can’t think of anything but White Cow. He and Lily come up with a plan that will make their visit different this year. This holiday, Lily and Liam will find out the meaning of a special gift that comes in different forms.

Why I like this book:

This is a heartwarming and original story for all animal lovers. Patricia MacLachlan’s signature spare and elegant prose tells a warm family story with a classic holiday theme. It is a celebration of family and community and the true meaning of giving. Brian FLoca’s full-page, detailed pencil drawings add a special touch to this holiday story.

The plot is well-paced and the chapters are short for young readers. The characters are memorable. Lily narrates the story and is a thoughtful older sister. Liam is kind and compassionate and can’t bear the thought of White Cow feeling sad. Lily is a bit afraid of White Cow’s size, but shares Liam’s wish to do something . They work well together as a team. I don’t want to give the story away, but this is such a perfect example of children making a difference in the world. And, they have others willing to help.

This is an endearing holiday classic from a wonderful storyteller. Parents will want to include The True Gift in their holiday book collection. Older children will be able to read it on their own. This is a book worth reading for both young and old alike.

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, The Poet’s Dog and My Father’s Words; 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.

*Purchased copy.

All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold

International Day of Peace, Sep. 21, 2018

All Are Welcome

Alexandra Penfold, Author

Suzanne Kaufman, Illustrator

Knopf Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Jul. 10, 2018

Pages: 44

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Diversity, Inclusiveness, Classroom, School, Friendship

Opening: Pencils sharpened in their case. / Bells are ringing, let’s make haste. / School’s beginning, dreams to chase. / All are welcome here.

Publisher Synopsis:

Follow a group of children through a day in their school, where everyone is welcomed with open arms. A school where kids in patkas, hijabs, and yarmulkes play side-by-side with friends in baseball caps or sitting in wheel chairs. A school where students grow and learn from each other’s traditions, share lunches, play hard at recess, share science projects, play musical instruments, and gather as a whole community to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

All Are Welcome lets young children know that no matter what, they have a place, they have a space, they are welcome in their school.

Why I like this book:

All Are Welcome celebrates inclusiveness and diversity, sending the message to children and parents that everyone is welcome in their school, in their class, and in their community.  Suzanne Kaufman’s joyful and lively illustrations remind kids that the world is a rainbow of color when cultures merge from every part of the world. There is a beautiful surprise in the book.

The text sings with Alexander Penfold’s simple rhymes and repetitive chant “All are welcome here,” which  will resonate with young children as they will pour over pictures of kids like themselves. Some with dark skin, light skin, red hair, and curly hair. Others wear baseball caps, hijabs, glasses, hearing aids, and sit in wheelchairs.  It is a place where diversity and compassion advance the culture of peace.

As a new school year begins, All Are Welcome is a must-have book for pre-schools and elementary schools everywhere. It demonstrates on how much fun children have together in the classroom, on the playground and in the lunch room. “Time for lunch – what a spread! /A dozen different kinds of bread. / Pass it around till everyone’s fed. / All are welcome here.” 

I first learned about this book from Pragmatic Mom’s website last summer. Check out the story behind the story of how the author started a movement with a poster.

Resources: I believe this book would be a wonderful discussion book for today’s UN celebration of International Day of Peace. It is a day for engaging kids in peace-building activities.  And what better way than to remind kids they live in a rainbow world. Encourage kids to talk about ways to create peace at school, their communities and in the world. Whatever you decide to do, remember to pause at noon, (no matter your time zone) for a Minute of Silence and think about how you will build peaceful relationships.

Alexandra Penfold is the author of Eat, Sleep, Poop (Knopf, 2016) and the forthcoming picture books The Littlest Viking (Knopf) and Everybody’s Going to the Food Truck Fest (FSG). She is also a literary agent at Upstart Crow, where one of her clients is author-illustrator, Suzanne Kaufman! Learn more about Alex on Twitter at @agentpenfold and Suzanne on her website  or on Twitter at @suzannekaufman.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Book (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

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.

Festival of Colors by Kabir Sehgal and Surishtha Sehgal

 


Festival of Colors

Kabir Sehgal & Surishtha Sehgal, Authors

Vashti Harrison, Illustrator

Beach Lane Books, Fiction,  Jan. 30, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 2-8

Themes: Holi, Indian Festival, Feasts, Dance, Family, Friends, Community, Multicultural

Opening: Guavas are ripening. Lotuses are blooming. And Holi, the Indian festival of colors, is almost here.

