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.

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

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Minna’s Patchwork Coat

Minna's Patchwork Coat51a3s9oMphL__SX340_BO1,204,203,200_Minna’s Patchwork Coat

Lauren A. Mills, Author and Illustrator

Little Brown and Company, Fiction, Nov. 3, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Pages: 288

Themes: Children of coal miners, Appalachian Region, Coats, Quilting, Family life, School, Community, Prejudice

Book Jacket Synopsis: Minna and her family don’t have much in their small Appalachian cabin, but “people only need people,” Papa always says. Unable to afford a warm winter coat, Minna is forced to give up her dream of going to school — until her neighbors work tirelessly to create a quilted coat out of old fabric scraps. But even that might not be enough to cut through the long-held prejudices of Minna’s new classmates. Can she make them see beyond the rags to the girl with a special story inside?

Why I like this book:

Author and artist Lauren A. Mills lovingly reimagines her 1991  picture book, The Rag Coat, into a middle grade historical novel with 50 delicate and expressive black and white illustrations and an expanded story about a remarkable girl, a patchwork coat and how the two stitch the community together through scraps of stories that touch all of their lives.

The story is set in the Appalachian Region in West Virginia during in 1908. Most of the men work as coal miners deep beneath the earth. Many become sick with black lung disease. Poverty and loss are real. Prejudice for minorities is real and children of color aren’t permitted to attend school. Yet, families help each other when times are tough. They barely have enough money to feed and clothe their families, but they are rich in love, storytelling, music and dance. And the beauty of nature is the canopy they all share,

The characters are colorful and memorable. Minna is a resilient and feisty girl. Even though Minna is disappointed she can’t go to school, she spends her days helping her mama and watching her brother, Clemmie.  She also learns about the curative power of plants from “Aunt” Nora, a wise Cherokee healer. And Minna teaches Nora’s mixed-race grandson, Lester, to read and write. Mama keeps the family’s songs and stories alive. Papa is unable to work because of black lung disease. He’s a fiddler and teaches Lester how to play.

Minna’s Patchwork Coat is a richly textured story with many layers and a charming narrative. The plot is engaging. Sadly Minna’s father passes, but his spirit and memories help ease her grief. In order to earn money for the family, her mama joins the Quilting Mothers to stitch beautiful quilts to sell in the larger cities. When the mothers work on a colorful pattern called Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors, Minna longs for such a beautiful coat so she can go to school. The mothers work tirelessly to create a quilted coat out of old fabric scraps. Minna picks the scraps which carry a story about many of the students at school who tease her. Hearing their mothers share their stories helps Minna get to know each one better, including the bullies. The coat is finally finished and she proudly wears it to school on “sharing day.” She is teased by the other children about her coat of rags, until they realize that those rags carry bits of their own history. A beautiful tale that teaches children about the bond of community and their connection to each other.

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

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Stella by Starlight

Stella by Starlight9781442494978_p0_v2_s260x420Stella by Starlight

Sharon M. Draper, Author

Atheneum Books for Young Readers,  Historical Fiction, Jan. 6, 2015, the official release date. Many bloggers will be reviewing Stella by Starlight today as part of its launch.

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Pages: 336

Themes: Segregation, Racism, the Ku Klux Klan, Family, Community, Hope

Synopsis: When 11-year-old Stella and her brother, Jojo, witness nine robed figures dressed in white, burning a cross on the other side of the pond near their home late one night, she knows that life in Bumblebee, North Carolina, is about to change. It is 1932, and “Every Negro family knew the unwritten rules — they had to take care of their own problems and take care of one another.” Stella and her community come together to find strength, courage and support as they face the injustices surrounding them in the segregated Jim Crow South.  Will Stella find her own voice in this coming of age story?

Why I like this book:  Sharon Draper’s book is a promise to her father that she would one day tell the story of her grandmother, Estelle Twitty Mills Davis. Draper’s compelling and powerful novel is inspired by her grandmother’s fifth-grade journal. It is a fictional account drawn from that journal. It is also a gift to her readers to share true stories of hatred and prejudice that ran so deep during the segregated South.

Draper works magic in her multi-layered storytelling that highlights the depression, segregation, racism, and a girl filled with hopes, dreams and ambitions during a time when such qualities are risky for a girl of color. Stella is a gutsy, resilient and compassionate hero with a strong and candid voice. Readers will benefit from meeting Stella and following her journey. The language in the story is true to the time period. The setting shows a caring and supportive African-American community at the height of the depression and segregation when families depend upon each other. The plot is packed with action, twists and a lot of tension — it is scary, heartbreaking, sobering, celebratory, and humorous. The pacing is spot-on throughout the story, keeping readers fully engaged. Readers will find themselves richly rewarded by this deeply realistic and satisfying tale. Draper has once again succeeded in creating a story that will ignite the passion of reading among students.

Resources: Visit Sharon Draper at her website for more information about Stella by Starlight and her other books.  There will be a study guide on the site for Stella.  Teachers and students may be interested in having their entire class read her book. Draper looks forward to communicating with students in their schools via Skype and Twitter. Visit her site for information and to follow directions.

Sharon Draper, a five-times Coretta Scott King Literary Award winner for Copper Sun and Forged by Fire, delivers another contender in Stella by Starlight. Her novel Out of My Mind has won over twenty state awards and has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year.  She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she taught high school English for 25 years and was named National Teacher of the Year.

