Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg

sweet-home-alaska-untitledSweet Home Alaska

Carole Estby Dagg, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction, Feb. 2, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 10 and up

Pages: 291

Themes: Great Depression, FDR New Deal Colony, Frontier and pioneer life, Alaska, Moving, Family life

Book Jacket Synopsis: Terpsichore and her family are going to be pioneers in Alaska! Times have been tough in Wisconsin during the Great Depression, and she’s eager to make a new start. Terpsichore has often dreamed about living like Laura Ingalls Wilder, but the reality of their new home is a shock. The town is still under construction, the mosquitoes are huge, and when a mouse eats her shoelace, causing her to fall on her first day of school, everyone learns the nickname she had hoped to leave behind: Trip.

Despite all this, Terpsichore falls in love with Alaska — and her sparkling, can-do spirit is a perfect match for the wilderness. When she discovers there is no library, she helps start one, and with the aid of the long hours of summer sunshine, she’s able to grow killer vegetables. With all these achievements, Terpsichore is sure she’ll be earning a new nickname in no time! The only problem is her homesick mom, who misses polite society. Terpsichore is determined to stay put, so she hatches a plan to convince her mother that Alaska can be a wonderful, civilized home…a plan that’s going to take all the love, energy, and Farmer Boy expertise she can muster.

Why I like this book:

Carole Estby Dagg writes a powerful story about the Great Depression and the 202 families that risked everything to settle Alaska’s real-life Palmer Colony in 1934. This lively and authentic story is about the harsh realities of life and work for any homesteader, let alone 11-year-old Terpsichore (Terp-sick-oh-ree) Johnson and her family. Dagg expertly explores the meaning of family relationships, friendships, hardship, pioneer cooperation, faith and home.

The setting is so realistic that readers will feel that they are living with Terpsichore a drafty tent city, traipsing through thick mud, slapping huge mosquitos, shivering through frigid weather and dealing with smelly outhouses. The plot is original and moves swiftly as the Johnson family claim and clear their land, build a log home, barn, and chicken coups, and plant their gardens. Life is harsh and full of obstacles. There is disease, loss and homesickness, but there is the midnight sun that reveals a beautiful landscape and grows very large vegetables.

Great characters make a book and Dagg has succeeded with Terpsichore, who is a brave, resilient, determined and independent narrator.  Her voice and spirit are strong. Although she may not have her twin sisters singing talent, Terpsichore makes a contribution that benefits the entire pioneer colony. She starts a library with the help of her two new friends,  Gloria and Mendel. They contact churches, scout groups, the Red Cross for books and supplies. When the colony needs a doctor and hospital, Terpsichore helps her mother send a telegram to Eleanor Roosevelt, who responds to their needs.

Sweet Home Alaska gives  readers an eye-opening glimpse into a portion of Alaska’s history they know little about.  Make sure you check out the Author’s Note about the early settlers of Palmer, Alaska, in the Matanuska Valley. She also includes some of Terpsichore’s Alaskan recipes and a list of resources. There is a lot of history packed into this novel, making it an excellent book for the classroom.

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

The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan

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Patricia MacLachlan, Author

Katherine Tegen Books, Fiction, Sep. 13, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 6-10, Grades 1-5

Pages: 88

Themes: Dog, Lost children, Winter storm, Love, Loss, Friendship

Opening: “I found the boy at dusk. The blizzard was fierce, and it would soon be dark. I could barely see him with the snow blowing sideways. He stood at the edge of the icy pond, shivering.”

Publisher Synopsis: Teddy is a gifted dog. Raised in a cabin by a poet named Sylvan, he grew up listening to sonnets read aloud and the comforting clicking of a keyboard. Although Teddy understands words, Sylvan always told him there are only two kinds of people in the world who can hear Teddy speak: poets and children.

Then one day Teddy learns that Sylvan was right. When Teddy finds Nickel and Flora trapped in a snowstorm, he tells them that he will bring them home—and they understand him. The children are afraid of the howling wind, but not of Teddy’s words. They follow him to a cabin in the woods, where the dog used to live with Sylvan . . . only now his owner is gone.

As they hole up in the cabin for shelter, Teddy is flooded with memories of Sylvan. What will Teddy do when his new friends go home? Can they help one another find what they have lost?

Why I like this book:

Patricia MacLachlan’s book is a magical tale that will warm the hearts of readers from the first page. It is a story about Nickel and Flora, who are rescued during a storm by Teddy, an Irish wolfhound.  It is quiet and cozy story about how they help each other survive loss and find love.

The prose is lyrical and simple for older elementary children. The chapters are short. The beautiful narrative is in Teddy’s voice, as we learn about his great love for his master, Sylvan, who has died. Teddy is in mourning and sleeps in the barn until he finds Nickel and Flora and takes them to Sylvan’s cabin. Nickel is a protective older brother. He takes care of the firewood, shovels snow paths and goes outside with Teddy to the barn.  Nora takes over the food preparation with food is stocked in the cabin. They enjoy being on their own with Teddy in the cabin. It becomes an adventure. And their presence helps Teddy deal with his loss as he shares his beautiful memories of Sylvan and their relationship. The plot and the pacing are perfect for the age group. The message is a bit complex for young children.  The ending is satisfying and uplifting.

