The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

       World Refugee Day, June 20, 2017

The Only Road

Alexandra Diaz, Author

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

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

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

Awards: Pura Belpre Honor Book and ALA Notable Book

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

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

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

Why I like this book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ashes: The Seeds of America Trilogy

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Seeds of America Trilogy is one of my favorite historical fiction trilogies for tweens, teens and adults. Today, I am reviewing the final book in the trilogy, Ashes, but will include brief synopsis of the first two books, Chains and Forge, because it gives the reader a perspective of the revolutionary war that is relatively unknown and not talked about — the important role of black soldiers in the creation of our nation and their hopes and dreams. Although, you could read Ashes and still understand the story, you would miss the rich alternating voices of the characters Isabel and Curzon and their journey that began in 1776 with Chains and ends in 1781 with Ashes. I strongly suggest you read the three books in order.

ashes-51oxtesd6l__sx336_bo1204203200_Ashes: The Seeds of America Trilogy, Book #3

Laurie Halse Anderson, Author

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Historical Fiction, Oct. 4, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Themes: American Revolution, Black Soldiers, Slavery, Freedom,

Book Synopsis: “Freedom for one, freedom for all?  That’s the question that burns in Isabel’s mind as she and Curzon forge on through chaos and fear toward the dream that’s kept them alive for so many years: freedom.  But her dream of living not as a “runaway” but as a free person with land and a family of her own seems impossibly far away. That dream hinges on one thing: finding her little sister, Ruth.

It’s been three years since Ruth was stolen from her. Is she even alive? And if Isabel can find her, how will they make it safely through the war between the Patriots and the British that rages on as dangerously as ever in 1781, while bounty hunters try to kidnap them at every turn! In the American Revolution, one must pick a side in order to survive.  But how can you care about a nation’s freedom when the very same nation has kept you in chains?

Why I like this book:

Laurie Halse Anderson is a skillful literary author. Her language and dialogue is exquisite. Her novel is bold and breathtaking. Her settings are unimaginably descriptive and believable. It is easy to get lost in the realistic plot where you can smell the sweat of laboring men digging trenches, hear the nearby exploding cannon balls and feel the bone-chilling cold of nights in the camps. The pacing keeps readers fully engaged.

Thoroughly researched, this engaging novel offers readers a fresh perspective on the role the black community played during the war, including women and children. Each chapter is introduced by a quote from significant historical figures during the war that helps provide insight into the attitudes of the war: Gen. George Washington, James Madison,  King George III,  Abigail Adams to her husband John Adams, Thomas Paine and many other regiment leaders, judges and slaves. It is a very effective tool that gives readers a greater sense of the overall mood of that period of history.

Although the story is about the war effort where Isabel, Curzon and Ruth are firmly planted in the middle, there is a stronger theme running through this final book for the threesome — freedom from slavery and not just from England.  The memorable characters are all dealing with secrets and inner demons that drive their story forward and require sacrifice, courage, trust, resilience and an unwavering commitment to each other.

chains-51yupuz0efl__sx334_bo1204203200_Chains, Book #1, 2008

National Book Award Finalist

Synopsis from the author’s website: If an entire nation could seek its freedom, why not a girl? As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight…for freedom. Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, in a cruel twist of fate become the property of a malicious New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel. When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion. She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom. Check out Sue Kooky’s review today of CHAINS at her website Kitty cat at the Library.

forge-51eqo8p14ul__sx334_bo1204203200_Forge, Book #2, 2010

Synopsis from the author’s website: Blistering winds. Bitter cold. And the hope of a new future. In this compelling sequel to Chains, a National Book Award Finalist and winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, acclaimed author Laurie Halse Anderson shifts perspective from Isabel to Curzon and brings to the page the tale of what it takes for runaway slaves to forge their own paths in a world of obstacles—and in the midst of the American Revolution.

