Escape From Aleppo by N. H. Senzai

Escape From Aleppo

N.H. Senzai, Author

Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, Fiction, Jan. 2, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Family, War, Refugees, Syria, Bravery, Survival, Hope, Freedom

Publisher Synopsis:

Silver and gold balloons. A birthday cake covered in pink roses. A new dress.

Nadia stands at the center of attention in her parents’ elegant dining room. This is the best day of my life, she thinks. Everyone is about to sing “Happy Birthday,” when her uncle calls from the living room, “Baba, brothers, you need to see this.” Reluctantly, she follows her family into the other room. On TV, a reporter stands near an overturned vegetable cart on a dusty street. Beside it is a mound of smoldering ashes. The reporter explains that a vegetable vendor in the city of Tunis burned himself alive, protesting corrupt government officials who have harassed his business. Nadia frowns.

It is December 17, 2010: Nadia’s twelfth birthday and the beginning of the Arab Spring. Soon anti-government protests erupt across the Middle East and, one by one, countries are thrown into turmoil. As civil war flares in Syria and bombs fall across Nadia’s home city of Aleppo, her family decides to flee to safety in Turkey. Nadia gets trapped and left behind when a bomb hits their home. She is alone and must find a way to catch up with her family.  There are many detours along the way and an old man tries to help her. Inspired by current events, this novel sheds light on the complicated situation in Syria that has led to an international refugee crisis, and tells the story of one girl’s journey to safety.

Why I like this book:

N. H. Senzai has written a timely story that explores the culture and history of Syria as it moves from normalcy to the harsh realities of civil war, as witnessed by Nadia. The author weaves chapters into the story depicting life before the war begins giving readers a feel for family and life in Syria. Nadia enjoys birthday parties, painting her nails, playing with her cat, watching Arab’s Got Talent and shopping in the markets.

Senzai’s powerful storytelling and vivid imagery draws readers into Nadia’s harrowing experience. Her journey is quite extraordinary as she befriends other Syrians along the way, an old man and two orphans. The elderly book binder, Ammo Mazen, promises to help Nadia reach the Turkish border, but it is a round about journey, with some unusual characters and missions involved. Just who is this mysterious Ammo Mazen? But he protects Nadia and the two orphans and navigates them around rebels groups, the Syrian Army, and ISIS fighters. As they journey across the Old City, readers catch a glimpse of Nadia memories of the colorful shops and a lively community, which is in stark contract to the crumbling city before her. There are many road blocks, but Nadia turns her fear into a strong determination to survive and reunite with her family.

This plot is gripping, suspenseful, heart-wrenching and hopeful. Readers will experience what it means to be displaced from their home, family and lifestyle. It raises questions for readers about how they would survive if everything they know is gone in a flash and they are thrust into a war-torn environment. Would they be able to survive?  This is tough and timely read for youth trying to grasp what they are seeing and hearing on television about this complicated and troubled country. They are able to  experience the human side of war through Nadia. This is a must read and belongs in school libraries.

N.H. Senzai is the author of the acclaimed Shooting Kabul, which was on numerous state award lists and an NPR Backseat Book Club Pick. Its companion, Saving Kabul Corner, was nominated for an Edgar Award. Visit the author at her website.

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

Caterpillars Can’t Swim by Liane Shaw

Caterpillars Can’t Swim

Liane Shaw, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Mar. 6, 2018

Pages: 256

Suitable for Ages: 13-18

Themes: Cerebral Palsy, LGBT, Depression, Family Relationships, Bullying, Homophobia, Prejudices, Friendship

Publisher’s Synopsis: For sixteen-year-old Ryan, the water is where he finds his freedom. Ever since childhood, when he realized that he would never walk like other people, has loved the water where gravity is no longer his enemy. But he never imagined he would become his small town’s hero by saving a schoolmate from drowning.

Jack is also attracted to the water, but for him it’s the promise of permanent escape. Disappearing altogether seems better than living through one more day of high-school where he is dogged by rumors about his sexuality. He’s terrified that coming out will alienate him from everyone in town — and crush his adoring mother.

Ryan saves Jack’s life, but he also keeps his secret. Their bond leads to a grudging friendship, and an unexpected road-trip to Cosmic Con with Ryan’s best friend Cody, the captain of the swim team. They make an unlikely trio but each of them will have the chance to show where he is brave enough to go against the stereotypes the world wants to define him by.

Why I like this story:

Liane’ Shaw’s examines the paralyzing impact of bullying on teens in this raw, honest and emotional novel. What stands out for me is the prejudice against two teens — one who has a physical disability and the other teen who is struggling with his sexual identity.  This is the first time I’ve seen the differences appear together in a compelling story, especially when the teen who is disabled is the hero.