Synopsis: A brother and sister, Mintoo and Chintoo, are excited about the upcoming Indian spring festival of colors, Holi. They gather baskets of red hibiscus flowers, purple orchids, orange marigolds, and blue irises. They dry the flowers before they remove all of the petals.  Then they crush the petals into  fine powders. When the special day arrives, family, friends and neighbors dress in white and gather with their bowls of colorful powders. Everyone begins to toss the colors and shout “Holi, hai!”

Why I like this book:

Kabir and Surishtha Sehgal have created a visually appealing, joyful and celebratory book that introduces children to Holi, an Hindu festival of colors. The annual spring festival offers Indians “fresh starts, friendship and forgiveness.” It also introduces children to a different culture, home life and a strong sense of community. Everyone sings, dances and feasts during the celebration.

Children will learn about how dried colorful flower petals, will create vibrant colors of red, yellow, blue, and purple powders. They will also learn how to prepare the beautiful colorful powders.

Vashti Harrison’s illustrations are a feast for the eyes and senses. Her artwork communicates the sheer joy of the event! I especially like how she shows the diversity of skin-tones among the Indian community. Some are very light and others very brown.  This is something I noticed immediately because I have an adopted son from India who is very dark. He would see himself in this book.

Readers will learn from the book’s endnotes that Holi celebrates “inclusiveness, new beginnings, and the triumph of good over evil.” This book is a treasure and belongs in every classroom!

Resources: Use the book to create your own colorful powders from flowers in your yard. All the steps are in the book.

Kabir and Surishtha Sehgal are the authors of A Bucket of Blessings and The Wheels on the Tuk Tuk.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

Islandborn by Junot Diaz


Islandborn

Junot Díaz, Author

Leo Espinosa, Illustrator

Dial Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Mar. 18, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: Immigration, Community, Culture, Memory, Diversity, Imagination, Belonging

OpeningEvery kid in Lola’s school was from somewhere else. Hers was a school of faraway places.

Synopsis: When Lola’s teacher asks the students to draw a picture of where their families emigrated from, all the kids are excited. Except Lola. She can’t remember the Island she left when she was just a baby. But with the help of her family and friends, and their memories — joyous, fantastical, heartbreaking, and frightening — Lola’s imagination takes her on an extraordinary journey back to the Island. As she draws closer to the heart of her family’s story, Lola comes to understand the truth of her abuela’s words: “Just because you don’t remember a place doesn’t mean it’s not in you.”

Why I like this book:

Junot Díaz has written a poetic and nostalgic story about Lola’s family immigrating from their home on the Island (likely the Dominican Republic) to build a new life in New York City.  Lola’s lively and exuberant curiosity leads her on an enchanting journey of discovery of self-discovery. She relies upon the memories of her family, friends and neighbors to help her imagine an Island and a culture that has bats the size of blankets, music, dancing, bright colors, sweet mangoes, beautiful beaches, tropical sunsets, hurricanes and a terrifying monster (dictator) who hurts the people. Leo Espinosa’s dazzling illustrations bring Lola’s Island to life. They are a beautiful celebration of creativity and diversity. Brown children will see themselves in the many different skin-tones. Beautiful collaborative effort between the author and illustrator. This book belongs in school libraries.

Junot Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to New Jersey. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Drown; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and This is How you Lose Her, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award Finalist. Visit him at his website.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas, Author

Balzer + Bray, Fiction, Feb. 28, 2017

Awards: National Book Award Longlist

Suitable for Ages: 14 and up

Themes: Racism, Police Violence, Prejudice, Family Relationships, Community

Book Synopsis: Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter lives between two different worlds: Garden Heights, the poor black neighborhood where she lives, and Williamson Prep, the fancy suburban school she attends.  It’s tough to make friends in her own community where she is judged. It’s hard being an acceptable black student in a white school. The uneasy balance between her worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, by a police officer when he’s driving Starr home. Khalil was unarmed.