The Patriot Army was shaped and strengthened by the desperate circumstances of the Valley Forge winter. This is where Curzon the boy becomes Curzon the young man. In addition to the hardships of soldiering, he lives with the fear of discovery, for he is an escaped slave passing for free. And then there is Isabel, who is also at Valley Forge—against her will. She and Curzon have to sort out the tangled threads of their friendship while figuring out what stands between the two of them and true freedom.

Laurie Halse Anderson is descended from many soldiers who fought in the American Revolution. Known for tackling tough subjects with humor and sensitivity, her work has earned numerous ALA and state awards. Two of her books, Speak and Chains, were National Book Award finalists. You can follow her on Twitter @Halse Anderson, or visit her at her website. Anderson has prepared teacher guides and other activities for teachers.

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

Rachel’s Hope

Rachel's Hope9781927583425_p0_v1_s260x420Rachel’s Hope (The Rachel Trilogy)

Shelly Sanders, Author

Second Story Press, Historical Fiction, September 1, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 12 and up

Themes: Russian Jews, Persecution, Separation, Immigration. Family, Love, Hope

Synopsis: Rachel Paskar flees the antisemitic violence and persecution against Jews in her Russian village and makes the long journey by train across Siberia with her family to a refugee camp in Shanghai. Rachel makes a name for herself as a journalist. After her mother dies in Shanghai, she and her surviving family members save enough money to sail to San Francisco in 1905. Rachel also leaves behind her boyfriend, Sergei, in St. Petersburg. He becomes involved in the revolution against the Tsarist Russians.

Rachel and her family find freedom from persecution in San Francisco, but are challenged with learning a new language and strange American customs, while trying to hang on to their family’s Russian traditions. Rachel works as a maid, meets a group of women’s voter activists, and makes friends with a female journalist who encourages her writing and introduces her to newspaper editors. She meets a student, Alexander, who she cares about, but Sergei remains in her thoughts. What has happened to him and will she ever see him again? Then the great San Francisco earthquake strikes and Rachel and her family lose everything.  Starting over is hard, yet this determined young woman never loses sight of her dream to attend the university.

Why I  like this book:  Rachel’s Hope marks the culmination of the The Rachel Trilogy. You can read my reviews of  Rachel’s Secret and Rachel’s Promise here. Shelly Sanders’ fictionalized trilogy is based on a true story about her courageous grandmother who faces persecution as a Russian Jew, escapes from Russia and journeys to America, where she becomes the first Jewish woman accepted into the University of California, Berkeley’s science program.  Sanders masterfully reconstructs life in early 20th century Russia, Shanghai and America, weaving the personal with the historical into a compelling story that creates a rich reading experience. She is fastidious in her research of different cultural customs and details of every day life (i.e. food, clothing, dwellings, and work conditions). Her heroine is a strong and courageous character.  Her plot is moving as she brilliantly writes two parallel stories — Rachel’s changing life in America and Sergei’s hard life in revolutionary Russia — and gives the reader a clear and realistic portrayal of a period in history that few people know. Yet, Rachel’s Hope brings a positive conclusion to the story of a Russian family immigrating to America where possibilities are limitless. I highly recommend this important series to teachers for use in the classroom. Resources: Visit Sanders’ website for teachers guides on the trilogy and more information.

Shelly Sanders has worked as a freelance writer for almost 20 years. The Rachel Trilogy was an “intense three-year journey” for her. She learned about her grandmother’s story when she was 16 years old, after her grandmother had died. It wasn’t until after Sanders had a family, that she felt a compulsion to get to know her grandmother.

Morning Star

MorningStarCover.inddMorning Star

Judith Paxton, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, September 2011

Suitable for Ages:  Grades 4-6

Themes: Slavery, Underground Railroad, Racism, African-American

Opening/Synopsis“Flower Felt fingers press down on her mouth, gentle but firm.  She struggled awake to see her mother lift them away, touch one against her own lips, eyes wide with silent warning.”   Twelve-year-old Flower, her baby brother and her parents live on a southern slave plantation.  In the middle of the night they flee for their lives following the Underground Railroad north to Canada.  Their only guide is the North Star and very kind people who help them along their journey.  Bounty hunters are in hot pursuit of her family.  Their journey is threatened by danger, illness, injuries, and hunger.