The characters drive the action in this story. The main character Ryan, was born with cerebral palsy and has spent his life in a wheelchair. However the story really doesn’t focus on his disability, but his funny, upbeat personality and his role on the school swim team. Jack is sad and depressed. He has no friends, and keeps to himself. Ryan befriends Jack, listens to his pain as he deals with his identity, and keeps his secrets. Kids suspect that Jack’s gay and bully him. Ryan’s friend, Cody, steps in when he sees the school bullies harassing both Ryan and Jack after school.  Cody is hyper, wacky, funny, obnoxious, and someone you can dislike one moment and love the next. He provides for a lot of comic relief in the story.

I really liked the metaphor of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, a mirror of what happens when three unlikely teens come together to support each other. Especially Cody, who is homophobic. His growth as a character meant the most to me.

The plot is multi-layered, brave and complicated. Jack’s drowning happens early in the story with a lot of drama and action. Readers may wonder where the story is headed. But the pacing is fast, engaging and lighthearted at times. There is  more to this deeply moving novel that readers will find appealing.  It is an inspiring story about family, friends and hope.

Liane Shaw is the author of several books for teens, including thinandbeautiful.com, Fostergirls, The Color of Silence, and Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell. Liane was an educator for more than 20 years and lives with her family in Ontario.

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.

Bub by Elizabeth Rose Stanton

Bub

Elizabeth Rose Stanton, Author & Illustrator

Simon & Schuster Books/A Paula Wiseman Book, Fiction, Jan. 16, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Middle Child, Monsters, Love, Family Relationships

Opening‘This is Bub. His real name is Bob. On the first day of school Bob didn’t close the top of his O. From then on, he was Bub.”

Synopsis:  Bub, a little monster, caught in the middle of a boisterous  and busy monster family tries to find a way to be seen and heard.  Maw and Paw can be very loud when they do not agree. Big sister Bernice shines at homework and playing the violin. And  everyone pays attention to The Baby. No wonder Bub feels grumpy and unnoticed. No one has time for Bub. But one grumpy day, Bub decides to take charge. Suddenly things change in a very magical little monster way! What happens next keeps his family guessing, until Bub sees that it might not be so bad being in the middle, after all.

Why I like this book:

Elizabeth Rose Stanton’s quirky and enchanting book will win the hearts of many children who are smack in the middle of their families. They will relate to Bub’s dilemma. The text flows nicely and has an element of suspense to it. She doesn’t hurry it along, allowing her signature color-pencil and watercolor illustrations time to deliver Bub’s important message to his family. The ending is endearing and original.

Bub will captivate readers from the first double-page spread to the last. His playful expressions are priceless once he takes charge and his entire demeanor changes. Stanton’s book will invite many conversations at home and in the classroom. There is a lot of humor and heart in Bub. It’s a treasure!

Elizabeth Rose Stanton started her grown-up life as an architect. Now she builds stories for picture books. She lives in Seattle with her husband and three Scottish fold cats, all prancing around Bub’s story. She is the author of the whimsically sweet and quirky picture books, Henny and Peddles.

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.

On the Spectrum by Jennifer Gold

On the Spectrum

Jennifer Gold, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Sep. 12, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 13-18

Themes: Unhealthy Eating, Autism Spectrum, Family Relationships, Siblings, Paris

Synopsis: Growing up in the shadow of a famous ballerina mother, Clara has never felt good about her body.  She remembers her mother taking her trick-or-treating and letting her pick out one piece of candy before pitching the rest into the trash. Now, at sixteen, she has an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. A school counselor intervenes, tells Clara she has an eating disorder and consults with her mother, who feels like a monster mom. With her diagnosis and a bullying incident on social media, Clara decides to  escape for the summer to Paris to stay with her estranged dad, step-mother and six-year-old brother, Alastair, who is on the autism spectrum. Charged with his care, Clara and Alastair set out to explore the city. Paris, and a handsome young French baker, teaches Clara about first love and a new appreciation of food. And Alastair teaches Clara about patience, trust, and the beauty of loving without judgment.

Why I like this book:

Occasionally you discover a book that captures your heart and you know you are reading something special. Jennifer Gold’s On the Spectrum is like that. It is a story about love, family relationships, differences, friendships, patience and acceptance. She introduces readers to Clara, who is fixated with healthy eating, exercise and clean living, but isn’t necessarily anorexic or bulimic. She exists on a spectrum, just like her half-brother, Alastair, who has autism.  Their journeys are cleverly intertwined and create a fun-loving adventure for readers.