Khalil’s death quickly becomes a national news story. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. One of Starr’s best friends at school even suggests he may have had it coming. When it becomes clear the police have little interest in investigating the incident, protesters take to the streets and Starr’s neighborhood becomes a war zone. Everyone wants to know what really happened that night. Starr is the only witness and because she is a minor, her identity is protected.  The police take her testimony with little interest, even though her Uncle Carlos is a detective. When tensions reach a boiling point, she knows that she has to tell the truth.

What Starr does — or does not — say could destroy her community. It could endanger her life. It could help her find her voice.

Why I like this book:

Angie Thomas’ powerful in-your-face novel is timely, brave, and gripping.  It is a story about violence in America that’s not sugar-coated but effective with a trustworthy narrator, Starr Carter, who opens her heart and readers’ eyes to the truth. Readers will walk in her shoes, feel her anguish and cheer as she becomes an instrument for hope.

Thomas’ action-packed and multifaceted plot begins with Khalil’s shooting in the first chapter. The story follows with the fall-out that occurs in Garden Heights as the community responds at first with peaceful protests. Gangs move in, stir up crowds and the scene quickly turns to violence. Businesses are burned and the neighborhood becomes a war zone. It is a grim and suffocating look at the inner-city where abuse, addiction and gangs are a way of life and children are its victims.

Starr’s tight and loving family adds stability to the novel. She lives with her father “Big Mav,” a former gang-member who wants to make their crime-ridden neighborhood a better place to live. He owns a local market and employs teens to keep them away from gangs and drugs. Her mother Lisa is a registered nurse who wants to move away in order to keep her family safe. Starr has an older, protective brother, Seven, and a younger brother, Sekani. Together the family faces adversity head-on with perseverance, resourcefulness, and the triumph of the human spirit.

Thomas presents the growing trend of racial profiling and police brutality in an unbiased way. She shows the prejudice on both sides. Starr’s uncle is a detective on the force, so we see things from his point of view.  It helps readers understand the different sides of the situation without confusion. As a reader I gained a greater understanding of drugs and gang life in the inner city and its appeal to teen boys who are supporting single mothers and younger siblings.

Through the perspective of Starr, readers glimpse the anguish that envelops her community, illuminating the feelings associated with suppression. We need more novels that focus on the social commentary of racism and police brutality. The Hate U Give is an excellent work of fiction and an important discussion book for classrooms.

Angie Thomas was born, raised, and still resides in Jackson, Mississippi. She is a former teen rapper whose greatest accomplishment was having an article about her in Right On! magazine. She holds a BFA in creative writing. The Hate U Give is her first novel. You can visit her 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 today.

The Big Adventures of Tiny House by Susan Schaefer Bernardo

The Big Adventures of Tiny House

Susan Schaefer Bernardo, Author

Courtenay Fletcher, Illustrator

Inner Flower Child Books, Fiction, Apr. 25, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Tiny Houses, Salvaged, Recycled, Travel, Home, Community

Opening: Once there was a farmhouse in a field of hay, / but while it lay sleeping, the acres gave way / to a bustling city whose bright, shiny towers / edged out the farmhouse, the fields and flowers.

Synopsis: An old farmhouse finds its once peaceful setting surrounded by a big city. People pitch in and dismantle the house, salvage the windows and doors, and build a Tiny House on wheels. It has a tiny front porch, a kitchen with cabinets, a loft for sleeping and a nook for reading. When Tiny is hooked up to Big Truck they can travel where ever they want. Tiny heads west to see the world and discover if he’s a real home.

They drive past farmlands, visit the big silver arch in St. Louis, join a parade in New Orleans, camp near the Grand Canyon, drive through the desert and wind through the Rocky Mountains. Traveling can be fun, but Tiny becomes lonely.  They meet friends like Shiny (an Airstream) and Buster (a converted school bus) who invite Tiny to the Tiny House Jamboree. Back on the road Tiny discovers Harmony, a village of tiny houses, and learns a very important lessons about the meaning of home.

Illustrations Courtesy of Courtenay Fletcher

Why I like this book:

Susan Schaefer Bernardo and Courtenay Fletcher have outdone themselves with The Big Adventures of Tiny House, which captures the spirit and heart of the tiny house movement in America. Tiny homes and communities offer an alternative for those seeking a simpler and less costly lifestyle change, friendship and community. And yes, there is a big annual jamboree.