In a parallel story over 150 years later, we meet eighth-grader Felicia, who has moved from Toronto with her mother and grandmother to a small town in Michigan.  Felicia soon discovers she is among the few African-American students in the school.  She makes friends with a group of girls who introduce her to horseback riding and a drama class.   But, she also has to deal with some racism for the first time in her life.  When the teacher assigns the class to research their ancestry, Felicia discovers that her distant family members were slaves who followed the Underground Railroad to Canada.   She also learns about a community of free slaves living in her new town of Plainsville, MI.  Does she have the courage to share her family history with her class?

What I like about this book:  Judith Paxton has written a compelling and memorable story for young people where she interweaves the lives of two very different girls living 150 years apart.  Their stories are told in alternating chapters.  You will feel the strength and courage of both Flower and Felicia dealing with racism in different ways.  Their past and present paths will cross in an unlikely way.  Readers will easily identify with both engaging characters.  Each chapter is a page turner and the story is full of suspense.  This is a satisfying story for younger readers and a great read for Black History Month.

This book has been provided to me free of charge by the publisher in exchange for an honest review of the work.

January’s Sparrow

January's Sparrow9780399250774_p0_v1_s260x420January’s Sparrow

Patricia Polacco, Author and Illustrator

Philomel Books, Fiction, 2009

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes:  African-American, Slavery, Fugitives, Underground Railroad, Freedom

Opening/Synopsis“Sadie, the youngest Crosswhite, shuddered when she saw the paddy rollers thunder into the slave yard on their horses, draggin’ a runaway on the end of a rope behind them.  All the slaves had been ordered to stand at the porch rail that mornin’.”  Sadie was horrified when she realized that the men were dragging and beating January, who was like a brother to her.   He had carved a  sparrow for her days earlier and she knew he was going to run.  Adam and Sarah Crosswhite overheard that two of their four children were going to be sold.  The fled the Kentucky Plantation with only the clothes on their back and in the middle of the night.   They made a harrowing trip across the Ohio River into Indiana and traveled the Underground Railroad north to freedom in Marshall, Michigan.  In Marshall, there was a growing number of Negro families who found support and friendship in the white community.  Sadie’s father and brothers found jobs, and Sadie attended school.  But, the family was always on the look-out for bounty hunters and angry masters searching for runaway slaves.  One day a package arrived with Sadie’s treasured sparrow inside.  Attached to it was a note that said, “I found you.”  What will her family do?  Readers will be surprised by the ending.

Why I like this book:  Patricia Polacco has taken a true story that she discovered a few miles from her Michigan home and written a compelling story for children about slavery and the underground railroad.  In fact the home she lives in was site of underground activity.  In writing this story, Polacco used “dialect modified from slave narratives,” which enhanced the unique voice of January.  Polacco did a lot of research about the Crosswhite family and the amazing community of Marshall, MI, which adds considerably to the story’s authenticity.  Polacco’s vivid and colorful artwork is done with charcoal and watercolor.  She captures the fear, terror, pain and the joy in her powerful, detailed and expressive illustrations.  Visit Patricia Polacco on her website.  You can see a photo of her home built in the 1800s, and learn some interesting facts about famous visitors.

Resources:  Patricia Polacco has a Guide for Educators with Curriculum Connections, Discussion Questions and Classroom Activities, including a Reading Response Journal.  You will need to scroll down the PDF file to find January’s Sparrow.

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.