Gold offers readers an important glimpse into the dynamics that play a role in Clara’s eating disorder. Clara has a strained but loving relationship with her mother, who has a life-long obsession with food. It’s honest but fragile. There is a touching moment when her mother shares the damage that her poor nutritional habits have caused her body. Her mother realizes she’s been a poor role model and wants to see her daughter healthy. Clara’s issues with food are realistically portrayed. She is slim, but doesn’t look anorexic. When Clara looks at bread, she thinks about the bleach in white flour that has been linked to colon cancer. But she can’t make herself take a bite of poison.

The real strength in the book is the development of Clara and Alastair’s relationship. Clara is caring and kind and isn’t quite sure what to make of her sweet, smart and brutally honest young charge. Alastair is adorable. He has sensory issues, allergies to nuts and difficulty with social cues. His over protective mother, Mag, makes him wear orthopedic shoes and carry an adult backpack. Mag wants him to learn to embrace his differences. Clara realizes that kids from school bully Alastair and make fun of his attire. She takes him on a shopping spree and lets Alastair pick out a new back pack and a cool pair of shoes. Clara doesn’t want to change him, just help him fit in. The trust and bond between the two grow as they encourage each other to overcome their fears and differences, and try new things. I admit, Alastair is my favorite character.

Jennifer Gold’s On the Spectrum will captivate readers and transport them to Paris with its Old World charm,  beautiful architecture, café, museums, quaint markets. I loved learning about French cooking, strolls in the parks and Paris at night. The setting and vivid imagery, the characters, and the well-paced plot make for an unforgettable and entertaining experience for readers.

Resources: For more information on orthorexia visit the National Eating Disorder’s Association (NEDA). Orthorexia means an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating. Although being aware of and concerned with the nutritional quality of the food you eat isn’t a problem in and of itself, people with orthorexia become so fixated on so-called ‘healthy eating’ that they actually damage their own well-being. NEDA says that it is on the rise, but it isn’t actually in the diagnostics.

Jennifer Gold is the author of Soldier Doll, a Bank Street Best Book (2015) and White Pine Award finalist (2016), and Undiscovered Country for teens.  She is a lawyer and lives with her family in Toronto.

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.

Daddy Played the Blues by Michael Garland

Daddy Played the Blues

Michael Garland, Author and Illustrator

Tilbury House Publishers, Fiction, Sep. 8, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Music, The Blues,  Family Relationships, The Great Migration, Jim Crow South

Opening: I was six years old in 1936 the day we left the farm in Mississippi. 

Book Jacket Synopsis: Cassie was six years old when her family left the farm, the boll weevils, the floods, and the landlord.  They could no longer scratch our a living there anymore. They journeyed north in search of a better life.

Cassie’s family joined the Great Migration from the Deep South to Chicago, where there was work to be had in the stockyards. Across the kids’ laps in the back seat of their old jalopy lay Daddy’s six-string guitar. Daddy worked hard to put food on the table, but what he loved doing most was playing the blues.

Daddy Played the Blues is a tribute to the long, ongoing African-American struggle for social and economic justice and a homage to the rich, yearning strain of American music that was born in the cotton fields and bayous of the South and transformed popular music around the world.

Why I like this book:

Garland’s story evokes the heartache for Cassie and her family who were tenant farmers in the sharecropper system during the segregated Jim Crow South. The raw pain of their hard lives is heard in the songs her father and other family members sing. The music becomes an important part of Cassie and her brother’s memories of their trip and new lives in Chicago. Garland’s story is fictional, but historically correct.

Garland’s text is as fluid as the songs Cassie’s Daddy and Uncle Vernon play on the porch steps each night after a day working in the stockyards. If they weren’t playing, they were talking about the WC Handy and Blind Lemon Jefferson or Bessie Smith. Garland highlights the lyrics from four blues songs like “The Little Red Rooster.”

Dogs begin to bark now

And the hounds begin to howl, 

Dogs begin to bark now

And the hounds begin to howl,

Watch out stray cat,

The little red rooster’s on the prowl.

Garland’s illustrations are exquisite and transport readers to this bygone era. They compliment the mood  of Garland’s compassionate storytelling. He pioneered a beautiful medium of digital woodcut technique that really makes this a stand-out picture book about how the blues influenced music around the globe.

Resources: Garland shares how he first heard and fell in love with blues music, becoming a lifelong fan. He  has included Song Credits of some of the great artists. An eight-page Author’s Note gives con­text to the story and provides information about blues history and its influence on generations of popular musicians.  There is also a Map of the Great Migration from 1910-1970, and a double-page spread of the eleven leading blues artists with photos and blurbs about their contribution to the musical history. This is great resource information for older students.