‘Twas Nochebuena

Twas Nochebuena9780670016341_p0_v2_s260x420‘Twas Nochebuena: A Christmas Story in English and Spanish

Roseanne Greenfield Thong, Author

Sara Palacios, Illustrations

Viking, Fiction, Oct. 16, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 4 and up

Themes: Latin American Christmas traditions, Christmas, Feast, Family, Community

Opening: ‘Twas Nochebuena / and all through our casa, / every creature was kneading tamale masa. / For one of our holiday tradiciones, / is making tamales — / not one, but montones!”

Book Synopsis: It’s Christmas Eve, and you’re invited to a Nochebuena celebration! Follow a family as they prepare to host a night filled with laugher; love and Latino tradition. Make tasty tamales and hang colorful adornos (decorations) on the walls. Gather to sing festive canciones (songs) while sipping champurrado (hot chocolate).  After the midnight feast has been served and the last gifts have been unwrapped, it’s time to cheer, “Feliz Navidad and to all a good night!”

Why I like this book: Roseanne Greenfield Thong has written a beautiful and heartwarming Latino themed picture book that re-imagines the beloved Christmas story, Twas the Night Before Christmas. The story is narrated  in English and peppered with Spanish words to expose children to a language some of their friends may speak. The rhyming is perfect. The setting is vivid and festive and teaches children about other cultures and traditions. The plot is lively and shows strong family bonds and community. The characters are endearing. Sara Palacios’ illustrations are vibrant, colorful, expressive and action-packed. She works with a variety of media including collage, ink and digital to combine her drawings with layers of color and texture. This is a joyful and magical holiday story that offers children a way to celebrate a Latino family’s Christmas traditions.

Resources:  One Latino celebration is the making of piñatas, which are filled with candy and small toys. I used to help children make them at Christmas.  Blow up a large balloon and then help kids cover it with strips of paper mache.  [Here] is a site that shows you step-by-step of how to make a piñata. Most of the ingredients you have at home.

Roseanne Greenfield Thong has authored many multicultural books including Round is a Tortilla and Green is a Chile Pepper. Her most recent November book release is, Noodle Magic.

Sara Palacios illustrated the Pura Belpré honor book Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match.

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 Perfect Picture Books.

The House on Dirty-Third Street

House on Dirty-Third Street9781561456192_p0_v1_s260x420The House on Dirty-Third Street

Jo S. Kittinger, Author

Thomas Gonzalez, Illustrator

Peachtree Publishers, Fiction, 2012

2013 Christopher Award and the Social Justice Literature Award

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: Moving into an older house, Repair and reconstruction, Neighbors, Hope

Opening:  Mom said starting over would be an adventure, so I imagined a tropical island with palm trees and buried treasure.  Not thisAll the houses on Thirty-third Street were old and run down, but the one with the For Sale sign was the worst.  I’d call the whole place “Dirty-third Street.”

Synopsis:  A mother and daughter work to turn a hopeless, rundown, and dirty old house into a loving family home with hard work, faith, hope and the support of their new friends and neighbors.

Why I like this book:  This is a moving story by Jo S. Kittinger that taps into the deep disappointment a girl feels when she has to move into a house that is falling a part. It is a timely story for children about moving, and starting over after the loss of a home due to divorce, job loss or weather events like  floods, fires, tornadoes and hurricanes.  It also is a story about hope,  faith and community.  Thomas Gonzalez captures the girl’s disappointment on the book cover as she peers through a window into the house.  His beginning illustrations are drab and somber sketches with hints of pale pastel blue against the pen and ink sketches.  The girl’s expressions are priceless.  However, as neighbors and church members lend a hand to fix the house, color subtly appears in the illustrations.  The House on Dirty-Third Street is an excellent collaboration between author and illustrator. Visit Jo Kittinger at her website.  It is also a great book to share with kids during World Habitat Week.

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Resources:  The United Nations has declared the first Monday of October World Habitat Day , which will be celebrated Oct. 7.  It is a time to recognize the basic need for adequate housing worldwide.  Habitat for Humanity will sponsor activities Oct. 6-12, 2013.  This is a wonderful opportunity for families to understand, sign up and participate in building and renovating homes in their local community.   Lesson plans and activities can be found at Habitat LearnsFormer President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn will focus their work projects in California, Colorado,, New York and New Jersey.  The Carters have participated for 30 years.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post 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.

Barn Raising – Amish

Barn Raising

Craig Brown, author and illustrator

Harper Collins Publishers, 2002

Suitable for:  Ages 5 and up

Themes:  Amish Lifestyle, Community, Cooperation, Generosity, Neighbors

Opening/Synopsis:  “After the fire there was no place on Jacob’s farm to keep animals.  A neighbor made space for them in his barn.”  Lightning strikes the family barn and a generous Amish community arrives to help Jacob’s father clear the land so that a new barn can be built.  Friends and neighbors arrive from all over the county to help raise a new barn in one day.   The women come with a feast of food to feed the workers.

What I like about this book:  Craig Brown has written and illustrated a heartwarming story about how the Amish community comes together to help a neighbor in need.   Brown’s illustrations are rich and detailed, depicting each stage of the barn raising.   His illustrations are also expressive and emotive.  You feel the strong bond between neighbors and friends.  This is a beautiful story to introduce children to the Amish culture and talk about how neighbors support each other during times of trouble.  In his larger illustrations of the barn raising, Brown includes close-up inserts which make you feel like you are helping.  There is a page at the back of the book that gives more detail about Barn Raisings and the preparation required.  This also is an excellent book for children interested in building and constructing.  Check out Craig Brown’s  fun website and view the books he’s written.   He’s known to school kids as “Farmer Brown.”  I had the opportunity of meeting Craig Brown at the Southampton Children’s Literature Conference this summer.