There is a lot energy and playfulness in Bernardo’s rhyming text. “If you’re looking for adventure, just follow me / to the axle-hoppin’, wheel-stompin’ Tiny House Jamboree. / We’ll raise the roof with our ruckus! All our kin will be coming! / There’ll be ringing and singing and dancing and drumming!” The story has a rhythm to it and is fun to read out loud along with the “Beep! Beep! Honk! Honk!” The pacing is perfect and the storytelling is clever. The ending is satisfying and carries a very important message for children about the meaning of “home.”

There is a richness and charm in Fletcher’s bold and colorful illustrations that make this a beautiful book to read. If you look real closely at all the illustrations, kids will discover eyes peering out the windows as Tiny rolls along the road, celebrates the jamboree or is content in his new community. The author and illustrator team up to once again produce another winning book for children.

Resources: Have kids draw or design their own tiny house. What would they put inside the their house? How big would they make it? The Tiny House website also has a template of a tiny house that kids can construct and coloring pages.

Susan Schafer Bernardo and Courtney Fletcher have collaborated on Sun Kisses and Moon Hugs and  The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm, which was read aloud by First Lady Michelle Obama and sent to the International Space Station as part of Storytime in Space!  They hope that Tiny Makes his dream come true and finds his ways to Mars.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers share a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.

*I was provided with a copy of  The Big Adventures of Tiny House 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.

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

TOWERS FALLING51Lk03l4ykL__SX348_BO1,204,203,200_Towers Falling

Jewell Parker Rhodes, Author

Little, Brown and Company, Fiction, Jul. 12, 2016

Pages: 223

Suitable for Ages:  8-12

Themes: September 11, Terrorist Attacks, World Trade Centers, School, Family relationships, Homelessness, Divorce, Discrimination, Friendship, Community, Diversity

Opening: Pop groans. He’s having bad dreams again. I hear Ma trying to comfort him. My little sister, Leda, squirms. I whisper “Hush. Sleep,” and tuck the sheet beneath her chin. On the floor, Raymond’s arm clutches his pillow.

Synopsis: Dèja Barnes is beginning fifth grade in a new school. Her family has lost their apartment because her father is sick and coughs a lot, is depressed and angry, and can’t hold down a job. Her mother’s waitress job barely supports the family, so they are forced to move into a homeless shelter in Brooklyn. At Dèja’s new school, her teacher, Mrs. Garcia, asks students what is memorable about New York? The students shout out popular landmarks. Dèja feels dumb because all she has ever known is Brooklyn. Her teacher pulls out a poster of Manhattan with its tall buildings and the East River. She encourages the class to look out the window and compare the two. Dèja realizes that there are two very tall towers missing, but she doesn’t know why they are gone. Dèja embarks upon a journey to understand what happened on September 11 with her new school friends, Ben and Sabeen. What she discovers is that the events of the terrorist attacks have a far-reaching impact on those around her, including her classmates and family. She also begins to understand that the past and present are connected. It’s living history.

Why I like this story:

  • With the 15th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, Jewell Parker Rhodes has written a compelling and sensitive story of hope about a painful topic for a generation of children who weren’t born or were too young to understand this important chapter in America’s history. As Dèja wonders, “Before I was born” is ancient history. “Who cares?”
  • Dèja narrates the story. Her voice is real and honest. She’s African-American and has grown up too fast, looks after her younger brother and sister, and puts up a tough and mean front in order to survive shelter life. So Dèja can’t figure out why two students befriend her at school. Ben is Mexican-American and Sabeen is Turkish-American. The threesome work together on their 9/11 class project. Ben’s wears cowboy boots and is “nice in a dumb kind of way.”  His parents are divorced. His father is a veteran of the Iraq war. Sabeen is Muslim and wears colorful head scarves. She is smart and kind-hearted. The friendship that forms between the characters is well-executed. Dèja discovers she has friends who don’t care where she lives.
  • The plot is engaging, courageous and keeps readers fully invested in Towers Falling. I like how Dèja and her classmates learn how 9/11 affects them individually and as a part of a greater community — family, friends, classmates, school, city, state, and country. And the diverse heritage of the students at Brooklyn Collective helps readers develop a strong sense of what it really means to be an American.  The pacing for the story is exceptional. It doesn’t hurry the readers along and allows them time to digest the gravity of the terrorist attacks, the loss of lives and the impact on all Americans. It also shows that as a nation we are resilient, brave and hopeful during times of adversity.
  • Towers Falling is a book destined to become a very important teaching tool for educators. The novel not only deals with the tragedy, but also confronts homelessness in America, diversity, persecution, discrimination, PTSD, divorce, and veterans. This important novel belongs in every school classroom. There is a Teacher’s Guide for Towers Falling available on Jewell Parker Rhodes’ website.