I Have a Dream

Martin Luther King9780375858871_p0_v1_s260x420I Have A Dream

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Kadir Nelson, illustrator

Schwartz & Wade Books, Oct. 2012

Suitable for Ages: 5-10

Themes:  Dr. Martin Luther King, African-Americans, Civil Rights, Freedom, Diversity

Opening/Synopsis:  “I say to you today, my friends, that even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.  I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Book CoverFrom Dr. Bernice A. King:  “My father’s dream continues to live on from generation to generation, and this beautiful and powerful illustrated edition of his world-changing “I Have a Dream” speech brings his inspiring message of freedom, equality, and peace to the youngest among us — those who will one day carry his dream forward for everyone.”

Why I like this book:  Artist Kadir Nelson has taken one of the most powerful and inspirational speeches in history, and created a  beautifully illustrated book set to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic speech delivered on Aug. 28, 1963.   Nelson’s oil paintings are masterpieces  and a feast for the eyes and soul.  I was mesmerized by the strength and power in each painting.  Now a new generation of children will have the opportunity to learn about this great civil rights leader.

Resources:  There is a CD that accompanies this book.  The entire speech is printed at the end of the book.  With the inauguration of President Barak Obama, our first African-American President,  falling on Jan. 21, Martin Luther King Day, it is right to combine the two.  In honor of both, tomorrow, January 19, has been named a National Day of Service, and Americans are being urged to get involved in a local community service project.   Just check on the website for information

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.

The Candle Star – Divided Decade Trilogy

Candle Star9781497450257_p0_v4_s260x420The Candle Star

Michelle Isenhoff, Author

Historical Fiction, 2011

Suitable for:  Middle Grade

Book 1 of the Divided Decade Trilogy

Emily Preston is a spirited 12-year-old southern belle living on a plantation in Charleston, S.C.   She is outspoken, sarcastic, mean and self-absorbed.  Her parents are disturbed by her behavior and send her to Detroit to live with her uncle, Isaac Milford, who runs a hotel.  Emily is horrified when she realizes that the employees are free slaves and she’s to join them in the daily work of running the hotel.  She misbehaves, skips school and treats the employees with disdain, hoping that her uncle will send her back home.   Her uncle sees his own reflection in Emily, and treats her with firmness and patience.

Detroit and the simplicity of her life begin to grow on Emily.  She would never admit it.  She befriends Malachi, the son of Julia, the hotel cook.  She  is shocked to learn he attends school, reads and writes and wants to be a doctor.  As she settles into her new life, Emily is challenged to come to terms with her southern upbringing.  While she develops relationships with the workers at the hotel, she begins to question everything she has known.  It is a confusing time for Emily.  Her bond with Uncle Isaac strengthens as he begins to teach and trust her.  Emily stumbles upon her uncle’s secret and finds herself involved in events that will change her world forever.   Emily transforms into a remarkable girl who listens with her heart.

Why I liked this book:  The Candle Star is a brilliant work of historical fiction.   Michelle Isenhoff offers a fresh new perspective on the differences between the north and south by focusing on those who risked their lives to help slaves find freedom, before the Civil War.  The setting is Michigan, Michelle’s home state, and many of the characters are based on real people.  Although Michigan wasn’t part of the battleground, it played a significant role in the Underground Railroad, with seven routes passing through Detroit.  Kudos to the author for all the detailed research that went into this book  and for teaching me something new.  Her writing style is vivid, her plot strong and her characters are rich and memorable.

The Divided Decade Trilogy:  The Candle Star is the first book in the Divided Decade Trilogy.  All three books are stand-alone novels that shed light on the role Michigan families played to support the war effort and freedom for slaves.  The second book Blood of Pioneers, is about Hannah, who tries to save the family farm when her father and brother go to war.   The third book, Beneath the Slashings, was released August 2012.   Grace wants her family to return to a normal life after the war,  but finds her life uprooted when her father seeks work in a lumber camp in northern Michigan.   Click here to visit Michelle Isenhoff’s website.   Make sure you check out the teacher’s resources for each book.  There also is an interesting “Author’s Note” at the end of each book detailing the historical information of that time in Michigan.

Blood Pioneers9781499230536_p0_v2_s260x420Beneath the Slashings9781499234619_p0_v3_s260x420The Quill Pen untitled