Michael Garland is the illustrator of 75 children’s picture books, half of which he also wrote. Miss Smith and the Haunted Library is a New York Times bestseller. His other recent books include Lost Dog, Tugboat, Car Goes Far, Fish Had a Wish, Where’s My Homework?, and Grandpa’s Tractor.  Michael has been in love with blues music since first hearing it decades ago, and Daddy Played the Blues is his reverent salute to Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Lightning Hopkins, B.B. Kind and the other bluest greats.  Stop by 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 Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City by Jodi Kendall

The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City

Jodi Kendall, Author

Harper Collins, Fiction, Oct. 3, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-11

Themes: Pigs, Animals, City Life, Gymnastics, Belonging, Family Relationships

Book Synopsis: Little pig. Big city. Lots of trouble. Josie Shilling feels invisible. Her family is too big, their cramped city house is too small, and her parents are always distracted.

Then, on Thanksgiving Day, her older brother, Tom, brings home a pink, squirmy bundle wrapped in an old football jersey — a piglet he rescued from a nearby farm. Her name is Hamlet.

The minute Josie holds Hamlet, she feels an instant connection. But there’s no room for Hamlet in the crowded Shilling household. And who ever heard of keeping a pig in the city? So it’s up to Josie to find her a forever home.

But taking care of Hamlet makes Josie feel special when she usually feels overlooked in a family with five children. And there’s something about Hamlet that reminds Josie of herself.

Why I like this book:

Move over Wilbur, Hamlet’s going to steal your heart. Jodi Kendall’s debut novel is a heartwarming and rollicking story about the unlikely bond between a girl and a piglet runt.  Her story is loosely based on her childhood experience of owning a pet pig and finding it a home.

Hamlet arrives in time to boost eleven-year-old Josie’s self-esteem and give her purpose. At home she feels unnoticed. At gymnastics Josie feels like a freakish giant when all she wants to be is a really great gymnast. Josie’s bond with Hamlet boosts her spirit and helps her find courage and determination.

Readers will enjoy hanging out with Josie, Hamlet and all the Shillings. There are her friends, Lucy from gymnastics, and the Three Stoops gang, who work together to create a plan for finding Hamlet a home. The clock is ticking, Hamlet is growing, and Josie and her friends have until New Year’s Day to find a home for Hamlet.

There is heart, connection, humor and unexpected plot twists. After all, Hamlet is a one smart pig who learns quickly to use a litter box, fetch a flying Frisbee, open the fridge door, and climb the bunk-bed ladder. Although this pig causes a lot of mayhem, he unites Josie’s family during some challenging times. Readers will cheer for Hamlet!  Verdict: It’s a winner!

Fans of this piglet story will be delighted to know that there will be a sequel in the fall of 2018. Visit Jodi Kendall on her website.

Resources:  The author has included a curriculum guide on her website for activities and classroom discussions.

Jodi Kendall grew up in the Midwest with her family of seven and their household of countless pets, including hamsters, ducks, dogs, rabbits, an iguana, and, yes . . . even a farm pig!  You can find Jodi typing away at home in New York City, where she’s still an animal lover at heart. Jodi holds an MFA from the University of Arizona and is an active member of SCBWI. Visit Jodi at her website.

Greg Pattridge is hosting Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Author Shannon Messenger has been on a whirlwind tour promoting her sixth book, Nightfall, in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, which was released November 7. Thank you Greg for keeping the MMGM family together!

The Castle in the Mist by Amy Ephron

The Castle in the Mist

Amy Ephron, Author

Philomel Books, Fiction, Feb. 7, 2017

Pages: 167

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Castles, Wishes, Magic, Family relationships, Siblings

Book Synopsis:

Tess and her brother, Max, are sent for the summer to their aunt’s sleepy village in the English countryside, where excitement is as rare as a good wifi signal. So when Tess stumbles upon an old brass key that unlocks an ornately carved gate, attached to a strangely invisible wall, she jumps at the chance for adventure. And the world beyond the gate doesn’t disappoint. She finds rose gardens, a maze made of hedges, and a boy named William who is just as lonely as she is.

But at William’s castle, strange things begin to happen. Carnival games are paid for in wishes, dreams seem to come alive, and then there’s William’s eerie warning: Beware of the hawthorn trees. A warning that chills Tess to the bone.

In a magical, fantasy world that blurs the line between reality and imagination, readers are left to wonder exactly what they’d wish for if wishes could come true. Perfect for fans of Half Magic and The Secret Garden—and for anyone who’s ever wondered if magic is real.