This is an endearing read from a wonderful storyteller. Parents will enjoy reading The Poet’s Dog to younger children. However, older children will be able to read it on their own. This is a book worth reading for both young and old alike.

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

Jenny and Her Dog Both Fight Cancer by Jewel Kats

jenny-her-dog-51pjkmhaixl__sy498_bo1204203200_Jenny and Her Dog Both Fight Cancer: A Tale of Chemotherapy and Caring

Jewel Kats, Author

Claudia Marie Lenart, Illustrator

Loving Healing Press, Fiction, Mar. 21, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 6-9

Themes: Childhood cancer, Pets with cancer, Friendship, Courage, Loss

Opening: “Your dog, Dolly, has cancer of the lungs.” I can’t believe my ears. This can’t be happening. I know the “C-word” all to well. I glare at my mom. “This must be a real bad joke.”

Synopsis: When the veterinarian tells Jenny her dog has cancer, memories of her own diagnosis come flooding into her mind. Dolly is her best friend and has been there to support Jenny during very tough times of chemotherapy when she loses her hair and is sick. Jenny promises to love and support Dolly.  As Jenny gets stronger, Dolly slows down, doesn’t want to eat and tires from walks. The loving bond between them grows.

Why I like this book:

Jewell Kats has written a heartwarming and honest story about a girl and her dog both receiving a cancer diagnosis. This is a refreshing angle on a story. The bond between Jenny and her dog is realistic. Even though Jenny is still receiving chemo and feels sick many days, she bravely accompanies Dolly to her treatments. Together they love and support one another through many tough times. Jenny is a very courageous character. And Dolly is the best medicine for Jenny’s healing process. But the prognosis is not always good for dogs with cancer. As Jenny gets better, Dolly begins to weaken.

I like the simplicity of Kats’ narrative, which is told in Jenny’s voice. Her picture book would be helpful to children who are dealing with cancer, whether their own, a family member or a pet.  Claudia Marie Lenart’s beautifully illustrates the story with her hand-made fiber artwork. Her soft wool sculptures are magical and really make this story special.

Jewel Kats is the author of about a dozen “Fairy Ability Tales, which feature protagonist’s who have a disability or chronic illness. Kats also dealt with a disability and wrote books that helped kids see themselves in stories.  She wanted to be known for her work as an advocate for individuals with disabilities.  Unfortunately, Jewel Kats passed away Jan. 7, 2016. Her last book with Lenart will be published this fall.  Visit Kats’ website.  Check out Claudia Marie Lenart’s  fiber artwork process on her website.

Resources: The book alone is a perfect resource for parents and families. Her picture book would be helpful to children who are dealing with cancer, whether their own, a family member or a pet.  September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month.

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.  

Be Light Like a Bird by Monika Schroder

Be Light Like a Bird41Q13tYaniL__SX353_BO1,204,203,200_Be Light Like a Bird

Monika Schroder, Author

Capstone Young Readers, Fiction, Sep. 1, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Grief, Bereavement, Mother and daughter, Moving, Family relationships, Friendships, Birdwatching, Nature

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Wren buries roadkill to make herself feel better. Her ritual begins after her father is killed in a plane crash and she never has the opportunity to say goodbye. Her mother tells Wren to pack up her belongings and forces her to leave their home in Georgia and drive north on I-75 in search of a new life. Their first stop is in Chattanooga, Tennessee, then Wapakoneta, Ohio, and finally Pyramid, Michigan, near the Canadian border. With each stop, Wren starts a new school. By the time they reach Pyramid, Wren is determined that this is where their journey will end. She’s tired of being the new girl in school and she wants a place to call home. Her mom finds a job in a retirement home and Wren and her mother work to build a new life. Wren has a good feeling about Pyramid. She discovers a magical place in a forest with a pond and a lot of birds.  She pulls out a bird-watching journal her father has given her and begins to record her sightings. Wren discovers that her perfect place is called Pete’s Pond and that a developer is planning to destroy the area and turn it into a landfill. When Wren teams up with Theo, a nerdy boy at school, to work on a public issue project, she finds the perfect partner in her effort to save Pete’s Pond. Wren begins to find herself, learn about community, forgive those who don’t deserve it, rediscover family, and decide her own direction.

Why I like this book:

Monika Schroder’s has written a sensitive and emotionally deep story about how Wren deals the tragic death of her father. Although the book is about loss, it is also about friendship, courage and embracing life. It has a quirkiness about it that is refreshing. I especially like Schroder’s expertly written prologue and first chapter, which draw the reader into the story from the get-go. The narrative is expertly written in Wren’s voice.