 Jewell Parker Rhodes is the author of Ninth Ward, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, Sugar, winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and Bayou Magic. She is also the Virginia G. Piper Endowed Chair and Director of Arizona State University’s Piper Center for Creative Writing, and has written many award-winning books for adults.

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

The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd

Key to Extraordinary 51KpzeoJqhL__SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Key to Extraordinary

Natalie Lloyd, Author

Scholastic Press, Fiction, Feb. 23, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Ancestors, Family Relationships, Friendships, Magic, Community, Cleft Palate

Pages: 240

Opening: “It is a known fact that the most extraordinary moments in a person’s life come disguised as ordinary. It is a known fact for me, at least.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Everyone in Emma’s family is special. Her ancestors include Revolutionary War spies, brilliant scientists, and famous country music singers — every single one of which learned of their extraordinary destiny through a dream.

For Emma, her own destiny dream can’t come soon enough. Right before her mother died, Emma promised that she’d do whatever it took fulfill her destiny, and she doesn’t want let her mother down. But when Emma’s dream finally arrives, it points her toward an impossible task — finding a legendary treasure that’s supposedly hidden near her town’s historic cemetery. If Emma fails, she’ll let down generations of her extraordinary ancestors…including her mother. But how can she find something that’s been missing for centuries and might be protected by a mysterious singing ghost, known as the “Conductor?”

Why I like this book:

Natalie Lloyd has written a captivating tale that will delight readers and take them on a journey to Blackbird Hollow, a Tennessee community where  small-town neighbors care about each other. Lloyd’s writing is lyrical and magical. Her voice is original. Her storytelling and literary style set her a part from other authors. She succeeds in creating an experience for her readers. Fans of her debut novel, A Snicker of Magic, will not be disappointed.

Emma Pearl Casey and her brother live with their Granny Blue, who owns the family Boneyard Café, which sits on the edge of a famous historic graveyard. A ghost wanders among the gravestones at night singing about treasures. The café is where the town folk gather to chat, drink Granny’s famous Boneyard brew (cocoa), and sing and dance the night away. It is a setting where magic happens daily. Flowers and Telling Vines that are  unique only to Blackbird Hollow, whisper messages from the departed.

The characters are quirky, good-hearted, and unforgettable. Emma comes from a lineage of creative and strong women who call themselves the Wildflowers, because they learn about their extraordinary destiny through a dream. Emma still carries the “ache” of missing her mother and is self-conscious of a small scar above her lip, the result of a repaired cleft palate. She is a spirited young Wildflower, who is determined to find the hidden treasure. Eccentric and feisty Granny Blue is a former professional boxer, who has some secrets of her own. Sadness creeps over her as she struggles to keep the café afloat. Uncle Periwinkle tucks violets into his long white beard and shares the ghost songs and magic with Emma.

What an enchanting plot filled with adventure, wonder, mystery and danger. The café is having financial problems and a scrupulous developer wants to purchase the land. Emma gives daily tours of the graveyard to visitors to help support the café. Emma and her best friends, Cody Belle and Earl, embark upon a secret mission to find the hidden treasure so they can save her family’s home and café. They explore the forbidden areas of the graveyard and the search the Wailing Woods, which hold secrets of their own. But treasures can take on different meanings and only the pure of heart can understand their meaning. For Emma, this is a story about believing in yourself and finding courage in the midst of danger.

Visit Natalie Lloyd at her website. She is the author of A Snicker of Magic, an ALA Notable Children’s Book, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and a Parents Magazine Best Children’s Book.

I received an advanced reading copy of this book. This review reflects my own honest opinion about the book.

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