Why I like this book:

Amy Ephron’s world building in this fantasy is magical and readers will feel like they’re in the middle of the action. I was enchanted with the idea of a huge castle hidden in the mist behind an invisible wall that can’t be penetrated. The grounds are large and beautiful with a pond with swans, a hedge maze, an odd sculpture garden, a carousel and stables.

Tess and Max are the grounding factors in the fantasy. They are separated from their parents, having finished boarding school in Switzerland and then sent to their Aunt Evie’s for the summer. Like most siblings they have their squabbles, but they have a strong bond and depend upon one another. William is the lonely and mysterious boy who lives at the castle. He warns Tess from the start to stay away from the Hawthorne trees, but never explains why. Tess and Max wonder about William’s identity and the odd things that happen at the castle. William introduces the siblings to a world where they question the real from the imagined and wonder “did that just happen?”

The entire story is an enjoyable fantasy from beginning to end. The plot is imaginative and fast-paced. There are unexpected twists, like the scenes surrounding the carousel and the overlapping blue, blood and super moons that occur together that influence the story. My only wish was that the book had been a little longer. The book ends with the potential for a sequel. However, Ephron has written a companion book, Carnival Magic, with Tess and Max returning in a new summer adventure with Aunt Evie. It will be released May 1, 2018.

Amy Ephron is the internationally bestselling author of several books written for adults, including the award-winning A  Cup of Tea. She is also a film producer, an essayist, and a contributor to Vogue and Vogue.com. The Castle in the Mist is her first book for children. You can visit Amy 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. Author Shannon Messenger will be on a whirlwind tour promoting her sixth book, Nightfall, in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, which will be released November 7. Thank you Greg!

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.

Saying Good-bye to London by Julie Burtinshaw

Saying Good-bye to London

Julie Burtinshaw, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Mar. 14, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 13 and up

Themes: Teen pregnancy, Family relationships, Friendships, Adoption

Synopsis: One night of unprotected sex can change your life forever. Francis Sloan is a shy 15-year-old when he meets edgy, confident 16-year-old Sawyer at a party he didn’t want to attend. Sparks fly…and Sawyer becomes pregnant. They barely know each other, but now must deal with both their relationship and the reality of a baby.

Francis has a lot of growing up to do, and now it seems like he is being forced to do it all at once. When his life collides with Sawyer’s, Francis is forced to confront his own stereotypes about loss, sexuality, and family.

Sawyer decides to give the baby up for adoption, but that’s just the start. Over the months they wait for the baby to be born, Francis and Sawyer try to deal with the choices they will have to make. Will Francis follow Sawyer’s brave example? Or will he turn his back and pretend his life has not changed? Where will they be when it’s time to say good-bye to baby London?

Why I like this book:

Julie Burtinshaw’s Saying Good-bye to London is a heart-wrenching  and emotional story about teen pregnancy with a contemporary appeal. It is a hopeful and optimistic story that challenges teens with the same tough questions that Sawyer and Francis face.

This story is character-driven. Francis is a shy, lanky, and likable character who plays basketball with his best friend, Kevin. At  fifteen, girls scare him. He’s naïve and never been on a date. He lives on the West side of Vancouver, comes from a stable and loving family, and attends a private boy’s school. Sawyer Martin is a year older than Francis. She is self-confident, independent, and has her own unique flare.  She is brave, resilient and vulnerable. Sawyer lives on the other side of Vancouver with her mother. They live in a small apartment and she attends public school. When Sawyer becomes pregnant, Francis is angry, scared, blames her and disappears from her life. Sawyer deals with her tears and growing baby bump alone.

There are many interesting themes in this novel, beyond teen pregnancy. Kevin’s father is dying from cancer. Francis’s family has twin adopted brothers from Africa. Sawyer’s best friend, Jack, is gay, has an abusive and homophobic father who kicks him out of the house. Sawyer’s father left and she’s being raised by her single mother. The author has woven these subtle themes into the story and they contribute to the important decisions that Sawyer and Francis make for baby London.

The plot is unique and very different from other novels I’ve read about teen pregnancy. The author does give a realistic account of Sawyer’s pregnancy from morning sickness to delivery.  But the main focus of the story is on how Sawyer, Francis, Jack, Kevin and Sawyer’s mother, work together with an adoption agency to select, interview and choose the right family for baby London. It honors the brave and mature decisions that Sawyer, Francis and their friends make together.

I recommend this book because it challenges teens and is an excellent discussion book. It is also a page-turner.

Julie Burtinshaw is an ward-winning author of novels for young adults, including The Darkness Between the Stars, The Perfect Cut, The Freedom of Jenny, Adrift, and Dead Reckoning. You can find Julie on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @WriterJulie.

*The publisher 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.