Readers will be captivated by Wren’s unconventional character. She is a strong spirit who loves bird-watching, deals with both her father’s death and a comatose mother, outsmarts bullies, and takes on a major environmental issue. Wren’s mother works two jobs, refuses to talk about her father, and emotionally abandons her daughter. Their complex relationship begins to unravel as secrets and betrayals are revealed. Theo, who is considered the class nerd, proves to be a very resourceful partner. He understands the pain of losing a parent and is a good friend. Together they grow and become a powerful voice in the community. Randle, a Chippewa Indian who owns a junkyard for cars, adds a special twist to the story.

This beautifully crafted story is multi-layered and filled with vivid imagery. Schroder uses roadkill as a symbolic image to show how both Wren and Theo deal with their sadness in losing a parent. I have never seen anything like it before and it works well in this story. Wren buries dead animals. Theo takes pictures of roadkill. Both are looking for a way to come to terms with their heartache and find closure. The plot is distinctly realistic and fast-paced. The ending is unexpected and satisfying.

This is an excellent classroom discussion book as there are many substantive topics that can be discussed: grief, bullying, peer pressure, protecting the environment, and ancient Native American burial grounds.

Monika Schroder grew up in Germany, but has lived and worked in American international schools in Egypt, Oman, Chile, and India. She moved to the US in 2011. She is the author of My Brother’s Shadow, Saraswati’s Way (my review), and a The Dog in the Wood. You can find out more about Schroder on 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.

If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson

If You Plant a Seed 511V106f+0L__SY498_BO1,204,203,200_If You Plant a Seed

Kadir Nelson, Author and Illustrator

Balzer + Bray/Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Fiction, Mar. 3, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Animals, Nature, Planting and Growing, Sharing,  Seeds of kindness, Generosity, Friendship

Opening: “If you plant a tomato seed, a carrot seed, and a cabbage seed, / in time, / with love and care, /  tomato, carrot and cabbage plants will grow.”

Synopsis: Rabbit and mouse, plant seeds in their garden. They patiently tend to their garden and watch the rain and sun do their magic. As the fruits of their labor begin to pay off they do their happy dance and marvel at the sweetness of their bounty. When five birds appear from the sky, rabbit and mouse try to protect their vegetables from their winged friends.  The birds stare them down (illustrations are priceless) and pandemonium breaks out, until mouse gives the birds a peace-offering. Because of mouse’s act of generosity, the birds return with seeds of kindness and friendship reigns.

Why I like If You Plant a Seed:

Kadir Nelson’s If You Plant a Seed is a timeless story for the entire family that will charm you from the first double-spread to the last. His spare and clever text makes this story an easy book for kids to read alone or to a sibling. It shows children what happens when you are selfish and hoard your bounty. And it teaches them what happens when they are kind and share with others — friendships form. These are values they will easily understand. The cover is gorgeous. Nelson’s beautiful, oversized oil paintings are breathtaking! Facial expressions are dramatic, expressive and humorous. The vegetables look so real, that you want to reach out and take a bite of a carrot or tomato. If You Plant a Seed has heart, humor, connection and friendship. It  is a treasure! Visit Kadir Nelson online at his website.

Kadir Nelson won the 2012 Coretta Scott King Author Award and Illustrator Honor for Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans. He received Caldecott Honors for Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, for which he also garnered a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and won an NAACP Image Award. Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. Nelson’s authorial debut, We Are the Ship, was a New York Times bestseller, a Coretta Scott King Author Award winner, and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor book. He is also the author and illustrator of the acclaimed Baby Bear.

Penny and Jelly: Slumber Under the Stars

Penny & Jelly9780544280052-276x300Penny & Jelly: Slumber Under the Stars

Maria Gianferrari, Author

Thyra Heder, Illustrator

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fiction, Jun. 14, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 4-7

Themes: Sleepover, Dogs, Stargazing, Creativity, Solutions, Friendships

Opening: “Hooray!” said Penny. “Tomorrow is Sleepover Under the Stars Night, Jelly!”

Synopsis: Penny is excited when she receives an invitation to a sleepover under the stars from the recreation center.  She calls her four best friends to see if they are attending. Penny begins to make a list of what she needs: sleeping bag, pillow, PJs, book and Jelly. Then Penny realizes that the invitation says “no pets allowed.” She comes up with an idea to make a  pretend Jelly — out of paper, yarn, fleece, vegetables, marshmallow, cotton balls and clay. But, her creation just isn’t her beloved Jelly. Penny must find a solution.

Why I like Penny & Jelly:

Maria Gianferrari has written a perfect summer read for children about a determined girl and her devoted dog.  Slumber parties and outdoor sleepovers are a summer tradition for children. I especially like that this slumber party is about stargazing, a great activity for children to learn about constellations. Penny is a fun-loving character full of heart, who sports mismatched socks with every page turn. She’s imaginative, curious, enjoys picking out star constellations, and is resourceful in finding a solution to her problem. Thyra Heder’s  warm watercolor illustrations are cheerful, expressive and eye-catching. The characters are diverse.  I love the book cover. Verdict: This captivating story will be a popular summer read with children and parents as it lends itself to many discussions. Visit Penny & Jelly at their website.

Maria Gianferrari is also the author of Penny & Jelly: The School Show.